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Sierra Blanca Is How Trump Crushes Bernie

There's an avalanche of opposition research coming for Bernie Sanders. The story of Sierra Blanca is just the start.
February 27, 2020
Sierra Blanca Is How Trump Crushes Bernie
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Santa Monica High School Football Field in Santa Monica, California (RINGO CHIU/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a lot of discussion about the “oppo” that is coming down the mountain for Bernie Sanders if he’s the Democratic nominee. Most of this focuses on the gap in knowledge between his socialist sympathies and voter attitudes on socialism.

But Sanders has also avoided the scrutiny on more niche issues that Trump and the conservative media specialize in elevating but are saving for later, thanks to his Favored Opponent Status.

One such subject (that was used sporadically by Clinton allies in 2016) is currently being featured in an ad running in South Carolina by the anti-Sanders Super PAC “Big Tent Project.” It’s about Sanders dumping waste in a poor Latino community in Texas.

The ad is potent and, should Sanders be the nominee, will be the perfect successor to the “super-predators” ads the Trump campaign used to tamp down African-American support for Clinton in 2016. So before you hear about it from your Ingraham Angle watching aunt this summer, here’s the phrase that is certain to become very familiar in conservative households: Sierra Blanca.

First, the basics.

(1) In 1998, then-Rep. Sanders cosponsored a bill that would allow Vermont and Maine to dump their nuclear waste in a poor and largely Latino town in Texas called Sierra Blanca.

(2) A Texas Observer article in 1998 covered protestors from Sierra Blanca confronting Rep. Sanders and being given the stiff arm. The story’s headline was “Sanders to Sierra Blanca: Drop Dead.” Sanders even rebuffed an offer to visit Sierra Blanca, telling its residents, “Absolutely not. I’m gonna be running for re-election in the state of Vermont.”

(3) Liberal hero Paul Wellstone—an actual progressive Democrat—gave a speech on the Senate floor calling this dump “environmental racism.” Former Texas Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes called Sanders actions “insanely callous.”

(4) After Congress approved the proposal, environmental regulators rejected the Sierra Blanca site. But a different site in Andrews County, Texas gained approval a few years later and Vermont/Texas maintain an interstate waste agreement.

(5) In 2016, Sanders’ tax returns revealed that as of 2014 Jane Sanders was still drawing a small salary as an alternate commissioner for the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission as part of the agreement with Vermont that her husband pushed.

(6) Oops.

This story has everything that makes the Trump trolls giddy. It allows them to undermine Bernie’s argument with the poor and people of color through a simple anecdote with an easy-to-understand shorthand. It’s especially damning because it’s pretty much true. And, as an added bonus, it doesn’t help that this isn’t Jane Sanders’ first brush with scandal.

Turning Point USA meme’d Sierra Blanca back in 2016 and got enough traction on Facebook that Snopes fact-checked it. Their verdict? Mostly True. It goes without saying that Snopes isn’t really in the business of giving TPUSA their seal of approval.

So the weapon is real. How will it be used? Well, the Trump operation has that billion-dollar battle station the size of a small moon. You can expect Brad Parscale to take the truth—which is already very bad for Sanders—A/B test it to infinity, and then microtarget different aspects of the scandal to different classes of voter. Maybe white residents of Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania, see Facebook ads showing images of Bernie dumping green goo into the homes of native-born Americans, while skipping over the homes of illegal immigrants as his wife dives into her pool of gold coins. And then Hispanic Facebook users in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, get clips of Paul Wellstone saying “environmental racism” next to Bernie’s angry mug.

A story like this is so great that you can use it both ways: to stoke enthusiasm with your base and depress enthusiasm on the other side.

And it works.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.