From Ron Paul To Bernie Sanders, Denver Voter At Home Backing Political Outsiders

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Photo: Bernie Sanders supporter TC Bell
TC Bell, a Bernie Sanders supporter, stands in his home in Denver's Overland neighborhood. He's holding his daughter Emma.

TC Bell, one of Sen. Bernie Sanders' most fervent Colorado supporters, doesn't have the past you might expect.

Sanders is a self-described socialist. Bell, on the other hand, voted Republican for years.

But more recently, he's spent hours training Sanders supporters on the ins and outs of Colorado's caucus system.

Who makes that kind of a switch -- and why?

Bell works as a cashier and raises his two daughters in Denver's Overland neighborhood. In an interview in his living room last month, he told me a little detail that sort of perfectly illustrates how crazy he is about politics: His oldest daughter, 6-year-old Dagny, was named after the main character in the iconic conservative novel "Atlas Shrugged."

"At the time we were these libertarian anarchists and I was like, 'What’s the most libertarian name I can come up with?' But by the time my second daughter was born, she’s actually named after Emma Goldman, who was a communist organizer," Bell said.

An Ex-Ron Paul Foot Soldier

Bell describes himself as a contrarian by nature. He was raised by a single mother who was, and is, a passionate conservative. Reminiscing about his high school days, Bell describes himself as a long-haired, pot smoking, semi-hippy kid. At the same time, he founded a Young Republicans club and liked to read the National Review.

Bell said his conservative past was a period of intellectual idealism. By 21, he was a foot soldier in the Ron Paul Revolution.

"My girlfriend had ‘Google Ron Paul’ painted on her windshield for literally 12 months," Bell said.

But the 2008 election shattered Bell’s political idealism. He was disgusted with the Republican establishment and its treatment of young activists like himself. Bell dropped out of electoral politics completely, writing in "Nobody" for president in 2012. He considered himself a "libertarian anarchist" -- ready to drown government in the bathtub and let capitalism run free.

But during this same time, things were happening in Bell's life that challenged his conservative beliefs. After his daughter was born he and his girlfriend split up and she applied for food stamps.

"I could see just the instant benefit, the shift of not having to stress of where food is going to come from," he said. "It was in that moment when I kind of was like, 'Oh, wait a minute. Not all of these big government programs are equivalent.' "

Swayed By Sanders

Bell’s own economic situation this past decade hasn't been great either. He couldn’t afford college and has been stuck in low-paying retail jobs. Today he makes little more than he did at summer jobs as a high school student. So it’s no wonder Bell was drawn to Sanders -- he’s living a lot of the campaign’s talking points.

Bell likes Sanders’ concrete recommendations for free tuition and universal health care. But what resonates most is Sanders’ diagnosis of the problem.

"It was really the idea of the class issue," Bell said. "How are we going to live amongst ourselves, the rich and the multitudes of the poor, because we're not doing a very good job right now."

"They're two zombies that are feeding off of each other and feeding off the fear of the American electorate," he said.

Life After Bernie

Bell used his organizing skills to train hundreds of other Sanders supporters how to navigate the March caucus. And it paid off. Colorado went for Sanders by almost 20 points. He's spent the last few months lobbying the state's Democratic super delegates to switch their allegiance away from Hillary Clinton, with less success. But as Sander’s winds down his campaign -- Bell is coming to accept the inevitable.

"Even though you're not allowed to do it within the Bernie movement, I know the writing's on the wall," he said. "Bernie's not going to win the nomination."

Bell says he no plans to check out on politics again, like he did after Ron Paul’s defeat. But he can’t say the same for younger Sanders supporters.

"What I fear is millions of people, who haven't had the same experiences as me, dropping out. And it's at that point that we really do lose," he said.

Bell hopes to rally those troops. If they can’t have Sanders as their president, Bell says he’ll commit to electing more Sanders-like politicians for local office.