Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is everywhere these days. Next to him is a Portland man.
Jesse Cornett, 44, is Sanders' trip director on the presidential campaign trail. That title means Cornett is Sanders' driver, travel agent and personal attaché. The position is sometimes referred to as a "body man." It's a 15-hour-a-day job. Explains Cornett: "I compare the job to the role of Charlie on The West Wing."
Portlanders with sharp memories will recall that Cornett himself made two bids for elected office. In 2006, he nearly unseated then-state Sen. Rod Monroe (D-East Portland), getting 48 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. In 2010, he received $150,000 in public campaign financing to run for the Portland City Council, only to finish third with 8 percent of the vote.
Cornett then opened and closed a bar on East Burnside Street, the Guild Public House, before joining Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016. When the previous body man retired, Cornett inherited the job, starting last October.
Maybe it's a coincidence, but Sanders' prospects are now at an all-time high. He won two of the first three Democratic primary contests, with 14 states voting on Super Tuesday, March 3.
That momentum has centrists panicking—and Cornett giddy. WW spoke to him by phone from Charleston, S.C., where he discussed Bernie's sense of humor, and his worst day on the job: his first.
WW: What kind of qualifications do they look for in Sen. Sanders' body man?
Jesse Cornett: The big part is really just thinking on your feet. We'll be at an event—last week, just shy of 18,000 people in the Tacoma Dome—and a lot of local folks want pictures. It's like: "OK, let's add people in. How do we do this?" The truth is, though, I spend a lot of my days just on the phone, on planning calls.
What are the most states you've visited in one day on this campaign?
Last Friday, we woke up in Washington, D.C., we flew to Durham, N.C., held a big rally, flew to Charlotte, held a big rally, we were in Dallas, held a huge rally, and flew to Las Vegas. That was Friday.
What would surprise people about Bernie?
You know what a kind-of-fun granddad he is. The thing I see more than the general public sees is, he's got a very funny side.
What's a typical Bernie Sanders joke?
When I mentioned I attended the August 2015 [Sanders campaign] rally in Portland and I didn't know if I would support him versus anybody else, without skipping a beat, he asks, "How'd you come down on that one?"
You were in the craft beer business for a little while. Have you had a chance to share a beer with the senator?
I have not. There's a very simple reason that will shock all of my beer-drinking buddies: When I'm with the senator, because I drive him, I absolutely do not drink beer at all. Full stop. It's a personal rule. I sleep eight hours a night, I don't look at my phone when I'm within 6 feet of the car. If I'm driving the senator around and I nod off, it could change the course of history.
Does he have a favorite food?
Staff, myself included, tend to push him toward healthy options. Interestingly, my very first day as his body man, I picked him up at the Las Vegas airport at 6 o'clock—and that was Oct. 1, and we were at urgent care two hours later because of a heart incident.
Your first day on the job was the heart attack?
Yeah, my first two hours of the job.
Were you concerned you were bad luck?
[Laughs] No, I don't have that big of an ego.
You've run for office yourself. It didn't go great. How does it compare to this?
There's no comparison. The lesson I learned was there's a way to have a considerable voice in the political process without being the person that's on the ballot. I like being in the background.
Has he talked about you as vice president?
[Laughs] Nobody wants me to be vice president.
Are you still a Portland resident, living on the road?
I'm legally a Portland resident. I had a fun call with Multnomah County Elections before I started this voyage and asked, "How I am supposed to do this?" Because I also sold my house. My ballot will get delivered to a P.O. box.
Who are you going to vote for?
I think I'm gonna go with Bernie Sanders.