Bernie Sanders’ new Portland campaign headquarters is as makeshift as they come. 

Inside the burnt orange warehouse on Southeast Milwaukie Avenue, volunteers wield cans of spray paint to create banners sized for a basketball arena.

In a side room, white boards are scrawled with Twitter hashtags and rows of tables are littered with donated craft supplies.

Two weeks ago, almost nobody in the place even knew each other. But about 10 volunteers from Portland were asked to put together what the Sanders campaign now hopes will be his largest event of the year: A rally at the Moda Center arena that is more typically used by the Portland Trail Blazers. 

“The campaign came to us and said, ‘We’re thinking about the Moda Center — can you fill it?'” said Max Grad, owner of Watershed PDX, the industrial art “sanctuary” where the Sanders campaign is now encamped. “We said, ‘yes, absolutely.'” 

Almost all of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates are focusing their rallies and campaigns on such early primary and caucus states as Iowa and New Hampshire. The only two other candidates to travel to Oregon this year — Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton — came here to raise money at closed-door fundraisers.

For Sanders, attracting big crowds around the country has been the oxygen driving his campaign.

It’s helped spark the kind of media coverage that Clinton’s other Democratic rivals — Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee — can only fantasize about.

The buzz for Sanders has also inspired thousands of small contributors to send him money. He raised $13.7 million in the last three months, with more than $10 million coming from donors who have given no more than $200.

Beyond that, Sanders’ travels around the country have helped build a network of devoted activists who can be deployed in early and late primary states alike. 

Emma Darden, a Portland photographer who is helping pull the rally together, said volunteers plan to stay active in the campaign once Sanders moves on.

Using their own smartphones, volunteers can do phone-banking in Iowa and New Hampshire from their Portland living rooms. Some supporters without family or work obligations, she added, can travel to the early states to campaign in person.

Most of all, Sanders appearance will give Portland’s large number of left-of-center voters a cause worth fighting for.

“He’s really building a lot of momentum, and that’s affirming to a lot of people,” said Darden.

That, in fact, gets to the heart of Sanders’ message.

“There is not going to be any significant change for the middle class in this country,” Sanders said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, “unless we have a mass political movement that is prepared to take on the billionaire class.”

Sanders said he had a lot of respect for President Barack Obama, whose own campaign in 2008 attracted a huge outpouring of grass-roots energy.

But after the election, Sanders said, Obama in essence told that “mass movement” that had elected him, “I appreciate it, but I will take it from here.” 

Sanders is still widely regarded as a long-shot against Clinton, who has broad backing in polls of Democratic voters and the support of much of the party’s establishment. 

Sanders’ outspoken views — he backs free public college tuition, new restrictions on Wall Street and tougher action against climate change — and his self-description as a democratic socialist lead many to question his electability.

That kind of political analysis doesn’t sway Portland activists who appreciate the free-wheeling nature of Sanders’ campaign. 

“I got caught up in the Obama bubble,” said Grad remembering his involvement in the president’s historic 2008 race. Compared to the Sanders campaign, the Obama people “were very regimented in what they wanted to do. They weren’t open to any creativity.”

Jill MacCartney, who along with her husband Eric was making a giant stencil of Sanders’ face, said she liked his socialist views.

“I’m a socialist, I’m not ashamed to say it,” she said, explaining that she has to stay home and care for her autistic son while her husband works as a teacher.

“We’re essentially poor,” she said, “and anyone who’s an educator should not have to live like that.”

Sanders is not the first candidate from the political left to turn to cities like Portland to gin up a big crowd to make a political splash. 

Fifteen years ago, Ralph Nader — running for president under the Green Party ticket — filled Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum. And, unlike the free Sanders rally, his campaign charged $7 a ticket.

Greg Kafoury and his son Jason, who are both Portland lawyers, organized the massive rally to persuade the national news media to pay more attention to Nader’s campaign.

That led to a series of “super-rallies” around the country, they said, with each raising enough money to pay for the next event. 

Portland, Greg Kafoury said, was the perfect place to start. “This is a very progressive town,” he said.

— Ian K. Kullgren and Jeff Mapes

[email protected] 

503-294-4006; @IanKullgren

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