“Yeah, we’re over fire code,” a security guard said with a laugh and a shrug while eying the crowd at Bernie Sanders’ jam-packed town-hall meeting Saturday night.
Around 5,000 people showed up to see the left-wing dark horse give his first stump speech in Colorado since launching his presidential campaign in May. People of all ages – mostly white – filled the air-conditioned gymnasium at Denver University well before the event was billed to start, though latecomers – or on-time comers – could still watch a live video feed on the outdoor lacrosse field.
Inside, excitement pulsed. The crowd started doing the wave, while Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” blared over the loudspeakers. The song was not a trivial choice. Young recently scolded Republican candidate Donald Trump for using the song at a campaign event; Young is actually a Sanders man, thank you very much.
Milling around the standing area, recent D.U. grad Kate Powers said that folks her age mostly don’t talk about politics, but her friends are starting to talk about Sanders. “My generation is just sick of how things have been going,” she said.
Next to her, Brian Wilson chimed in about the candidate: “He’s the only one talking about income inequality and climate change, which is super important.” After getting their photo snapped, he added that “[Sanders] is becoming less and less of a fringe candidate every day.”
Sanders is considered the furthest left candidate in the small Democratic pool. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is running as is former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
Conventional wisdom is that Sanders — a self-avowed Democratic Socialist — doesn’t have a chance at winning the primary (let alone the general election). His candidacy has forced his party to confront topics like taxing the rich, campaign finance reform and universal healthcare that might have otherwise been sidelined.
Sanders is an independent, but decided to run in the Democratic primary to avoid the Ralph Nader spoiler effect.
The Sanders’ campaign is engaging folks who’ve abandoned the political process, as well as those who want an alternative to Clinton.
Terry Duke from Longmont was measured in her support of Sanders. “Hillary: You know, I like that she’s a woman, and I mostly agree with her,” she said, “But I want to be excited about someone.”
And could Sanders be that someone?
“I don’t know. I’m here to find out.”
Duke’s partner Raymond Amos said he wanted to learn more about Sanders’ plan to eliminate money in politics, especially campaign finance reform.
“Well that’s the most important,” Duke agreed.
Pacing up and down a cordoned-off walking lane in front of the bleachers, Sharen Branch explained why she drove 200 miles from Las Animas to be in Denver that night. “I wanted to be a part of it,” she said, “so I signed up to volunteer.” There were half-a-dozen other volunteers in the vicinity, mostly shepherding people out of the corridor Sanders would shortly walk down.
“It started with 35 [volunteers] on Thursday,” Branch said, “and 120 showed up here today.” As for why she made the trek, “I’m a bit of a rule-breaker myself, so he represents me personally. But not just me. He represents all of us.”
The white-haired senator from Vermont finally appeared. He got the rock-star treatment; everyone was on their feet and screaming. As he made his way down the aisle, Sanders didn’t skip a single outstretched hand.
Finally at the podium, Sanders shushed the crowd to begin with a crack about needing to book bigger venues. The so-called longshot candidate has been pulling in crowds that rival or surpass Clinton’s.
Over the next hour, Sanders delivered a fiery stump speech with a clear underlying theme: Washington needs to be purged of greed and the working class must become a top policy priority. The problems that plague American society will only persist and worsen if our government remains beholden to the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
Specifically, Sanders dubbed $7.25 an hour a “starvation wage” and argued it should be raised. He promoted pay equity, paid medical leave and the 40-hour work week. He called it “shameful” that America doesn’t consider healthcare a right like Canada and much of Europe does.
“Today in America, despite the modest gains of the Affordable Care Act, we still have millions who are uninsured and more who are underinsured,” Sanders said, “What we’ve got to do is pass Medicare for all — a single payer program.”
That line was met with applause, but the crowd got most raucous when he called for the Citizens United decision to be overturned. That 2010 Supreme Court ruling allows for nearly unlimited independent campaign contributions. Sanders makes a point of contrasting himself from Clinton on this issue, using his podium placard to remind everyone that his campaign is “PAID FOR BY BERNIE 2016 (NOT THE BILLIONAIRES).”
Sanders said it’s time to break up big banks: “If a bank is too big to fail, that bank is too big to exist.”
On the campus of D.U., a private university that costs over $40,000 a year, Sanders called for free public higher education for all.
“Now my critics have said, ‘well, you know Bernie, that’s an expensive proposition. And they’re right. It would cost around $70 million a year. But we’re going to pay for it via a tax on Wall Street speculation!”
He also said he would tackle student debt. “What sense does it make that you can go out and refinance your home at a decent rate but because you committed the crime of wanting to get an education, you’re stuck for the rest of your life at 8 or 9 percent?” Sanders asked. “It’s time to end the absurdity of the federal government making millions in profit off of the interest paid by students and the working class.”
Sanders also focused on the fight against climate change, likening the struggle to his generation’s fight for civil rights – not that the fight for racial equality and social justice is by any means over, he noted.
But sustainability isn’t just a moral responsibility, he said. There’s economic incentive too: “We will create millions of jobs as well.”
Despite making jabs at political opponents during the speech, Sanders asked liberals to reach out to conservative neighbors: “Our job is to get the word out to our GOP friends to stop voting for the billionaire class and to start voting for themselves.”
Sanders said his proposal was “not utopian thinking.”
The audience cheered steadily during the speech’s final stretch. “I look forward to working with you all in creating the political revolution this country needs!” he said before stepping off the stage to shmooze with eager audience members.
“Amazing,” Greg Phelan, 38, said of the speech. “I’ve seen a lot of him on YouTube and online, but just to see this many people from different backgrounds come together for one thing. It’s radical.”
Photos by Nat Stein