Bernie Sanders, Integrity & the Nevada Caucus “English Only” Controversy

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. Originally published at at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.

Dolores Huerta, one of the great Latina activists and a Hillary Clinton surrogate

by Gaius Publius

If Clinton wins, she’ll need the Sanders supporters in November. Is the the way to woo them?

I hadn’t planned to write about this, the dust-up raised by actress America Ferrara and Delores Huerta, one of the great Latina activists and long-time Clinton supporter, supposedly about Sanders voters yelling “English only” during one of the Nevada caucuses. But the story is just so … well, you can supply the word after you read.

I’m going to give you three pieces of it — what was alleged to have happened, what really happened, and a bit from Democracy Now about the 2008 primary against Barack Obama. Then my thoughts about integrity and this election.

What Was Initially Alleged

The source of the dust-up is America Ferrara, followed quickly by Huerta herself. From

CLAIM: Supporters of Bernie Sanders shouted “English only” at civil rights activist Dolores Huerta during one Nevada caucus event, ostensibly objecting to a translation of remarks into Spanish.

Snopes rates this claim “FALSE.” More background via Snopes. It started, with a tweet from America Ferrara and a follow-on affirmation by Huerta:

Here’s the affirmation:

Snopes again:

ORIGIN: On 20 February 2016, the Nevada Democratic caucuses ended in a victory for Hillary Clinton. Not long after that, actress America Ferrera tweeted that that supporters of Bernie Sanders shouted “English only!” at longtime civil rights activist Dolores Huerta (who had apparently offered to translate from English to Spanish at an event at Harrah’s casino on the Las Vegas strip), objecting to a translation of remarks from English to Spanish … Huerta initially didn’t specify how she identified the chanters as Sanders supporters.

For the truth, let’s go to the videotape.

What Actually Happened

The problem is that someone took a video of the whole caucus, which shows something different than claimed. That video is here — start listening at 53:30 and stop at about 55:30.

Note first, at about 53:30, that the audience expresses a need for Spanish translation, then that Huerta is put forward as the translator, but many object to her because she’s so strongly pro-Clinton (the word “surrogate” is shouted). This is also clear from the moderator’s response (54:18), who says (at 55:00) that there are enough Spanish speakers in the crowd that if Huerta slants the translation in a “pro-Clinton” direction, they will know it. By the way, note during the crowd reaction, a voice clearly saying, “Hey! You have to get up there now!” (at 54:25). It’s unclear who the voice is addressing, but the urgency is unmistakable.

The crowd is not happy with that solution, so the moderator says “OK, we’re going forward in English only” (55:18 and following), a decision which the crowd cheers. Only the moderator says the words “English only,” and the context is entirely different that what was alleged by Ferrara and Huerta.

About this confrontation, there are a number of other eyewitnesses, including actors Susan Sarandon and Gaby Hoffmann, who affirm what the video shows.

Another commenter, Angus Johnston writing at, has this to say:

Rather than check on procedure, try to find a neutral translator, or pause the proceedings so that the two sides can come up with a joint plan, the chair is abdicating his responsibility to oversee the process, allowing whoever rushes the stage first to take a major role in the running of the vote. People start shouting “No!” and jeering him. Apparently referring to Huerta, someone yells out “She’s a surrogate!” Near the video mic, you hear someone say tensely, “You have to get up there now.” (On another video of the confrontation, you can hear someone shouting “Neutral! Neutral!” at this point.)

I don’t think Huerta is the doer here. I think she, a civil rights icon and yes, a Clinton surrogate, was put forward by the crowd, and then the incident was spun, starting, it seems, with America Ferrara’s tweet. Only then did Huerta agree with the characterization, both on twitter and later to a ThinkProgress reporter. I don’t think it helps Huerta’s good reputation, however, that she so easily fell into the Clinton-camp mischaracterization of these events.

Out of this, we know two things. One, that the non-event was immediately and falsely spun to taint Sanders voters. Second, that this opportunistic mischaracterization would have worked, absent a video tape or a cell phone recording that disproved it. Ask yourself, what would the news be like yesterday and today if this story were unchallengeable? A rush of Sanders spokespeople to apologize perhaps?

Which tells you something about the ground on which this contest is being fought, and who primarily occupies that ground.

Delores Huerta, Speaking for Clinton in 2008

As a side note about that “ground on which this campaign is fought,” I want to offer with this, a find by Daily Kos diarist VL Baker. This is a segment from a Democracy Now interview with Huerta, speaking on behalf of Clinton, and Federico Pena, former head of Transportation under Bill Clinton, now representing Barack Obama. The moderator is Amy Goodman. Remember the context; this is the 2008 Democratic primary.

From the transcript (my emphasis; I’ve added elisions, but feel free to read the whole segment at the link):

FEDERICO PENA: Well, Amy and Juan, good morning. Let me say good morning to my good friend, Dolores Huerta. We’ve been friends for many, many years.

Let me be very succinct in telling the audience why I’m supporting Barack Obama. [He then summarizes a stump-speech list] … And I think it’s that kind of good judgment that the American people want, and I certainly want, in the next president.

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, I don’t know about his judgment. I just want to mention one thing in particular. …

There was a big issue, if you will recall, where we had a woman who — in Chicago, Elvira Arellano, who refused to be deported, and she was undocumented. She was in sanctuary for twelve months, for an entire year, right there in Chicago, where Obama lives. The people who did that campaign, these were the same ones that organized the big marches in Chicago, went to see Obama to get some support for Elvira Arellano. He [Obama] not only refused to help them, but he didn’t even bother to go see Elvira. … Obama never, never lifted a finger to help her, as he never did when we had two Latinos that had been unjustly incarcerated for a murder that they did not commit. Again, a big campaign to free these two young men from prison. They were ultimately freed. But when they went to see Senator Obama, he refused to help them.

I have been a civil rights activist like this all of my life, and I have been to Chicago many times for many different campaigns that the community there —- the Latino community was there. I have, to this day, to meet Mr. Obama. I have never encountered him in any of these big campaigns that we have done in Chicago on different issues. And, as I say, I have never yet to meet the man. And so, I don’t know about his -—

AMY GOODMAN: Did Senator Clinton weigh in — Dolores Huerta, did Senator Clinton weigh in in either of those cases?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, let me — yeah, let me just say this, that this is a — we’re talking about Chicago. We’re talking about the third largest Latino area outside of Mexico City, right?


DOLORES HUERTA: But Hillary doesn’t live in Chicago.

That seems … awkward … but there’s more:

FEDERICO PENA: … let me interrupt and correct the misimpression that my good friend Dolores just left. I’ve spoken to the senator about this case and his staff. [Obama’s] staff met with this woman twice. The reason she got special exemption years ago with Senator Durbin’s help was because she had a special medical condition. That special medical condition went away. She was no longer subject to a unique law that had to be passed specifically on her behalf, and that’s why it wasn’t done. So it’s clearly not the case.

“Misimpression” is indeed kind, but he’s being kind for a reason.

This Is Not About Dolores Huerta; It’s About the Campaign Style She’s Supporting

Dolores Huerta, like John Lewis, has a greatness in her past that can never be erased. She co-founded the United Farm Workers union and led them until 1999. This is not about Ms. Heurta but the style of the campaign with which she has associated herself.

I’ll be blunt. Among other things, this is an election about integrity, about whether one tells the truth. It’s clear, agree or disagree on policy or implementation, that Sanders has integrity in spades. His “who do you most trust?” numbers are through the roof in every primary and caucus so far. Part of his appeal is his message, but a huge other part is the belief of his supporters that he means that message and is not just out to win by any means necessary.

Clinton may mean her message as well. But she faces a challenge in the eyes of Sanders supporters. The challenge — if Hillary Clinton wins the primary, she will have to pass the integrity test also if she wants their support. There are ways to demonstrate integrity, and ways to demonstrate otherwise. Not telling the truth is no way to demonstrate integrity; it’s the opposite, in fact.

Time to course-correct? If she cares about her electoral chances in November, I hope so.

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  • kimyo

    if Hillary Clinton wins the primary, she will have to pass the integrity test also if she wants their support

    clearly the author does not live on this planet. on planet publius, virginity can be magically restored and the appearance of an election suffices.

    • cettel

      Gaius is saying that Hillary Clinton must denounce what was done, or else she’ll not be receiving on election day the support of some Sanders supporters, and that that could turn out to affect the election-results by decreasing her vote on Election Day. He is correct that it could happen, but I think that, realistically, it won’t, because very few Sanders-supporters will get to know that this event had occurred. Moreover, even some Sanders supporters who do get to know that it had occurred will refuse to vote for Hillary for her ignoring it. So, I agree with kimyo on this.

  • Holly Martin

    This is one instance where the Snopes story didn’t get everything right. Dolores Huerta didn’t lie, but what is heard at the front of a room can differ from what is heard in the back, and it is ridiculous to accuse her or John Lewis of corruption. Bernie’s people have not been squeaky clean, and they’re really quick to try to blame shift any shady thing they do on his behalf. I am a Bernie supporter, and I want nothing to do with the people on his side. As for Clinton’s integrity, there are politifact scores that show her about even with Sanders and head and shoulders (both of them) in from of every single GOP contender. She was more liberal in the senate than Barack Obama. Less liberal than Bernie, which is why he is still my guy in spite of his friends.