On the road to Philly: Gillian Popenuck

Political Revolution exists beyond candidate, convention

Gillian Frances Popenuck didn’t know she was being prophetic when she told Bernie Sanders, “See you in Philly.”

The two met after a rally where Popenuck was chosen to introduce the candidate.

“We had some time together backstage,” Popenuck said. “This was before the caucus in Iowa, so he had no idea how well he was going to do. He told me, ‘Whatever happens to me, you got to keep continuing to fight.’ And I told him, ‘I’ll see you in Philly.’ It was just one of those one-off things that you say. But he looked at me very sincerely and said, ‘Yes. You will.’”

Three months later, the 30-year-old Burlington mom of two was elected during the 2nd District Convention as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention that gets underway Monday.

Gillian Frances Popenuck, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Burlington, poses with her two children. (submitted photo)
Gillian Frances Popenuck, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from Burlington, poses with her two children. (submitted photo)

“It was such an amazing moment, especially knowing that I began this journey with Bernie when he was polling so low that many considered him a fringe candidate,” she said.

Popenuck, a California native, began volunteering with the campaign in the fall of 2015, but her admiration for the candidate dates to her high school days. When she was 15, her father, a regional vice president with Service Employees International Union. introduced her to Sanders.

“When I found out that Bernie, this lifelong family favorite, was running, it just seemed like I was meant to volunteer,” she said.

Popenuck had done some community organizing, mostly as part of a housing group, but hadn’t been overtly political. She went to the local office, expecting to volunteer the one time “but it just snowballed.”

“I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I got involved with the campaign when I was at more of a challenging point in my recovery. To be able to go in every day and work with amazing people, for an amazing candidate and see the impact that work was having in our community — well, I think that’s what kept me moving forward in a positive direction,” she said. “Now that I’ve been involved on a political level, I will definitely stay involved.”

Supporting the Sanders campaign, she added, has been a bonding exercise for her and her father.

“He still lives in California, while I live in the Midwest. It has been interesting to see how our support has evolved. Even so, this cause has remained so important to both of us.”

Arriving at the Philadelphia International Airport during a planned SEIU strike by airport workers means that Popenuck’s worlds will intersect, and that’s OK by her.

“I hope to be able to strike with them and show my support for them when I go through the airport,” she said.

It is that level of inclusiveness, of believing people can work together to make things better and create the opportunities of the American dream, that makes Sanders’ message so important to Popenuck.

“My grandfather moved to this country from Italy without knowing the English language and without money, and he was still able to achieve the American dream. That’s the story my family was raised on: Anything is possible,” she said.

“So, it is just really appealing to me that Bernie looks at a situation and can recognize it as unjust, and then understands that it is our collective responsibility to reverse it. It puts the power back into the hands of the people, instead of just a select few.”

It is a message she thinks resonates with Americans, especially those in the middle class.

“I know for myself and my husband, we graduated with $50,000 in student loan debt. We are paying $800 a month in out-of-pocket medical expenses. If it gets worse for my kids, that would be heartbreaking for me. I mean, getting by is already a struggle for us,” she said.

Sanders’ dual message of hope and action is why she believes the political movement that began as part of his campaign will continue.

“Regardless of what happens at the National Convention, the political revolution that Bernie has started so successfully with his campaign won’t end. People across the nation remain involved and are committed to making the Democratic Party more inclusive. I’m proud to be a part of it,” she said.

Like many Sanders delegates, Popenuck has heard there will be a roll-call vote and, not surprisingly, her vote will be for Sanders.

“I’m not just one person when I stand there. I represent thousands of Iowans,” she said. “I’ve been elected to do a job, and I’m going to do it — gavel to gavel.”

Where Popenuck goes after that final gavel isn’t yet decided.

“It is hard to look further into the future when this event that we’ve been building toward for more than a year hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “I’m looking forward to going to the convention and seeing what happens there. Once it is concluded, I’ll make a decision about what I’m going to do next.”

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 23, 2016.