Sanders campaign field director speaks to students


Ian Major

Phil Fiermonte

Students in Johnson State College’s campaigns and elections course, instructed by long-time State Senator Bill Doyle, had the opportunity to have a round robin discussion with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign field director, Philip Fiermonte, on Sep. 12.

Fiermonte has worked on a number of Sanders’ campaigns and served as the state director in the senator’s Vermont office. He is a former Burlington City Council member and attended the University of Vermont. Fiermonte was the executive director of the American Federation of Teachers in Vermont and has worked for Sanders for nearly 16 years.

As the discussions began, Fiermonte was asked about Sanders’ campaign and how it managed to become as successful as it did. “One of the things that typified Bernie’s campaign was our rallies. We started in Burlington with roughly 6,000 people,” said Fiermonte. “We then started drawing larger numbers like Trump and everybody else, and the media had to pay attention to us. They couldn’t ignore that.”

Fiermonte noted that, in a lot of cases, they had to find another facility or outdoor area because they were always exceeding capacity. “We had many crowds with over 10,000 people,” said Fiermonte. “We ended up having 28,000 when we visited Los Angeles.”

When asked about what might have happened if Sanders had run as an Independent as opposed to entering the Democratic primary, Fiermonte noted that the decision had to be made early on. “He decided that the best way to advance his ideas and agenda to win would be to do it through the Democratic primary,” said Fiermonte. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t have received much attention until after the primaries, and by then everything would have been kind of written up.”

Fiermonte noted that if Sanders didn’t end up winning, he would never run as a third-party candidate like Ralph Nader did in 2000, which would take votes away from the Democrat and help elect whoever the Republican nominee might be. “He is a pretty principled guy, and that’s what he committed to and he still believes that,” said Fiermonte.

In terms of possible media coverage, if Sanders would have chosen to run as an Independent, Fiermonte said that Sanders definitely made the right decision to run as a Democrat. “It certainly wasn’t a media silence, but if you compare Trump to Bernie in the first three months of the election, Bernie got a lot less coverage,” said Fiermonte. “I think that if he had chosen to run as an Independent, he would still be trying to prove that he is a viable candidate.”

When asked what the Sanders campaign could have done differently, Fiermonte noted that he thinks a different approach to African American outreach might have been something to focus on more. “I think we were doing well with young African Americans at the end and of our campaign, and better with the older demographic as well,” said Fiermonte. “One of the main reasons I don’t think we did well in the South is due to Bill Clinton’s popularity among the African American community. They saw him as a great friend when he was president.”

Fiermonte said that it would have also helped if they had put more focus on doing something different with super delegates, and making that a bigger effort at the beginning of the campaign to try to prevent them from all going over to Clinton.

“We started out with over 750 of them backing her,” said Fiermonte. “It’s like starting a baseball game and you are already behind 15 to nothing. It makes it hard for people to believe you can win when you are already so far behind.”

That being said, Fiermonte noted that they knew from the beginning that it wasn’t really fair and the scale was tilted in Clinton’s direction. “She is a part of the Democratic Party establishment and we are not,” said Fiermonte. “Bernie is not a part of that club and they were pretty determined to make sure Clinton won.”

This was Sanders’ first national campaign, Fiermonte noted, and that was the biggest challenge his team faced. “We would have thousands of people applying for the positions that we needed good people to fill,” said Fiermonte. “We really had to start from scratch, putting together a team, developing a website and coming up with fundraising strategies.”

Fiermonte said that looking at the numbers now is daunting. “We figured that if we could raise 40 or 50 million dollars then we could be competitive,” said Fiermonte. “We ended up raising over $200 million, and I think we revolutionized how you can raise money for a presidential campaign.”

Fiermonte noted that the campaign didn’t take any corporate money and that Bernie essentially spent no time fundraising. “Clinton spends a good amount of her time raising money,” said Fiermonte.

When asked about the closed door meeting with Clinton at the end of Sanders’ campaign, Fiermonte said that it was mainly about proposals around higher education and she agreed to Bernie’s proposal that all public colleges and universities would be tuition-free.

“Her caveat was that it would be for families that make under $125,000 a year,” said Fiermonte. “We didn’t have that in ours, but she was able to go along with that.”

The two also talked about healthcare, Fiermonte said. “The availability of a public option to all Americans was a big deal, doubling the funding for community health centers, which has been a major priority for Sanders which he committed to,” said Fiermonte. “She moved a long ways towards our position and those two major issues: healthcare and education.”

The funniest thing that Fiermonte experienced during the campaign occurred in a diner in Iowa. “We were having dinner after a rally and somebody overheard Bernie speaking,” said Fiermonte. He said that the individual came over to them saying how the voice sounded like Bernie Sanders, but that it couldn’t really be him.

The man then offered to bet $1,000 against Sanders claiming to be himself, to which Sanders shook his hand in agreement. Fiermonte said the guy walked away convinced that it couldn’t be Sanders.

Sanders then went up and pulled out his wallet and showed him his driver’s license and the guy was ecstatic and wrote out a check for $1,000. Sanders then said that he was just kidding around, and the man still insisted, saying that he could afford it and that he really supported the senator.

“This is a true story and that is the funniest thing I can remember,” said Fiermonte.
When all was said and done, Fiermonte said that people need to appreciate what they were up against and that the question is, how did Bernie do so well?

“The media establishment labeled him as a socialist and that alone is a huge challenge,” said Fiermonte. “What Bernie was able to do with his sheer force of personality was to get people to listen to his ideas and not focus on the label, which was incredible.”

Fiermonte noted that the media and Democratic establishments were totally shocked that Bernie caught on like he did. “The Sanders campaign will go down in history,” Fiermonte said. “We were able to dominate the agenda.”