There was perhaps no more ardent backer of Bernie Sanders in Southwest Virginia than Bill Bunch.
The 67-year-old farmer and retired postal worker mounted a brief run for Congress this year with the sole purpose of spreading the Bern across the state’s coalfield country.
But when the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Philadelphia this week, Bunch will be there, ready to rally around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
“I’m still enthused for the long haul, because we have to be. We don’t have any choice,” said Bunch, who won a slot earlier this year as a Sanders convention delegate.
“The stakes are so high with climate change and our corrupt political system that has to be changed, and this is the start of it,” he said. “We need to work hard to get Mrs. Clinton elected and then work hard to push forward on the changes in our platform. The Democratic platform right now is the most progressive in history, and it’s needed.”
The Democratic convention, which gets underway Monday, puts a four-day spotlight on Clinton and her newly announced running mate, Virgina’s Sen. Tim Kaine, at a time when many Sanders supporters remain uncertain of how to proceed and rumblings of a possible floor protest linger.
Nathan Auldridge, a Sanders delegate on the rules committee already meeting in Philadelphia, said he hoped party activists will be able to come together to “keep progressive politics moving forward.”
Some believe the deck was stacked against Sanders, Auldridge acknowledged, a point the rules committee will debate this weekend as it crafts recommendations on issues like whether the party should continue using superdelegates.
But while Clinton may have benefited from the current system, he said, she didn’t put it in place and isn’t responsible for it.
“She didn’t start the fire, to quote Billy Joel,” said Auldridge, who also serves as chair of the Salem Democratic Committee.
Sanders, for his part, reportedly plans to address his nearly 1,900 delegates before the start of the convention and vowed in his endorsement of Clinton earlier this month to help her get elected.
Auldridge — who won’t be a voting delegate at the convention itself but hopes to attend some of the events — said he has no qualms about backing Clinton.
“Comparing Clinton to Trump, it’s Clinton easily,” he said. “Clinton has a lifetime of backing progressive issues and standing up for women’s rights and a record of pushing for increased access to health care for Americans.”
The Democratic convention is expected to bring more than 4,700 delegates to the Wells Fargo Center near Philadelphia’s waterfront, along with a host of politicos, as well as activists planning to stage protests around the event.
Local Democrats making the trek anticipated last week that it would be a less fraught affair than the Republican National Convention was at times.
“I think it’s always dramatic to nominate a candidate to be president of the United States. In fact, it’s probably one of the most dramatic things we do as citizens,” said Victoria Cochran, a Clinton delegate who was also a delegate during the 2012 party convention in Charlotte.
“But do I expect anything to be reality TV dramatic? No,” she said.
Cochran, of Montgomery County, praised Sanders and the issues he brought to the forefront, but added she was glad to see him come together with Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and, I believe, the whole Democratic Party want to focus on the things that unite us,” she said. “We have so much more in common than we have that divides us, and yet Donald Trump wants to focus on the things that divide us.”
Steve Cochran, who was just elected to a seat on the Democratic National Committee, predicted the convention will draw a “very clear distinction” between Clinton and Trump.
“I think people are quickly going to see that if they want a steady hand in the White House, they’re going to want Hillary Clinton,” said Steve Cochran, a former longtime chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee and husband of Victoria Cochran.
“And, I believe, in November the voters will make history once again by electing the first woman president,” he said.
Local delegates waved off Republicans’ focus on issues like Clinton’s handling of sensitive emails while secretary of state.
“It’s become clear that she’s disqualified herself from serving as president of the United States,” U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, said earlier this month.
Goodlatte, as chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has been at the forefront of the political backlash over the decision not to file criminal charges against Clinton in the email matter and recently co-signed a letter seeking an investigation into congressional testimony she gave on the issue.
“We cannot afford to have someone with such little respect for the law in the White House,” he said.
Mike Hamlar, a Clinton delegate and former candidate for Virginia Senate, said he isn’t worried about how Clinton’s track record will measure up in the race.
“I think she’ll be just fine,” he said. “... It all boils down to Hillary Clinton is the real deal. She’s the only choice for hardworking Americans. Donald Trump only cares about his own prosperity. She cares about prosperity for all of us.”’
Hamlar, a local business owner and early Clinton supporter, said he was drawn to Clinton’s proposals to boost the middle class.
“She’s going to bring the jobs that we need. We don’t want Virginia to be like Atlantic City,” he said, echoing a recent speech Clinton gave in that New Jersey vacation spot ripping Trump’s business record in the community.
The opening day of the Democratic convention will feature speeches from Sanders and First Lady Michelle Obama. The announced theme is: “United Together.”
Clinton will accept the nomination Thursday night. In between, a string of figures ranging from President Barack Obama to longtime Clinton confidant Gov. Terry McAuliffe will take the stage.
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said he hopes the party resists the temptation to indulge in four nights of Trump bashing and instead positions itself as the party of ideas.
“There’s never been an easier target than Donald Trump for Democrats,” he said. “But every time we say anything negative about Republicans or about Trump, we’re turning people away, especially new voters.”
“Both parties have been guilty of taking the easy way out and advancing divisive politics, and it has to stop ... It’s not leadership. Leadership is about showing a vision and then paving a clear path to obtain that vision.”
Party leaders hope the Clinton and Sanders factions can coalesce around the common ground found on ideas like campaign finance reform, raising the minimum wage and debt-free college.
Bunch, said while Clinton wasn’t his first choice, he’s excited for the election ahead and the prospect of electing the first woman president.
“I’m sure there will be some hot feelings expressed, especially on my side,” he said of the approaching convention. “But I think people will keep their eyes on the prize.”
“I think we have changed the Democratic Party,” said Bunch, adding Sanders’s headway could ease the path for future candidates like him to sweep to victory. “He’s leading the way for people we might not even know about yet.”