Monday, September 20, 2021

in-focus

Sanders sharpens his pitch to women, as moms in Michigan oscillate between him and Biden


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Bernie Sanders has massively stepped up efforts to woo female voters since Joe Biden took the lead in delegates and Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race. 

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The independent senator from Vermont unveiled a "reproductive health care and justice for all" plan on Saturday evening. He's attacking the former vice president for supporting the Hyde Amendment, which banned Medicaid funds from being used to cover abortions, until reversing himself under pressure last year. He's reading aloud a quote from the 1970s in which Biden said that Roe v. Wade "went too far." 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduces Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., to the stage during a rally at Calder Plaza on Sunday in Grand Rapids, Mich., MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges

"Women have a right to control their own bodies, not the government," Sanders said during an outdoor rally here on a sunny Sunday afternoon. "Here is my promise to you: I will never nominate anyone to the Supreme Court or the federal bench who is not 100% pro-Roe v. Wade. . . . We're in this together."

Jesse Jackson told the crowd of 7,600 that he endorsed Sanders only after receiving an ironclad commitment that he would nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court and a promise that he would give "serious consideration" to naming a black woman as his running mate. "Bernie can win, will win and must win," said Jackson.

Michigan is the most populous, and symbolically significant, of six states voting Tuesday. An EPIC-MRA pollreleased this morning showed Biden leading Sanders 51% to 27% in the state, with 13% undecided and 9% saying they plan to vote for another candidate. The survey of 400 likely Democratic voters, conducted Wednesday through Friday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9%. But this should be taken with a grain of salt. The pre-primary polls four years ago showed Hillary Clinton with a similarly huge lead, and Sanders pulled off an upset. Clinton's weakness foreshadowed Donald Trump narrowly carrying the state in November. 

The Sanders campaign rushed resources and staff to Michigan over the weekend, going all-in on the Wolverine State the way that Biden did before South Carolina's primary. The other states with primaries on Tuesday are Missouri, Washington, Idaho, Mississippi and North Dakota.

Women are the centerpiece of Sanders' comeback strategy here, including an effort to win over former supporters of Warren. Biden led him among women by 12 points on Super Tuesday, 37% to 25%, based on median support in available exit polling, with Warren, D-Mass., pulling 15% and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg getting 13%. Biden led Sanders among men by a narrower 4 points, 36% to 32%, with Warren in single digits.

"My heart wants to vote for Bernie. My gut wants to vote for Biden," said Melissa Courtade, 46, who sits on the Kenowa Hills school board. She had planned to vote for Warren on Tuesday and remains undecided after watching Sanders speak. Courtade likes Sanders' plan to raise teacher pay to a minimum of $60,000 per year but doesn't think it's realistic. She likes the idea of Medicare-for-all, but she isn't sure that's realistic either. She really likes Sanders personally, and many of her friends support him, but she's not sure he can beat Trump. 

Courtade, who voted for Clinton in the 2016 primary, said her 19-year-old daughter is supporting Biden because she thinks Sanders is too liberal to carry Michigan in the general election. "She jokingly teases me and says you're ADD when it comes to this election, and I really am," Courtade said after Sanders' rally. "I just don't know where my head is at right now. It's so hard. I've never not known who I was going to vote for."

She was one of about two dozen women I spoke with at Sanders' rally on Sunday afternoon. Several said they had planned to back Warren or one of the other female candidates but now reluctantly needed to decide between Sanders and Biden. A February Washington Post-ABC News poll found that while Sanders was ranked higher as a second choice by many Warren voters, a significant chunk favored moderate candidates, including Biden. Warren herself has not endorsed. The Massachusetts senator is trying to balance playing an inside game versus an outside game. Whether she backs someone or not, her ideas won't go away and neither will she.

Sanders won his upset four years ago by running up the score in rural and conservative parts of Michigan. He managed to eke out a 1.4-point win statewide despite losing the Detroit metropolitan area, including Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. But Sanders won Kent County, which includes Gerald Ford's hometown of Grand Rapids, by 25 points, a 17,000-vote margin of victory. That was almost exactly his statewide margin. He's trying to replicate this on Tuesday. 

Kim Sapkowski, 55 of Belmont, had planned to vote for Warren but will now support Sanders because, in her view, Biden's plans are too incremental. Her position as an administrative assistant at a local university was eliminated last month because of budget cuts. Now she's unemployed and has two kids of her own in college. She worries a recession is looming, which bolsters her conviction that this is no time for "the half-measures" that she believes Biden wants to pursue. "I'm disappointed that we still are hesitant about electing a woman as president, but we've just got to beat Trump," said Sapkowski. "The biggest response that the crowd gave Bernie was when he said that the government should get its hands off women's bodies. That was the strongest response he got, and you're in maybe the most conservative part of Michigan."

Biden was to hold his own rally in Grand Rapids on Monday in a bid to blunt Sanders' strength in western Michigan. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who dropped outlast week, also came here to campaign for Biden on Saturday. "People are looking for someone who is a rock, someone who is a safe place, and that is Joe Biden," she said at a brewery here.

Carolyn Ferrari, the regional manager for a theater company and one of the relatively few black faces at Sanders' rally here, had leaned toward supporting Klobuchar. But she decided to support Sanders on Sunday after hearing him commit to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court. "Warren spoke very well, but something about her didn't seem genuine to me, and I don't think Biden can really get the job done," said Ferrari. 

A hundred years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, the 49-year-old said she assumed all along over the past year that no women would be left in the race at this stage because sexism remains so endemic in American politics. "You hope, but you never really expect," she said, with a sigh. "I'm almost 50, and I don't know that it's going to change in my lifetime. But to be honest, I also didn't think we'd see a black president in my lifetime." 

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, remains in the race, but she only has two delegates from American Samoa. The Democratic National Committee announced qualification requirements for Sunday night's debate in Phoenix that ensure only Biden and Sanders appear onstage.

Leslie Schwartz-Thomas, who retired as a 911 dispatcher to focus on being a grandmother to triplets, loved Warren. "The chance to vote for a woman had something to do with it," she said. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't, but I wouldn't vote for somebody just because they're a woman." Her son who lives in Seattle is a diehard Sanders supporter and urged his mom to feel the Bern after Warren suspended her campaign. The 59-year-old agreed to go to Sanders' rally to hear him out. "A lot of what Bernie talks about, I agree with," she said, "but I worry he won't beat that man who is in the White House - I won't even say his name."

Women, especially in the suburbs, powered the Democratic takeover of the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Several first-term congresswomen who flipped seats have endorsed Biden in recent days, including Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens in Michigan. Gretchen Whitmer, the state's Democratic governor who also won in 2018, endorsed Biden last week. But Sanders had the early support of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. - another member of the Squad elected in 2018 - introduced him on Sunday night before a crowd of 10,240 in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan.

Indeed, Sanders fares better among women than the saturation coverage of the "Bernie Bros" might lead you to believe. "His main supporters are teachers," said Sanders supporter Nichole Biber, 45, an elementary school librarian in East Lansing. "Every time I go canvassing, it's women and men. The grass-roots movements that endorse him are made up of a lot of mothers. All the women I know voted for him four years ago too."

Sanders has flushed out what once seemed like a box-checking afterthought toward the end of his stump speech with a robust commitment to make fighting for women a top priority. He now says one of his top legislative goals would be codifying the protections of Roe into federal law and "significantly" increasing funding for Planned Parenthood. The reproductive health-care plan Sanders put out on Saturday pledges to use executive authority to reverse "Trump's anti-choice actions," require preclearance by the Justice Department for all new state abortion laws, block any federal funding for "crisis pregnancy centers" that don't perform abortions, make birth control available over-the-counter (it would also be free under Medicare-for-all) and ban abstinence-only sex education in schools. 

The plan includes an emphasis on increasing access to reproductive services in communities of color, with provisions for eliminating "contraceptive deserts" and increasing funding to hospitals where most patients are African American. Discussing this plan in Grand Rapids, Sanders said: "We're tired of black mothers dying at three times the rate of white mothers."

Biden has been trying to stay above the fray as Sandersintensifieshis criticism. His campaign didn't respond directly to the abortion-focused attacks. Instead, he is running a commercial here that touts past praise from former president Barack Obama, as well as a response ad to a Sanders attack that he once supported cutting Social Security benefits.

On Sunday, Biden released a lengthy statement commemorating International Women's Day. "Four years after more than 65 million Americans proudly cast their ballot hoping to elect our first female president, we are fighting for the very soul of our nation and to rid the White House of a man who has fostered misogyny, bigotry, racism, and division all across our country," he wrote. "I promise that, as president, I will use every tool available to me and take every opportunity to push our nation closer to that aspirational American creed - that all of us are equal in rights and dignity and deserve equal opportunity. . . . I have pledged to seek gender parity and full diversity in my national security appointments, and that will be true across my government."

On the other hand, many feminists remain angry at Biden for his shoddy treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearing to the Supreme Court in 1991. Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, has expressed regret over his handling of her allegations of sexual harassment. Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state legislator, accused Biden last spring of smelling her hair and kissing the back of her head at a 2014 rally in Las Vegas.

After Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., backedBiden on Sunday, her aides told reporters that she waited to support him until there were no other major female candidates left in the race. Harris was to introduce Biden at a rally Monday night in Detroit. "Like many women, I watched with sadness as women exited the race one by one," she said in her video announcement. "This is something we must reckon with, and it is something I will have more to say about in the future. But we must rise to unite the party and country behind a candidate who reflects the decency and dignity of the American people and who can ultimately defeat Donald Trump."

Shannon Koneracki, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom from Sparta, never thought Sanders would get this far. She supported Clinton in the 2016 primary because she didn't think Sanders could win, but the fact that Trump managed to get elected that fall led her to conclude that Sanders probably could too. So she will vote for him on Tuesday. "I would love to have Bernie pick a vice president like Warren because it would help with the women's vote," said Koneracki, as her 6-year-old daughter Genesis ran in circles around her.

Published : March 09, 2020

By : The Washington Post · James Hohmann · NATIONAL, POLITICS