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Northern Minnesotans keeping the Bernie momentum going

Mitchell Farmer of Duluth campaigns for Rick Nolan during a meeting of Bernie Sanders supporters for the official kickoff of Sanders' political movement called "Our Revolution" at the Duluth home of Sandy Thompson. During this meeting, Sanders addressed the group (and others around the nation) via webcast. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)1 / 2
Mike Kuitu of Duluth listens to Bernie Sanders during a meeting of Sanders supporters for the official kickoff of Sanders' political movement called "Our Revolution" at the Duluth home of Sandy Thompson. During this meeting, Sanders addressed the group (and others around the nation) via webcast. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn.—When Bernie Sanders took the stage on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, he was greeted with several minutes of applause. Duluthian Rich Updegrove, a Sanders national delegate, said the senator's speech that night — conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton — was a sort of eulogy, commemorating the life and successes of his campaign.

"I felt validated by his speech," Updegrove said. "I saw it as a celebration and not a defeat."

Updegrove said he left the DNC in Philadelphia feeling energized, with motivation to keep the momentum of the Sanders campaign going in Duluth and statewide.

A little over a month after the national convention, Clinton has yet to win over some Sanders supporters in the Northland — but regardless of where they stand on the Democratic nominee, a number of them have thrown their political energies into organizing a local progressive movement and supporting progressive candidates in other races.

"What Sanders started — it isn't even close to dying out yet. ... That energy is still very well and alive," said Michael Baumgarten, the secretary of the University of Minnesota Duluth College Democrats.

Updegrove, a history teacher at Duluth East High School, said about 20 Sanders national delegates from Minnesota met post-convention in mid- and late-August to discuss how to keep the "Feel the Bern" energy going in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"We hope to serve the role of the backbone of the movement across the state," Updegrove said.

Part of being that backbone is bringing Sanders' new political movement, "Our Revolution," to Minnesota. Organizers say the movement aims to revolutionize politics by supporting progressive leaders and educating the public on progressive issues.

Updegrove said delegates are organizing around Our Revolution's three major goals: elect progressives to lower-level offices, empower people by training them in political campaigning, and educate people on grassroots fundraising techniques.

"It's finding a way to connect progressives in states to work together to get them on the ballot," he said of Our Revolution.

The movement aims to help people better understand the political campaign process, and to get so-called "big money" out of politics and level the political playing field through grassroots fundraising, a technique Sanders used in his presidential campaign.

Our Revolution is planning a Minnesota statewide meeting on Sept. 18, Updegrove said. The time and place will be announced later this month.

Although Our Revolution is a national movement, Sanders supporters also are organizing to support progressive politics in the Northland.

Sharla Gardner, a former Duluth city councilor and vocal Sanders supporter, said she and other Duluthians are forming a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, a national organization that endorsed Sanders in the primaries. Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist.

Gardner said the DSA is focused not just on electoral politics, but also education. It aims to educate the community and politicians on progressive issues such as health care, the minimum wage, paid and sick leave and student loan debt, Gardner said.

"We're going to be looking at how we can be most effective moving forward," she said.

Gardner said the DSA could become a vehicle for holding Clinton accountable for the promises she has made in adopting some progressive policies supported by Sanders into her campaign.

For example, Clinton had in the past expressed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — an agreement which Sanders and his supporters said would have negative effects on American workers and jobs. Clinton changed her opinion of the TPP during the hotly-contested primaries, and now says she no longer supports it.

"We want to make sure that if she gets elected ... she will follow through on that," Gardner said.

And in northern St. Louis County, a group of Sanders supporters have created a "Northern Progressives" group to advocate on issues such as environmental protection and economic disparity.

"We recognized that a lot of the issues he (Sanders) was talking about at the national level are present in our communities," Melissa Roach of Cook told the News Tribune last month. "We thought we should keep the idea alive that politics isn't a spectator sport. That you can't do it from the couch. You have to engage."

Cindy Rugeley, a political science assistant professor at UMD, said the Sanders campaign's ability to engage people in progressive politics pushed Clinton to sway further to the political left than she might have otherwise.

"The Bernie Sanders campaign made her stop being so cautious," Rugeley said. "It made her recognize that wing of the party."

Updegrove said Sanders' excitement forced Clinton to modify her stances on college tuition and health care.

"That's all Bernie Sanders' work and all of the organizing that went into his national campaign," he said. "She chose to go in that direction and that's really positive."

Despite shifting policy stances to align with Sanders and his supporters, Clinton has failed to convince some Sanders supporters she is the right person to vote for, said Duluthian Mike Kuitu, a state delegate for Sanders. While Sanders was outspoken and up-front about his political stances, Kuitu said Clinton has been vague at times.

"A lot of people are going to vote for Hillary," he said. "I think she's being very careful."

Kuitu said Sanders clearly outlined his stance on free college tuition and how he would pay for it. Clinton has not explained how she will fund debt-free college, he said.

"Bernie had a plan for that. He's going to put a tax on stock trades," Kuitu said. "We're not really seeing that out of Hillary."

Kuitu said some Sanders supporters may vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate.

"They're voting their values," he said. "They don't feel it's a wasted vote."

Updegrove said that from his perspective as a national delegate, the majority of Sanders supporters nationally and statewide are still unsure of who to support in the presidential election. Even among the Minnesota national delegates for Sanders, Updegrove said a handful are now backing Clinton and others said they will not vote for her.

Gardner said she, like many Sanders supporters, was disappointed when he conceded to Clinton — but said it is time to move forward.

"I'm going to vote for Hillary Clinton," she said. "I have made my decision. I have thought about it long and hard. It wasn't an easy decision for me."

Presidential election aside, the November ballot also will include many state and local races. Sanders supporters have thrown their political energies into the campaigns of progressive politicians seeking election to those lower-level offices.

Updegrove said he is excited about the campaigns of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, running for re-election in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, running for re-election in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District.

Updegrove said Sanders' national delegates organized door-knocking efforts for Nolan's campaign last weekend.

"I can tunnel my energy and excitement about Bernie's campaign into Nolan's campaign," Updegrove said. "A lot of his politics are in line with Bernie's politics."

"I'm 125 percent behind Rick Nolan," Kuitu said.

Baumgarten, a senior studying political science and philosophy at UMD, said Sanders brought a lot of "new blood" to the Democratic Party. UMD's College Democrats group grew from five people in fall 2015 to about 20 students by spring, he said.

Baumgarten said the club is focusing its efforts on encouraging students to vote. During the Minnesota caucuses on March 1, he said, the club helped bus about 400 students to Duluth East High School to take part in the process.

Updegrove and Baumgarten said Sanders' campaign will have lasting effects on America's political climate. But Rugeley said this will only occur if the movement becomes bigger than Sanders' presidential campaign.

To be a successful political movement, Rugeley said the movement has to elect officials who support progressive core issues to city and state government.

"If that movement is going to continue, it has to move to the grassroots," she said. "To make a political change, you've got to elect people to office. ... You've got to go beyond Bernie Sanders."

Gardner said she believes Sanders' campaign has created a crucial shift in how presidential races are run.

"Many people have woken up now to what the real problems are," she said, adding that people have become more politically involved than ever because of that increased awareness.

Although Sanders did not claim the nomination, Updegrove said the campaign energized and encouraged people to pay attention to politics. He said he has never seen his freshman history class so excited about a presidential race.

"This is some of the most involved I've seen people, who can't even vote, in a campaign," he said. "Sanders' impact certainly is continuing."