The “Bernie Bus” is coming. A bright red charter bus plastered with an image of the Vermont senator among a sea of nurses is expected to cross the California state line in early May.
The billboards are already here. Drivers see a silhouette of Bernie Sanders’ unkempt white head of hair and glasses with a checklist of his stances on jumbo-sized ads along Auburn Boulevard outside Carmichael, Highway 50 and Interstate 80.
Both types of political advertisements bear the name of the same sponsor: National Nurses United.
The union, representing some 185,00 nurses, is enthusiastically supporting Sanders over Hillary Clinton. Thus far, the NNU has spent $2.6 million on an independent campaign to support his Democratic bid for the presidency.
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The nurses have driven the Bernie Bus across the country, stopping at college campuses, hospitals and events alongside the candidate in state after state. Now it’s California’s turn.
We would have loved to break the glass ceiling. But first we have to shatter the ‘class ceiling’ with Bernie Sanders.
RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and California Nurses Association
It might seem curious that a union dominated by women – 90 percent of members are female – has chosen the male candidate in the race. The nurses union has been solidly behind Sanders’ campaign since August. His support of single-payer health care, calls to ban fracking and “tax the rich” approach are driving their agenda.
“We would have loved to break the glass ceiling,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and California Nurses Association. “But first we have to shatter the ‘class ceiling’ with Bernie Sanders.”
The union’s failure to back Clinton over Sanders is a blow to her campaign, but also in line with past endorsements. United American Nurses and the American Nurses Association supported Barack Obama over Clinton back in 2008.
National Nurses United was formed the following year, pooling members of the California Nurses Association, National Nurses Organizing Committee, United American Nurses, and Massachusetts Nurses Association. NNU endorsed Obama in 2012, citing a shared belief about standing up to Wall Street and deep concerns about Mitt Romney.
Nurses have been behind Sanders’ campaigns in Vermont for the past 20 years, DeMoro said. Clinton does have the endorsement of the American Nurses Association, a professional organization that nurses have the option to join.
They are a militant operation. They go in and it’s full-throttle, no-holds-barred campaigning. They raise a ruckus.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a speech writer for former Gov. Pete Wilson
The union has a history of using aggressive tactics against its foes. Nurses campaigned hard for Gov. Jerry Brown in 2010 and fiercely opposed his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, whom they portrayed as a costumed “Queen Meg” and protested outside her home. When former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger crossed them by suspending portions of a law to limit the number of patients assigned to each nurse, the union declared war, crashing his events and heckling him.
“They are a militant operation,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson.
Whalen said the union takes advantage of the white hat the profession wears in society, leverage also held by firefighters or teachers.
“They go in and it’s full-throttle, no-holds-barred campaigning,” he said. “They raise a ruckus. They bang drums. They show up and get attention. They have the ability to drive a message home.”
Consultants say it’s difficult to determine if the union’s support has paid off for Sanders in other states. The Sanders camp, on the other hand, thinks the union’s on-the-ground work has boosted the campaign.
“They’ve definitely helped,” said Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs. “They are in a profession that is beloved by Americans all over the country.”
NNU campaigned for Sanders in nearly every state that has held caucuses or primaries, said union spokesman Charles Idelson. Clad in the union’s signature red shirts, the nurses speak with voters, conduct phone banks, canvass the state and do social media outreach, he said.
The union paid for billboards in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Idelson said. Sanders lost in every state except New Hampshire. Billboards are also up in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, which vote later this month. California weighs in on June 7.
“When we get to California, it’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen,” DeMoro promised. “We’ll be everywhere he is.”
In a state the size of California, few endorsements alone move the needle, and most voters have already made up their minds at this point, said Katie Merrill, founder of the California-based political consulting firm The Merrill Strategy Group.
In this situation, it’s perfect for exciting Sanders’ base of support and reminding them to vote. It’s about generating visibility.
Katie Merrill, founder of the California-based political consulting firm The Merrill Strategy Group
But Merrill and Whalen agree that the union’s grass-roots tactics – billboards, buses, T-shirts and other on-the-ground work – may drive pro-Sanders voters to the polls to help him win delegates in key congressional districts.
“In this situation, it’s perfect for exciting Sanders’ base of support and reminding to vote,” Merrill said of the billboards the union is paying for across the state. “It’s about generating visibility.”
The union is an advocate for Sanders’ single-payer health plan, in which health insurance would be administered by the government and funded by taxes.
Sanders has routinely called out high deductibles and co-pays under the Affordable Care Act and says his plan would lower skyrocketing health care costs by allowing the government to negotiate prices for services on behalf of patients.
“One out of five Americans cannot afford the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe,” Sanders said in a Democratic debate on March 9. “Elderly people are cutting their pills in half. I do believe that we should do what every other major country on earth does, and I think when the American people stand up and fight back, yes, we can have it, a Medicare-for-all system.”
Clinton has remained loyal to Obamacare and plans to offset out-of-pocket costs with tax credits.
“Between the Republicans trying to repeal the first chance we’ve ever had to get to universal health care, and Senator Sanders wanting to throw us into a contentious debate over single-payer, I think the smart approach is build on and protect the Affordable Care Act,” Clinton said in the same debate. “Make it work. Reduce the cost.”
The union also agrees with Sanders’ opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, an extension to a system of oil pipes stretching from Canada to southern Texas, and his hard stance on fracking. DeMoro said the nurses are concerned about health effects of the practice.
When asked about fracking in an earlier debate, Clinton said she doesn’t support the practice in three instances: If the state or local community is against it, if it releases methane or contaminates water and if companies don’t disclose the chemicals they use.
“So, by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” Clinton said. “And I think that’s the best approach, because right now, there (are) places where fracking is going on that are not sufficiently regulated.”
Sanders had no conditions.
“My answer is a lot shorter,” he said. “No, I do not support fracking.”