Longtime Bernie staffers share what makes the Senator tick. Jeff Weaver explains where Bernie falls on the Batman vs. Superman debate and tells stories of their youthful road trips around Vermont in the '80s. Chuck Rocha dishes on Bernie's IHOP habits. And David Sirota discusses his decision to leave journalism for the campaign and what it's like to work as Bernie's first speechwriter.
Jeff Weaver: [00:00:00] All right. We’re back here now with my good friend Chuck Rocha. Joining us here today in the studio. Hey Chuck, how are you?
[00:00:06] Chuck Rocha: [00:00:06] Welcome back to KZEY.
[00:00:08] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:00:08] Jeff, I’m fully prepared to allow you to lead the rest of this interview if you so desire.
[00:00:13] Jeff Weaver: [00:00:13] Hey, Chuck, we know you’re a big fisherman down there. You love to get down to Florida and all over the place. Been down to Cuba fishing. Tell us about your favorite fishing trip, Chuck.
[00:00:20] Chuck Rocha: [00:00:20] The waves are rolling down here in South Florida today, and people are on the water. They are getting out and going fishing.
[00:00:28] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:00:28] Everyone’s a personality.
[00:00:29] That’s Jeff Weaver and Chuck Rocha, senior advisors to the Bernie 2020 campaign.
[00:00:35] Have you done radio? Because I know that Senator Sanders has this history of doing radio, being involved with media, having an album. No, you were never tempted?
[00:00:44] Jeff Weaver: [00:00:44] No, but I could have, don’t you think?
[00:00:47] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:00:47] It’s never too late.
[00:00:47] Jeff Weaver: [00:00:47] I have a face for radio, Briahna, I think I’m doing just fine.
[00:00:49] Chuck Rocha: [00:00:49] Why do you think people take a lot of pictures of me? Lots of pictures of me.
[00:00:54] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:00:54] You guys, if there was a better encapsulation of your personalities that that, then I don’t know what it is.
[00:00:59] This week, I’m talking to folks who knew Bernie way back when, to get some insight into the man who’s defined principally by his principles.
[00:01:17] This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas, and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and the movement is secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray, coming to you this time from campaign headquarters in Washington, DC.
[00:01:39] For this week’s episode, I chatted with David Sirota, an investigative journalist who has known Senator Sanders for 20 years and who is the first person ever to hold the title Bernie Sanders speechwriter. But first, I talked to senior advisor Jeff Weaver solo about the 30-plus years he’s known the Senator. Chuck joins us about halfway through.
[00:02:01] Jeff Weaver: [00:02:01] So I met Bernie back in the spring of 1986. I had been thrown out of college for anti-apartheid protesting. I was kicking around in Vermont, and he was running for governor as an independent. He was mayor of Burlington. And I called down to the campaign headquarters, and the guy named Phil Fiermonte – who’s also recently retired, long time Bernie guy – came up to meet with me. And I should have known something was wrong because when he left, I was the county coordinator for a gubernatorial campaign in Vermont, having no campaign experience whatsoever.
[00:02:31] Anyway, I was staffing Bernie at a dairy festival, something we have in Vermont. My job was to sort of hand him – hold a sign, a Bernie sign on a stick – and hand him these buttons, Bernie buttons, which he would go around and offer folks at the dairy festival and every place else. So anyway, we seemed to hit it off, and a couple days later he called me and said, hey, would you like to work a couple days a week in Burlington. And that was 1986. And here we are today.
[00:02:57] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:02:57] When you say we seemed to hit it off, do you remember what it was about your interaction that kind of gelled?
[00:03:01] Jeff Weaver: [00:03:01] I sort of had a good sense of what he needed when he needed it, like when he needed a button. You know, I was not, I was not…
[00:03:07] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:03:07] That’s all it takes.
[00:03:08] Jeff Weaver: [00:03:08] Yeah. No, look. I was very mission-oriented, and I think he appreciated that.
[00:03:13] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:03:13] So then you got on board with the campaign.
[00:03:16] Jeff Weaver: [00:03:16] I did.
[00:03:16] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:03:16] Can you tell us what that was like?
[00:03:18] Jeff Weaver: [00:03:18] Yeah. So, it was a very small campaign. Let’s say that. There was two of us. I drove Bernie around mostly. And I was paid in mileage. That’s how I was paid. So, I was essentially a volunteer getting mileage. Let’s be clear. And he and I would just drive around the state.
[00:03:33] I lived about 30 miles north of where Bernie lived in Burlington. He lived in Burlington. And I would pick him up at about 7:30 in the morning. So I would leave my house about 7, get there at 7:30, and drop him back off at his house at 11:30 or 12:00 at night and drive half an hour north, and the next morning pick him back up at 7:30, and off we’d go again, day after day after day after day.
[00:03:53] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:03:53] This is really resonating with me because I also met and spoke for the first time to Bernie Sanders on a long car ride. A three-hour trip, a reporting trip I went on and on which I rode in the car with him from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination around this time last year.
[00:04:13] And I didn’t hand out any buttons or facilitate in any way, but it appears to have gone well as well.
[00:04:20] Jeff Weaver: [00:04:20] Maybe you were very mission-oriented. Maybe that’s what it was.
[00:04:24] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:04:24] Maybe, so I think that what is really curious to a lot of listeners probably is that, because Bernie himself is so message-oriented, there’s almost this reluctance, It seems, for him to talk about his personal life and foreground those things that some other candidates, you know, tend to do for, you know, reasonable reasons, to want to appear affable, to want to appear relatable. Bernie doesn’t do that. And I think that that’s frankly part of his charm, that he seems so committed to ideals as opposed to kind of persona. But still, even acknowledging that’s the case, there is this like mysteriousness about him, I think, and so I think people want to know from you, you know, who is Bernie Sanders? Like what is he like when he’s relaxed behind closed doors, not needing to evangelize about Medicare for All. You know, what’s the small talk like between you?
[00:05:17] Jeff Weaver: [00:05:17] Yeah well, and you should know, you know, I worked for him in ’86, ’88, and ’90, when he won for Congress, and I came down with him then. And over the course of those three campaigns, I calculated one time that I had spent the equivalent of 365 24-hour days with Bernie in the car. So, he and I have spent a lot of time in the car together.
[00:05:37] He is in some ways very different and some ways not different. So, there’s a lot of conversation about politics and what’s going on, but he also has an incredibly dry sense of humor, which you know, we really hit it off in that way.
[00:05:50] We used to do this thing called Honk-a-Mania, and Honk-a-Mania was when we had time in the schedule, we would stop at the busiest intersection – and in Vermont, some of those intersections were not too busy, but there were some busy intersections – and we get out. I would hold a sign, and then he would wave at the cars and, what we turned into a game because… At first, you know, not too many people knew him, by then as he was getting more famous, people would wave and what have you, give us other signs, sometimes not positive.
[00:06:20] I remember the time we were mooned by a guy in the five corners in Essex Junction. That was pretty funny. So, we started only counting honks, and we would have our own competition where over like a four- or five-minute period we would count the number of honks that we would get from cars. When you start to get this flurry, this sort of crescendo of honks, Bernie would scream out in this sort of dramatic, drawn-out way, “Honk-a-Mania!”
[00:06:47] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:06:47] I need to know what you were exactly doing to try to elicit these honks.
[00:06:57] Jeff Weaver: [00:06:57] So, I would, I wasn’t doing much. I would hold the sign, and Bernie would wave, and he would almost try to catch people’s like personal attention and wave to get a response back from them, but we didn’t want just waves because we didn’t count those because we were getting too many waves. It had to be a honk. Hence the name.
[00:07:16] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:07:16] You’re a purest.
[00:07:16] Jeff Weaver: [00:07:16] Honk-a-Mania. Well, you know every game has rules, and that was, those were the rules of Honk-a-Mania. Honks only. So, we did Honk-a-Mania a lot in ’86 and ’88. Yeah. It was a good…
[00:07:28] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:07:28] Good years.
[00:07:29] Jeff Weaver: [00:07:29] Those were the good years, when we were in our Honk-a-Mania prime.
[00:07:33] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:07:33] So, you’re someone who has dealt with the comic world, who has a comic business, a comic selling business. You’re obviously engaged with pop culture. You’re out here with these William Shatner, Boston Legal references. I mean, do you and the senator ever talk about movies or TV or does he have a favorite band?
[00:07:52] Jeff Weaver: [00:07:52] Yeah. Well, we’ve talked about comic books, actually.
[00:07:54] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:07:54] Really?
[00:07:55] Jeff Weaver: [00:07:55] Yeah, he and his brother used to collect comic books when they were in New York.
[00:07:58] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:07:58] Is he a Marvel or DC guy?
[00:08:00] Jeff Weaver: [00:08:00] He was a DC guy. I mean, well, I mean…
[00:08:02] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:08:02] That could be, whew.
[00:08:03] Jeff Weaver: [00:08:03] You know, back in the day it was, of course it was not Marvel. I don’t know how far down this rabbit hole you want to go, but it was timely before there was Marvel. And he was definitely a DC guy, and definitely he’s answered this question many times publicly, the Superman vs Batman question. Definitely Superman.
[00:08:18] Interviewer: [00:08:18] Who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman?
[00:08:20] Bernie Sanders: [00:08:20] Oh my goodness. No question, Superman all the way.
[00:08:23] Interviewer: [00:08:23] Why?
[00:08:24] Bernie Sanders: [00:08:24] Why? Because he has much more powers.
[00:08:26] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:08:26] Yeah, because I mean Batman’s the rich guy who just uses money to be a vigilante
[00:08:33] Jeff Weaver: [00:08:33] Right. You know, Superman is the interplanetary orphan who, you know, seemingly powerless, but, you know, actually a being of great power.
[00:08:43] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:08:43] Hmm, and you think that resonates for Bernie Sanders for particular reasons?
[00:08:48] Jeff Weaver: [00:08:48] I don’t know. I saw a program one time where they analogize Superman to the sort of FDR New Deal, coming in to break up local corruption. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But maybe that’s how it resonated.
[00:09:00] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:09:00] It’s hard to, without feeling I think invasive, to try to get to the core of what another person is like, right? Like as someone who’s your friend, you don’t want to be disclosing things that they’ve chosen obviously not to disclose. But I wonder how you feel about Bernie’s choice not to foreground his personal life and whether there have been moments where you felt like he should do more of that?
[00:09:27] Jeff Weaver: [00:09:27] The issue with Bernie, you know, this is an issue that Bernie has with the media actually, which he expresses publicly often.
[00:09:32] You know, the ideas that he expresses. I mean now they’re very popular. Everyone’s for Medicare for All, seemingly. Everybody’s for free tuition, you know, at public colleges and universities, and so on and so on and so forth, right. But for so long, decades and decades and decades, he was one of the only voices on these issues, and I think he really did not want to, what in his view would have been waste time that he has with people talking about himself when he could be talking about these particular issues. And you know given his success, maybe he was right.
[00:10:03] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:10:03] I think that’s right. I perhaps subscribe to a bit of the spoonful of sugar philosophy, where I do think a little pop culture and silliness can help the medicine go down.
[00:10:13] Jeff Weaver: [00:10:13] I agree with that. You know, I agree with that. I agree with that, but you know, I do think that, you know, he does take these issues very seriously, always has does feel like there is not enough discussion of them broadly speaking, and that he sort of alone has to fill that void in many ways.
[00:10:32] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:10:32] When you met, you said you had just been kicked out of college for apartheid protesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
[00:10:37] Jeff Weaver: [00:10:37] Sure, so, you know, this was in the 80s, and it was very busy time. I was in Boston at Boston University, which at that time the president of the University was a far right-wing guy named John Silber. There was a lot of anti-apartheid activity. He in fact was a supporter of the apartheid regime, frankly kind of unapologetic. And so, we tried to build a shanty town, which was a common sort of protest activity in that time period. And most universities when students built a shanty town and lived in it, they would just leave it up and knew that over some period of time it would go away. But that was not Boston University.
[00:11:12] So as soon as we started putting two pieces of wood together, the Boston University Police were there. They arrested a bunch of people. I was not initially arrested, and then a bunch of us blocked the police cars that had our counterparts in it.
[00:11:24] And then we were arrested. And actually, I knew a lot of the police officers because I worked at a local movie theater, and they did security after hours there. So, I knew many of them. It was a little bit of a small-time operation on their part. They ran out of handcuffs and zip ties. So, I was zip tied, but my friend with me in the back of the police car was not.
[00:11:46] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:11:46] He was just trusted on his own, released on his own recognizance, as they say.
[00:11:50] Jeff Weaver: [00:11:50] He was not. At that time, I was a young smoker, and I asked if I could smoke in the backseat, and he said fine, and so my friend held my cigarette in the back of the police car as we drove to the police station.
[00:11:59] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:11:59] So you were like Bernie Sanders, a young person with very kind of fully formed politics, it seems, who was acting on your beliefs in a way that a lot of us don’t do at least until we get a little bit older, and I’m curious whether that’s something that you and Sanders talked about or bonded over when you first met in Vermont.
[00:12:16] Jeff Weaver: [00:12:16] So, you know we talked about it some. He did not, I did not know the full extent of his own sort of civil rights background at that particular time.
[00:12:23] In fact, I learned a lot more about it in 2016 along with the rest of America because, despite all the time we spent together, you know, it really was not… I mean, he mentioned it a few times, but it was not a deep topic of conversation.
[00:12:36] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:12:36] Hm, so interesting.
[00:12:37] Jeff Weaver: [00:12:37] Yeah. He’s not really boastful in that sort of way. That’s just really not his style. You know, that was obviously a pivotal moment for him and his life. You know, he’s also spoken more recently about, you know, his Jewish heritage and the impact of the Holocaust on his family and himself emotionally.
[00:12:56] Bernie Sanders: [00:12:56] My father came from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, without knowing one word of English. He came to the United States to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. And it was a good thing that he came to this country because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism.
[00:13:34] Jeff Weaver: [00:13:34] You know, all of us are learning a little bit more about Bernie, and you know, I think it’s good. But I don’t think, I don’t think he’s ever going to move away from being a person whose primary focus is talking about policies that affect other people and not talking about himself.
[00:13:47] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:13:47] I want to bring in Chuck Rocha, another campaign senior advisor, and talk to you both a little bit about your experiences with Bernie more recently on these last couple of campaigns.
[00:14:00] Jeff Weaver: [00:14:00] Sounds great.
[00:14:07] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:14:07] So Chuck, you’re also a senior advisor. Can you tell people who might not be as familiar with your background a little bit about yourself?
[00:14:15] Chuck Rocha: [00:14:15] My background is pretty simple. I grew up in East Texas. Like every other redneck around East Texas. What they don’t realize and what a lot of your listeners won’t realize is that I sound like a really old white man from East Texas when I’m actually Mexican from East Texas.
[00:14:29] My mother is actually white. My father’s family is from Guanajuato, Mexico. My father left at a young age, and my mother’s father, my grandfather, who me and Jeff always talk about, who is my papaw, raised me. So, I was raised on a working farm. So I got to envision America in probably the most holistic way of any young man because I was raised a generation ago by a grandfather who drove a tractor every day, who worked in the fields every day, and those values is what I still hold close to me every day. And it’s actually the values that drew me to Bernie Sanders for the very first time, as somebody who works with their hands, somebody who’s been out there. Me and Jeff couldn’t be from more different parts of the country, literally on each end of the country, but we’re so similar because we grew up in such rural areas with such humble beginnings. And that’s what drove him to Bernie Sanders. That’s what made me be a part of Bernie Sanders, and being able to be a senior advisor with Jeff is like coming back home because you get to work with your family, you get to work for a value set that you really believe in.
[00:15:28] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:15:28] I just want to cut in to note that Chuck got into politics via his union, a path fewer and fewer people are taking as union membership is down from a high of nearly 35% of all wage and salary workers in 1954 to just 11% today. Note that there is a direct relationship between low union membership and the share of income which is going to the top 10%.
[00:15:54] Chuck Rocha: [00:15:54] I went to work in a factory when I was 19, joined the union by happenstance because everybody else did. Got active in the union. Became an officer of my local union when I was 22. Went on to become the national political director of one of the biggest industrial unions in North America, the steel workers.
[00:16:10] And that was the best job I ever had till I left 10 years ago to start my own firm.
[00:16:14] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:16:14] So Chuck, I want to ask you, how long ago did you meet Bernie?
[00:16:18] Chuck Rocha: [00:16:18] Bernie always loves to tell the story that it was in a Chinese restaurant like 15 years ago when I was the political director. And I was with the international president of the union. And he said this to me just like three weeks ago in a private meeting me and him were having. He was like, you remember when we first met? We were in a Chinese restaurant. He always says, we were in a Chinese restaurant. Because we were talking to Bernie probably about trade, probably about trying to save some manufacturing jobs. That’s normally what we were talking to Bernie about because he was such a champion for us, and he’d been a champion for our union, right? So, we would go to Bernie and have these private conversations to kind of strategize how we could save these American manufacturing jobs.
[00:16:53] He always would have input, but I was a young political director. Didn’t know who Bernie Sanders was, probably couldn’t have found Vermont on a map. And he was just, he just, we kind of had a special connection. At least that’s what he tells me. I’ve always felt close to Bernie. He’s like, I remember you then, and he said you were good then and you’re good now. And I’m like, well, I’ll take that any day.
[00:17:11] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:17:11] So do you remember anything about why you think it was you guys hit it off?
[00:17:15] Chuck Rocha: [00:17:15] I know because he reminds me of my grandfather. My grandfather was the strongest man I knew. Like he was a slight man. Like anybody who knows me for 30 seconds, I’m this big overgrown, boisterous Mexican, but my grandfather was this little white man who was tougher than me, was stronger than me, was meaner than me, and he could pick, he could pick two rows of peas to my one, and I was a 17 year old boy.
[00:17:36] That’s the way I look at Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is twice my age, but outworks me every day, has more energy than I will ever have, and I think that was the, was the, was the draw of like how is this man…
[00:17:47] Jeff Weaver: [00:17:47] Chuck, Chuck, don’t flatter yourself. He’s not twice your age.
[00:17:50] Chuck Rocha: [00:17:50] Oh my God, he’s not twice my age. He is quite older than me, but not twice my age, who can outwork me every single day.
[00:17:52] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:17:52] Having gotten such big personalities in the recording studio, I couldn’t resist asking Chuck and Jeff for some of their best Bernie stories from back in the day. But as it turns out there really isn’t a public and private Bernie. What you see is largely what you get.
[00:18:15] Chuck Rocha: [00:18:15] People think that somebody who’s been as successful and as popular to be honest as Bernie Sanders is, that he would be different than he is, but he’s really not, and he’s even more humble than he comes across on stage.
[00:18:27] I was with him, and Jeff wasn’t on this trip with me, in Las Vegas to speak to the machinists’ union just a couple weeks ago. When we were headed back to the airport, we had like three hours. And Bernie again, to the food thing, he’s like we should get something to eat before we go to the airport. And you’re in Los Vegas, right? You have the best food in the world, some of the best chefs in the world. I’m like, oh my gosh, we’re going to get a fancy hamburger somewhere, like, that’s going to be really good. And Bernie’s like, maybe we can find an IHOP. We’re in Los Vegas, and we’re now Googling the nearest IHOP, which in Las Vegas, just so you know, is only about a mile from the airport on the backside of the Las Vegas strip, again in the middle of the strip mall.
[00:19:05] So we walk into the IHOP with Bernie Sanders, rolling again like 10 people deep. And people again are like, oh my god, it’s Bernie Sanders. So, they were so kind to us. There were people waiting. They found us a table. We went sat. But the thing that all of us have seen happen on the road with him is the first thing is the manager comes over. Thank you for coming, and Bernie’s very humble like yeah, yeah, and he orders two eggs, two pieces of toast, and two pieces of bacon. Like it’s just that’s what he wants to have for breakfast.
[00:19:29] Jeff Weaver: [00:19:29] Well done. Well done.
[00:19:30] Chuck Rocha: [00:19:30] Well done. Yeah.
[00:19:31] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:19:31] No pancakes?
[00:19:32] Chuck Rocha: [00:19:32] Nope. Nope. Nope, but then the people from the back, right, like the folks who are working. That’s who Bernie wants to talk to. When they come out, he more so than the manager, who he respected and showed, you know, a lot of commonality with, but when the workers come out, he lights up. To Jeff’s point, that’s who he wants to hear from, that’s where he wants to hear the stories, right. And people are talking to him on his way out. They’re saying that they caucused for him last time, which me as a consultant are like, excuse me, let me ask you a few more questions. I’m trying to run my own little focus group. Right? But Bernie just wants to interact. He wants that one-on-one communication with regular people doing regular jobs who feel, like my granddaddy, that they have been forgotten about.
[00:20:06] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:20:06] It was heartening to hear that perspective from two people who had known Bernie Sanders for so long, that the authenticity we all love is consistent and perhaps even deeper than we imagine.
[00:20:19] Chuck Rocha: [00:20:19] We were looking at office space, and I remember walking into offices all over DC and Northern Virginia and places trying to find a place for us to set up a headquarters, right, and after like the third building, to Jeff’s credit, because he knows the senator, he pulled me to the side and he’s like, all of these places are just way too nice. We do not need a campaign office that’s got marble in the foyer. He’s like the senator will not like this. He goes, can you tell the real estate we want level C or D buildings? No As or Bs, and I just thought that was the best thing ever.
[00:20:59] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:20:59] But I was curious to talk to David Sirota to get a somewhat different perspective.
[00:21:04] It’s one thing to work alongside a person, but it’s another to try to capture his voice as a speechwriter. That requires a perceptiveness, a kind of close study that most of us don’t apply to the everyday people in our lives. What, I wondered, had David gleaned in both his professional capacity and in his personal relationship with the senator over the last couple of decades.
[00:21:29] David Sirota: [00:21:29] I’ve told people that Bernie is not like Ron Burgundy from Anchorman. I mean, you know, that scene in one of my favorite movies where they say don’t put that on the teleprompter because he’ll read anything off the teleprompter. Like that is not Bernie Sanders. That is not our speech writing process.
[00:21:50] Bernie still writes his speeches. I mean, in some ways the title speechwriter is a little bit of a misnomer in that it’s like speech supporter, like speech helper. What I try to do is, we have a set of speeches on this or that issue. I try to get him the information that he needs that he’s going to put into his own voice.
[00:22:13] I mean, I try to get it into his voice. But he’s got a very unique voice, he knows exactly how he wants to say things. So, I’m there to help get the research and the material that he needs to put into his voice. And the thing is, is that his speeches, if you listen to them, they are very fact-driven. I mean, it’s not a lot of rhetorical flourish. It’s not exactly a research paper, but like here are literal facts that I’m telling you about the country. And in a sense, it’s actually what we call in journalism, it’s showing not telling. And I think that that’s what he’s really focused on. It’s been successful for him.
[00:22:54] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:22:54] Can you talk a little bit about when you first met Senator Sanders and where your relationship started?
[00:22:58] David Sirota: [00:22:58] Sure, it was the year 1999. So, I was basically just out of college. I worked on a couple campaigns. And I had sent a resume, a bunch of resumes around to Capitol Hill, and back then they wouldn’t tell you who you were applying to. They would do these ads in like Roll Call and The Hill, and they would say, they would describe a congressperson, and they would say, you know, Northeastern Democrat or Western Republican or whatever. And I remember, so I send my resume all over Capitol Hill to a bunch of different offices, and I get a call from Jeff Weaver, and he says I’m calling from Congressman Bernie Sanders’ office, and I remember thinking in my mind, wait a minute, I don’t remember… thinking that, I’m not sure who that is. And then I looked him up, and he was the independent self-described democratic socialist from Vermont. And I said, wait a minute. I thought I had only applied to Democratic offices, and then I looked back at the ad and it was described as a, I think it was, a progressive Northeastern member. It wasn’t a Democratic Northeastern member.
[00:24:14] And so I go in and I meet with Jeff Weaver. To be honest, after I met with Bernie – and it was a great meeting – the night before… They offered me the job, and the night before I took the job, I remember thinking, what’s it going to be like to work for a self-described democratic socialist in Congress? Is it going to be, how is he going to be able to work with the Democrats? And is it going to be, you know, super isolating. And I will say it was it, you know, I kind of got over my fears and went to work for him, and it was one of the best experiences of my whole life because working in the Congress for an independent like Bernie is a completely unique experience.
[00:24:57] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:24:57] In what way?
[00:24:58] David Sirota: [00:24:58] In that you get to see the Congress and how it works from somebody who is something of an outsider as opposed to a just standard party guy. The whole office’s attitude was different. I mean, we worked, when I was there, we worked with very conservative members of Congress. We worked with very progressive members of Congress. Bernie was seen as somebody who worked well with other members of Congress, but also was seen as somebody who could forge these left-right coalitions. There were a bunch of articles in his 2016 campaign that were written about how he became what was called the amendment king of the House, which was where he would do these coalitions where he would have very conservative Republicans and very progressive Democrats coming together on a trans-partisan issue in a way that there was really no party.
[00:25:58] So, for example, the bus trips to Canada. I was on, I think it was the first bus trip that a member of Congress did to Canada with constituents to go purchase lower-priced prescription drugs. And that was an issue in which we had very conservative Republicans who were super free trade people with us, working with us on that drug importation issue, with very progressive members of Congress. That was a good example of that.
[00:26:27] Some people have caught on to the fact that he’s talking more about his personal story. And I think that’s a really important thing to do in that I think it’s important for the public to know that he’s not a machine. He’s not a robot. That what he is for comes out of a lived experience.
[00:26:46] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:26:46] Like me, David Sirota worked as a journalist before joining the campaign. A fact that not everyone has been super excited about. So, I wanted to pick his brain about that transition and how he’s handled the media response.
[00:27:01] David Sirota: [00:27:01] Moving out of journalism to come back to work for Bernie Sanders 20 years after I had worked for him was a difficult decision for me because I knew that I was leaving behind a set of skills that I had worked really hard to try to become good at, which is, you know, investigative journalism, and I think the reason I decided ultimately to do it was that I think that the country and the world is in a place right now, facing crises right now, that the most direct action possible to solve those crises is absolutely positively necessary in an immediate sense because of things like climate change and the economic crisis, and that given the opportunity to work in a very direct way on those things it was worth the sacrifice of leaving journalism.
[00:27:53] To be clear, not to say that journalism isn’t addressing those crises, but for me personally, this was an even more direct way to do it. And I did it, and you know, some people criticized me for that. I knew that was going to happen.
[00:28:04] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:28:04] Just a few.
[00:28:05] David Sirota: [00:28:05] Yeah, just a few people criticized me for that.
[00:28:07] But you know what? I don’t have any regrets. I mean, do I miss journalism every now and again? Yes. Do I like being criticized all the time because I went back to work for Bernie Sanders? No, I don’t like that. But you know what? I have young kids who are relying on us to actually solve the problems that threaten their future, and so if that’s the price of me trying to help with that cause, then that’s the price we pay.
[00:28:30] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:28:30] Yeah, I mean, I feel very similarly. I don’t obviously have the lengthy career that I was offering kind of up on the pyre as it were, but you know, what I reflected on was the fact that I was only a writer because I had started writing in response to the political context of 2016. I was an attorney sitting at my desk tweeting to my 100 followers about how angry I was and how I was being erased because, you know, I’m a black woman being called a Bernie Bro and told that I’m literally a fake person or that I’m a white person or that I’m a Russian bot and all these things. And then I started to write about that experience and write about the way that identity was being weaponized at that point in time, and then those articles took off. So, the idea that, at this point, you know, I was writing because of Bernie bias. Well, it’s like, I’m an opinion writer and my political perspective, which is that I am a supporter of left politics, has always been plain, and there’s this new kind of phenomenon with Twitter, with people’s personal politics kind of being out there more, particularly in the opinion writing realm, where you know, there’s an argument that I think that I believe in which says: everyone has biases, and there is a certain honesty to people being upfront about their politics so that readers have an opportunity to judge as they will how to credit the facts that you’re laying out for them. But for my personal decision-making was to say, if you’re only in this because your real agenda isn’t to be a writer or, you know, to have any career path, but to advance left politics because of the exigent circumstances that we live in that you just described, well then how could I not do anything and everything I could to advance this project? So. I’m certainly glad that you’re here.
[00:30:13] David Sirota: [00:30:13] I completely agree. I mean, the way to put it, the way I put it, is that going from journalism into the kind of politics that we’re working in now is not a conflict of interest. It’s an alignment of interest. In other words, why was I in journalism? It was to expose injustice. It was to expose corruption. It was to expose unfairness and to expose a rigged system. So, this campaign is in some ways a traditional political campaign running for an office, but it is a campaign about exposing correction, about challenging economic injustice.
[00:30:50] I don’t think it’s kind of like a U-turn or a betrayal. It’s just part of the work that’s being done, and I would agree with you on the other point, which is that, you’re right. Everybody has opinions. Everybody has biases. Nobody is objective. The minute a newspaper says this is the story we’re going to cover, and we’re not going to cover this story, that is a subjective, opinionated decision.
[00:31:14] I didn’t hide the fact that I had worked for Bernie Sanders when I was a journalist, and I guess my point is that, look, ultimately, the question is, whether you’re in politics or journalism, why are you in politics or journalism? Are you in there to see your byline in lights, are you in there too, you know, one day get some great job that you think will make you feel good, or are you in it to actually solve the problems, the emergencies that are at hand. And I think that’s what this campaign is really all about. I think that’s what Bernie Sanders has been all about. And I really don’t think there’s actually much of an argument that that’s not true.
[00:31:51] Briahna Joy Gray: [00:31:51] That’s it for this week. Let us know what you think at [email protected] or send us a tweet with the hashtag #HearTheBern. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to rate and review as on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, or wherever you’re listening. As always, transcripts will be up soon. Till next week.
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