What Being a Bernie Sanders Supporter Means (and What It Doesn’t)

Feb 19, 2016
10:27 AM
Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Since last week’s piece on “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Latino Vote” and Monday’s defense of Bernie Sanders’s opposition to the 2007 comprehensive immigration bill, two things have happened. First, people have attacked my endorsement of the Sanders campaign by pointing to bits in the senator’s record that don’t seem to square with his leftist platform. And second, at least one Latino writer has urged me to go after big-name Latinos who’ve endorsed Hillary. This being the case, I guess I have no choice but to pull a page from another black author — this time Ta-Nehisi Coates — and discuss briefly the nature of my endorsement and how endorsements should and should not be viewed.

Yes, I want Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee this fall, and should he win the nomination, I’d back his candidacy for president of the United States. That certainly doesn’t mean that I believe Bernie to be the perfect specimen, either in his political or private life. I’m not even sure he’s the best person for the job, in this country or not. (I never understood why a nation of immigrants should deny its leadership to newcomers, especially those with a special talent for governing. Is this a meritocracy or not?) But so goes the U.S. political system, wherein voters aren’t asked to pick the best candidate for a given office, but only the better candidate. I believe Bernie Sanders is clearly the better candidate, and while I may not quite feel the Bern, I do experience a tingling sensation whenever I here him speak. Forgive me. I’m young, and still have hopes.

While I was writing my defense of Sanders’s immigration vote, Eoin Higgins was blasting Bernie for his 1998 vote in favor of a tri-state agreement between Texas, Maine and Vermont to dump the New Englanders’ radioactive waste in Sierra Blanca, a tiny West Texas town scattered beside Interstate 10, only 16 miles from the Rio Grande. (I flew through Sierra Blanca on a recent road trip from Chicago to El Paso.) Sanders, then a member of Vermont’s delegation in the House of Representatives, actually cosponsored the bill and actively pushed for its passage, even after environmental groups, citizens of Sierra Blanca and a number of Mexican officials condemned the move as a form of “environmental racism” — on account of the proposed site having a population that was 67 percent Latino. (Members of the Mexican government also claimed the agreement would violate a 1983 treaty between Mexico and the United States obliging both sides “to prevent, reduce and eliminate sources of pollution in their respective territory which affect the border area,” which it defined as extending 62 miles from either side of the border.) Though Congress passed the bill and President Clinton signed into law, Texas’s three-member Natural Resources Conservation Commission unanimously rejected the licensing  application to build a waste disposal facility — due in large part to an outspoken senator from Minnesota and a last-minute change of heart by Governor George W. Bush.

It should go without saying that I don’t agree with Sanders’s sponsorship of environmental policies that would’ve dumped the hazardous waste of almost exclusively white Vermont near predominantly Latino Sierra Blanca, and indeed I’d like to know what he has to say about his vote today. But does knowing Bernie’s role in Sierra Blanca make me regretful or even unsure about my endorsement? No. Because what I know about Hillary’s past and present positions, and what I continue learning about Bernie’s past and present positions, still leads me to believe Bernie is the better candidate. In fact, it’s not even close between the two. For all of her neoliberal, coup-loving, refugee-deporting, Wall Street-coddling ways, Hillary Clinton made Martin O’Malley look like Jesus.

As to those Latino leaders and celebrities backing Hillary, other Latinos’ endorsements is not my business. If civil-rights icon Dolores Huerta, Representatives Luis Gutiérrez, Xavier Becerra, José Serrano and Nydia Velázquez, HUD Secretary Julián Castro, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, actresses America Ferrera and Rosie Perez, and singers Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin and Demi Lovato all believe Hillary Clinton is the better candidate for Latino communities — that she will be better than Bernie on economic and criminal justice, on immigration (remember what Hillary said about child refugees), on foreign policy (specifically toward Latin America), on education, on Wall Street regulation, on the environment (Hillary seemed to be open to the Keystone pipeline before polls showed it to be extremely unpopular among Democrats), and on a variety of other issues of special concern to Latino voters — then that’s between them and the ballot booth. At this point, any Latino who merely votes is a okay in my book. I’ll make a case for Bernie Sanders. Let them make a case for Hillary — if they can.

On a final note, I have to disagree with something Coates wrote in his caveat about political endorsements. Attempting to appear staunchly apolitical, as many good writers do, Coates denies his role as a swayer of political views. It’s a sweet gesture, but ultimately futile. I’m sure Coates is sincere when he says “the idea that anyone would cast a vote because of how I am casting my vote makes my skin crawl,” and I feel the same. Coates and I don’t want you to vote for Bernie simply because we’re voting for him. But Coates wants you to agree with what he writes. There’s no reason to title a 15,000-word cover story “The Case for Reparations” if you don’t want the reader to put down your article afterward and be converted. Why make a “case” at all if you’re not out to convince anyone of anything?

Coates can say what he likes; I am trying to convince you, nearly every time I man my keyboard. Not because I think I’m so smart. Far from it. Studying for me has been a journey of charting the vast darkness of my ignorance. Finishing one book  adds five books to the ol’ reading list. But I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do — read and write — because that’s all they’re capable of doing. They read and think about things which most people don’t have time for. I’m extremely fortunate that I’ve discovered what I like doing, what I’m capable of doing, and that I’m able to actually do it. My main ambition in life is to be right and write well.

So I haven’t come to my endorsement of Bernie Sanders lightly. To be honest, given today’s Republican Party and its control of two branches of government, I have serious doubts a President Sanders would be able to achieve a quarter of his agenda. Still, I’d rather have a president try to institute Sanders’s policies and fail than to have a president try to institute Clinton’s policies and succeed. And it isn’t that I think Hillary and her supporters are evil or want to ruin the country. It’s simply that what Hillary and her supporters believe the country should be isn’t what I think the country could be.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Read up on the candidates, learn about the issues, tell your friends whom you’re voting for and why and, most important, vote. And may the better candidate win.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.