BUFFALO, N.Y. — At two bars, two miles apart on Main Street, the same scene was playing out: cheering on a favored presidential candidate, over a cold beer and, of course, a plate of chicken wings.
Five days ahead of the presidential primary in New York, supporters of the Democratic rivals, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., gathered at two local watering holes to watch the candidates face off nearly 380 miles away in Brooklyn at the CNN debate Thursday night.
At The Oakk Room, a short walk from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, a who’s who of local Democrats, including Mayor Byron Brown, turned up to cheer on Clinton. The Clinton supporters, many dressed professionally, greeted one another in the darkly lit bar as old friends, and cheered when Clinton said in her opening statement, “We worked hard to bring jobs from Buffalo to Albany and all parts of New York.”
A five minute drive away, locals who were new to the political process gathered to root for Sanders at the Central Park Grill. With many in jeans and Sanders campaign T-shirts, the Sanders supporters were a bit rowdier in the wood-paneled bar with strings of lights around the room.
When Sanders and Clinton sparred over Social Security, the crowd booed her comments and cheered when Sanders made his points.
“You know political conversations don’t start on a debate stage like this,” said Brian Nowak, 29, gesturing to the large screen over his shoulder. “They start in bars. You know, around the kitchen table, with your friends. You’re like, ‘Yeah the f***ing Chinese are f***ing us over.’ People don’t think about that as a political conversation, but it is.”
Nowak, who is from the town of Cheektowaga, serves as lead organizer for “Buffalo for Bernie,” a grassroots group that has loosely worked with the Sanders campaign on the ground in Western New York. The group has been coordinating canvassing efforts and phone banks, and organized Thursday’s debate watch party.
“A lot of people in the room there are people that don’t vote or haven’t voted in a long time,” Nowak said later. “They see somebody that is worth supporting.”
For the Clinton supporters five minutes away, the former Secretary of State is that somebody.
“Right down the street there, the medical campus would not be there today if it wasn’t for Congressman [Brian] Higgins and Secretary Clinton,” said Jeremy Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, as he gestured toward the cluster of buildings that includes Roswell, and other medical research and education facilities. The growth of the medical campus has helped revitalize the Rust Belt city, which Clinton pointed out during her visit to Buffalo last week.
Clinton, who represented New York in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2009, toured the medical campus before a campaign rally at a Buffalo museum. On Monday, Sanders addressed a packed crowd at the University at Buffalo. And, according to The Buffalo News , the competing events unfolded much like Thursday’s debate watch parties, with Democratic officials flocking to Clinton’s event, and few party leaders attending the Sanders rally.
With the race heating up and, if the polls are an indication, Clinton poised to win New York on Tuesday, the question is whether these two factions of the Democratic Party can eventually come together side by side at the same bar.
Clinton called for that reunion Thursday night, telling viewers, “[It’s] going to be important that we unify the Democratic party when the nomination process has been completed.”
As she spoke, a young, spectacled Sanders supporter looked down at his plate, now devoid of chicken wings, and shook his head.