How One Activist Is Recruiting Diverse Candidates to Continue the Vision Started by Bernie Sanders' Campaign

The 2016 election season created many overnight activists, including Puja Datta, who was nearly a decade into a career at a large credit bureau, having never so much as called Congress. Then the Bernie Sanders campaign happened. The experience changed the Columbus, Ohioan's life.

"I knocked on doors in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky," Datta told AlterNet in a phone interview. "I discovered I really loved getting to know people and talking about their stories... regardless of your political beliefs, where you think you lie on the political spectrum, at the end of the day we all really want the same things. That was really inspiring to me."

Datta ditched her corporate job to become a union organizer, and in her spare time, help Yes We Can Columbus to develop and run a slate of progressive political candidates for Columbus City Council and school board.

"My story makes me laugh sometimes," she said. "I went from someone who was completely apathetic to someone who's totally all in." 

Yes We Can Columbus grew out of the Bernie Sanders campaign in Columbus. Its members were disappointed with the current state of the Democratic Party in their city. As Datta explains, "What's happening in Columbus is a microcosm of what's happening with the Democratic Party nationally. There's a lot of corporate influence, there's a lot of people who are more focused on their reputations instead of fighting for things that people want."

Datta says Columbus is, in many ways, "a tale of two cities. We have a very active job market, people who are engaged politically. But we also have huge levels of income inequality, we have huge levels of infant mortality... we have extreme amounts of police brutality. We're like first in our city size for the amount of black people that are killed by police."

None of this, she said, is being addressed by the majority Democratic government. The organization decided it needed elected officials who were focused on addressing these issues instead of on raising money and party loyalty. 

Yes We Can Columbus is now the Columbus chapter of the Working Families Party. Its members are focusing on candidates for city council and the school board, all of whom "are deeply committed to the concept of equality and justice." They're also deeply connected to the communities they hope to represent. The school board candidates attended Columbus City Schools, which "have a bad reputation here in our city. They're underfunded, there's been broad levels of corruption. But we have people who are deeply committed to fixing those issues."

For city council, Datta noted Jasmine Ayres, a community organizer. Datta calls Ayres "an incredibly diverse person... she's lived all over the country; she was raised in a low-income neighborhood. She's just different from a lot of the politicians we have on council now." Most, Datta says, were "raised with a certain level of privilege."

Ayres, on the other hand, "is a self-made individual. We've come away from that so much in politics whether it's nationally or locally... It seems like a lot of our politicians have forgotten what it means to be a real person." In contrast, Yes We Can is trying to recruit candidates who "know the struggle, who know what everyday people must do to put food on the table." 

The response from the establishment Democratic Party in this heavily blue city has been less than enthusiastic. In fact, the local party called them "pro-Republican Trump supporters" in mailings against a campaign Yes We Can Columbus was supporting to change the city council system from at large (fewer members representing larger areas) to ward-based, where there would be more members, who would have to live in the areas they represent. 

In a hopeful note, Datta said, "we have an incredibly vibrant volunteer base. We have so many people invested in this concept that we're running on. We had a huge Bernie community here, and we've had over 100 people sign up to volunteer, to canvass, to hold events, to raise money... we are people-powered." 

Datta is committed to involving people with multiple party affiliations in these campaigns. She says, "I have plenty of friends that did vote for Trump. I have plenty of friends who identify as Republican. At the end of the day you can't get caught up in this party line nonsense... There are things we can agree on." 

She resists the notion that every Trump voter is necessarily racist, while admitting that "the racism is a real concern. But if you're telling me 60 million people in this country are racist, I disagree with that. I think a lot of people in my experience, here in Ohio, Rust Belt state and all, just feel like the Democratic Party isn't listening to them... That's my two cents as a person of color. It's tough, because I have experienced people being overtly racist, and more people seem to be comfortable being that way, but I wouldn't say it's the majority of people." 

Going forward, Puja Datta and Yes We Can Columbus are getting more people involved in the political process, from voter registration to attending town halls to running for office themselves.

"People have given up on politics, people have given up on their right to vote. Things that people died for, that define who we are as a country," Datta says. "We have to convince people that it's worth taking time out of their busy and stressful lives to care about how the country's run." 

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Photo courtesy of Puja Datta


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