It was January 2014, more than two years before Bernie Sanders would beat Hillary Clinton by historic margins in New Hampshire, when Christopher Pearson started fantasizing about a Sanders White House.
But even then, it was more than fantasy to the Vermont state legislator. Despite all the punditry that Clinton was unstoppable this go-round, he felt somewhere deep in his gut that a Sanders candidacy would be formidable. He had seen his former boss win over conservative working class voters in rural Vermont. He knew Sanders could take it to a bigger stage.
So Pearson, of Burlington, created Draft Bernie, a super PAC, to gauge social media interest. He put in about $2,000 of his own money and within two months had 20,000 people following the effort. It didn’t raise any real money. He didn’t talk about it much publicly. As the head of the progressive caucus of six people in the Vermont state house, he had grown accustomed to people dismissing his ideas as “cute.”
Certainly that’s how most of the political world viewed a Sanders run back then.
More than a year and a half later, when Sanders officially announced he was running, Pearson predicted that his candidate would not only “change the nature of the debate, but I got to say I challenge the premise that he has no shot. I think a lot of Americans will hear him and say, ‘wow, I never heard a politician speak that way,'” he told The Washington Post in April 2015.
Then, almost another year later, Pearson stood in the crowd at Sanders’s New Hampshire victory party feeling vindicated.
“You know, I’m not out of my mind,” Pearson said he thought when he saw Sanders attracting thousands to his rallies. “He is tapping into this deep desire for sanity in our politics.”
Pearson worked for Sanders’s 1998 campaign straight out of college and then spent a year in his congressional district office. He remembers going to his house and getting a kick out of the then-congressman vacuuming. He has been invited to the Sanderses’ annual New Year’s Day party, a low-key event where the grandkids run through the house and the food sits out buffet-style.
Once he was staffing Sanders on a parade route in Lyndonville, Vt., when a man approached them. He said he disagreed with everything Sanders stood for but had voted for him every time. Perplexed, Sanders asked him, “Why?” “Because I know exactly where you stand,” Pearson recalled the man saying. “With these other people I don’t have a clue.”
“I stored that away,” Pearson said. “People respect a clear message, they are starved for it.”
Pearson didn’t discuss the super PAC with Sanders, who has made railing against them a cornerstone of his campaign. It only raised $6,819 and last filed a report with the Federal Election Commission at the end of 2014.
It’s undeniable that Sanders has resonated with a large chunk of the American population. For people like Pearson, it brings validity to everything they have ever held to be true.
“When I was young, he gave me the words to articulate the things I believed to be fundamentally fair and true,” he said. “I believe that’s what is happening across the country.”
There’s something heartening — regardless of political persuasion or support for Sanders — about a person standing alone for years, unwavering from his beliefs, suddenly seeing a groundswell of support for them.
That’s true for Sanders himself. But it’s also true for Pearson, who put out the call to draft Bernie when no one else thought his candidacy could be anything but an annoyance on Clinton’s easy ride to the nomination. She may still be the Democratic nominee. But it’s not going to be so easy.
“Any campaign is an experiment and a leap of faith. You put it out there and hope voters catch you. The level that Americans are able to catch him, I’m sure he’s blown away by that,” Pearson said. “If I see him anytime soon I’ll tell him I want to thank you for being so incredibly brave and helping shape young people’s politics.”