Susan Cropper cast her vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Two years later, on a Friday afternoon in October, she traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, to tell her story to Bernie Sanders.
Seated in a small conference room, with cameras rolling and reporters watching, she explained that after 31 years at United Technologies Corp., a manufacturing company Trump promised to save, she lost her job. Now, Cropper said, she lives off credit cards. And every now and then, she’ll pick up free 10-pound bags of potatoes at the local food bank.
“It's humiliating,” she said. “I’ve spent my whole life being a giver. I give to organizations. I’ve never had to use these services before. I’ve never had credit card debt in my life…”
Cropper burst into tears.
"Every time I turn around, somebody is just kickin' me. Just kicking me down,” she said.
At the head of the table, nodding in silence, the 77-year-old Vermont senator listened to one story like this after another from a group of laid-off workers who told him they felt betrayed by Trump’s promises. Events like the small gathering — organized by a progressive labor group called Good Jobs Nation — will now be the focus of a new push by Sanders allies to win over voters like Cropper in states that were key to Trump’s victory.
This month, Good Jobs Nation officials migrated to Sanders’ own political group, Our Revolution, to help build a shadow organizing campaign in the Midwest as the senator makes the case that he is the best candidate to beat Trump in states like Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Joseph Geevarghese, who founded Good Jobs Nation in 2007 and has focused the group’s work on low-wage workers, offshoring, and federal contracts, stepped in as Our Revolution’s new executive director this month, bringing with him three colleagues. One of them, Mike Oles, is now serving as Our Revolution’s first national field director — to be based in Indianapolis.
Our Revolution, founded by Sanders as a vehicle for his national movement after he ended his first bid for the Democratic nomination, cannot legally coordinate with his presidential campaign. (The group’s president, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, took a leave of absence from Our Revolution to serve as a co-chair of the Sanders campaign.) The organization, which sought to support progressive candidates in the 2018 election before leading a brief “Draft Bernie” effort ahead of his campaign launch this February, will now seek to amplify Sanders’ message in the Rust Belt, where Geevarghese sees a dearth of Democratic Party infrastructure.
“There's a void,” Geevarghese said in an interview. “Donald Trump stepped into that void and took people who should be with us. Now there’s an opportunity to win them back.”
To that, Geevarghese and Oles view laid-off workers like Cropper, who said she no longer supports the president, as key to Sanders’ argument winning in the Midwest. On the campaign trail — including a recent four-day, five-state tour through the Midwest — the candidate talks extensively about denying federal contracts to companies that outsource jobs or treat their workers poorly.
“If you want billions of dollars in federal contracts — guess what?” Sanders told the gathering of workers at his meeting in Bloomington last year. “You're not gonna be shutting down in America and moving to Mexico and to China. Guess what? You’re gonna be paying your workers at least a decent living wage. Guess what? You're gonna be providing health care to your workers.”
The Rust Belt strategy, where Oles is already helping to set up new Our Revolution chapters in places like South Bend, Indiana, marks the next phase for the organization — and offers yet another signal that the Sanders movement is already looking ahead to the general election.
In a Democratic field that widened to 20 people Thursday with the entry of former vice president Joe Biden, Sanders will try to convince the primary electorate that he is the best candidate to take on the sitting president, particularly in states where voters backed Barack Obama twice but broke for Trump in 2016. Sanders’ pollster, Ben Tulchin, recently conducted surveys showing Sanders leading the president in three key Midwest states: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. “Electability is the big question that voters are asking in this race,” Tulchin said in a recent interview. “Voters see Bernie as more honest and trustworthy than Trump.”
Last week, Sanders released a digital ad, one of the first of his campaign, featuring workers in Lordstown, the northeastern Ohio community in Trumbull County where manufacturing jobs have hollowed out. Last month, General Motors pushed its last Chevy Cruze down the assembly line at its Lordstown plant. Trumbull is one of nine Ohio counties that voted Obama-Trump.
Good Jobs Nation organizers, now under the banner of Our Revolution, will focus on “building out the movement more broadly,” building a coalition of organizers across the Midwest, said Geevarghese. "The senator is the standard-bearer — the political leader of this movement — but we've got to build it out at the local level to make it truly transformative.”
After Trump’s victory in 2016, Good Jobs Nation organizers started bringing laid-off workers, sporting blue-and-red T-shirts with the group’s branding, to Trump rallies in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. At one rally, according to Oles, they met the president’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, a Kansas native who has talked up his own working-class roots.
Parscale approached the group. They told him they wanted to deliver a letter to the president, Oles said, and express their concern about the General Motors plant in Lordstown, where Trump had urged workers not to move away — “Don’t sell your house,” he said in 2017 — because jobs were coming back. “Brad was like, ‘Look, I understand what you've been going through. I meet with President Trump every day. I'm gonna make sure he knows about you guys.’”
Parscale took their information, Oles said, but never got back in touch.
The Trump campaign manager referred a request for comment Saturday morning to a Trump campaign official, Tim Murtaugh, who said that soon after meeting the organizers, Parscale "relayed their concerns directly to President Trump as they had asked."
The president, Murtaugh said, was "well aware of the situation at the plant in Lordstown and very publicly fought the decision, urging GM to reopen the plant." He also noted that manufacturers have added nearly half a million jobs under Trump.
Three weeks after the Ohio event, GM announced the closure in Lordstown.
“We never got back into a rally after that,” said Oles.
Instead, those same workers would end up in Bloomington with Sanders.
This story has been updated with comments from a Trump official.