Dems Move to Leverage Bernie Sanders' Popularity as Party Regroups

PHOTO: Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Charles Schumer arrive for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 29, 2015.PlayCarolyn Kaster/AP Photo
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As much as his supporters might disagree, Bernie Sanders is now officially part of the establishment -- and he has his old Brooklyn friend to thank for it.

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It happened Wednesday, when incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave the Vermont senator, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, a promotion and an official spot on his leadership team this week. The official title: “outreach chair,” a role Sanders said he will take very seriously even if he isn’t sure what it entails.

“If anyone has any ideas let me know,” Sanders joked with reporters this morning when asked what exactly he would do in the new position. “I just got this title yesterday.”

Although they hardly come from the same ideological background (Schumer is known for being close to Sanders’ Enemy No. 1, Wall Street, especially for a Democrat), the two men have had nothing but compliments for each other as of late.

They have been described as “pals” and “D.C.” friends. Staff members are quick to point out that they have worked well together in the past. They share a Brooklyn rough-and-tumble attitude and even went to the same high school. They speak on the phone regularly. Now the Democrat Party leader-in-waiting not only wants to defend the independent, but also bring him into the fold.

The job title of outreach chair is a new one, having been broken out of its previous umbrella organization, the Steering and Outreach Committee, headed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who will continue as the steering chair. Schumer and his team know that Sanders’ ability to move crowds and gin up signatures will help Democrats at the negotiating table.

“He has developed such a reputation, deservedly so, of working with people across the nation. He inspired people to come out, and that kind of outreach is really important,” Klobuchar said of the role.

Sanders’ popularity was on display Wednesday night. Students packed a theater in downtown Washington, D.C., and erupted in excitement and cheers when he was introduced as a newly appointed member of Democrats’ leadership team in the Senate. (They also hooted and hollered when the moderator read about how the senator had run a mile in 4 minutes, 37 seconds in high school. They wanted to celebrate him, the man, as much as any policy idea.)

Sanders himself put his new role this way: “One the goals of that position is to bring people into politics and make people aware that politics is not just Election Day.”

“The real action to transform America is not going to take place on Capitol Hill, it is going to take place in grassroots America,” he continued. “I initially understand my role to be to bring those people into the political process, to demand that the United States Congress, the United States government and president represent the needs of all the people.”

Staff for Senate leadership agreed there were not specific plans or ideas yet for what the role for Sanders looks like day to day, but that the announcement was about securing him a “seat at the table” on all big picture strategy and planning from the top.

One staff member described Sanders as a needed bridge between the same young, far left progressives and grassroots organizers who helped elect President Barack Obama twice and the blue-collar workers who are eager for a steadfast voice that speaks their language.

When exactly to harness Sanders’ organizing or messaging power is yet to be determined -- it’s a wait-and-see attitude with Democrats on the Capitol Hill. Which Donald Trump will show up? What exactly will they need to respond to? They aren’t sure.

“This is the debate we are going to have to have in the Democratic Party, that debate is: Which side are you on?” Sanders said, calling for major changes in the party. “Can you go out and raise substantial sums of money from the wealthy and Wall Street and other special interest [groups] and then convince the American people that you are on the side of workers and the middle class?”