Volunteers advocate for presidential nominee Bernie Sanders in new downtown Wichita office

In a small retail space next door to The Donut Whole in downtown Wichita, the official campaign office for the “political revolution” has opened for Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders.

The self-described socialist senator from Vermont opened the Wichita office, 1716 E. Douglas Ave., on the night of the Iowa caucus earlier this month when Sanders battled former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a virtual tie, coming up short by a fraction of a percentage point.

Sanders’ supporters, like volunteer Christy Bennett, see that as a moral victory for a candidate who once trailed Clinton by 40 points in Iowa, according to some polls. Bennett’s support was validated after seeing the results come in at a caucus watch party at the campaign office.

“All of that energy and watching all the results come in and him doing better than anyone predicted, it was just that reward of what you’ve been waiting for so long,” Bennett said. “And now people are getting on board.”

Bennett was one of many local volunteers to show up at the office Tuesday night. Each of them was there for a telephone bank, in which supporters call registered Democrats in Kansas to convince them to side with Sanders over Clinton.

The office’s main function is to organize volunteer efforts including telephone banks and gathering Wichita supporters together for debate and caucus watch parties. The colorful space is adorned with campaign artwork and a whiteboard where people have written messages like “Bernie is bae” with dry-erase markers.

Bennett said the office has helped transform Wichita’s Sanders fans from a loosely organized group into an organized, friendly network.

“Just within Wichita, I found people I never would have encountered otherwise and actually became friends with them,” Bennett said. “It’s been much more than just a campaign — it’s a community.”

Fellow volunteer Margi Sweeton shared a table with Bennett. Sweeton said she has been a fan of Sanders for years because she sees him as consistent and truthful in his beliefs, such as universal health care being a right and public universities needing to be tuition-free.

“I know what he stands for, and he doesn’t waver,” Sweeton said. “He’s saying things that I really feel passionate about.”

Sanders’s campaign was the first to open an office in Wichita. A Clinton office opened on Douglas Avenue this week, while Republican frontrunners Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have yet to open offices.

For Wichita State alum and volunteer Eliot Eichbauer, Sanders’s early presence in Wichita is emblematic of what has made his campaign so popular.

“Bernie Sanders kind of has his fingers on the pulse of the country a little more accurately than Hillary Clinton,” Eichbauer said. “I think it indicates that they’re in it for the long competition.”

Sanders runs on a platform of taking big money out of politics and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, which Eichbauer sees as especially appealing to Wichita residents. Local businessmen Charles and David Koch have been criticized heavily by the left for using their money to oppose issues such as expanded government healthcare and climate change regulation.

“Income inequality is obviously a nationwide issue that will have an impact here in Wichita,” Eichbauer said. “The Koch brothers are a local institution that are funding a lot of the resistance to some of the ideas that Bernie Sanders has put forward.”

Another volunteer, Alan Satterly, sees Sanders’ message as one that should resonate with this city.

“Wichita’s a working town,” Satterly said. “I think a lot of people are disenchanted with the way things are going. He just speaks to those people that he’s going to stand up for them as opposed to standing up for the establishment.”

Although Clinton served in Barack Obama’s cabinet, Eichbauer (an avid Obama supporter) sees Sanders as a proper continuation of Obama’s agenda, which famously advocated for hope and change in 2008.

Eichbauer said Clinton’s message (that single-payer healthcare and free college tuition are unrealistic goals) is defeatist, which should not represent Obama’s accomplishments.

“I believe, if you look at the rhetoric coming out of the two campaigns, Bernie Sanders truly is the legitimate heir to Obama’s legacy in both substance and attitude,” Eichbauer said.