Still Bernie or Bust? Sanders Delegates Reassess After Clinton's Convention

Fervent Bernie Sanders delegates at the convention were not so easily swayed to Hillary Clinton's side

The stadium sits empty, the balloons swept up. As thousands of delegates left Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention, Noemi Tungui sat on a friend's couch grappling with what comes next. She wanted to decide what she would say, on her return home, to the more than 200 donors who helped her make her way to the convention. 

The 23-year-old California State University Northridge student was one of more than 1,800 Bernie Sanders delegates at this year's DNC. She raised more than $2,000 on GoFundMe and an additional $1,000 through fundraisers and selling homemade Bernie pins. But being at the convention that named Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president proved as difficult as getting there. Sanders supporters repeatedly said they felt denigrated by Clinton delegates. 

Natalie Higley, a 23-year-old Sanders delegate also from California, said she felt like an outsider.

"It's a very high school atmosphere, like you're the unpopular kid and they're the cheerleaders," Higley said on the first day of the convention.

Ninety percent of consistent Sanders supporters said in a recent Pew Research poll that they would back Clinton in the general election. But the fervent Sanders delegates at the convention were not so easily swayed.

By the third day, California delegate Josephine Piarulli, 55, said the convention was a "love fest for Hillary." Clinton supporters treated her like a leper, she said.

Tungui said she stood with her back to the stage during Clinton's acceptance speech. She said that after she had water thrown on her by a Clinton delegate, a security guard told her he would not do anything about it, because "this is Hillary's house." She and a group of delegates contacted the Sanders campaign who eventually got the delegate removed. NBC has reached out to the DNC for comment. 

Tungui said she felt support from fellow Sanders delegates whom she called her "Bernie family," a spirit of inclusion that drew her to Sanders when she first heard him speak at a rally in Los Angeles last August. She was planning to attend a Clinton campaign event but couldn't go when she realized the high cost to attend, she said. Then she saw two college-age friends post on Facebook about a Sanders event.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was full but she was able to watch Sanders' speech from a large television screen just outside. She said she was inspired by the speech and the like-minded people she met that day.

"It was the first time I heard a politician talk about immigration in a way that made us feel like human beings, like we were welcome and like he was going to do something," Tungui said.

Tungui's family moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 3 years old. Her parents are hard working, tax-paying permanent residents, but she is often the victim of discriminatory remarks because of her heritage, she said. After the August rally, inspired by Sanders, she began the process of becoming a U.S. citizen because she wanted to cast her vote in 2016. 

In Philadelphia she was among a group of delegates hoping to make Sanders the nominee. But on the first day of the convention Sanders sent a text to supporters urging them not to engage in protests on the convention floor. At the end of the formal roll call vote last week, Sanders moved to suspend the rules and nominate Hillary Clinton by acclamation, a symbol of unity within the party.

The move left many Sanders delegates with a dilemma.

Dozens of delegates, including Tungui and Piarulli, chose to walk out of the convention hall in protest. Tungui sat outside the arena with tape over her mouth to symbolize the silencing of her voice by the Democratic National Committee. Just before the start of the convention, a series of leaked emails suggested the DNC favored Clinton as the party’s nominee despite a promise to remain neutral throughout the primary process.

While Sanders has publicly endorsed Clinton, Tungui said it was important to her that the issues that his campaign addressed not be forgotten.

"I came here to be change," Tungui said. "I'm not just going to sit down and stay quiet because that's what they expect us to do and I'm not going to do that. I hope Bernie respects that from me."

"I'm sure there were people that told him not to do that," she said, pointing to Sanders' civil rights protests during his time at the University of Chicago.

Throughout the four-day convention, speakers, including Clinton, President Barack Obama and Sanders himself, praised the Sanders campaign and its supporters for their organizing efforts and influence in creating a progressive platform. Still, speakers urged Sanders supporters to vote for Clinton.

Samantha Rise Roberson, a Sanders delegate from Wyoming, said she would do just that, though she was disappointed Sanders had not won the nomination.

"It's bittersweet to me," Roberson said shortly before Clinton's acceptance speech on the final day of the convention. "I'm nervous to go home to my constituents. There's a lot of Bernie or bust in my hometown. How do we reconcile these people who are hurting and feel left out?"

But Roberson said she was excited that Sanders believed Clinton was the best candidate moving forward.

"I am proud and honored to celebrate the first female president," she said.

Many Sanders delegates said they were often told that uniting behind Clinton was the only way to defeat Donald Trump, but for some that was not enough.

"We want to make our voices heard for a real democratic alternative," 41-year-old California delegate Joey Aszterbaum said on the first day of the convention. "It’s not enough for the platform and the speakers to mention Trump all the time. What’s important is for us to stand for what we believe in."

Piarulli described Clinton as the antithesis of the progressive agenda and said Sanders supporters who came out in favor of Clinton were "traitors." She said that by supporting Clinton the Democratic National Committee and by extension the party would "reap what they sow" if Trump was elected.

Still, some Sanders delegates saw the convention as an opportunity to find out how serious Clinton was about enacting a progressive agenda.

Sanders delegate Susan Posey of Virginia, where Tim Kaine served as governor and is now a U.S. senator, said she had not yet decided who to vote for in November. She said she was initially disappointed that Kaine was chosen as Clinton's running mate but she is optimistic after learning more about him at the convention.

"It was a bit of a slap in the face because he's not progressive in his politics," said Posey, 45. "On the other hand, he is a nice guy and apparently has sort of a progressive heart. I have some hope he's a person we'll be able to work with," she said the morning after Kaine's DNC speech. 

For her part, Tungui said Thursday morning that she recognized the historic significance of the convention but thought that many of the speakers were pandering to various demographics, like touting 10-year-old Karla Ortiz, the child of undocumented immigrants, as proof that Clinton would fight for immigration reform.

On Nov. 8, Tungui said, she likely could not vote for Clinton, someone who she feels flip flops on too many issues, including fracking and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Still, she said she does not believe that Clinton is the "evil criminal" that some paint her to be. She would like the Clinton campaign to apologize to the Sanders campaign and speak with Sanders' supporters about the issues important to them if Clinton wants to earn her vote.

Tungui said she was pleasantly surprised that Clinton mentioned working with Sanders on an affordable college plan in her convention speech Thursday, but overall felt little unity throughout the convention. About two dozen Sanders delegates protested outside during Clinton's speech and occasional screams of "never Hillary" could be heard.

Tungui said as the daughter of immigrants she would not cast a vote for Trump, but would likely vote for one of the third-party candidates, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party candidate Jill Stein. She said she had lost faith in the two-party system and hopes that working with third-party candidates can make a long-term difference even if neither wins the presidency.

As the Democratic Party fights to unify behind Clinton, the Sanders campaign has begun to think about what comes next. It has launched an organization called "Our Revolution" which will aim to continue the message of the Sanders campaign and support progressive candidates for office.

Tungui might count herself among those candidates in the near future. She said she still believes the country can elect honest political leaders and has been inspired by the Sanders campaign to have a role in shaping the country's democracy.

"We have to be the leaders that we seek to elect," she said.

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