Bring It On
Meet Al Giordano, the Man Who Wants to Take Bernie Down
Longtime journalist and blogger Al Giordano thinks Sanders is tearing the Democratic Party apart. In 2018, he’s running against him.
Nearly zero odds of defeating an entrenched Washington politician? Check.
Little chance of Democratic Party support? Double check! A decades-old history of lefty activism that casts him as a hippie-turned-politico? Check, check, and check again.
So why would he do it? Because in Giordano’s view, and that of his social media supporters, Bernie is losing ugly and hurting Democrats’ chances of prevailing against Donald Trump in November.
“I mean, what haven’t they touched?” Giordano asks, peering at me via a 6-by-4 inch Skype window from his home in Mexico City. “What part of the Obama coalition have they not alienated? It’s like they want to erase the coalition.”
Giordano is referring not to Sanders himself, but to his most fervent online followers, who have blasted away at everyone from John Lewis to Delores Huerta to Elizabeth Warren, and most recently Barney Frank, for failing to support Bernie’s “political revolution,” or worse, for backing Hillary Clinton, who is loathed by a swath of the Sanders faithful. Giordano says he blames Sanders for the vituperative tendencies of his shock troops, and for failing to talk them down.
The 56-year-old Giordano presents as a combative Hillary Clinton supporter, but he didn’t vote absentee for her (or for anyone) in the April 19 primary in his home state of New York. He vocally backed and voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but has only voted for president one other time in 20 years: for Bill Clinton in 1996.
“For me this is not about Hillary Clinton, who has her strengths and she has her flaws,” he says. “This is about a coalition that has saved the United States and can keep saving it, and this is what needs to be protected. And so maybe it’s time for the Obama coalition to go to Vermont.”
I first noticed Giordano when his tweets began popping up, rapid fire, in my Twitter feed, during Sanders’ April rally that drew 18,000 people in the South Bronx ahead of the state’s primary. Giordano, a Bronx native whose parents were organizers in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx in the 1960s, and who tweets frequently to his 8,500 or so followers in English and sometimes in Spanish, took to Twitter to let the Senator (follower count: 2.4 million…) have it.
“I felt that he was using the south Bronx as a prop,” Giordano says. “Not a single person from the south Bronx was mentioned from that stage [or] given a speaking role. Nothing [was said] about the history of the neighborhood and how it picked itself up by the bootstraps and cleaned itself up when the state, federal and city authorities would do nothing. And this is a guy who’s saying he’s got a movement, who is a democratic socialist, but is completely ignoring what was going on there. And I knew at that moment that the people in the neighborhood would just roll their eyes and vote against him. Which is exactly what happened. The Bronx was the best percentages in New York State for the Clinton campaign.”
Giordano, a bearded, graying, former reporter with the Boston Phoenix alternative weekly, cut his teeth as an anti-nuclear protester in the early 1980s while living in Rowe, a small Massachusetts town bordering Vernon, Vermont. When he wasn’t filing for the Phoenix, he spent his time protesting the twin nuclear power plants on either side of the state border: Yankee Rowe and Vermont Yankee. And he became close friends with the late leftie activist and anarchist Abbie Hoffman. He has spent the last 19 years in Mexico, where he runs an online newsletter, Narco News, and a school that trains journalists to cover social movements. His claim to fame is winning a First Amendment case against the Banco Nacional de México, which sued him, a Mexican reporter and Narco News for libel over a series of stories claiming a bank official was in league with Central American drug cartels.
Giordano recalls being an early Bernie Sanders supporter.
“I did support him when he first ran for [Burlington] mayor,” he says of Sanders. “I did support him when he first ran for Congress, and then the year he won. I supported him as a journalist and got my newspaper to endorse him.” But he says he cooled to Sanders after the Newt Gingrich-led “Republican revolution” takeover of the House in the 1994 midterm elections. Back then, Sanders was still distancing himself from Democrats, including liberal stalwarts like Barney Frank and Steny Hoyer, who were, in Giordano’s words, “giving Gingrich hell.”
Giordano can be glib. He waves off Sanders’s collegiate activism with the civil rights group CORE as what all the hip, young, white lefties were doing in the ’60s. Still, he says that era taught the country about the power of grassroots organizing, something he says the Sanders campaign has failed at.
“I was tweeting back in August when the ‘Bernie Stans’ were yelling at Black Lives Matter advocates: train your troops, Senator,” he says. “These white progressives are the only people that never got that training.”
Giordano says the Sanders team did hold one training session in New Hampshire, in the early days of the campaign: “They involved some friends of mine in it. They created a manual. And then they didn’t do anything else in any other state. The campaign can’t claim it didn’t have the resources to do it. It’s not that expensive.”
Giordano says he plans to open an “organizing academy in Vermont so that people can finally get the training that the Sanders campaign wouldn’t give them.” He says he’ll model it on the “Camp Obama” boot camps for young organizers in 2007 and 2008 designed by Marshall Ganz, who organized California farm workers with Cesar Chavez during the 1960s.
“We use this model in the School of Authentic Journalism too,” he says, touting his Mexico City school and its more than 500 graduates, whom he calls potential “ground troops” for his would-be campaign.
Giordano is confident he can raise enough money to run, via small dollar, online contributions, Bernie and Obama-style. And he notes that Vermont isn’t exactly an expensive media market, which makes the idea of raising enough cash to compete with Sanders attainable, even if the national and state Democratic parties continue their 20-year tradition of either supporting Sanders’ independent runs outright, or declining to back a Democratic challenger.
But he says his best asset will be his ability to work with the Democratic coalition. “To work with the coalition you’ve got to be a contributing, positive member of it,” he says, in a bit of unabashed shade throwing. “And I think after this campaign, Vermont is gonna be ready for that.”
Or not. Sanders remains popular in the nation’s most liberal state, where he decimated Hillary Clinton 86 percent to 14 percent in the March 1 primary. Seasoned politicos see a race against the Senator as futile. Barney Frank’s response when I asked for his view was that it doesn’t sound like “a good use of anybody’s time.”
Still, Giordano is undaunted. “Everything that’s different about Bernie is just as different about me,” he says, adding that in many ways, he is to Sanders’s left, “and not just on guns.” He reels off a string of issues where he says Vermont could use a more effective grassroots movement: from black motorists in the state being five times more likely to be pulled over than white motorists, to the fact that the state legislature recently rejected a bid to legalize marijuana.
And while those are state, not federal issues, Giordano says he believes they can be addressed by unleashing a slew of newly trained organizers and activists in the state.
“I’ve got those bases covered, but I just get along with people better,” he says, contrasting himself to the notoriously prickly Senator.
As for the important detail of his not living in Vermont at the moment, Giordano cites the state’s liberal residency laws, and New England’s long tradition of accepting out-of-staters, from the Kennedys to Sanders himself. He says he would mount a “listening tour” of the state, and reconnect with old friends from his anti-nukes organizing days. “Just let Jeff Weaver try and call me a carpetbagger,” he snarks.
Giordano says the one thing that would stop him from running would be if Sanders changes his tone and makes a serious effort at unifying the party and bringing his supporters around in time for the Democratic National Convention.
If he does wind up running, Giordano insists he can win, despite the prognostications of seasoned Vermont political hands, whose responses to my queries ranged from “absolutely not” to “no chance” that Sanders can be defeated.
Chatting over Skype in his Mexico City home, the man who would be Bernie’s Bernie is unfazed. “I think some of the successes that the Sanders campaign has had have shown that the electorate doesn’t just give it to you because it’s your turn or you’re already there,” he says. “Nobody is safe from a more creative challenger, who can compete in the money and organizing department.”
And while he still calls his bid exploratory, Giordano has changed his Twitter header to read: “Al Giordano. Vermont. 2018. Bring it on.”