As Bernie Sanders looks to seize momentum from front-runner Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, a dedicated, grassroots following has already sprung up around him in the Ocean State.
In Newport, a couple dozen Bernie Sanders supporters mill around a church parish hall on Easter Sunday. The informal gathering isn’t to phone bank or canvass, but to socialize, talk about Sanders, and decorate Bernie-themed Easter eggs.
Tools for this task include pens and paints, feathers and cotton balls.
“It’s for his hair, you know he’s got a lot of white hair,” said Newport resident Hilary Stookey, who organized the event.
Stookey campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008, and now she cites Rhode Island’s persistent economic woes among the reasons she’s backing Sanders.
“Up until fairly recently, we had between the first and the second highest unemployment rate in the whole of the country,” said Stookey. “That alone means we need Bernie.”
At another table Rhode Island resident Robin Downes shows off a collection of smooth beach rocks, painted with Bernie-positive slogans.
“Bernie is representing the middle class and the poor. The people who’ve been under represented for too many years,” said Downes.
She points to Sanders’ plan for a national single-payer health insurance program as a priority for her.
“Medicare for all. I can’t tell you how many people are in debt because of medical expenses. Pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies are the people who profit off the American people,” said Downes.
While Sanders is known for garnering support among young people, most of the voters at this event are older. Small business owner John Morgera showed up to get Bernie Sanders buttons and lawn signs.
“I’m 52, and I’m Berning. My mom is 79, and she’s Berning; it’s not just millennials,” said Morgera. “You know there’s a lot at stake here.”
The youngest person to attend the event won’t be voting anytime soon. Elle Noordzy brought her one-year-old son, and said she’s supporting Sanders for his pledge to make public college free.
Noordzy has relatives in the Netherlands, where she said higher education is more affordable, thanks to government subsidies. That made things a lot easier when her half-sister went to medical school.
“For about four to five grand a year, it covered classes, supplies, transportation, housing, and so when she graduated with her medical degree, she wasn’t in debt,” said Noordzy.
Healthcare, income inequality, and affordable education were top issues for most of the voters in this group. But more than anything, when asked, ‘why Sanders?’ these voters say, it’s because they trust him.
"In my opinion Bernie only tells the truth,” said Robin Downes, the supporter with the painted Bernie Sanders stones. “He will never get caught doing something dishonest, because he is a truth-sayer.”
These voters don’t trust democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, which was the number one reason they said they wouldn't choose Clinton in the primary.
Sanders got out to an early lead against Clinton in Rhode Island, according to a poll from the Taubman Center at Brown University, but the center's latest poll shows Clinton has pulled ahead. And she has support from most of the state’s elected Democrats.
University of Rhode Island Political Science Professor Maureen Moakley said it will be difficult for Sanders to turn the tide.
“I wouldn’t say his challenge is insurmountable,” said Moakley. “The thing is that he’s doing very well in Wisconsin, her numbers are going down, but I think in Rhode Island she’ll carry the day.”
But even if Sanders doesn’t clinch the nomination, South County resident Sally Kingsbury said she thinks his candidacy is valuable.
“Think he’s expand a lot of people’s boundaries in terms of what they think politically and maybe giving voice to people who don’t usually think they have much of a chance in life,” said Kingsbury.
As for Elle Noordzy, the woman with Marley, the one-year-old, she can’t imagine voting for anyone else, even if Sanders doesn’t get on the November ballot.
“At the end of the day, we are hiring somebody to do a job, so we have to look at their resume, and Bernie’s resume is on top of the pile,” said Noordzy. “I mean he’s it. So I’ll write him in.”
Sanders’ campaign has sent staffers to meet with supporters in Rhode Island, who are helping to organize his ground game, and there’s even an app on Sanders’ website that lets anyone set up a phone bank.
While the state’s Democratic Party leaders have already thrown their support behind Clinton, there’s no denying the passion Sanders has inspired in some voters in the Ocean State.