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On this week's timely Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson offers advice on how not to be sexist this election season; The K Chronicles checks out the Colossal Colon Tour; This Modern World has a chat with Sparky the Penguin, circa 2014; and Red Meat eats breakfast while Mom reads the paper.

Published in Comics

On this week's cranky Independent comics page: Red Meat feels lonely; Jen Sorenson looks at the true damage a Hillary-Bernie brawl could cause; The K Chronicles thinks we should #arrestgovsnyder; and This Modern World asks some primary-related questions.

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The “protest pit” outside of the Republican Presidential Debate at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H., on Saturday evening was a fenced-in area in a field about a quarter mile down the road from the main entrance to the campus.

Bumper to bumper traffic ran in front of the pit—odd, given that NH State Police were letting few cars on the campus. Most were told to turn around. No one that Republican leadership didn’t want in was getting anywhere near the Carr Center, where the debate was taking place.

Powerful lights shone down on the scene from one side—lending it an eerie cast. Behind the fence facing the road were a couple hundred supporters for a few of the Republican candidates. But that was just the first layer: Behind them were about 500 activists with the Fight for 15 campaign—organized and bankrolled with $30 million as of last August by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Union leaders had bused in SEIU staff and members; student activists; and allies from other unions and immigrant organizations from around the region—at least 13 busloads from southern New England overall, according to the campaign’s registration form for the event. It was a respectable showing, if not the “massive crowd of underpaid workers” that SEIU’s press release had promised.

So there they were. Supporters of a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, a fairly diverse group, standing in a snowy field on a back road, enthusiastically waving banners—some quite creative, cylindrical and glowing from within like Japanese lanterns—and periodically trading chants with the mostly white right-wing activists in front of them.

Their presence was part of the tactic to raise the profile of the Fight for $15 campaign by protesting presidential debates and other high-profile events like the Super Bowl in recent months. That makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is why SEIU pulled out 500 people onto a chilly windswept hill in suburban New Hampshire to protest for a laudable reform that their chosen presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, absolutely does not support.

Clinton, like Barack Obama, has come out in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage. Bernie Sanders, the only candidate whose politics are in line with labor unions like SEIU, is also the only candidate who publicly supports the Fight for $15 campaign’s main goal—a $15 an hour minimum wage. That’s barely a living wage at all in many parts of the country, and hardly the huge ask that opponents make it out to be, especially given the wage freeze imposed on most Americans by corporations and our political duopoly since the 1970s.

Yet the leaders of the 1.9 million member SEIU backed Clinton last November, joining the heads of a number of other large American unions in supporting the candidate with a proven record of pushing policies completely antithetical to union demands. They have already pumped millions to Clinton super PACs over the heads of their largely voiceless members.

In response, a coalition of progressive unions and activist union members has formed Labor for Bernie to win as many union endorsements for Sanders as possible, even as Sanders has amassed a $75 million warchest from mostly small donations—without the truckloads of cash that labor unions have traditionally lavished on Democratic candidates over the past few decades.

With Sanders doing very well in the NH polls and possibly capable of staying in the race all the way to this summer’s Democratic National Convention, it appears SEIU leadership made a serious miscalculation this election. The fallout from that miscalculation is already playing out in the very state where they organized the standout for their Fight for $15 campaign over the weekend, and where a key primary is taking place today.

Two New Hampshire SEIU locals—560 (Dartmouth College workers) and 1984 (NH State Employees’ Association)—broke ranks with SEIU leadership last fall and backed Sanders for president. Both locals were present in Goffstown on Saturday.

Whether Bernie Sanders wins the nomination and election or not, current SEIU leadership—and the leadership of every union marching in lockstep with the worst elements of the Democratic Party—is going to face increasing pressure from its rank-and-file members to stop supporting pro-corporate anti-labor candidates like Clinton. Likely culminating in major grassroots insurgent campaigns aimed at removing union leaders perceived as sellouts—as has happened on many occasions in labor history. It remains to be seen whether such internal reforms will happen before the major unions collapse under the death of a thousand cuts being inflicted on them by their traditional political enemies and their erstwhile allies alike.

SEIU and less democratic unions like it could forestall the looming civil war in their own ranks—and increase the American labor movement’s chance of survival—by learning from the more democratic practices of the 700,000 member Communication Workers of America (CWA)—whose leadership stepped aside last year and let their members directly decide: a) If they should endorse any candidates for POTUS, and b) Which candidate they should endorse.

CWA members, some 30 percent of whom are Republicans, voted to back Sanders in December.

Jason Pramas is the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s network director. He has been a member of three SEIU locals (925, 285 and 888) over the past 18 years, and helped lead a successful union drive with SEIU Local 509 last year—at the cost of his job.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

This report was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and is part of their “Manchester Divided” coverage of the madness leading up to the 100th New Hampshire presidential primary.

Published in Politics

On Earth Day 2014, a group of farmers, ranchers and Native Americans who live along the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline marched and rode horseback through Washington, D.C., wearing cowboy hats and feather headdresses. On the National Mall, they erected tipis and held ceremonies; a couple of days later, they gave a hand-painted tipi to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in President Barack Obama’s honor. They gave the tipi the same names that the Lakota and Crow gave Obama in 2008—“Man Who Helps the People” and “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”

The message was implicit: The man who helps the people rejects the Keystone pipeline. In November, Obama did just that, handing the climate movement its clearest political victory yet.

The fight over Keystone XL gained national attention when prominent environmentalists like Bill McKibben positioned it as a litmus test of Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change. The pipeline would have connected the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries; most environmentalists argued that it shouldn’t be built because it would lock in the continued exploitation of one of the dirtiest fuels on Earth.

But for those who marched on Washington last year, the battle was more personal. Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska feared the pipeline would leak, polluting their land and water, and jeopardizing their livelihoods. Tribes worried about water contamination, disturbances to treaty lands and the possibility of man camps popping up near their communities and increasing crime. Many landowners said TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, tried to bully them into signing easements.

“They didn’t like that a private corporation could use eminent domain for their own gain,” says Jane Kleeb, who organized opposition in Nebraska. “And they really didn’t like that it was a foreign corporation.”

Together, the self-described cowboys and Indians and the climate crusaders proved a potent political force. Here was a project that could be framed as a high-stakes climate issue that got regular folks fired up, too—something the 2010 effort to pass federal carbon legislation achieved only insofar as it provoked rabid opposition from Tea Partiers. That cap-and-trade bill was designed by a handful of big green groups to be palatable to big business, but included little to inspire popular support—and environmentalists made scant effort to build a broad coalition to fight for it.

With Keystone, the national groups gave the local concerns additional weight, and the locals provided the national fight with unexpected—and often conservative—spokespeople. It helped that, all over the country, a slew of other proposed pipelines, fracking projects, fossil-fuel export terminals, natural gas storage facilities and coal and oil trains were sparking loud and sustained local opposition. Keystone became a common enemy activists rallied around. They brought populist passion to the national environmental movement—a fervor that it’s lacked for years, but that’s crucial for pressuring politicians to take stands on controversial issues.

“Keystone was a proof-of-concept that infrastructure fights can garner some political constituency and can be won,” says Eric de Place, policy director for the Sightline Institute, a Northwest think tank that opposes coal exports and crude-by-rail facilities. “I spent a huge portion of my life working on carbon pricing and trying to explain demand curves. But when an oil train goes off the rails and explodes”—as has happened in North Dakota and Canada—“it really highlights for people just how dangerous the fossil fuel infrastructure is.”

Northwestern communities have already beaten back proposals for major new developments to export U.S. coal to Asia, and now they’re working to defeat additional coal and oil train and shipping terminals. Days after Obama rejected Keystone, the Portland, Ore., City Council passed a resolution opposing any new infrastructure that would increase the city’s capacity to store or transport fossil fuels.

“Taken collectively, there’s real momentum against any new fossil fuel infrastructure,” says Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune.

Should oil prices rise, it’s easy to imagine that momentum encountering more friction. In USA Today recently, Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute and Steven Hayward of Pepperdine University argued that the “fracking revolution” that flooded the market with oil and dropped prices is what really enabled Obama to kill Keystone.

In rejecting it, Obama acknowledged that to confront climate change, we need to start leaving some fossil fuels where they are. It was a statement that would have been hard to imagine at the start of his tenure, when “drill baby drill” dominated the energy debate, as well as a symbolic win for climate activists, who are coalescing behind a new campaign to “keep it in the ground.”

That idea is gaining some traction. This month, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced a bill to end the leasing of federal lands and waters for fossil-fuel extraction. The gesture shocked even environmentalists.

“It’s radical,” de Place admitted, in a delighted, if slightly baffled, tone. “This is the sort of thing that only a few people were talking about five years ago. Now, with the rejection of Keystone, we can contemplate a Senate bill that seemed unsayable a few years ago. It’s evidence that there’s been a broad, titanic shift in the way people talk about energy.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

On this week's beautiful Independent comics page: Red Meat decides to avoid the criminal underbelly; Jen Sorenson examines Republican feminism; The K Chronicles binges on football; and This Modern World looks at the false equivalency of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

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Editor’s Note: Seven Days, the alternative publication in Burlington, Vt., has been on the Bernie Sanders beat for decades: He got his political start as the mayor of the city. Seven Days, which has been chronicling Sanders’ career since 1972, recently offered to write this story about Sanders’ political rise for the Coachella Valley Independent and other alternative publications around the country. Get more coverage, including clips from Sanders’ 1987 folk album (seriously), at

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is surging.

In July, nearly 10,000 supporters gathered in Madison, Wis., to hear the 73-year-old socialist senator denounce the Koch brothers and corporate greed. Another 7,500 came to hear him in Portland, Maine. He fired up a crowd of 11,000 in Phoenix, Ariz.

More and more Americans are tuning in to the grumpy grandfather who never strays from his message and who rails against income inequality and the corruption of U.S. politics wrought by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Sanders comes across as stern and sincere, shaking a crooked finger as he insists that only a “political revolution” can save ordinary Americans from the predations of the “billionaire class.”

Sanders’ sudden popularity has surprised pundits trapped inside the Beltway, but not Vermonters closely acquainted with his political biography. They’ve watched his evolution from a fringe candidate of the far-left Liberty Union Party in the 1972 governor’s race, to mayor of the state’s largest city nine years later, to his current status as one of Vermont’s most popular politicians. Sanders won re-election to his U.S. Senate seat in 2012 with 71 percent of the vote.

Sanders-watchers say many of the attributes now becoming evident to voters outside of Vermont are the same ones that have helped him assemble ever-broader majorities in the Green Mountain State over the last 35 years. A look at the factors behind his first electoral victory—as mayor of Burlington in 1981—and his subsequent ascent to the national political scene in the 1990 race for Vermont’s sole U.S. House seat helps explain his growing appeal.

Underlying all of Sanders’ electoral successes is his ability to win the support of white working-class voters. Sanders’ friends, former campaign staffers and academic analysts who have watched him over the decades agree on the elements that comprise his political repertoire: charisma, authenticity, trustworthiness and simplicity and consistency of message. Sanders wins respect among moderates and even some conservatives, these sources add, by abstaining from ideology and by taking a pragmatic, but always principled, approach to governing and legislating.

“Bernie doesn’t talk in terminology laden with Marxist lingo,” says Terry Bouricius, a Burlington activist who helped Sanders achieve his upset mayoral breakthrough. “His socialism is more like liberation theology. He speaks about economic injustice as something ‘immoral,’ not as ‘the inevitable product of capitalism.’”

A candidate who has lost six elections, Sanders has always displayed doggedness and “political fearlessness,” adds University of Vermont religion professor Richard Sugarman, Sanders’ longtime friend. Sanders is not intimidated by the forces arrayed against him, adds Erhard Mahnke, another Sanders ally who now lobbies for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. “People see that Bernie has a fighting spirit, that he means it when he says he’s on the side of vulnerable, low-income, ordinary Americans,” Mahnke observes. “He’s not packaged.”

Sanders has also been a beneficiary of sheer good luck, especially in the two pivotal races of his career.

‘Perfect Storm’

By 1980, Bernie Sanders had earned a reputation as a perennial loser at the ballot box. But University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson recalls that as the Reagan decade was dawning, “a perfect storm” was gathering in Burlington.

Sanders’ friend Sugarman felt the wind shift. He pointed out to his then-39-year-old friend and political soul mate that Burlington had been the source of Sanders’ highest vote percentages in the statewide races he had run in the 1970s as a Liberty Union candidate. Sanders, he suggested in 1980, should run for mayor against four-term Democratic mayor Gordon Paquette. “I told him he had a chance, a small chance, to actually win,” Sugarman recounts.

Burlingtonians had already assembled a progressive political infrastructure. Lawyer John Franco, another longtime Sanders confidante, points to a food co-op, a community health center and grassroots antipoverty groups such as People Acting for Change Together as local expressions of a movement rooted in the anti-war politics of the Vietnam era.

Many residents involved in those causes were also mobilizing in 1981 behind a ballot item calling for a freeze on nuclear-weapons deployment. About 1,500 Burlingtonians had signed a petition to put the freeze referendum on the same ballot topped by the Paquette vs. Sanders contest, notes veteran peace campaigner and assistant city attorney Gene Bergman. That amounted to a significant show of strength, considering that Burlington’s population numbered roughly 38,000, and fewer than 9,000 voters would decide the outcomes of the election that year.

Sanders sympathizers were also galvanized by the election four months earlier of archconservative Ronald Reagan as president. “There was a strong feeling that there had to be a local response to that,” Mahnke says.

Paquette, a working-class Democrat who had compiled a somewhat liberal record, had meanwhile alienated big chunks of the electorate by calling for a steep rise in residential property taxes. In what would become an incongruous characteristic of his socialist politics, Sanders was opposed to raising taxes.

In the run-up to the ’81 election, Paquette “managed to piss off tenants, the cops and firefighters,” political science professor Nelson notes, by failing to address the issue of rising rents and by opposing pay raises for members of the police and fire departments. Sanders supported those wage demands, again departing from left-wing orthodoxy—this time by refusing to view the police with suspicion, let alone outright animosity. Sanders would never adopt the ’60s leftist rhetoric of cops as “pigs.” He instead viewed them as “workers,” Sugarman points out.

The Burlington police union rewarded the Jewish socialist from Brooklyn—Sanders had moved to Vermont as a young man—by endorsing him for mayor of a mostly Catholic and WASP-y city. “That was the key to the race,” says Huck Gutman, Sanders’ friend of four decades, who would later serve as his chief of staff in the U.S. Senate. Bouricius, who would become one of Sanders’ two initial allies on the 13-member City Council, agrees on the significance of that endorsement, saying, “It said to people that if the cops think Bernie is OK, he must be OK.”

The insurgent was simultaneously adding to Paquette’s political pain by portraying the mayor as a tool of real-estate interests seeking to build high-rise, high-priced condominiums downtown on scenic Lake Champlain. Sanders’ slogan of “the waterfront is not for sale” proved powerful, Sugarman says, because “the condos would not only have diminished the aesthetics, but would have deprived people of an important piece of the city that many viewed as their backyard.”

But even with all these weather systems converging, Paquette might have survived the Sanders storm had he seen it coming. “The Democrats didn’t pull out all the stops in that race,” recalls Bouricius, who has made a career of analyzing election reform. “They couldn’t imagine that someone like Bernie could actually win.”

A mano-a-mano bout might likewise have ended in a Paquette victory. But as luck would have it, Sanders benefited from a spoiler: Richard Bove, a local restaurant owner and erstwhile ally of Paquette’s, had secured a spot on the mayoral ballot out of pique at a perceived slight by the local Democratic establishment, Nelson says. Bove got about 400 votes, and “all those votes would have gone to Paquette,” Nelson reckons. Instead, Sanders managed to squeak out a 10-vote victory.

The sort of political revolution Sanders is urging today actually occurred on a smaller scale in what soon became known as “the People’s Republic of Burlington.”

‘Champion of the Underdog’

Sanders became a hands-on mayor who practiced the principles of “Sewer Socialism.” In keeping with the precedent set by a series of progressive mayors of Milwaukee in the first half of the 20th century, he focused on the effective and efficient delivery of basic municipal services. Voters also affirmed the radical mayor’s affordable-housing initiatives, as his three re-election victories would attest.

“He couldn’t be portrayed as a tax-and-spend liberal,” Mahnke says. “He was all about making government more efficient and more effective. For him, plowing the streets was a vital responsibility.”

Bitterly opposed by the city’s Democratic establishment, Sanders succeeded by attracting a set of bright staffers. They were fiercely dedicated to the causes championed by a mayor who was often irascible with staff behind the scenes.

Sanders was soon looking to advance to higher offices. He ran for governor in 1986 and the U.S. House in 1988, but lost both races.

His stage-left entry on the national political scene in 1990—when he finally managed to win a statewide race—was made possible, in part, by his opponent’s blunders.

Incumbent Republican House member Peter Smith, who had beaten Sanders by four percentage points in a six-way race in 1988, alienated many conservative Vermonters, Nelson suggests, by insulting President George H.W. Bush and by casting a vote that caused the National Rifle Association to campaign against him.

Bush flew into Burlington in the fall of 1990 to help Smith stave off Sanders’ challenge. But the intended beneficiary of Bush’s benediction proceeded to criticize the president’s tax policy on the stage they were sharing.

Smith had also voted for a ban on assault weapons after pledging his allegiance to the NRA’s policy of opposing any and all gun-control measures. That spawned a negative ad campaign in hunter-friendly Vermont: “Smith and Wesson, yes. Smith and Congress, no.”

Sanders won the election by a 16-point margin.

The Burlington mayor benefited from the statewide recognition he had gained from earlier unsuccessful runs for governor and the U.S. House, according to then-campaign adviser Franco. In 1988, Sanders, an independent, got twice as many votes as the Democratic U.S. House candidate. He had proven he was more viable than the mainstream liberal.

“It was the Democrat, not Bernie, who was seen as the potential spoiler in 1990,” Franco says. In 1990, Democrat Dolores Sandoval received just 3 percent of the vote.

From there, Sanders would go on to win seven more elections to the House and to score easy victories in races for the U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2012.

Throughout all of his campaigns, the once-obscure outsider never departed from his central themes of fighting economic inequality and calling for reforms that would benefit working-class Americans. Voters who seldom support liberal Democrats, let alone radical independents, have responded by standing with Sanders.

Franco doesn’t doubt anecdotal evidence that some Burlingtonians who voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984 also cast ballots for Sanders. Similarly, Mahnke remembers seeing in the 2000 “Bernie for Congress” signs on many of the same lawns in the state’s remote and rural Northeast Kingdom that were also displaying “Take Back Vermont” posters, signifying opposition to a controversial same-sex civil union law enacted earlier that year.

How could this be? Why would many anti-gay rights residents of Vermont’s poorest and most conservative region simultaneously support a socialist?

It isn’t as though Sanders sends coded signals on cultural and social issues hinting that he’s on the right’s side. His record in Congress gets a thumbs-up from groups focused on gender equality and freedom of sexual identity. It’s that Sanders “doesn’t foreground those issues,” Gutman observes.

Nelson agrees, framing Sanders’ approach this way: “His politics are horizontal, not vertical. Bernie’s class-focused arguments cut across the usual racial and ethnic lines. He’s seen, first and foremost, as the champion of the underdog, and no part of the state is more of an underdog than the Northeast Kingdom.”

Veteran Politician

During his 25 years in Congress—by far the longest tenure of any independent—Sanders has raised his Brooklyn-accented voice to call for bank reform, a higher minimum wage and steeper taxes on wealthy Americans. But he has also fought hard for a group rarely associated with socialist views: military veterans.

Although he voted against the war in Iraq, Sanders chaired the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for two years—the first time, political science prof Nelson says, that an independent has headed a U.S. Congress committee. Throughout his full nine-year tenure on veterans’ affairs, he has worked to safeguard and improve federal services for former members of the U.S. armed forces, including health care delivered via the Veterans Administration. Sanders cites the VA’s coverage as a successful example of single-payer health insurance.

This involvement with vets is consistent with Sanders’ career-long advocacy for the interests of working-class Americans, Nelson notes. “Veterans are mostly working-class guys who depend on federal aid,” he says. “It’s a perfect cause for Bernie.”

That unwavering willingness to stick up for the little guy has won over plenty of conservative voters, Bouricius says. “I’ve got in-laws who always vote for Republicans—and for Bernie,” the former city councilor notes. “They say he’s their guy, because he always speaks his mind.”

Mahnke adds: “He doesn’t do focus groups. He doesn’t raise his finger to see which way the political wind is blowing.”

In addition to avoiding leftist jargon, Sanders talks about down-home concerns that many radicals ignore. Sugarman says: “They’re into macro. Bernard is more about micro. He connects with people on the level of their lived experience—the quality of the schools their kids attend, for example.”

Above all, suggests Burlington activist and lawyer Sandy Baird, “Bernie doesn’t fight the cultural wars. He was never a hippie,” she points out. “He can attract working-class votes because he is working class. He’s from an immigrant family that didn’t have a lot, so it’s clear that he knows of what he speaks.”

Sanders has approached legislating in Congress the same way he handled administering a city—by presenting issues as moral choices to be made on behalf of, and with the support of, his constituents.

Today, he’s campaigning for the highest office of them all, having launched the Bernie for President drive on the Burlington waterfront, where condos were once proposed but which instead became a lakeside park.

Initially treated by national political savants as a figure for ridicule, Sanders has again shown that he can surprise those who underestimate him. As was the case 35 years ago in Burlington and 25 years ago in many parts of Vermont, big-dog Dems are saying Sanders has no chance of winning.

His growing crowds haven’t gotten the message yet.

Below: Sanders celebrates his 1981 mayoral win; he overlooks the city of Burlington. Photos by Rob Swanson.

Published in Politics

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