Reporter’s Notebook: My Year With Bernie Sanders

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at Qualcomm Stadium, June 5, 2016 in San Diego.PlaySandy Huffaker/AP Photo
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One year and one week ago I interviewed Bernie Sanders for the first time on the campaign trail in Portland, Maine. I asked him if he had any advice for Hillary Clinton and he said she probably had enough consultants.

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What a difference a year makes.

The Maine event was key in my early realization that there was something extraordinary taking place in his campaign. People had driven from all over the state and the region to be there and were lined up hours before the speech started.

Jackie Curley, a retired dance teacher, told me that day that Sanders was the only candidate who she could get excited about. “Everything he says resonates with me,” she said then.

And there were signs of incredible organization. Sanders’ “body man” stood in the center of the arena hall directing volunteers to make sure the banner and flags were set up was to his liking.

On every one of the thousands of chairs in that Maine venue there was a “Bernie 2016” placard. An online network, “Portland for Bernie,” added me to its Twitter list and posted a live stream of my footage. I wrote in my notes that day, “Folks are attributing the turnout success to social media, but also grassroots organizing.”

Over the next twelve months, I spent about 270 days on the road with the Vermont senator, covered more than 465 events and traveled to 45 states following his campaign. During that time, I saw a small, driven team capitalize on the energy, creativity and frustration of progressives around the country and build one of the most successful insurgent campaigns in modern American history.

That campaign essentially came to an end Tuesday when Sanders acknowledged that Clinton had won the Democratic Party's nomination.

The ‘Oh, Wow’

Driving in Iowa, I always thought I was lost. After a hundred straight miles, I would be on the verge of turning around when, suddenly, the event I was looking for would appear out of the horizon: a school, a packed parking lot and a long, long line.

The senator often tells a story of driving up to one of his first rallies in Minneapolis in May 2015. He lamented looking at all the people in line outside that there must be another event that same night. Even Sanders was surprised. By the end it was expected, but it never felt less incredible:

-28,000 people at a rally in Portland, Oregon, in August, 2015; -8,000 in Manassas, Virginia, in September; -20,000 in Boston in October.

That night in Beantown, Sanders had hired a new senior advance man from the Obama-world, because this staffer knew how to put on big shows. After the speech wrapped, he ran me backstage, past the crowds, to catch the senator greeting thousands of people who waited outside in the cold.

Early, smart hires like that one revealed a seriousness to the campaign that even some of the best in Washington, D.C., would not fully grasp for months.

Sanders’ first congressional endorser, Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, put it this way: the senator “proved to the Democratic party that a big chunk of its constituency is left of center.”

The Making of a Pop Star

The senator does not like down time and demanded his schedules were built so each event started exactly when the other one finished, plus driving time. No breaks for food until the end of the day. Subway sandwiches in the car.

In the beginning I had to park, enter and set up at each event. As a result, I got entirely dangerously comfortable dictating notes while driving and parking over curbs. My grandmother still talks about her relief that I lived through the winter on the roads in Iowa.

Early on, I apologized to a colleague in D.C. for chastising him about Styrofoam. Perhaps like all reporters on the road, both gas station coffee and string cheese became regular parts of my diet. Ten years of being a vegetarian was slipping by the wayside, but I could effectively set up my tripod, digital Sony camera, XLR cable, live transmission unit, and personal Wi-Fi in under 2 minutes, if I needed.

On Halloween, I found out that Sanders’ was planning to trick-or-treat with three of his grandchildren after an event in Lebanon, New Hampshire. A print reporter and I convinced the campaign to let us tag along.

First surprised by crowds, that night Sanders was also surprised by stardom. He stood back as the little ones knocked on the doors and was dazed by the shrieks when people recognized him.

He did not approach folks and he did not introduce himself. (He did confirm his identity to one man who stared at him confused and asked why he looked familiar). Sanders back then seemed to want to walk around anonymously. By the end of the year, it was not an option.

On New Years’ Eve, I broke the story that Sanders had started flying on private jets. While the story was right, one week after it went up, the senator and his wife sat directly in front of me, back in coach in row 18, on a Delta flight from New York back to Nevada. Jane Sanders asked me to take a selfie.

The Campaign Takes Off

The senator’s campaign had taken off and was he was having fun. On the same day in mid-January when he debuted a campaign bus to take him around Iowa, he also tried out new lines about Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speeches. (Note: the campaign also organized a press bus for the first time that day, which meant I was no longer driving myself on icy roads, much to my grandmother’s delight.)

The party atmosphere that had emerged at so many Sanders events was in the national limelight. I rushed in late with the other reporters to a capstone get-out-the-vote event in Iowa City days before the caucuses and was taken aback by the scene.

Dark with giant white theater spotlights, thousands of college-age kids packed in dancing and singing. It was a concert. It was a celebration. It was fun. The kind of fun that turns heads and makes you want to join in.

With hands in the air and cameras out, the fans chanted “Bernie” when the senator arrived. Though he could barely clap to the rhythm, when Sanders sang “This Land is Your Land” with Vampire Weekend, the crowd sang back and swayed together.

On the night of his win in the New Hampshire primary, his staff celebrated in a basement bar of a divey Chinese restaurant. It was one of the last nights that the original staffers who had traveled for debates and big moments, would be together in one place until months later in New York.

The social media editor who grew the senator’s accounts, the digital director who had built an email list worth millions, old friends and staff from Vermont all returned to headquarters in Burlington or D.C. They had to make it that far to justify building a national campaign, but now they had to go do that ... and that is hard.

Life in, and Out, of the Bubble

In the eight days between the Nevada caucus and Super Tuesday, Sanders (and all of us) traveled to 11 states and logged about 15,650 miles. For me, the relief of no longer driving myself had given way to a new, suffocating reality: living in the Secret Service “bubble.”

They swept our gear and checked our bodies for weapons at the start of every day and then we traveled in the secured motorcade until the end of the day 18 or so hours later. To the airport, to and from each event, to wherever the senator wanted, we traveled all together, day in and day out, always by an agent’s side.

After a speech wrapped, we ran with our gear not to get left behind. That old advice for reporters -- to never pass up a meal or a bathroom -- took on a whole new meaning in my life.

States were voting every week in March and the beginning of April and each time the media wondered whether the next batch would dramatically change the state of the race. The senator was losing, but he was winning enough (and still fundraising plenty) to justify to his team marching on.

In every state, the senator and the press could count on: nurses, organized and present in matching scrubs; college students, many of whom would scream and yell for the senator like they used to do for Elvis or the Beatles; and art.

The Sanders campaign did not pre-screen signs and encouraged creativity in all forms. The Bernie-themed, homemade posters, banners, -shirts, doughnuts and music that exploded was a sight to see, especially after the bird. The “Bernie Bird” phenomenon demonstrated a joy, hope and community associated with the movement.

La Dolce Vita?

The final quarter of my time on the road included two big trips with the senator to Rome, Italy and Puerto Rico. I woke up in New York City to the alert about the trip to Rome and sent it first to my boss in a daze, asking whether he thought it was real.

The senator would only be on the ground in Europe for 22 hours and those of us going gathered in the back of the press-filing room, without luggage, at the last debate in Brooklyn, New York, with other reporters looking on. We joined the motorcade and headed straight from the debate to the plane. I packed an overnight bag for the trip.

Over the course of the day, I was trampled by Italian paparazzi, lost the press bus, lost an earring, saw the Trevi Fountain, and then interviewed the senator at the most stunning location overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica, just hours after he met Pope Francis at the papal residence.

I looked ridiculous in Puerto Rico. The morning before we left I walked along a highway in Paducah, Kentucky, at 7 a.m. to a Walmart (don’t tell the senator) to buy mosquito repellent and khaki pants. I wore the pants, happily surprised by the functionality of cargo pockets, and long sleeve shirts every day.

Sanders would go on to lose the island state, but even there he was greeted by crowds of young and passionate people.

While the senator continued his tour of rallies in New York and California, he also spent a significant amount of time at the end walking around neighborhoods and tourist sites, shaking hands and being a star.

I perfected the skill of walking backwards and filming, even in Times Square and on Hollywood Boulevard. Over the course of the year, the same man who was not sure how to greet New Hampshire neighbors, by summer could not get enough of the selfies and handshakes.

Was it ego? Maybe. Was it an attempt to meet as many people as possible. Yes. Was it effective? Probably not. But filming the “Sanders stroll,” which was more like the Sanders stampede, was a huge part of my life in the spring.

Ironically, one of the last days I traveled with the senator was on a trip from Burlington, Vermont, to Washington, D.C. and the White House. Never traditional, Sanders had his motorcade stop a block from Pennsylvania Avenue, so he could jump out and buy a scone for breakfast.

Though he was starting a long process of admitting defeat, he in some ways capped his campaign talking to reporters outside the Oval Office.