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Despite DNC Calls For 'Unity', Many Vermont Delegates Are Still Resisting Clinton

Emily Alfin Johson
As festivities got underway Monday, the Vermont delegation settled into their area on the the first few rows of raised seating in the Wells Fargo Center, referred to as "The Floor."

“Unity” seems to be the one-word mantra that Democratic National Committee officials are using to frame this week’s national convention in Philadelphia. But many Vermont delegates aren’t ready to hold political hands with their party’s presumptive nominee quite yet.

“This is kind of a Zen thing for me, and I have this moment – this is all I got. And at this moment I don’t know what I’m going to do,” says Jo Sabel Courtney, a Vermont delegate from Stowe.

Sabel Courtney offered those thoughts immediately after Bernie Sanders addressed thousands of his pledged delegates inside a massive ballroom in downtown Philadelphia shortly after noon on Monday.

Sanders told an adoring crowd that their support for his candidacy has given legitimacy to ideas formerly dismissed as the socialist rants of a fringe candidate.

Whether it’s universal health care, publicly financed college education, or a $15 minimum wage, Sanders said his campaign, and the people powering it, have put a progressive agenda at the forefront of Democratic politics.

"This is kind of a Zen thing for me, and I have this moment — this is all I got. And at this moment I don't know what I'm going to do." — Jo Sabel Courtney, a Vermont delegate

“We have made history,” Sanders said. “We’re not fringe players anymore. We have shown the entire world that our ideas are not some crazy wild utopian fantasies. They are ideas supported by working people from one end of this country to the other.”

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Perhaps Sanders' most important message however, as it relates to this week at least, was this: in order to defeat Donald Trump, his supporters need to vote for Hillary Clinton. Upon hearing her name, the crowd booed, loudly.

Sanders pleaded with them to stop, urging his “brothers and sisters” to consider her merits.

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
While many delegates are prepared to unify behind Hillary Clinton, there are some, including members of Vermont's delegation, who just cannot find their way to Clinton. Ashley Andreas, who proudly displays her Sanders tattoo on her chest, is one of them.

But for many people in the room it was to no avail. Among the delegates voicing their disapproval was Vermonter Ashley Andreas, a 23-year-old resident of Wilder.

Andreas says it’s Sanders that has the political force to defeat Trump, not Clinton.

“This country is sick and tired of establishment politicians lying to our faces, playing games with our economy, and bailing out Wall Street bankers while we suffer,” Andreas says.

For other Vermonters, the transition from Sanders to Clinton is proving more navigable.

Anthony Iarrapino isn’t a delegate here, but the Montpelier lawyer was one of Sanders’ picks to serve on the party’s Standing Committee on Rules, which met Saturday to hammer out a compromise resolution over the issue of superdelegates.

Since it became apparent that Sanders wouldn’t have the delegates needed to overtake Clinton for the nomination, Iarrapino says he’s been pondering his next political step. For him, the issue is less about embracing Clinton than it is about avoiding the alternative.

“I would put it this way – I’m working to make sure Donald Trump does not become president. That’s what I’m working for,” Iarrapino says. “And if that means supporting the Democratic Party in defeating Donald Trump, then that’s what I’ll do. But that’s how I look at it in my head. I’m not supporting Hillary Clinton, I am working to make sure Donald Trump does not become president and that we do not slide into fascism.”

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
Anthony Iarrapino, a lawyer from Montpelier, came to Philadelphia to serve on the party's Standing Committee on Rules. Iarrapino says his focus now is on making sure Trump is defeated in November.

Matt Birong, a delegate from Vergennes, also invokes the fear of what he says is Trump’s radical right-wing ideology when explaining his next moves in the 2016 presidential race.

Birong says his choice in the voting booth this November has always been in the hands of Sanders.

“I am standing tall next to Senator Sanders as long as he wants us to,” Birong says. “When he wants us to unify the party, I take my cues from him. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the boss.”

"I am standing tall next to Senator Sanders as long as he wants us to. When he wants us to unify the party, I take my cues from him. As far as I'm concerned, he's the boss." — Matt Birong, Vermont delegate

Now that Sanders has called for coalescing behind a unity candidate, Birong says he’ll try to help Sanders’ supporters understand the logic behind Sanders’ appeal.

“You put a picture of Hillary on the table and you put a picture of Donald Trump on the table, and you’ve got to ask yourself a question – what are we better off with? It’s not what you wanted as an end result, but at the end of the day you’re given a choice between the two. Where are you going to go with that?”

The chaos of convention logistics rears its head periodically here in Philadelphia, where even organizers sometimes seem confused.

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
Matt Birong is a member of the Vermont Delegation. Birong says now the election comes down to a choice, not of a favorite candidate, but between the two options that will receive the nomination.

The Vermont delegation is housed mostly in a small cluster of chain hotels off an uninspired stretch of I-95 a few miles away from the Philadelphia airport. A conference center inside the Wyndham served as ground zero for group breakfasts and morning pep talks in advance of the beginning of the convention later today.

But delegates eager to leave early so they could head downtown to attend convention workshops, including one on Sanders’ plan on Medicare-for-all, were thwarted by a policy that prevents delegates from getting their daily credentials until after the breakfast session.

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During a post-breakfast huddle with the delegation, Vermont Democratic Party Chairwoman Dottie Deans told delegates she shares their frustration.

“We’re going to do our very, very best to make sure that you’re all taken care of. Delegates come first,” Deans said. "Nobody really knows exactly what’s happening. I just found out about the change for Bernie’s meeting 15 minutes ago, so this is sort of what happens. Too many people organizing becomes disorganization.”

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
Members of the Vermont delegation meet after Monday's breakfast to discuss logistics for the first day and for the convention as a whole. Credentials are tightly regulated and delegates are cautioned against misplacing their passes for the day. State party officials will not be able to replace them.

Logistics have been challenging for everybody. But they were particularly serious for one member of the Vermont delegation.

“As you can see I’m in a wheelchair, and so I am dealing with a lot of ADA issues right now,” says Maria Rinaldi, referring to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Rinaldi says she travels in an RV “completely outfitted for my care,” which she needs to undergo every five to six hours. Rinaldi, a Jericho resident, was told that security issues would bar her from bringing her RV to the downtown Wells Fargo Center, where the major events of the convention will take place, or to any of the satellite facilities hosting workshops and speeches, notably one from Bernie Sanders to his delegates early this afternoon.

Heavy traffic means it takes about an hour to get from the airport hotels to the downtown, making it logistically impossible for Rinaldi to go back and forth multiple times over the course of the day. But she says she was assured by convention officials that facilities would be available downtown to accommodate her needs.

“And I am scrambling today because none of [those accommodations] has been made,” Rinaldi says. “I am not sure how much I’m going to be able to participate in today or this week.”

Rinaldi says the unexpected development was particularly upsetting given that she’s spent a good deal of time securing assurances that the facilities she needs would be available.

Vermont Democratic Party officials were able to work with the DNC and Secret Service authorities to secure passage for Rinaldi’s rig. She made it to the convention by mid-afternoon Monday, but, due to accessibility shortcomings in the Wells Fargo Center, was unable to join her fellow Vermont delegates in their assigned zone on the convention floor.

"There's a lot of tight security, so we're going to be asking you to be very respectful. We're representing Vermont here, we don't want to have to take anything away from you." — Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party

Maintaining order is top of mind for many people responsible for running the operation, including Vermont Democratic Party Executive Director Conor Casey.

As delegates prepared to leave their hotel and make their way to down Philadelphia, he issued a warning.

“We can’t do nay shenanigans on the floor or anything,” Casey said. “People are going to be watching. There’s a lot of tight security, so we’re going to be asking you to be very respectful. We’re representing Vermont here, we don’t want to have to take anything away from you.” Casey finished on a hopeful note.

A vertical blue sign with white text that says Vermont at the 2016 Democratic National Convention among a crowd of people.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
The official sign at the Vermont delegation's assigned area in the Wells Fargo Center. The majority of the delegates are seated together under this sign, while Maria Rinaldi, a wheelchair-bound delegate, is seated in another part of the arena. Alternates are also seated further from the floor.

“I know we’ve sometimes disagreed on how to go about things,” he said. “But I don’t doubt anyone’s commitment here.”

Sanders' speech on the convention floor is the main event Monday night. But for many of the Vermonters here this week, it’s Hillary Clinton whose address will be most consequential. Even Andreas says she’s at least willing to listen.

“I think it’ll be interesting to hear her talk in person, and hear what she has to say and feel the vibes and the energy around her, because so far it’s felt like she’s just saying what we want to hear,” Andreas says. Andreas says she’s looking “for some moment of her being a genuine person and really talking about the issues. She says earning her vote “would take a lot from her.”

Other Vermonters might be more movable.

“I have to hear and see her this week,” says Sobel Courtney.

She feels “an amazing energy” at the convention this week, and will be looking for ways to harness it.

“We’ve got four days or a lot of speeches and a lot of process to go through, and at the end of this I’ll have a pretty good idea,” Courtney says. “But we're right at the beginning.”

Vermont delegate Noah Detzer, a member of a group called Upper Valley Young Liberals, says he too is struggling with the prospect of voting for Clinton. But he says booing her on the convention floor, or any other shows of outward hostility, won't aid the Sanders' cause. Even if all of the Clinton and Sanders supporters can't find common ground, Detzer says he hopes they can respect each other as they try to get there.

Funding for VPR's reporting from the presidential conventions is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.

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