First there were the cheerful nurses in red scrubs who followed Bernie Sanders across the country. Then there was the tiny Oakland firm that wanted to flip hundreds of Democratic superdelegates for their man.
Now, there is a pro-Sanders super PAC just for the millennials of Alaska.
The Anchorage-based America’s Youth PAC, made up almost entirely of former Bernie 2016 campaign staffers, is the latest unconventional outside group to throw its support behind the Vermont senator. Its leaders broke off from the Sanders campaign last week and have holed up in an old mall on the outskirts of town, just steps away from the official campaign’s office in the same building.
Despite Sanders’ fading odds for the Democratic nomination, America’s Youth PAC’s 10-person team is canvassing, making buttons and registering voters in the hopes of giving him a victory in the Alaska caucuses on March 26 against Hillary Clinton. Chris Johnson, the executive director of the super PAC and former Sanders field director in Alaska, said they abandoned the Sanders campaign over “creative differences.”
“We were all former staffers on the Bernie Sanders campaign and we came to a realization that there was a niche where we could do some really good work,” Johnson said. “We really felt like there was a niche of activating new voters that was left untapped.”
It is an unusual arrangement: Instead of billionaire donors looking to fund television ads, Sanders campaign staffers have formed a dissenting splinter group in the northernmost state and campaign on the ground for the Alaska caucus. From a drab shopping mall storefront, they want to take on Clinton's powerful alliance on the Acela corridor.
The group also exists in murky legal territory, as federal election law requires a “cooling-off period” that prevents a candidate’s staff from leaving the campaign and doing certain kinds of work for a supporting super PAC within 120 days. America’s Youth PAC disputes it is doing anything illegal, but several independent campaign finance experts said it was pressing the boundaries of election law.
The so-called “cooling off period” is intended to prevent coordination with the campaign. Technically, the law prohibits former campaign staff from assisting on paid "public communications" that rely on material knowledge from the campaign. The sticking points, campaign finance experts say, are in the meaning of “public communications” and what knowledge the new super PAC used from the campaign. Canvassing is not traditionally defined as “public communications” in the way that television advertisements are.
"A campaign staffer cannot leave the campaign with special insider information about what the campaign is trying to do, and then rely on that information, utilize that information to go work for the super PAC to help super PAC spending," said Paul Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center.
Even though Johnson was the field director for the Sanders campaign in Alaska until earlier this week—a leading role in a state campaign—he denied having any insider knowledge from the campaign. “Neither I nor anyone else at [America’s Youth PAC] has any access to proprietary data or information from Bernie 2016 or any of the details of their field plan in Alaska whatsoever,” Johnson said.
Limited federal laws, and a dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, make it difficult to prosecute questionable cases. Under current election law “it is possible for people to leave a campaign and go basically do the campaign’s work through a super PAC that is not regulated the same way under campaign finance law and accept unlimited contributions,” said Trevor Potter, a former FEC commissioner.
The super PAC is a far cry from the well-oiled Clinton super PAC machine, which have been set up with the help of Clinton aides and generally work as closely with the campaign as the law allows.
The Alaska group is just the latest example of Sanders’ support among super PACs that are out of his control. The Vermont senator repeats at almost every campaign event and in fundraising email blast that he does not have a super PAC. “No super PACs. No millionaires or billionaires. Just you,” the Sanders’ campaign latest fundraising email said on Monday night, “and our political revolution.”
As of mid-March least three super PACs have now spent money supporting Sanders, including National Nurses United, a nurses’ union, and Progressive Kick, a small California group, despite Sanders’ consistent opposition to outside campaign spending.
America’s Youth PAC was technically founded last year but was largely inactive until it hired a flush of new staff and endorsed Sanders on March 10. It draws its team almost exclusively on former Sanders campaign staffers who worked for the campaign as recently as last week. Its executive director, Johnson, was until last last Monday Sanders’ field director in Alaska, a top position in the state. Anthony Garcia, another super PAC staffer, was Sanders’ Alaska deputy field director. Jacob Daruvala, who is the super PAC’s communications director, worked under Johnson as a field organizer.
America’s Youth PAC was first formed in April 2015 aimed at “researching and implementing strategies to turnout the youth vote” according the the PAC’s website. The campaign said it would “utilize an already impressive media network” to “galvanize youth to get to the polls.” The group, however, raised a total of just $1,500 in 2015 and was barely active on social media, with little over a dozen followers since it launched its Twitter account in April. Its Facebook page has a little over 400 likes.
Now in Alaska, the group makes and sells pins, including one with a picture of Morpheus from the Matrix that says “What if I told you the same thing I’ve been saying for the last forty years”—a play on a familiar Internet meme. The group listed Johnson as the “communications director” on its initial March 13 press release, but Johnson, who is 28, said the group had a “board meeting” and switched roles to "executive director" the next day.
They plan to canvass and register voters on college campuses and among youth organizations and are looking to secure funding for a total of four buses and travel around Alaska, according to its Facebook page. Daruvala, the communications director, ran for California State Assembly in 2013 when he was still a high-schooler.
Johnson said the super PAC was going to raise money from large donors who will contribute “checks with commas in them.” He is also putting up his own money to fund the effort, he said, and is being helped by Sanders volunteers and Democratic activists have maxed out contributing to Bernie 2016.
The Sanders campaign was quick to disavow the super PAC. “We had no idea about this, we did not organize it, nor do we condone any violation of election law,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the Sanders campaign. “If these folks want to help Bernie, they should volunteer at a local field office, not open up a super PAC in defiance of both FEC regulations and Sen. Sanders' wishes.”