Following the competitive race for Barbara Boxer’s open U.S. Senate seat, IVN interviewed independent Democratic candidate Steve Stokes, who identifies himself as a true ‘Berniecrat.’
Stokes spoke about this not being an ordinary election and the reasons that made him run as a Democrat, even though he sees the Democratic Party as a corrupt organization. Stokes praised the nonpartisan top-two primary in California and asks voters to realize that democracy is not a spectator sport, but actually requires participation
IVN: You describe yourself as a “Berniecrat.” What does this mean to you and how does it affect the way you are campaigning in this highly-competitive U.S. Senate race?
Stokes: I first heard the term "Berniecrat" about 6 months ago. I heard it because between elections I was recruiting candidates in California and other states to run on a progressive platform. Even before Bernie was running, I was recruiting candidates that would run independent to get money out of politics and reform the democratic system to open up our elections.
I consider myself the California connection for the independent wave of candidates and I was looking for people in other states that would know the local laws and the ballot access requirements and help spread the message that we need people to run for office in order to give an outlet for the obvious need for reform that we have. The question raised about Bernie Sanders identifying himself as a socialist -- Democratic-socialist -- people used to be very careful to say that just a year ago. I don’t know everything about Bernie, but I have backed him and followed him closely the past year, and looked for candidates who identify with him as well and have integrity, honesty, and align on the issues.
Because I align with Sanders on the issues, I get the question: Are you a socialist? I’m not a socialist; I am somebody who wants to reform our capitalist system. Any system can be corrupted and we do have chronic capitalism, but we could just as easily have corrupt crony socialism. We need a transparent, open system. Since it became a question of what is a socialist and who is a socialist: “I’m not a socialist, I’m not a capitalist, whatever I am, I’m a Berniecrat,” which means that whatever Bernie is saying, no matter what system you want to describe it as, I align with that.
A Berniecrat can be a Democrat or an independent. I personally align with the Democratic principles as stated, but the Democratic Party is not working as advertised. I truly am an independent at heart; I have been an independent for many years, but for means of understanding, many people think that an independent is just a Republican in disguise, so that’s why I decided to run as a Democrat, but I’m certainly not an establishment Democrat; I’m a grassroots independent.
IVN: You are the only candidate in the U.S. Senate race who has come out in support of Bernie Sanders. Why do you believe he is the best choice for president?
Stokes: I believe he is the best choice amongst our current candidates. At this point in the race we already lost many candidates, we are down to three people, and I fully fill that if this race was an open election, like California’s top-two, the presidential race right now with Bernie and Hillary and Trump would be a blowout and Sanders would be the consensus winner. I believe the other two candidates are seriously flawed, regardless of their name. With one I can’t trust what they say and the other is saying some things that actually make sense, but in general is saying things that are actually non-sensical. The other two candidates are each unqualified for different reasons. I am a person who believes in actions rather than words.
IVN: How do you think the growing movement behind Sanders’ campaign will influence the results of down-ballot races in California?
Stokes: All of us Berniecrats are working together and I’m actually in communication and working with these candidates both on strategy and on policy. The movement has absolutely created an opportunity for independents and it has created a focus where, two years ago when I ran I would have to explain my positions up and down the ballot to win someone's support and alignment, but now once voters understand that I align with Bernie Sanders to a great deal they are able to say, "if you are with Bernie then I back you." There is also a bit of a liability that anyone can say “I align with Bernie” for political gain, because they know the movement behind him. People assume that because candidates are on “their team” they are good, and support without any further questions.
IVN: This may be the first time in history that two members of the same party face off against each other in the general election for a United States Senate seat. How do you feel about that and do you think it will change the campaign dynamics?
Stokes: In California we have top-two, and we are a blue state with majority of Democrats. The establishment number one and two candidates are both Democrats and I would be the third Democrat behind those two and I actually feel that they are my real and only competition in terms of differentiating myself from other candidates. The other candidates are for whatever reason not posing a serious challenge to my campaign. It’s almost like this is a big Democratic primary because we are in a democratic state.
IVN: Do you support California’s nonpartisan, top-two primary? Why or why not?
Stokes: I strongly support Prop. 14 -- the top-two nonpartisan primary -- for many reasons. First of all, because it made it so much easier for independent and grassroots candidates to get on the ballot. If I would want to run before, I would have needed the party’s approval and I would have never made it beyond the Democratic primary because the establishment would have their favorite choice.
Prop. 14 actually provides a mechanism where independent candidates can get ballot access by fulfilling reasonable requirements. Second, hopefully it will create focus on our primary election. Far too many voters skip the primary, and that’s where the grassroots candidates that truly reflect the community are losing to the corporate, well-funded, establishment candidates -- so it’s imperative that voters vote in the primary. Third, thanks to top-two, in November, you are not faced with the lesser-of-two-evil choice, and if you vote for your candidate you are not splitting the vote.
And finally, some of the minor establishment parties, like the Libertarian or the Green, seem to disfavor top-two because they are used to having a guaranteed seat at the table in November, which they don’t have anymore. Under top-two, a candidate could and should focus on the primary so then they can get on the ballot in November, and give voters a choice outside of the establishment.
In an ideal world, if Americans realize democracy is not a spectator sport but actually requires participation, not only by voting, with top-two we can make the primaries the main part of the election process and November can be a choice between the greater of two goods.
IVN: According to California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the number of No Party Preference voters has increased in the past years. Currently, 24% of California voters are registered as NPP. Why do you think this is happening? How will independents impact the primary election?
Stokes: I believe this is a growing trend. I believe that because of the fact that we can see it in terms of economics, foreign policy, civil liberties, it has been ushered in by both parties who agree upon what to disagree upon. More and more people are realizing that although there are good Democrats and there may be some compassionate conservative Republicans in small numbers, in general the establishment of both parties operate under special interest and against the common sense and the greater good of our country. To combat that, more and more people are not aligning themselves with the major parties and are identifying as independents. I personally like the idea of independent rather than aligning with a party because I feel like voters are not considering the full spectrum of issues and no two people are going to align 100%, and so I believe candidates need to be questioned on all issues and evaluated based on that, and not simply resolving to a particular party or letter designation that inevitably brands a candidate and gives them a path on all issues, even if they don’t always align with a particular philosophy, which ends up with them voting against the interests of their own constituents.
IVN: Of the over 2 million independent absentee voters who were mailed a postcard to choose a presidential party ballot in order to vote in the primaries, 88% did not pick a party ballot. This means nearly all of these voters will not have a say in the presidential contest unless they act quickly. Does this reflect on California’s primary rules? What do you think of this?: Yes, it definitely reflects on that. My hope is most of those voters will take their ballot to a polling place and ask for a ballot of their choice, they can do that and my hope is that they will. I would actually favor a system that would reform the presidential election process from considering the role of superdelegates, to making the presidential primaries also an open-type election, where there is a top option that will completely disenfranchise the parties. But maybe a more realistic solution would be to actually have the NPP absentee ballots go out with both a Democratic or a Republican ballot and have the individual mark the one that they want their vote to be on and give them an opportunity to make their decision on the fly if they are a No Party Preference .
IVN: DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently said she would bar independent voters from voting in primary elections if it was up to her. Do you agree or disagree with her? Why or why not?
Stokes: I strongly disagree. The fact is, right now the Democrats are functioning as such a corrupt organization that it would be a shame to have to be forced to identify with such an organization to be able to vote. Since both parties have completely structured our political process to make it such that every candidate has to go through one of those parties, it’s completely undemocratic to make it such that voters who are not in those parties are not able to vote, because there is no viable choice outside those two parties. When they block non-members of their party from voting, it’s basically disenfranchising everyone but the minority that chooses to identify with their party.
IVN: Your opponents have significant party support; in what ways does this make your campaign more difficult?
Stokes: I actually do not see a great problem with that. In the view of many progressives who are aligning with Bernie Sanders and with the independent movement, a party’s endorsement is almost a stamp of a candidate that is not worthy of support. There’s still plenty of members and voters out there who will vote for a party but if that was the case the party endorsement is not going to persuade the voters. It will be done by the name recognition of those major candidates, not so much because of an actual endorsement. And the same goes for fundraising. The fundraising goes to them because of their alignment with corporate values and the name recognition, not because of a particular endorsement. So as far as the actual endorsement goes, I actually think it is a matter that can be used to differentiate from the status quo establishment candidates, which this year is actually perceived as a negative thing and so I don’t see that as a problem.
IVN: Are there any additional comments you would like to make to California voters ahead of this important election?
Stokes: This election is not an ordinary election. Bernie Sanders is not an ordinary candidate. And this is not an ordinary time in our history. The very founding principles of our democracy have been corrupted by an elite few who care not about America, who care not about our democracy, they only care about themselves and their donors and with that our democracy is being completely corrupted. So much so that even our news media completely misinforms the public to the degree where its is hard to determine what is true and what is not, and where even sane dialogue is hard to come by. Because of that our country is in decline, and our world is being polluted and our future as a free country is in jeopardy. We need Americans to take this opportunity to re-involve themselves with the political process and realize that they need to vote, and need to study the candidates and vote for those who represent our values and demand that our country returns to a democracy by and for the people.