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Even After Sanders' Plea, Vermont Delegation Struggles With Calls For Unity

Emily Alfin Johnson
Members of Vermont's delegation to the Democratic National Convention gather after the delegation's breakfast to discuss tensions, logistics and credentials for the day. Calls for unity have yeilded mixed results with the delegation.

Vermont’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention are in Philadelphia this week for the culmination of the 2016 presidential primary. But not all of them are going to be happy to witness the coronation of Hillary Clinton. Some Vermont delegates are struggling to pledge political allegiance to anyone other than Bernie Sanders.

It’s a rare sound: Bernie Sanders’ diehard supporters booing his message at a major speech. But in a massive ballroom in downtown Philadelphia shortly after noon on Monday, two words – Hillary Clinton – set off a chorus of jeers.

With the reality of his defeat now certain, Sanders pleaded with his supporters to hear him out on the case for voting for Clinton.

But the crowd persisted. Not Hillary, they said. Certainly not now. And for many, perhaps not ever. “Our reaction – I think we made ourselves pretty clear that we would not accept that,” says Ashely Andreas, a 23-year-old Vermont delegate from Wilder, who was in the ballroom for Sanders’ remarks.

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Andreas is among the Sanders supporters who believe that in many respects, Clinton’s campaign is indistinguishable from the one run by her Republican rival Donald Trump.

“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,” she says.

The undeniable passion that gave rise to Sanders’ remarkable rise might now be enhancing the bitterness of his electoral defeat.

Credit Emily Alfin Johnson / VPR
Throughout Monday evening's speakers, members of the Vermont delegation were not shy their support for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

While the sentiments expressed by delegates like Andreas are attracting media attention here in Philadelphia, the Bernie-or-bust mentality isn’t representative of all, or even most of Sanders’ supporters.

Mary Sullivan is Vermont’s incoming committeewoman to the Democratic National Committee.

“It’s really time to unify the party now,” says Sullivan, sitting in Vermont’s section at the Wells Fargo Center Monday night. “Trump absolutely needs to be defeated.”

The Wells Fargo Center holds nearly 20,000 people. It’s home turf for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers and NBA's 76ers. When the teams are away or in the offseason, it’s a popular stop for musical tours like Adele, Drake, Barbra Streisand and AC/DC.

"What we have is Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and those are our two choices. And we've got to keep the movement going." — Mary Sullivan, Vermont's incoming committeewoman to the Democratic National Committee

Which is fitting, since the Democratic National Convention is sort of a garish mashup of sporting event and rock concert. Fans arrive decked out in their candidate-branded hats, shirts and, in some cases, even capes. They raise convention-approved signs almost on cue to signal their support for the hero of the hour.

Sullivan says she’s supported Sanders since the beginning of his campaign. But she says the sensible strategy now is to join up with Hillary’s team, at least when it comes to voting in the general election.

“What we have is Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and those are our two choices. And we’ve got to keep the movement going,” Sullivan said.

Credit John Locher / AP
After remarks from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, First Lady Michelle Obama and Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage Monday night to thunderous applause from the crowd in the Wells Fargo Center.

Bernie Sanders made precisely the same case himself on the convention floor during his speech late Monday night. Entering to the Simon and Garfunkel song, “America,” that was the musical backdrop to his campaign’s touchstone television ad, Sanders told supporters that their work on his behalf had already yielded progressive victories.

Then he again implored them to turn their energy now to securing victory for Hillary Clinton, lest Trump win the presidency.

Noah Detzer, a White River Junction resident and Vermont delegate, still wasn’t having it.

“He has to say that in a sense, And I’m not under the same obligation,” Detzer says.

Detzer says he understands entirely the folly of voting for Trump.

“But it’s a question of why should we get behind Hillary,” Detzer says. “What is about her that really deserves out support? And I think she has yet to make that case and that’s why we’re seeing this little bit of contention.”

Credit Alfin Johnson / VPR
After a long day Monday, members of the Vermont delegation gather early Tuesday morning for breakfast with the Maine and New Hampshire delegations.

There’s a buffet-style group breakfast for the Vermont delegation, where waffles, pancakes, scrambled eggs and link sausages are served every morning at 7:30 a.m. It’s inside a Wyndham motel conference center a few miles away from the Philadelphia airport, amid a cluster of chain hotels where many of the Vermont delegates are staying.

There were some tired eyes Tuesday morning – delegates didn’t arrive back from the convention center until after midnight Monday. But there’s evidence that the experience in Philadelphia is already reshaping at least some delegates’ views.

"I was kind of on the fence, like I was going back and forth between being maybe Bernie-or-bust or supporting Hillary. But after hearing what Bernie had to say yesterday, I'm going to feel less guilty to support Hillary." — Aster O'Leary, Vermont delegate

At 18, Aster O’Leary is the youngest Vermont delegate. The Hinesburg teenager has been listening closely to both sides of the argument. And despite her strident support for Sanders’ campaign over the last year, she says has a new plan for November.

“I was kind of on the fence, like I was going back and forth between being maybe Bernie-or-bust or supporting Hillary. But after hearing what Bernie had to say yesterday, I’m going to feel less guilty to support Hillary,” O’Leary said.

With the nomination decided, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders now hope that more of the Vermont senator’s supporters will do the same.

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

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