Sanders inspires Alaska Democratic delegates to get involved in politics

The majority of Alaska's Democratic delegates to the national convention still "Feel the Bern."

But they are also generally happy enough to vote for Hillary Clinton come November, according to interviews with 11 of the 20 delegates headed to Philadelphia for the DNC, which starts Monday.

In Alaska's delegation, there are members as young as 19, and as old as 65. They come from Anchorage to Fairbanks to Fort Yukon. Demographic information provided by the state party shows the demographics of the group are fairly wide-ranging. Delegates are young and old, black, white, Native, Latino and represent the LGBT community.

For many of them, it is their first time at the convention. And quite a few of them are new to politics, actually. Many of the Alaskans headed to Philadelphia were inspired to participate by presidential candidate Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is expected to fall short of clinching the nomination. Alaska Democrats voted overwhelmingly for Sanders — 81.6 percent versus 18.4 percent for presumed nominee Hillary Clinton.

[Alaska's Republican convention delegates return from Cleveland ready to unite behind Trump]

But even if their candidate didn't make it to the finish line, many of the delegates are sticking with politics and the party. They're working on campaigns, running for local office and hoping to have input on the future of the party at the convention.

Alaska does have superdelegates — the long-time Democratic National Committee members who are "unbound" from the vote of the state, and may vote however they like. The intention of superdelegates was to give the party faithful some permanent say in the selection of the party's candidate, but it has become controversial during this year's race.


Many Sanders supporters felt that the superdelegates leaned too heavily towards Clinton, and impacted the outcome of later primaries and caucuses. There are 712 superdelegates overall — that's 30 percent of the 2,382 delegates that a candidate needs to win the Democratic nomination.

Alaska's four superdelegates are varied in their votes: Kim Metcalfe plans to vote for Clinton. Larry Murakami intends to go for Sanders. And Ian Olson and Casey Steinau, the state party chair, are both keeping their choices to themselves until they get to the convention, they said.

"My plan has been all along to go to the national convention as an uncommitted delegate," Olson said. Olson said he prefers to "maintain a supportive role" and remain neutral "while people debate and talk about what's been the best for the party" and "what's best for the country."

[Here are the issues that drive Alaska's Democratic delegates headed to Philadelphia]

Last week, Olson said he was still getting email and tweets every day from Sanders supporters. And over the July 4 weekend, he said he counted: 66 postcards came in from around the country from Sanders supporters, "virtually all from the Outside."

Since Sanders endorsed Clinton, Olson said there was a clear change in tone from Sanders supporters contacting him: Instead of supporting the Democratic party, people are "telling me they're going to vote for a Green Party candidate or not vote at all," he said. Nobody mentioned potentially voting for GOP nominee Donald Trump, he said.

Murakami, 61, is a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks professor who prefers Sanders, but will settle for Clinton. Murakami said he'd like to have "the moonshot" with Bernie Sanders as the nominee, "but I'll settle for a little step at a time in the right direction" with Clinton, he said.

"We'll come behind Hillary," he said.

Taz Tally, 65, of Homer, agreed. "I'm feeling the Bern. That's how I got involved," Tally said. But he's "not a Hillary hater" like some, he said.

Until he went to the Democratic caucus in Homer, Tally didn't participate in politics beyond voting, he said. "I never thought I really could make an impact, politically" until Sanders came along, said Tally, who was born in Philadelphia, and is excited to head there for the convention.

"Obviously I would have preferred it to be my guy," said delegate Olivia Garrett, 22, of Fairbanks. But after the convention, Clinton will have her support, she said.

She has long considered herself to be a progressive Democrat, but this is Garrett's first convention, and the first time she has voted in a presidential race without an incumbent.

She came to be a delegate by way of the Bernie camp: When Sanders' team came to Alaska in February, she met some staffers and offered to volunteer. They offered her a job. Later Garrett became an Alaska delegate to the national convention.

Gregory Jones, 50, is African-American, Muslim and also a first-time conventioneer. Jones is a Sanders supporter, but he doesn't dislike Clinton, he said. "I think she's part of the establishment, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but I am looking for some changes to be made in the way things have gone in America, for the better," he said.

Jones attended his first caucus this year, having moved to Alaska seven or eight years ago, and found it far more engaging than the primaries in North Carolina, were he lived before (though he was born and raised in Washington, D.C.) "It's been quite a process for me," Jones said.

Now he's running for the state House, inspired by Sanders to become more active on a local level.

Nathan Sidell is the youngest delegate heading to Philadelphia for the DNC at 19 years old. He's a Sanders fan, and plans to vote for the socialist senator at the convention and hopes support for Sanders will help make progressive values heard at the convention.


Sidell thinks Clinton will ultimately draw support from Sanders supporters nationwide. "I really think that the perceived total separation between Clinton and Sanders supporters is more overhyped" than it really is, he said.

Like some other delegates, Sidell's interest in progressive politics has outlasted the likely end of Sanders' campaign. He plans to attend American University in Washington, D.C. in the fall.

Most of the delegates say they're proud to be part of Alaska's small delegation of Democrats representing a state that tends to go Republican in federal elections. But they aren't holding their breath to see the state turn blue in November.

"Integrity is a huge issue for Alaskans," said Jill Yordy, 29, a Sanders delegate. There is a perception Clinton is "untrustworthy," and "I think that's really going to hurt Hillary up here," she said.

By and large, the delegates interviewed by Alaska Dispatch News said they are very concerned about Republican nominee Trump.

"I think the way he's conducted himself in the presidential cycle has been a disgrace to America. I really think it's embarrassing," Olson said, adding he thinks Trump is "in it for himself," and not the good of the nation.

But Olson said support for Trump and Sanders has demonstrated something that has weighed on his mind: "the disconnect people in the country feel from their government."

Others called Trump "frightening," "misogynistic" and a "con artist."


Last week's Republican convention in Cleveland ended up being nearly as much about Clinton as it was about Trump. But anger towards Trump does not appear to be a similar driving force for Democrats in Alaska's delegation.

"I'm looking forward to hearing and seeing a healthy convention process and people coming together and working together to celebrate what it is to be a Democrat and define that as well," Olson said.

Like Alaska's Republican delegates, several Democrats said they were excited to meet party faithful from around the country.

"I think what I'm most looking forward to is putting a face to all of these people that I've been talking to across the country" while working for Sanders, Yordy said.

But her most important priority, she said, is "to make sure I'm in my seat" when it's time to vote."

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.