In Iowa, Bernie Sanders's Student Warriors Are Fighting for History

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In Iowa, Bernie Sanders's Student Warriors Are Fighting for History

When I met Zoe Swinton and Zach Krisl at the Memorial Union building on the University of Iowa campus, they had the look of being wired to the last synapse—the kind of wide-eyed energy that disguises bone-deep fatigue. They’d been moving at superhuman speed for months on behalf of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and on Sunday night, they found themselves 24 hours away from the first finish line—Monday night’s caucuses. Rest could wait.

When I reached out to the Sanders state campaign before my trip to Iowa City and asked for their foremost student warriors, these were the two names they gave me. Swinton and Krisl were the true believers, not content to be anywhere but the front lines, and now that the goal they had been fighting for was just a poor night’s sleep away, they were running on pure adrenaline…and that adrenaline was plenty to carry them through, no matter how badly they might need to crash.

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There are a few ways that people come to the politics of Bernie Sanders, and Zach Krisl, 20 years old and in his third year at Iowa, came the hard way. Sitting across from me on the third floor of the IMU building, hunched beneath a blue “Sanders 2020” cap, he spoke of how he felt alienated from politics for much of his childhood. He comes from a long line of food industry workers, people who were working class at the best of times, and mired in poverty at the worst. As a child, Krisl saw his father get laid off from his job at a bakery, which plunged the family into financial distress. It got worse in 2012, when his mother suffered a brain aneurysm. They had to endure a period of homelessness after that, fighting a two-year batle to get her social security payments, and they eventually moved from their small town in South Dakota to Sioux City, Iowa. It was a different, more diverse world. Each day, Krisl found himself surrounded by people speaking Vietnamese, Somali, Lao, Spanish, and unlike South Dakota, he met LGBTQ people like himself. But the problems he saw among the communities—the poverty, the debt—were the same problems he’d experienced his entire life. The first time he heard Sanders’ message, he had his eyes opened.

“All across the board,” he said, “these were just things that I didn’t even realize were political issues. They were just things that were wrong with my everyday life.”

He wasn’t old enough to caucus in 2016, but he became political anyway, volunteering for Sanders and other local politicians like J.D. Scholten, who took on the infamous Steve King in 2018. He also showed a facility with languages, learning Spanish, French, German, and more than a few others. (I say “more than a few others” because I never quite got to the bottom of his repertoire. When he told me that he’d just switched majors to Japanese, I asked if that would be his fifth language, and both he and Zoe laughed at me. “Name a language,” he said to me, and when I picked “Italian,” he responded with a flurry of words that, as far as I could tell, was fluent Italian. I should have picked something much harder.) His academic success earned him scholarships to the University of Iowa, but after one year, his father became sick. Fearing that his family would get evicted, he quit school and began working at McDonald’s, sometimes up to 70 hours per week. When the crisis passed, the school reinstated his scholarships, and he was able to return in 2019.

That fall, he joined the Sanders movement in earnest in the fall. He had been canvassed by plenty of campaigns, but he found that many of them were sending surrogates to the university from out of state—Florida, for whatever reason, seemed to be the source of many emissaries. The Sanders volunteers, though, were fellow students, fellow Iowans. For the first time, he felt he might have a place in politics, which had always seemed to him like the domain of old white men with money. For someone poor, with tattoos and pierced ears, the door appeared firmly closed.

Now, he began to understand that poor people had something to offer. They were not ignorant, not apathetic, but the crushing weight of the system kept them from participating. With his own energy, he sought to reverse that inertia. He became a member of “Hawks for Bernie,” the Sanders student organization, and he was introduced to a field organizer for the main campaign. After explaining his life story, he and the organizer went out canvassing, and in that first day alone, he managed to convert five people.

One of the goals coveted by many student activists is to be hired by the campaign as a paid intern—a job that brings with it health insurance and a living wage of at least $15/hr for 20 hours per week of work, no small sum for a working student. It can be a long, arduous process, and the standards are high. But when the field organizer watched Krisl at work, he realized very quickly what he had. “You need to apply,” he said.

So Krisl became a paid intern, in charge of student worker outreach, clocking 20 paid hours per week for the campaign, and volunteering beyond that threshold.

“I can’t donate, because I don’t have that much money,” he said, “so I donate my time.”

In the fall semester, Krisl’s life read as something beyond chaos: He worked for the campaign, volunteered when he wasn’t working, kept up his studies as a full-time undergrad, and worked three other jobs: Two kitchen jobs at campus, and one at a Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Iowa City.

The campaign is attentive to stress and burnout, Krisl told me, but he keeps pushing regardless.

“They want to make sure I’m okay above everything else,” he said, “because this job is incredibly stressful. I feel like the weight of the future is on my shoulders…but then again, I also have Japanese class.”

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As you might guess, considering these are two students ensconced with the Sanders campaign, the interplay between Krisl and Zoe Swinton was mostly a display of sincerity and solidarity. The one exception came in a quick bout of one-upsmanship about who was working harder…or being ground to dust more quickly.

“I started volunteering again in August,” Swinton said at one point, and when Krisl jabbed her about having started earlier, she turned on him. “You stopped! You stopped!”

“I was doing 17 semester hours!

“I was doing 22!”

“I was doing 17 and working 20 hours a week.”

She nodded and smiled, having cornered him. “Me too.”

“Okay,” he said. “Fight me.”

Swinton, wearing a silver sweater and silver hoop earrings, showed some mercy and laughed. Twenty-two years old and in her final semester at Iowa, she has a pretty good trump card: She was the first student on campus last fall to take up the Bernie Sanders banner. She’s the president of Hawks for Bernie, a paid intern like Krisl, and has been with the campaign long enough that she’s a shop steward and belongs to the campaign workers union.

Her credit goes further: At age 16, she learned that a senator from Vermont was going to be speaking in the basement of the church where her father was a pastor. That was 2014, before I even realized Sanders had been in the state, and she made the fateful decision to go see what it was all about. Like Krisl, she felt like there was no place for her in politics, and her experience to that point had involved nothing more compelling than frustrating and fruitless arguments with adults on topics like whether Obama was a Muslim. Meanwhile, in her small town of Harlan, Iowa, she watched big agriculture companies like Monsanto deplete the landscape, helped along by climate change. Hopelessness and retreat seemed like the only logical response to the political situation. But that encounter with Sanders—an accident, basically—changed her mindset.

“I felt like I was a third-party observer in politics,” she said, “but when he was talking to me in the basement of my church, and talking about the universality of his policies, I realized that, okay, yeah, he’s an old white guy, but he’s talking about creating a space for everyone, and creating this access in terms of healthcare and education. And it’s the first time I actually felt welcome in that space, and that I considered politics as something I could be engaged in. And that I could be heard.”

And engage she did, volunteering for months leading up to the 2016 caucus. Her family moved to Des Moines, the state capital, and while her brother went to a magnate school in a affluent neighborhood, she went to a more diverse, poorer school where she saw people getting arrested every week. The stratification was too apparent to ignore, and it inspired her to work on an initiative with the public policy center when she came to the University of Iowa. (Like Krisl, she’s an overachiever—when I asked for her major in a text after our conversation, she wrote back: “Ethics & Public Policy, Anthropology, Psychology.” That’s along with holding leadership positions in five student organizations, some of which she’s had to give up.)

When Sanders opted to run again, volunteering was a no-brainer, and she quickly moved to the top of the school organization (when Sanders visited the campus for a speech, she had the honor of introducing him). Together, she and Krisl have spent the past months engaging with their fellow students and community members in any way they can. They’ll canvass on the quads when the weather’s nice, they’ll attend big events attempting to sway potential caucus-goers, or they’ll just ask to join their fellow students at lunch in the dining halls. (Krisl told me his recruitments have even extended to the school chefs.) As the months went by, the Hawks for Bernie organization grew, and is now the most robust on campus by far. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders, they managed to turn out almost 1,000 students. A few days later, when Joe Biden himself came, he couldn’t even attract 200.

Swinton and Krisl routinely blow by the 20-hour mark in their campaign duties. When we spoke, both of them had already logged their 20 hours of the week, and this was Sunday night. And along with money and guidance, the campaign has provided them with extensive training. The biggest aspect of that is persuasion—how to convince others to join your side when they may not know anything about politics, or Bernie Sanders, or may have some very wrong ideas about the candidate.

“We talk a lot about the person themselves,” Swinton said. “We’re not just going to throw policy at you. None of us are policy wonks. We’re in it because these issues are impacting us too. It’s always asking questions, figuring out what matters to them, telling a story about ourselves. Affirming that how they feel matters. And then showing that Bernie has a policy for what they care about, because he always does.”

“We don’t often have these important conversations, because it’s seen as whining,” Krisl added. “But so many of these issues are systemic, and people don’t realize that. They don’t want to complain because they don’t want to seem like part of the problem, when in reality the problem has been there for decades and centuries. We affirm the things they’ve always felt in secret, and make them comfortable enough to talk about it. You just have to get past the barrier of people not wanting to admit they have a problem. We’ve been trained not to talk about it.”

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The idealism of activists like Swinton and Krisl has been a boon to the campaign in Iowa, but it’s helped them, too. Krisl has suffered from anxiety and depression, and he told me that the idea of having conversations with people who disagreed with him, in public, would have been unthinkable even six months ago. Even telling a journalist like me about his background, and his family’s struggles, would have been impossible. For both of them, being part of the campaign has given them a sense of confidence and identity, and when I asked if their activity would fall off a cliff when caucus night ended, they shook their heads emphatically—Krisl will work on the Senate campaign to defeat the Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, and Swinton has arranged to take online classes in her final semester because she hopes to be deployed by the campaign to a new state when the battle for Iowa ends.

Of course, nothing looms quite as large as Monday night. When I said the magic words—”I want to ask you about the caucus”—you could almost see their pupils dilate. Krisl will translate for Spanish and French caucus-goers at his precinct, while Swinton will use all her persuasion skills as a Sanders ambassador. They, along with most Sanders campaign staff, have taken four levels of caucus training sessions. At the precinct I observed in 2016, the Sanders representatives seemed confused and timid, and managed through inaction to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory, so to speak, but this time around they’re doing everything in their power to be the best-prepared campaign.

The caucus is a strange and messy affair. It begins with short speeches, unless the precinct captain opts to cancel them, at which point voters move to their preference groups. This year, everyone will fill out one side of a card with their first choice. Once the totals are counted, any group with less than 15% representation is declared non-viable, at which point they can move to a viable group. This realignment process is where things get dramatic and tricky—armies of surrogates descend on the non-viable and undecided voters, and where they choose to go for their second choice can have an enormous impact on the final result. A group that was previously winning can be forced to second place, and because the delegates from each precinct are aligned based on percentages of the whole, even a victory isn’t necessarily a victory. In the precinct I observed in 2016, the Sanders camp started with about 70 more votes than the Clinton group, and ended with about 50 more, but the final delegate count was 4-4.

The realignment process doesn’t sit well with Swinton and Krisl. They’ve spent months in intimate conversations with voters, discussing issues and spreading the message with an authenticity that comes naturally because it represents their true outlook. At the caucuses, undecided voters will be surrounded by people shouting at them in large rooms, and the process has to happen fast.

“There’s nothing personal about it,” Krisl said. “You feel cheap.”

“It actually gets to me too,” said Swinton, who is now a veteran of two caucuses. “Transactional is a good word for it, because I care a lot about Bernie and what he represents, and I want you to care too. I don’t want you to come over just because he’s viable, I want you to come over because you believe in it. So it sucks because it’s so rushed.”

Nevertheless, they’re ready to fight in the trenches. They’ve been schooled on caucus math, and the hard truths of the precinct wars. And they’ve had to shorten their message in recent days anyway, because the overall goal has transformed from persuasion to mobilization. At this point, turnout is everything.

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In the last two weeks, the polls have told a story that is almost too good to believe. Sanders leads by seven points in the last two Iowa polls, and if you believe the sources online, he also led in the Des Moines Register poll that was canceled at the last minute on Saturday. The last question I had for Swinton and Krisl was something that’s been bothering me, and most of the other Sanders supporters I know: How are you dealing with the hope?

“I refuse to process it,” Swinton said. “I really do. Especially because I watched Hillary win my precinct with a coin toss in 2016, and I felt so defeated. Having been so invested, I was hurt. To be invested six times more in this one, I don’t want to be hurt again. But at the same time I want to win, so I will not process it until it happens.”

Krisl took a more positive stance. “It feels so different from last time. Bernie is not unknown, and he has a reputation for fighting for the people that need it most. I think we can turn out enough people that we are going to make a real difference, not just now but in history. I read about how Alexander Hamilton was 21 at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and I think, it must be crazy to be part of that. And this is our shot to make a real difference, and I think we can do it.”

When I left them at the end of our hour-long conversation, Swinton was headed to a friend’s place to spend her night making packets for the next day. Krisl wasn’t going anywhere—he hadn’t slept well in weeks because of the butterflies, and now his stomach felt like he was constantly plunging downward on a roller coaster. He would spend some time studying Japanese, and maybe later he’d sleep…but probably not.

Walking back across campus through the cold night, the lingering impression was their courage—the belief that spurred them on, their refusal to become cynical. They’ve exhausted themselves for the cause, and meeting them filled me with renewed energy (and no small amount of shame for everything I haven’t done). Swinton and Krisl are the best of their generation—burdened with the weight of the world, but armed with a dream of revolution.

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