Arizona cease-fire activists use Marianne Williamson as their primary vessel

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PHOENIX — In the absence of protest vote options like the “uncommitted” ballot line in Michigan, Arizona activists calling for a cease-fire in Gaza are harnessing a new vessel for their message: Marianne Williamson.

Tuesday’s Arizona Democratic primary is largely symbolic, given President Joe Biden has already clinched his party’s nomination. But activists are hoping to use Williamson’s continued presence on the state ballot to send a message to the Biden administration on its policy toward Israel.

“We’re not delusional and thinking she may win. That’s not the point,” said Belén Sisa, 30, one of the organizers behind Vote Ceasefire AZ, the group pushing Arizonans to cast their ballot for Williamson. 

“We want to take those votes away to send a very clear and measurable message to the Biden administration to say: ‘You need these votes in November. And if you want us to vote for you, then you need to do better and call for a cease-fire,’” Sisa said. 

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Dan O’Neal, a volunteer for Vote Ceasefire AZ, making phone calls during a phone banking session encouraging Arizonans to vote for Marianne Williamson.Alex Tabet / NBC News

Election rules vary state by state, which means that the “uncommitted” option available in the Minnesota and Michigan primaries doesn’t exist on Arizona’s primary ballot. And without a write-in option, organizers have opted to back Williamson. 

“This is not an endorsement of her as a candidate,” said Sisa, adding: “This is just being tactical, and using her name to achieve what we want to achieve.”

Vote Ceasefire AZ’s primary demand is in its name: a permanent and immediate cease-fire and de-escalation of violence in Gaza. And while Biden has called for a temporary cease-fire in the past, the Arizona activist coalition isn’t impressed with how those words are translating into what’s actually happening on the ground.

The president spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday and warned him against carrying out a planned military operation in the southern city of Rafah, according to the White House. But on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after that phone call, Netanyahu reiterated his plan to launch the offensive.

“I would tell President Biden to be courageous to take the extra step and not just use words because actions are what matters here,” said Rowan Imran, a Palestinian American with family in the West Bank and friends in Gaza. 

Imran, Sisa, and the rest of Vote Ceasefire AZ have set an attainable, symbolic goal for Williamson on Tuesday. 

“We believe reaching 10,000 would be making a strong statement,” said Imran, because it’s roughly the size of Biden’s margin over former President Donald Trump in Arizona in 2020. 

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Rowan Imran at Vote Ceasefire AZ phone bank session in Phoenix on Sunday.Alex Tabet / NBC News

To achieve that goal, Vote Ceasefire AZ is reaching out to voters with methods old and new. Over the weekend, dozens of volunteers gathered to phone bank, reaching out to Arizona voters throughout the state and encouraging them to vote for Williamson on Tuesday. And Sisa, who was the national Latino press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2020, is using the social media savvy she picked up on the Sanders campaign to spread the word. 

“When you are coming from a grassroots movement, you don’t have all the money in the world,” said Sisa on their low-budget operation.

The group of activists is aware of criticism from pundits and others on the left that these cease-fire campaigns will bolster former President Donald Trump in a general election. But they discount that notion. 

“Some people who oppose us are saying this is just helping Trump win,” acknowledged Sisa. “In reality, it’s the opposite of that. We know what we hear from community members and from those who are going to be voting in November that they are happy… what we’re trying to say is do better, do better, because we know what’s coming.”

She believes that if the status-quo remains come November, Biden will lose support in the general election. And by nudging Biden to take demonstrable action toward a lasting cease-fire in Gaza, they’re actually helping him win back support by November.

“Our push is only to make sure that he that Trump doesn’t win in November, because we know that he may even be worse than Biden on this issue,” she said. 

Despite pouring time and their limited resources into getting Arizonans to vote for Williamson on Tuesday, Vote Ceasefire AZ is making clear they’re not formally endorsing her President. And the organization hasn’t even been in contact with Williamson’s team to coordinate the push. But speaking to NBC News before a campaign event on Sunday, Williamson said she’s not fussed by their lack of endorsement. 

“One of the things you learn to do in politics is not complain. It’s never a win,” said Williamson, who recently made the highly unusual move of suspending and then un-suspending her campaign.

“I try to keep my eye on what’s most important, and that’s the conversations. So the conversation that’s going on in terms of Gaza, is how many of us realize there needs to be a ceasefire,” Williamson added.

She hopes her campaign can earn delegates, something she’s failed to achieve thus far, and gain a voice at the Democratic National Convention, increasing her leverage to pressure Biden into adopting more progressive policies, including but not limited to his policy on Israel and Gaza.

As for the Biden campaign, even with the primary wrapped up, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., visited Tempe on Sunday to campaign as a surrogate for Biden. He said when asked that he “wasn’t aware” of the effort to back Williamson.

Lauren Hitt, a campaign spokesperson for the Biden campaign, wrote in a statement: “The President believes making your voice heard and participating in our democracy is fundamental to who we are as Americans. He is working toward an end to the violence and a just, lasting peace in the Middle East. He’s working tirelessly to that end.”


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