Tootie Welker wears a "Bernie Sanders for President 2016" button on her shirt wherever she goes. The button indicates to anyone who sees it that she's happy to talk about who Bernie Sanders is, what he stands for and why she supports his presidential campaign.
"He says what he thinks and he does what he says," Welker says. "He speaks out and has never held back. I don't think there's anything he stands for that I don't agree with 100 percent."
Welker, an organizer with the Missoula contingent of a statewide group called Montanans for Bernie Sanders, is determined to help stoke a growing grassroots campaign supporting Sanders' presidential campaign—an effort that, nationwide, has raised $15 million in individual small donations and given rise to the hashtag #FeeltheBern in the two months since the independent senator from Vermont announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Welker, 58, talks quickly and animatedly about her years of work as a political consultant with the Montana Committee for an Effective Legislature and as an advocate for victims of domestic violence in Sanders County. Along with her Bernie button, she wears a purple T-shirt that reads "Feminist Majority." As a longtime progressive, Welker says, she recognizes Montana's strong history of progressivism and labor rights advocacy—despite its red-state reputation—and sees Sanders' positions on issues as reflective of what she calls Montanans' "ethos of independence."
Indeed, Montanans for Bernie Sanders' Facebook page indicates a strong base of support for the candidate. The group has garnered more than 4,600 likes since April, and more than 100 people have RSVP'd for a "Missoula for Bernie" meeting scheduled for July 19 at the Missoula Public Library.
Welker acknowledges, however, that grassroots movements face certain organizational challenges. For instance, a smaller Missoula-based Sanders group called We the People's Revolution, led by Calleen "JC" Donlan, has booked regular meeting times at the library separate from Montanans for Bernie Sanders. Donlan contends that she and her colleagues have been harassed and marginalized by the other group. Welker, who has not met Donlan in person, says the difference in opinion lies in organizing strategy.
In spite of the rift between the two groups, Welker believes Montana's small population ultimately creates a sense of intimacy while trying to mobilize support for Sanders. "We're a good state to organize in because the rural-ness means people realize you have to be a good neighbor and that we need each other to survive," she says.
As Welker is interviewed over coffee, a woman at the next table overhears her pitch and asks, "Are you working on Bernie Sanders' campaign?" Welker answers yes, and the woman hands her a $20 campaign contribution and her contact information. Welker, taken aback momentarily, thanks her and mentions the July 19 meeting.
"This is how it starts," Welker says. "It starts one person at a time."