A Conversation With Bernie Sanders's Biggest Fans: My Grandmas

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a primary night election rally in Carson, California, May 17, 2016
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a primary night election rally in Carson, California, May 17, 2016. Sanders scored a decisive victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in Oregon, boosting his argument for keeping his underdog campaign alive through the conclusion of the primary process. Several US networks called the Pacific northwest state for the liberal Sanders, who was leading the former secretary of state 53 percent to 47 percent. Earlier in the night, Clinton claimed victory in an extraordinarily tight race in the state of Kentucky. / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Supporters of Bernie Sanders have been stereotyped as young, mostly male millennials, who, for some reason, are connecting with a 74-year-old Jewish grandfather. I wanted to learn more about Sanders supporters who didn't fit this label, so I talked to two of his biggest fans: my grandmas. While my grandmas come from different backgrounds, they are both lifelong Democrats, Midwesterners and seriously #feelingthebern.

My maternal grandmother, Patrecia Devon, is first generation German-American and grew up Catholic on Chicago's north side. She raised my mom and her siblings as a single parent while putting herself through college. She is very active in the Sanders campaign in her state of Wisconsin and will serve as a regional delegate for that state's caucuses. My paternal grandmother, Rita Frank, is from a family of Chicago Jews and prefers to be called "Nana." She fell in love with my grandfather, who she has been married to for 65 years, at Teachers College after he returned from fighting in World War II.

Because I am their granddaughter, they agreed to a phone discussion on the one topic you don't bring up in polite conversation: politics. Luckily, they both had similar beliefs, particularly their desire for change in American government and their frustrations with the Republican Party. We laughed and disputed and by the end, they had me in tears. Besides gaining a wider understanding of what it means to be a Sanders supporter, I also have a newfound appreciation for grandmas, and the struggles they have faced in their lives. I am proud of how they continue to use their political power to create a better future for my generation.

Me, far right, with my arm around my maternal grandmother, Patrecia Devon. My father, far left, stands next to his mom, my grandma Rita Frank. Her husband, Robert Frank, sits in the middle.

Hannah: To start, why do you support Bernie Sanders?

Rita: I just voted for him because I'm sick of the so-called politicians that are running and those that are in office today, and I thought he made sense. I think we need someone in office who gives us a different look. That's all.

Patrecia: Well let me count the ways. Well first of all because he is a real, authentic person. He has not changed any of his positions for thirty or forty years. You go back to his start in the early '80s, and the man has been saying basically the same things he is saying now. I think he is the only person really in my lifetime who can bring hundreds, literally hundreds of thousands of people and make them active and engaged in a political movement that is going to be a benefit of the middle class and not the very wealthy.

Hannah: Would both of you say you care more about this election more than past elections?

Patrecia: Ah boy. That's a tough one. I've cared about them all, Hannah. But I've got to say, this is the first election where I have canvassed. I have phone banked. And I can't send a lot of money, but I think I've contributed to his campaign already five or six times.

Hannah: What stands out about this election?

Patrecia: It's the revolution! He's a leader.

Rita: I only have one thing I don't agree with. I don't agree with him on paying for college. I agree with the medical and some of the other things he talks about, but free college? Sometimes when you get something for nothing, you don't honor it as much. I just can't see everybody going to college for free. That just doesn't make sense in my mind. But that's me.

Hannah: Do you remember how you paid for college?

Rita: I went to Teachers College, and that was nothing (financially) practically. But it had an end result in teaching. That's how it worked in Chicago. And not only that, it was very hard to be Jewish and get into college. There were nine or 10 Jewish kids every year that got in. So we knew there was a quota system. There were maybe four or five black kids who got in. It was a very Irish Catholic school system until after World War II. That's when it kind of opened up.

Hannah: But don't you think it's different nowadays because the cost of college has gone up so much and it's harder for graduates to find jobs?

Rita: Yeah they come out owing a lot of money. That's very true.

Patrecia: They're in debt for practically the rest of their lives, and so it boils down to with the system that we have now, it's only wealthy kids who can afford to go to college. That's just so unfair. I didn't go to college until I was in my 30s, but it took me ten years, ten years, and another, I don't know how many, seven to ten years, to pay off my student loans. I really hear what you're saying Rita, but I also think that it can be so burdensome. Maybe there is a middle road in between there.

Hannah: Do you remember the first time you each became politically involved?

Rita: I don't know if I'm politically involved. It's World War II for me when they wouldn't let the Jews into the country. That's when I got mad at Roosevelt, and that was my first inkling towards that. Of course at that point in time I was maybe 15 or 16 years old.

Hannah: Do you remember the first election you voted in?

Rita: It was the dark ages. I would imagine when we were able to vote at 21.

Patrecia: I can actually remember the afternoon because my mom and dad were talking about President Truman and the Korean, well they called it a police action then Hannah, not a war. It was just another euphemism, you know. But it was war. And I remember I was probably 8 years old, and I was frightened hearing them talk about it. That was the first time my interest got sparked in politics in general and government and world affairs. The first time I voted was for John F. Kennedy. So of course following his assassination, it was just a terrible turmoil. Martin Luther King got shot and then Robert Kennedy. I think that our nation has never been the same really since all of that. All through it, the 1968 Convention, all of it, I've been passionate. I felt passionate about what was happening in our country. Not just now.

Hannah: How have your personal backgrounds affected your political opinions?

Rita: I don't know. I feel very bad because I never had any political connection at all really. Just that my friends and I grew up, we were Democrats, and that was our interest. And after I finished college, I got married, had four kids, and I was too busy to get much done. Of course there was a fascination with Kennedy and all of that, but politically, I was never an activist. In fact with all of our friends, nobody really was an activist. And I'll tell you, with some of the friends I know whose kids, of course they are not kids, they are in their 60s and late 50s, those with a lot of money, who have made money in their lifetimes, they have joined the Republican party. Their sisters and brothers around them who haven't made a lot of money, they're still Democrats. But the kids like who I said have gone on to better things, they have all gone
Republican. It's interesting.

Hannah: Do you have any idea why that is?

Rita: Because the Republicans were always known as the money people. Democrats were always more in Bernie's class.

Patrecia: Yeah, middle class. Working class especially and pro union. And I think because both of my parents were staunch Chicago Democrats, I grew up with that around me. My dad was a union man. Then when I went to high school, it was all about the Kennedys. Of course because he was Catholic, so that influenced me, and I think still does to this day. Plus my own history. I remember the first time I really got involved was when the women's movement came to the forefront, and then I became a feminist, and I became active to pass the ERA, Equal Rights Amendment, which never did pass. And I could only be a little bit active because at that point, I was a single parent, and I had a lot on my plate. But I did actively take part in that movement. That was the real beginning for me as far as not just being interested but becoming active.

Hannah: Why do you prefer Sanders over Hillary Clinton?

Rita: Maybe it's a continuation of all the presidents who have been in the White House. You know what I mean? She is very politically inclined, and I think he's more human. That's maybe why all the kids like him so much. I think the big thing he has got to do is get those kids out to register. I'm trying to work my own grandkids to make sure they register because in November, they are going to be back in school. Not just saying they're for Bernie. They've got to make sure they vote for him, which is a big difference: saying something and doing it.

Hannah: How have you used the Internet during this election?

Patrecia: I've become a troll, Hannah. I'm on every day. I must put in I want to say two or three hours a day, which is ridiculous. And I think with some stuff, I can't wait until this whole election cycle is over so I'm not so hooked into what's happening there. But it's like I can't leave it alone. I'm obsessed with what's happening. But on the other side, I've made a lot of new friends, so that's good.

Hannah: Have you had any interesting discussions about this election?

Patrecia: I've had so many. I think that everyone is sick of hearing about it from me. I think they try to avoid it, and I truly try not to bring it up in conversations. I feel like a broken record. It's boring after awhile.

Rita: Religion and politics you don't discuss.

Patrecia: You're right Rita. That's so true.

Rita: Well the thing that gets me most angry is this business with women. Who the hell are they to tell me I can't get an abortion. Who the hell are they to tell us anything? You know I don't think it should be a political thing.

Hannah: Have both of you been open about your support of Sanders?

Rita: Yeah, not that anybody really cares. I mean my kids and the grandkids. But besides that, if I talk to a friend or something, but it's not usually conversation. At my grand age, we don't talk about it unless it's brought up, and usually, it's more health issues. All we hear about is health issues.

Patrecia: Hannah, to give you an honest answer to that question, I'm not a hypocrite, but I am somewhat of a coward. I live in a very redneck neighborhood. You see no political signs up anywhere around here because everybody knows you will make enemies. I'm ashamed, in a way, of my cowardness, but I don't have a sign in my car. Although on my dining room table, I have umpteenth signs to put up, stickers for my car. When I went canvassing, I wore pins and all that stuff. But to be in my neighborhood, I'm a coward. I have to live here.

Rita: You're right though Pat.

Patrecia: I know, but sometimes I go to bed at night, and I think, "Oh forgive me. I'm such a coward." But I'm kind of afraid I'll be ostracized or maybe even someone could do some vandalism.

Rita: It's a crazy time.

Patrecia: Yeah exactly. So I'm not proud of it, Hannah. If I was a braver soul, I would have my sign in the front yard and on my car and everywhere, but I don't. And my neighbor who is probably the most popular person on this block, very early on, she had a Sanders sign out on her lawn, just a little tiny one. You would have to get close to even read "Sanders." And you know what? It was gone already months ago. So I'm not the only one. She was braver than me to have it out for a little while.

Hannah: If you could talk to Trump, what would you say to him?

Patrecia: Hannah, what I can say? It would be an expletive. I won't say any more.

Hannah: If you could give Bernie any advice, what would you tell him?

Patrecia: I would ask him for advice. Everything that he is doing, he is doing right to me. I don't see anything that he could do better. Do you, Rita?

Rita: Well there is a lot about his background that will come out. I would just say, stay strong.

Patrecia: He's my hero. And when I look at his schedule. You know what I do? I pray at night. I pray that he is able physically. How does he do it? Rita, my God. I don't know how he does it. He's everywhere. He's tireless. And I just think physically, at 74, God help him stay physically able to continue this. I have never seen anybody work so hard.

Hannah: At this point in your lives, being retired and having grandchildren, what specific things appeal to you about Bernie?

Rita: Well I would say at my age, I'm not really worried about much of that. I would say for my kids. I just hope that he's a good and honest person and sees things a little bit of the way we see things and not in the opposite direction towards the Republican view. And that's really all we can hope for. That he is an honest person.

Patrecia: I'm with you all the way on that, Rita. It's not for me. It's for you, Hannah, and all the young people, because Bernie wants to leave this Earth better than it is now. He's for no fracking, doing away with fossil fuels, investing the money in things that are healthy for this planet. And he says that himself. He says he wants to do it for our grandchildren. To leave the world a better place than it is now or at least take steps in that direction. That makes sense to me.