BRATTLEBORO — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., knows Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers has featured the same lineup of cows, school bands and politicians — starting with himself — since first stepping off and marching up Main Street in 2002. That was before he announced his candidacy for president.
That’s why, this Saturday, everything will change.
“MEDIA ALERT: Bernie Sanders to be in Strolling of the Heifers Parade,” the event’s publicist is emailing the media with bulletin-like urgency.
A Facebook post reporting the news already has reaped more than 5,000 views and 250 shares as well as such comments as, “I hope the cows moooooove over and give him some room. Udderly fantastic!”
As for the usual celebrity milking contest after the march? It’s making way for a speech by Sanders on the town common — as well as a surge in media interest.
Orly Munzing, the Stroll’s founder and executive director, took a call from radio station WRSI-FM on Wednesday to explain how she met Sanders shortly after brainstorming the event 15 years ago.
“I walked up to him and I told him about this idea,” she recalled. “Bernie said, ‘You must do this.’”
What began as 50 jaywalking cows pictured in papers from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times (think juxtaposed images of meandering Holsteins with Spain’s “Running of the Bulls”) has grown into a nearly weeklong, $250,000 event promoting farming and healthier social, economic and energy policy.
But for all the attention, the Stroll has never hosted a national candidate. As a result, organizers of this weekend’s 14th annual parade are preparing for what could be record attendance. Consider a New York Times story on Monday chronicling Sanders’ most recent public appearances.
“A mere 240 people live in the rural northeast Iowa town of Kensett,” the article began, “so when more than 300 crowded into the community center on Saturday night to hear Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, many driving 50 miles, the cellphones of Democratic leaders statewide began to buzz.”
Sanders attracted 700 people to an earlier Iowa event in Davenport — “the largest rally in the state for any single candidate this campaign season,” the Times reported — another 4,000 in Minneapolis and more than 5,000 at his formal campaign kickoff in Burlington.
Vermont’s junior senator formally joined the race for the Democratic nomination last week in Burlington. Hillary Clinton is seen as the front-runner; former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee have also declared.
Spokesmen for Sanders and the Stroll say his Saturday march shouldn’t be considered unusual.
“The senator has been going to the Strolling of the Heifers for many, many, many years,” says his longtime state political director, Philip Fiermonte.
Adds event marketing director Martin Langeveld: “He almost always has been here — sometimes that’s meant flying from Washington on a Friday night — and we always appreciate it.”
But ask all involved any more questions and they respond “no comment” or “off the record,” as if elaborating publicly would disclose a state secret.
What is known: Sanders’ speech will be “congratulatory” rather than campaign oriented. And it should be short: After the 10 a.m. parade, Sanders is set to hold a town meeting at 1 p.m. in the nearby early primary city of Keene, New Hampshire.
Vermonters wanting to stay in Brattleboro and talk politics should be able to find someone else around. As a news release adds in a footnote: “Also participating in the parade: Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.”
At the Stroll, it seems, Sanders will be the one on a roll.
“He may milk it,” one Facebook post surmises, “for all the political capital he can get.”
Kevin O’Connor, a former staffer at the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, is a Brattleboro-based writer. Email: [email protected]