Bernie Sanders After Dark: Inside His First ‘Grass-Roots Fund-Raiser’

SAN FRANCISCO — Senator Bernie Sanders has long promised to run a different kind of campaign and be a different kind of president. On Saturday night, what was billed as his first “grass-roots fund-raiser” of the 2020 campaign was certainly different, as donor events go.

It was at a nightclub, for one thing. The D.J. was spinning a mix that included “Eye of the Tiger,” the underdog anthem from the “Rocky” movie series. Tickets were as cheap as $27, for another. There were food trucks out back (tacos and a Taiwanese-Korean blend).

The night had the vibe of a Sanders rally, only smaller, darker and more intimate, and with booze. Disco balls dangled from the ceiling. When the lights flashed briefly during his remarks, Mr. Sanders joked about the special effects.

“Very sophisticated,” he deadpanned. “Either that or someone was leaning on the light switch.”

People laughed. This was, after all, Mr. Sanders’s crowd to lose, and he did not lose them, despite some delays before taking the stage.

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Mr. Sanders has made his rejection of big donors and traditional fund-raisers a centerpiece of his message and, in a field of 23 candidates, has begun scheduling in-person events to keep his grip on small donors as his rivals try to make inroads.

A parade of speakers preceded Mr. Sanders on Saturday night: a gentleman in a flat-brimmed hat with the letters PLAYA on it who cursed President Trump; the actor Danny Glover; a doctor who happened to be on stage when an audience member collapsed and the proceedings were briefly halted as she waded out into the crowd and 911 was called.

Later, as Mr. Sanders had been held up in San Francisco traffic, the M.C. directed attendees to the cash bar in the back during another pause in the proceedings.

Eventually, the celebrity academic Cornel West and Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame emerged together. They joked. They hugged. They jumped up and down. They hugged while jumping up and down. At one point, Mr. Cohen declared emphatically, “I promise you all a pint in every freezer!”

Then came Jane Sanders, the senator’s wife. “First of all, I was not supposed to come out here,” she began.

She, too, would not be introducing Mr. Sanders. She introduced Guy Saperstein.


Mr. Saperstein, a retired civil rights lawyer, is the kind of person who, in another context, Mr. Sanders might inveigh against: a wealthy major political contributor. Mr. Saperstein gave Mr. Sanders the maximum $2,800 check soon after he announced his candidacy for president in 2020.

More interestingly, Mr. Saperstein had tried to draft Senator Elizabeth Warren into the 2016 presidential race, evening pledging $1 million for a super PAC if she ran. He gave her $2,800 this year, too.

In an interview, Mr. Saperstein said that the Sanders campaign and its new development director, Malea Stenzel Gilligan, had reached out to him a few days earlier and asked him to introduce Mr. Sanders at the event.

At one point in his introduction, Mr. Saperstein mentioned Hillary Clinton’s name. Many in the crowd hissed their disapproval, almost instinctively. “Get over it,” one unidentified voice yelled. (Reporters, while invited to attend the event, were kept separate from most of the crowd.)

About eight minutes into the introduction, Mr. Sanders himself emerged on stage. Mr. Saperstein had not quite finished his remarks yet, which had included a detour through the costs of his own 35-day hospitalization following the bad aftereffects of a prostate surgery. Mr. Saperstein paused for nearly 20 seconds as the crowd offered guesses at his medical bill. (It was $2.2 million.)

“Thank you very much for your introduction,” Mr. Sanders began.

Mr. Sanders went on to deliver much of his usual stump speech, with some added lines about how his opponents do fund-raisers “not in places like this but in rich people’s homes.” His 2016 run “revolutionized campaign finance,” he said.

“You don’t need the wealthiest people in this country to fund your campaigns. Ordinary people are prepared to do that if you stand for something,” Mr. Sanders added.

The campaign said it had sold out all 1,000 tickets for the evening. They declined to say how much money had been raised.

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