Four years ago, before Gabriela Orozco was old enough to vote, she knew Bernie Sanders was her candidate to take on Donald Trump. She liked how the Vermont Senator wanted to remake the federal government to help those most in need.
Now, the 20-year-old college student finds herself once again looking for an alternative to Joe Biden. But “Sanders is old now,” she tells me when we talk in Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club, where longshot presidential candidate Marianne Williamson has just delivered a speech. What did she think of Williamson when the spiritual author ran ahead of 2020? Orozco pauses, both of us aware of Williamson greeting fans a few feet behind her. “There was a reputation of her as a bit of a crazy lady,” she says softly.
Orozco’s willingness to give “a crazy lady” a second look is a sign of how much has changed since 2020, when many Americans knew of Williamson as the kooky crystal woman preaching a politics of love. Now the options for those dissatisfied with the Democratic establishment are scant and Williamson is more clearly evangelizing from the gospel of Bernie Sanders.
“During the last campaign, it was this urgent sense that if only we could defeat the former president, then maybe life will go back to normal,” Williamson tells me later that evening. “Now people realize the problem was bigger than just one man.”
Indeed, the crowd of about four dozen people who came to hear Williamson propose an Economic Bill of Rights was littered with onetime Sanders supporters, some of whom punctuated her speech with snaps and loud hums of approval. When Williamson mentioned her support for Medicare for All and her plans to cancel all college loan debt, the applause was so piercing, it sounded like balloons popping.
Williamson’s chances of winning the nomination aren’t much better than four years ago. She is polling in the single digits, below another longshot candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Audience members I spoke to were resigned to the party nominating Biden again, and only one committed firmly to voting for Williamson in the primary. But they all hope she can do in 2024 something akin to what Sanders did eight years ago: nudging the party to the left.
“I was a big Bernie supporter in 2016 and 2020,” says Blake, a 26-year-old who works for a government contractor and didn’t want his last name published. “One of the things that I really like about Marianne is, regardless of what people say about her electability, she’s pushing the Overton window to the left. And I think that enables Biden and the more establishment Dems to maybe push further left on issues.”
Of course, Williamson ran as a progressive in 2019, too. Despite entering the race with no prior experience in elected office, her status as a celebrity author whose profile had been elevated by the likes of Oprah Winfrey enabled her to clear the thresholds to qualify for the primary debate stage. But facing nearly two dozen rivals, including a left-wing champion in Sanders, she often got lost in the crowd. It didn’t help that she was quickly branded the “orb queen” for her talk of the “dark psychic force” operating in America and for her spiritual fans, who penned many tweets studded with crystal ball emojis. Now, her brand has evolved; it’s all about no-nonsense Sandersesque policy.
“I won’t turn that down,” she says when I ask her about the comparison to the Vermont independent. “I don’t think that a candidacy like mine would exist had there not been a Bernie Sanders. I don’t think there would have been a Bernie Sanders had there not been an Occupy Movement. Everything in life, whether it has to do with our individual journeys, or the journey of a nation—one thing leads to another.”
Fighting political corruption is an animating theme of the evening. When an audience member asks what Americans can do about it, she admits it’s unlikely gerrymandering will end or Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision which unleashed unlimited corporate spending in elections, will be overturned anytime soon. But just as Sanders is now delighting in using his leadership position in the Senate to hold corporate executives to account, Williamson envisions taking on the powerful people the rest of D.C. is palling around with.
“Elect someone, get her in there, who sees that game for what it is, who has nothing to gain by pleasing the insurance companies, or pleasing the pharmaceutical companies, or pleasing Big Ag, or pleasing big chemical companies, or pleasing big food companies, or pleasing gun manufacturers, or pleasing big oil, or pleasing defense contractors,” Williamson urges. “It will please me to make them squirm.”
After the speech, I talk with Markus O’Bryan, a 30-year-old real estate agent and one-time president of his high school’s Young Republicans club. By 2020, O’Bryan had gone through a political transformation and backed Sanders in the primary, which he says explains why he finds Williamson compelling for 2024. “I had a look at her policies, obviously, and her policies almost directly line up with Bernie Sanders-type policies,” he says.
Besides Medicare for All and canceling all student loan debt, Williamson, like Sanders, supports passing the PRO Act to boost union protections and putting checks on banking executives. Sanders has endorsed Biden for reelection, but told Insider in March, “I know Marianne … I’m sure she’s going to run a strong campaign and raise very important issues.”
Williamson’s fans are among the many Democrats who aren’t satisfied with Biden’s leadership, or the fact he’s running again. “She seems to be one of the few of all the candidates that has an interest in representing the working class, especially among Democrats,” says Troy Bent, a 47-year-old math and special education teacher who found himself drawn to Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren during the last cycle. “As usual, we’re faced with: ‘Vote for the lesser of two evils,” says Bent, who adds, “This year, I’m not going for it.”
With the Democratic Party in lockstep with Biden, I ask Williamson what she’s doing differently this time around.
“Some of the things I’m doing differently have to do with making the sausage,” she responds. “Nothing you talk to TIME Magazine about.”
She means campaign logistics. Though she didn’t tell me any details, Politico reported that Williamson recently parted with two top campaign staffers, including her campaign manager. An anonymous staffer told Politico that their departures were “mutually agreed-upon” after the campaign decided to go in a more progressive direction.
Before the end of our interview, I have to know what Williamson hopes to achieve out of this campaign short of winning. She’s clearly strategic. We both know earning the nomination will be tough; maybe there’s something else?
“At the end of this, whether it takes us to the White House or not, we will know that we presented the American people with the option of moving in the direction of that new beginning,” she says. “I personally believe that if I’m successful at reaching enough people with this vision, and have a fair shot at introducing myself to them, then I will win the nomination and I will win the presidency.”
So it’s the party and the media that are standing in the way? She says her one-word answer like a full sentence: “Duh.”
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