Bernie Back in the Day (With David Sirota, Jeff Weaver, and Chuck Rocha)
Rebecca here now with my good friend shocked Roja. Today studio. Hey, jack. How are you? Casey. Fully prepared to lie. You to lead the rest of this interview, if you so desire, they Chuck, we know your big fisherman down there on the floor and all over the place down to Cuba fishing, tell us about your favorite fishing trip. Chuck the waves are rolling down here in south Florida today and people on the water they are getting out and going fishing. Personality. That's Jeff Weaver, and Chuck Rocha senior advisors to the Bernie twenty twenty campaign. Have you done radio because I know that Senator Sanders has history of doing radio being about with media having an album. No, you're never tempted. Anything? It's never too late face for radio. This teachers. Pitchers. If there is any better encapsulation of your personalities than that. I don't know what is this week. I'm talking to folks who knew Bernie way back when to get some insight into the man who's defined principally by his principles. This is here. The burn a podcast about the people ideas and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders twenty twenty campaign and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briana joy gray coming to you this time from campaign headquarters in Washington DC for this week's episode. I chatted with David Sirotta an investigative journalist who was known Senator Sanders for twenty years, and it was the first person ever to hold the title Bernie Sanders speechwriter. But I I talked to senior adviser Jeff Weaver solo about the thirty plus years. He's known the Senator Chuck joins us about halfway through. So I met Bernie back in the spring of nineteen eighty six I had been thrown out of college for anti-apartheid protesting kicking around in Vermont, and he was running for governor as an independent he was mayor of Burlington. And I called down to the campaign headquarters and guiding Phil for monta also recently, retired longtime Bernie guy came to meet with me, and I I should have known something was wrong because when he left I was the county coordinator for gubernatorial campaign in Vermont having no campaign experience whatsoever. Anyway, I was staffing Bernie at dairy festival something we haven't Vermont. My job was to sort of hand him. Hold assign Bernie sign on a stick. And hand him these buttons Bernie buttons, which he would go around and offer folks at the dairy festival and every place outs. So anyway, he seemed we seem to hit it off and a couple of days later, he called me and said, hey, would you like to work a couple of days a week in Burlington, and that was nineteen Eighty-six? And here we are today. When you say we seem to hit it off. Do you? Remember what it was about your interaction that kind of gelled? I sort of had a good sense of what he needed when you needed it. Like Wendy need a button. You know? I was not. I was not. Yeah. I know. I I was very mission oriented, and I think he appreciated that. So they knew got on board with a campaign. Did can you tell us what that was like? Yes. So it was a very small campaign. Let's say that there was two of us. I drove Bernie around mostly and I was paid in mileage. That's how I was paid essentially volunteer getting mileage let's be clear, and he and I would just drive around the state. I lived about thirty miles north of where Bernie lived in. Burlington Burlington, and I would pick them up at about seven thirty in the morning. So I would leave my house about seven get their seven thirty and dropping back off at his house at eleven thirty or twelve at night and drive half an hour north in the next morning picking back up at seven thirty off. We'd go again day after day after day after day. This is really resonating with me because I also met and spoke for the first time to Bernie Sanders on a long car ride. A three hour trip. I reporting to went on on which I wrote in the car with them from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson Mississippi to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination around this time last year, and I didn't hand on any buttons or facilitate way, but it appears to have gone well. Very mission oriented. Maybe. So I think that what is really curious to a lot of listeners. Probably is that because Bernie himself is so message oriented, there's almost this reluctance at teams for him to talk about his personal life and four ground those things that some other candidates tend to for reasonable reasons. Pure affable to appear relatable Brady doesn't do that. And I think that that's frankly, part of his charm that he seems so committed to ideals as opposed to kind of persona but still even acknowledging that's the case there is this like mysterious nece about him. I think and so I think people want to know from you, you know, who is Bernie Sanders. What is he like when he's relaxed behind closed doors not needing to evangelize about better care for all? You know, what's the small talk like between you, and you should know I work for at eighty six eight and ninety when he won one for congress. Down with him. Then over the course of that those three campaigns. I calculated one time that I had spent the quivalent of three hundred sixty five twenty four hour days with Bernie in the car. So he, and I have spent a lot of time in the car together. He is in some ways, very different and some ways not different. So there's a lot of conversation about politics, and what's going on up? But he also has incredibly dry sense of humor, which we really hit it off in that way. We used to think called honk Amenia and hawker mania was when we had time in the schedule would stop at the busiest intersection and in Vermont, some of those intersections we're not too busy. But there were some busy intersections and we get out. I would hold a sign, and then we would he would wave at the cars and what we turned into a game. Because I, you know, not too many people knew him. But then as he was getting more famous people wave, and what have you give us other signs, sometimes not positive? I remember the time we were mooned by guy in the. Five corners nessa junction, though. It's pretty funny. But so we started only counting honks, and we will have our own competition where over like a four five minute period, we would count the number of honks that we would get from cars when you'd get start to get this flurry. This sort of crescendo of honks Bernie would scream out in this sort of dramatic drawn outweigh honk mania. So I know what you were exactly doing to try to elicit these honks. So I I wasn't doing much. I would hold the sign and Bernie would wave and he would he would almost try to catch people's like personal attention and wave to get a response back from them. But we didn't want just waves because we didn't count those because we were getting too many waves. It had to be a honk honk, right? Yeah. And it's the name your purest. You know every game has rules. And that was those are the rules of honcker media honks only haka mania a lot in eighty six and eighty eight. It was a good good year. Those are the good years we were in our hunk menia prime. You're someone who has dealt with the comic world who has a comic business comic selling business, you obviously engage with pop culture, you're out here with these William Shatner, Boston legal references. I mean, do you in the Senator ever talk about movies or TV or does he have a favorite band? Yeah. What we've talked about comic books, actually, really. Yeah. He and his brother used to collect comic books when they were in New York is he a marvel or DC guy guy. Well, that could be you know, back in the day was because it was not marvel. I don't know how far down this rabbit hole. You wanna go, but it was timely before there was marvel, and he was definitely DC guy indefinitely. He's answered this question many times publicly the superman vs. Batman question. Definitely superman. Batman or superman. Snow cushion, superman, all the way, right? Why see much more powers because batmans the rich? This to be vigilante superman is the interplanetary orphan. You know, seemingly powerless, but you know, actually being of great power. And you think that resonates for Bernie Sanders for particular reason, I don't I don't know. I saw program one time where they analogize superman to the sort of FDR new deal coming into break up local corruption. I don't know if that's true or not. But maybe that's resonated. It's hard to without feeling. I think invasive to try to get to the core of what another person is like right like as an who's your friend. You don't wanna be disclosing things that they've chosen obviously, not to disclose. But I wonder how you feel about burnish choice not to foreground his personal life. And whether there have been moments where you felt like he should do more of that the issue with Bernie this initiative bring has the media, actually, which he expresses publicly often the ideas that he expresses. I mean now the very popular anniversary Medicare for all seemingly everybody's for free tuition. A public colleges universities and so on and so forth. Right. But for. Sologub decades and decades and decades he was one of the only voices on these issues. And I think he really did not want to what in his view would have been waste time that he has with people talking about himself when he could be talking about these particular issues, and you know, given his success. Maybe he was right. I think that's right. I perhaps subscribed to of the spoonful of sugar philosophy where I do a little pub culture until Lena's can help the medicine. Go down. I, you know, I know I agree with that. I agree with that. But I do think that you know, he does think take these issues very seriously. I was has and does feel like there is not enough discussion of them broadly speaking in that, he he sort of alone has to fill that void many ways when you met you said you had just been kicked out of college for a part protesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Sure. So you know, this was in the eighties. And it was very busy time. I was in Boston Boston. Which of that time with the president of the university was a far right wing guy named John Silber. There was a lot of anti-apartheid activity. He he in fact was a supporter of the apartheid regime, frankly, kind of unapologetic. And so we try to build a Channy town, which was a common sort of protest activity in that time period and most universities when students built a shantytown lived in it. They would just leave it up and knew that over some period of time it would go away. So they, but that was not Boston diversity. So soon as we started putting two pieces of wood together. The Boston University police were there. They arrested a bunch of people. I was not initially arrested, and then a bunch of his block the police cars that had our counterparts in it. And then we were then we were arrested. And actually, I knew a lot of the police officers. I worked at a local movie theater, and they did security after hours there. So I knew many of them I was it was a little bit of a small time operation on their part. They're in out of handcuffs, then and zip ties I was I was zip. Tide, but my friend with me in the back of the police car was not he was just trusted on his own McConnell. Let's say he was not at that time. I was young smoker. I asked if I could smoke in the backseat and he said fine. So my friend held my cigarette in the back of the police drove to police say, so you were you were like British enters a young person with very kind of fully foreign politics. It seems he was who was acting on your beliefs in a way that a lot of don't do at least until we get a little bit older. And I'm curious whether that something that you in Tanner's talked about or bonded over when I men Vermont. So, you know, we talked about it some he did not I did not know the full extent of his own sort of civil rights background at that particular time. In fact, I learned a lot more about it in two thousand sixteen along with the rest of America. Because despite all the time we spent together really was not. I mean, he mentioned a few times. But it was not a deep topic of conversation. Interesting. Yeah, he's not really boastful in that sort of way. That's really not his. Style. You know, that was obviously a pivotal moment for him in his life. He's also spoken more recently about you know, his Jewish heritage. And the impact of the holocaust on his family and himself emotionally. Father came from Poland at the age of seventeen without a nickel in his pocket without knowing one word of English. He came to the United States to a scape. The crushing poverty that existed in his community and to escape widespread anti-semitism, and it was a good thing that he came to this country because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism all of us. Learn more about Bernie, and I think it's good. But I don't think I don't think he's ever going to move away from being a person whose primary focus talking about policies that affect other people and not talking about himself. I want to bring in check Rocha another campaign senior adviser and talk to you a little bit about your experiences. With more recently on these last couple of camping. You're also senior adviser, can you tell people who might not be as with your your background a little bit about yourself. My background is pretty simple grew up in east, Texas like every other redneck around east, Texas, what they don't realize what a lot of your listeners won't realize is that sound like a really old white man from east Texas when I'm actually Mexican from east, Texas, my mother's actually white my father's family's from one. What Mexico father left at a young age in my mother's father. My grandfather who me and Jeff always talk about who was my Pap all raised me. So I was raised on a working farm. So I got to envision America in probably the most holistic way of any young man because I was raised a generation ago by grandfather who drove a tractor every day who worked in the fields every day. And those values is what I still hope close to me every day. And it's actually the values that drew me to Bernie Sanders for the very first time somebody who works with their hands. Somebody who's been out there me and Jeff couldn't be. From more different parts of the country literally on each end of the country. But we're so similar because we grew up in such rural areas with such humble beginnings. And that's what drove him to Bernie Sanders. That's what made me be a part of Bernie Sanders and being being able to be a senior adviser with Jeff is like coming back home because you get to work with your family. You get to work for a value set that you really believe in. I just wanna cut into note that Chuck got into politics via his union a path. Fewer and fewer people are taking as union membership is down from a high of nearly thirty five percent of all wage and salary workers and nineteen fifty four to just eleven percent today note that there is a direct relationship between low union membership and the share of income which is going to the top ten percent. I would work in a factory when I was nineteen joined the union by happenstance because everybody else did got active in the union became an officer my local union when I was twenty two when onto. Become the national political director of one of the biggest industrial unions in North America. The steel workers, and that was the best job I ever had while left ten years ago to start my own firm. I want to ask you how long ago, did you meet Bernie, Bernie always loves to tell the story that it was in a Chinese restaurant fifteen years ago, when I was the political director, and I was with the international president of the union, and he said this to me just like three weeks ago in a private meeting him and me and him were having like remember when I met we're in Chinese restaurant. He always going to Chinese restaurant because we were talking about probably about trait probably about trying to save some annual facturing jobs. That's normally what we were talking about him because he was such a champion for us, and he'd been a champion for our union. So we would go to burning have these private conversations to kinda strategize. How we could save these American manufacturing jobs, and he always would have input. But I was a young political director didn't know who Bernie Sanders was probably could have found Vermont on a map. And he was just he we kind of we had a special connection at least. That's what he tells me. Always close to birdie. He's like, I remember you then and he said you were good then and you're good now. I'm like that. Do you ever anything about why you think as you guys hit it off because he reminds me of my grandfather? My grandfather was the strongest man, I knew he was a slight man anybody who knows me for thirty seconds. I'm this big overgrown stress Mexican, but my father, my grandfather was this little white man who was tougher than me was stronger than me was meaner than me. He he could pick two rows of peace to my one. And I was a seventeen year old. Boy, that's the way. I look at Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is twice my age, but outworked me everyday has more energy than I will ever have. And I think that was the was the was the draw with like how does this man shell flatter yourself? He's not twice your age. Older than me. But not. Get work having gotten such big personalities in the recording studio. I couldn't resist asking Chuck and Jeff for some of their best Bernie stories from back in the day. But as it turns out, the really isn't a public and private Bernie, what you see is largely what you get people think that the that somebody who's been a successful and popular to be honest. His Bernie Sanders is he would be different than he is. But he's really not. He's even more home any comes across on stage. I was with him and Jeff was on this trip with me in Las Vegas to speak to the machinists union just a couple of weeks ago when we were headed back to the airport, we elect three hours and Bernie again to the food thing. He's like we should get something to eat before we go to the airport and you're in Las Vegas, right? You're the most the best food in the world of the best chefs in world, I'm like, oh my gosh. We're going to get a fancy hamburger somewhere. Like that's going to be really good. Like, maybe we could find out. Vegas, and we're now googling the nearest which Vegas. Just. So you know is only about a mile from the airport on the backside of the Las Vegas strip again in the middle of a strip mall. So we won't into the Bernie Sanders rolling again at ten people deep in people again Bernie Sanders. So they were so kind of people waiting they found us a table set. But the the thing that all of us have seen happen on the road with him. As the first thing is the manager comes over. Thank you for coming in. Bernie's very humble. Yeah. Orders to eggs, two pieces of toast, two pieces of bacon. Like, it's just that's what he wanted to have her well done well done. Don, you know, paying? Yeah. But then the people from the back, right? Like the folks you're working. That's who Bernie wants to talk when they come out he more so than the manager who he respected, and it showed a lot of commonality with. But when the workers comes out he lights up to Jeff's point he wants to hear from. That's where he wants to hear the stories, right? And people are talking to him on his way out there saying that they caucus for him last time, which music consultant excuse me, ask you more questions on how to run a little focus group. Right, but Marnie just wants to interact. He wants that one on one communication with regular people to regular jobs who feel like my granddaddy who've been forgotten about. It was heartening to hear that perspective from two people who had known Bernie Sanders for so long that the authenticity. We all love is consistent, and perhaps even deeper than we imagine. We were looking at all the space. I remember walking into offices all over the northern Virginia. Places trying to find a place for a hip, right. And after the third building to just credit because he knows the Senator heat to Saudis. All of these places are just way too. We do not need a campaign offices got marble and the four year. He's like the Senator will not like this. He goes, can you tell the real estate we won't level c or d buildings? No as are Bs, and how does that was the best thing ever? But I was curious to talk to David Sirotta to somewhat different perspective. It's one thing to work alongside a person. But it's another to try to capture his voice as a speechwriter that requires a perceptiveness, a kind of close study, the most of us don't apply to the everyday people in our lives. What I wondered how David gleaned both is professional capacity and in his personal relationship with the Senator over the last couple of decades. Our toll people that Bernie is not like. Ron burgundy from anchorman. I mean, you know, that scene in one of my favorite movies where they say don't put it that on the on the teleprompter because he'll read anything off the teleprompter. Like that is not Bernie Sanders. That is not our speechwriting process. Bernie, still writes, his speeches. I mean, I in some ways the title speechwriter is a little bit of a misnomer in that. It's like speech supporter like speech helper. What I try to do is. We have a set of speeches on this. Or that issue? I try to get him the information that he needs that he's going to put into his own voice. I try to get it into his voice. But he's got a very unique voice. He knows exactly how he wants to say things. So I'm there to help get the research and the material that he needs to to put into his voice. And the thing is that his speech is if you listen to them, they are very fact driven mean, it's not it's not. A lot of rhetorical flourish. It's this is almost it's not not exactly a research paper. But like here are literal facts that that I'm telling you about the country, and in a sense. It's actually what we call in journalism. It's showing not talent. And I think that that's what he's really focused on. It's been successful for him a little bit about when you first met. Senator Sanders way relationship started shirt, it was the year nineteen ninety nine. So I was basically just out of college. I worked on a couple of campaigns. And I had sent a resume a bunch of resumes around the Capitol Hill and back, then they wouldn't tell you who you were applying to they would do these ads in in like roll call and the hill, and they say, they would describe a congress person, they would say, you know, northeastern democrat or western Republican or whatever. And and I remember I saw semi resume all over Capitol Hill to a bunch of different offices. And I get a call from Jeff Weaver, and he says I'm calling from congressman Bernie Sanders office. And I was remember thinking in my mind, wait a minute. I don't remember thinking that I had a I I don't not sure who that is like an and and then I looked up and he was the independent self described democratic socialist from Vermont, and I said, wait a minute. I thought I had only applied to democratic offices. And then I looked back at the ad, and he had it was described as a I think it was a progressive northeastern member wasn't a democratic northeastern member. So I go in I meet with Jeff Weaver to be honest after I met with Bernie, and it was a great meeting the night before I I they offered me the job and the night before I took the job. I remember thinking what's it gonna be like to work for a self described democratic socialist in congress is going to be, you know. How is he going to be able to work with the Democrats? And is it going to be, you know, super isolating? And and I will say it was it, you know, I kind of got over my fears and went to work for him. It was one of the best experiences of my whole life because working in the congress for an independent like Bernie is a completely unique experience in that. You're you get to see the congress, and how it works from somebody who is something of an outsider as opposed to a just standard party guy. The whole offices attitude was different. I mean, we worked when I was there we worked with very conservative members of congress. We work with very progressive. Members of congress Bernie was seen as somebody who worked well with other members of congress, but also was seen as somebody who could forge these left right coalitions. There were a bunch. of articles in his twenty sixteen campaign that were written about how he became what was called the the amendment king of the house, which was where he would do these coalitions where he would have very conservative Republicans and very progressive Democrats coming together on a transpartisan issue in in a in a way that there was there was really no party. So for example, the bus trips to Canada, I was on. I think it was the first said he was the first bus trip that a member of congress did to Canada with with constituents to go purchase lower priced prescription drugs. And that was an issue in which we had very conservative Republicans who are super free trade people with us working with us on that drug importation issue with very progressive members of congress that was a good example of that some people have caught onto the fact that he's talking more about his personal story. And I think that's a really important thing to do. In that. I think it's important for the public to know that he's not a machine it's not a robot that what he is. For comes out of a lived experience like me, David Rohde worked as a journalist before joining the campaign, but not everyone has been super excited about. So I wanted to pick his brain about that transition and how he's handled the media response moving out of journalism to come back to work for Bernie Sanders. Twenty years after I had worked for him was a difficult decision for me because I knew that I was leaving behind a set of skills that I had worked really hard to try to become good at which is investigative journalism. And I think the reason I decided ultimately to do it was that I think that the country in the world is in a place right now facing crises right now that the most. Direct action possible to solve those crises is absolutely positively necessary. In an immediate sense because of things like climate change and the economic crisis and that given the opportunity to work in a very direct way on those things was worth the sacrifice of leaving journalism to be clear. Not to say the journalism isn't addressing those crises. But for me personally, this was an even more direct way to do it. And I did it. And I, you know, some people criticize me for that. I I knew that was just a few people criticize me for that. But you know, what I don't have any regrets. I mean, do I miss journalism every now and again? Yes, do I like him criticized all the time because I went back toward for Bernie Sanders. No, I don't I don't like that. But you know, what I have young kids who are relying on us to actually solve the problems that threaten their future. And so if that's the price of of me trying to help with that. 'cause then that's the price we pay. I feel very similarly I I don't obviously have the lengthy career that I was offering kind of up on the pyre as it were. But you know, what? What I reflected on with the fact that I was only a writer because I had started writing in response to the political context of twenty sixteen. I was an attorney sitting at my desk tweeting to my one hundred followers about how angry I was. And how it was being erased because I'm a black woman being called a Bernie, bro and told that I'm literally a fake person out about a white person that I'm a Russian Bob and all these things, and then I started to write about that experience. And write about the way identity was being weaponized at that point of time, and then those articles took off, and so the idea that at this point, you know, I was writing because of Bernie bias. We'll like I'm an opinion writer, and my political perspective, which is that I am supporter of left politics has always been playing, and there's this new kind of a non with with Twitter with people's personal politics kind of being out there more, particularly in the opinion writing realm, where there's an argument that I think that I believe in which says everyone has. Icees, and there's a certain honesty to people being upfront about their politics that readers have an opportunity to judge as they will how to credit the fact that you're laying out for them. But for my personal decision making was to say, if you're only MS because you're real agenda isn't to be a writer, or to you know, to have any career path, but to advance left politics because of the exigent circumstances that we live in that you just described will then how could I not do anything and everything I could to advance this project? So I'm certainly glad that you're here the way to put it the way I put it is that going from journalism into the kind of politics that we're working in now is not a conflict of interest. It's an alignment of interest. Why are you? Why was I in journalists expose injustice? It was to expose corruption. It was to expose unfairness and to exposed a rigged system. So this campaign. Is in some ways a traditional political campaign running for an office? But it is a campaign about exposing Craciun about challenging economic injustice. I don't think it's kind of like a like a u-turn or a betrayal just part of the work that's being done. And I would agree with you on the other point, which is that. You're right. Everybody has opinions. Everybody has biases. Nobody is objective. The minute. A newspaper says this is the story we're going to cover and we're not going to cover this story. That is a subjective opinion decision. I didn't hide the fact that I had worked for Bernie Sanders, and I was a journalist. And I guess my point is is that look ultimately the question is whether you're in politics journalism. Why are you in politics? Are you in there to see your byline in lights are you in there too? You know, one day get some Bray job, you think will make you feel good in it to actually solve the problems the emergencies that are at hand. And I think that's what this campaign is really all about. And I think that's what. Bernie Sanders has been all about, and I I really don't think there's actually much of an argument that that's not true. That's it for this week. Let us know what you think at here. The burn at Bernie Sanders dot com. Or tweet with the hash tag here the birth. If you haven't already please take a moment to rate in review as on apple podcast soundcloud, or wherever you're listening as always transcripts will be up soon till next week. Well, about the graphic it per it is the way you feel you know, like people were black because they're not feeling good about what's going on around them. Like some of the. Some of the stuff that goes on in the body. You know, basically baloney will thank you very much the your forthright views.