DENVER — Pushing a stroller down the 16th Street Mall outside the Sheraton Hotel on Saturday, Lauren Mackey stopped to shout about her vagina.
Outside the hotel, a cadre of supporters were waving blue campaign signs for Hillary Clinton and were chanting that it’s time for a woman in the White House. Mackey wheeled her stroller around on the sidewalk to confront them.
“I vote with my brain and not my vagina!” she shouted several times as the chanting nearly drowned her out.
A registered Democrat who works for a child support office in Colorado Springs, Mackey had made the hour drive north and was on her way to the convention center to hear a speech by Bernie Sanders. Both Sanders and Clinton were in town for the 83rd annual Democratic Dinner and fundraiser held later that evening at the Sheraton.
Like many supporters of the Democratic Socialist from Vermont who’s been drawing large crowds after his near tie with Clinton in Iowa and his New Hampshire blowout, Mackey believes in the candidate’s promise of a political revolution.
“A lot of people say what he’s promising can’t happen, but if we … get out and vote, we can make what he says happen,” she said. “We can make universal healthcare happen, we can make $15-an-hour minimum wage happen.” People, she said, gesturing at the chanting Clinton supporters, are voting with their “vaginas, not with their heads.”
Mackey was one of roughly 18,000 people who swarmed the convention center Saturday for the afternoon Sanders speech. Those at the front of a line that snaked down a hallway, up some stairs, out the door and around the building had been there for six hours. (A Sanders staffer said the campaign was told around 15,000 got inside and around 3,000 were turned away.)
The crowd was a mix of young and old, families with kids, punks, hippies, black, white and Latino. Some were dressed in suits, others in black fishnets or North Face vests. They waved signs reading “Bern down Wall Street” and “Bern the Caucus.”
One of the thousands in line was tatted-up Denver business owner Jordan Weinstein, 41, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for the old-school punk band Black Flag but with “Bernie Sanders” replacing the name.
A registered socialist when he was 18 and living in Illinois, Weinstein said he’d begrudgingly switched from being an unaffiliated voter to a registered Democrat in Colorado — one of the 3,000-plus Coloradans to do so in the months before the Jan. 4 deadline.
“He’s the only candidate I’ve ever seen in my 41 years with a backbone and integrity,” Weinstein said. “I’ve fought for equality my whole life actively in all areas. I’m a feminist, I’m anti-racist, obviously for marriage equality for everybody. The [music] that I listened to when I was 10 years old was saying the same stuff— and so was he 30 years ago.”
With the next Democratic primary approaching on Feb. 27, this time in South Carolina, Sanders, a New Englander with a strong Brooklyn accent, isn’t likely to get the same reception he had in New Hampshire, which neighbors his home state of Vermont. Around this time two years ago, a Clinton shadow campaign called “Ready for Hillary” was already in the Palmetto State making inroads with black voters who propelled Obama to the nomination over Clinton in 2008, launching him to the presidency.
Sanders himself hadn’t spoken publicly in the South since his time in the civil rights movement until October 2013 when he began testing the waters for a potential presidential run. He made a visit to a progressive group’s annual retreat on an island near Beaufort, and came back again the following year to small crowds in Charleston. By late 2015 he was packing conference centers in the South Carolina capital of Columbia.
But just days after the Feb. 27 Palmetto State primary is Super Tuesday on March 1, and the Sanders campaign is looking for a big win here in Colorado. Because it’s a caucus state, only registered Democrats will be able to participate in the neighborhood gatherings that will take place that evening.
In recent weeks the national campaign has dispatched a handful of paid staff to Colorado and held “Bernstorm” meetings along the Front Range. On a recent Wednesday in Colorado Springs, a conservative city with five military installations nearby and home to the evangelical Focus on the Family, more than 100 supporters packed a theater to hear about the Sanders campaign’s Colorado caucus strategy.
Calling it a “massive undertaking,” Sanders’ Colorado field director Josh Phillips said the campaign is training supporters to become caucus captains and making sure they have committed supporters at each precinct caucus across Colorado on March 1.
Trawling the long line for the Sanders speech in Denver, Sanders volunteers were making it rain with stacks of commit-to-caucus cards, urging supporters to officially pledge to support him at their individual precincts on caucus day.
Byron Plumley, a Sanders canvasser from Adams County, was one of them taking down names at the rally. One thing he’s run into while out knocking on doors, he said, are Sanders supporters who are unaffiliated voters who missed the Jan. 4 deadline to register as Democrats eligible to caucus.
“It’s just sad when you meet people and say ‘I’m sorry, you missed the deadline,”’ he said, adding that it’s been most pronounced on college campuses. Still, he’d gotten plenty of people signed up at the spech, he said, flipping through pages on a clipboard.
In line for the Sanders speech was also a very different kind of supporter.
Doug Hammer, 76, was wearing a floppy fisherman’s hat and had a white page of printer paper attached to the front of his hooded sweatshirt reading “Seniors for Sanders.” A lifelong Republican, Hammer came out to see Bernie because the candidate wants to keep Medicare viable and expand it.
“I think that’s very important for old buggers like me,” Hammer said. He hadn’t been familiar with Sanders until recently.
“I voted for people like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon,” he said, but this year if he were to cast a ballot in the Republican primary he’d write in Mickey Mouse because “That’s what the bunch is that’s running.”
Why didn’t Hammer change his registration so he could caucus for Sanders? He shrugged. “I’ve been a registered Republican all these years,” he said. “Maybe I’m too lazy.”
‘Not the same old bullshit’
At around 3 p.m. those in line were unleashed into the convention center hall, filtering through multiple lines of metal detectors now that Sanders has Secret Service protection. (His code name is Intrepid.)
Suzette Spezzano, wearing a Buckethead-style hat festooned with buttons, had waited in line for five hours to get a prime early spot at the front row of the stage where Sanders would speak. She’d volunteered for Obama’s campaign in 2008 and has started to notice a similar kind of vibe among young people and those generally not into politics.
Behind her, the crowd was rushing the stage from the doorway, yelling and jumping as if it were a rock concert.
“It’s not the same old bullshit,” Spezzano said as the crowd pressed in. “You kind of get tired of the same shit, the same promises, the same everything.”
A band started up, and Sanders surrogates took to the stage to introduce each other as the place began filling to capacity. News had just broken that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died unexpectedly at a Texas ranch, and some supporters huddled around cell phones taking it in.
Nearby, Sarah Mickulesku, a tattooed stay-at-home mom with dark hair and angled bangs, sat on the floor with her two young kids, 4 and 6, whom she brought to the speech because her parents never involved her in politics when she was growing up.
“It’s really important for me to involve them in this whole revolution,” she said. “We homeschool, so this is kind of part of our learning experience.” She said she wouldn’t take them to an event for Clinton. It’s Sanders’ integrity and demeanor that speaks to her.
“He’s largely scandal free, and so there’s not a lot of dirt on him,” Mickulesku said. “I feel like he’s dedicated his whole life to making the world a better place, and that’s sort of my mission as well.”
Similarly, Michelle Clark, a black college student in Denver, said her issue this year is sincerity.
“There are other candidates who are going to be voted on by gender,” she said, adding she feels like the race has been framed by others running as a national security election and Sanders is the one making the best case for fixing what’s broken at home.
As the crowd filled up around him, Adriano Borsa held a copy of the novel Don Quixote. He’d come from Evergreen and had taken a light rail with his dad to the speech so they could get a better idea of the candidate and maybe tap into some of the energy surrounding him, he said. He’s 17 and won’t be old enough to caucus, but he’ll be 18 by the time of the general election and plans to vote. He didn’t bring a copy of Don Quixote to a Sanders rally as any kind of statement, he said, just something to read while in line. But sure, he could make a comparison about what some might see as a Quixotic candidate who begins his speeches by saying the media and political class dismiss him as a fringe politician and idealist with no serious shot at the White House.
“I think the enemies that he’s trying to defeat, Wall Street, the big businesses, all that stuff, those are real things that actually he has a chance to make a dent in as opposed to Quixote who just makes everything up in his head,” Borsa said gesturing with his book. “I think there is actually a tangible enemy for Bernie Sanders to go against as opposed to Don.”
As Sanders took the stage at the convention center in Denver, thousands were being turned away outside.
“This is a huge crowd,” Sanders shouted from the podium. “And … this is a loud crowd. This looks to me like a group of people who are prepared to make a political revolution and transform America.”
For Sanders, there was no pausing to mention the news of Scalia’s death. Instead, he plunged into a familiar stump speech he’s been giving since he began his candidacy but sprinkled with data points about his success in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“This is a different type of campaign,” he said, noting that he’s asking millions to stand up and say the government belongs to all of them, not just the wealthy few. He talked about not having a Super PAC and how his average campaign contribution is $27.
“This has astounded the establishment. They can’t believe it,” he said, because what politicians these days are supposed to do is run to Wall Street and the rich for money. Change, Sanders said, has only come about in America from the bottom up.
He hit hard on minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights.
One of his biggest applause lines came when he called out the Walton family of the Wal-Mart fortune for their reliance on government largesse.
“So I say to the Walton family, get off of welfare, pay your workers a living wage,” he said. He called for jobs and education for kids, not more jails and incarceration. America, he said, has become an oligarchy and not a democracy.
While Republicans want to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, Sanders said funding for the women’s health organization that provides abortions should be expanded.
He called for paid family leave, a “massive federal jobs program,” and said lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan was the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crumbling infrastructure. He railed on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citzens United decision that unleashed corporate money in politics.
“What this campaign is about is taking on a corrupt campaign finance system, it is taking on a rigged economy, and it is taking on a broken criminal justice system,” he said. “What this campaign is about is telling the billionaire class, corporate America and Wall Street that they cannot continue to have it all.”
In a hoarse voice that crackled at times, he promised universal healthcare, free college tuition, comprehensive immigration reform, and restructuring of student loan debt paid for by taxing Wall Street speculation.
Near the end, he attempted to blunt an inevitable attack on his policy proposals.
“There is nothing I’ve talked about today that is utopian,” he said, “that is pie-in-the-sky.”
Hoping for change
Following Sanders’ speech, Marissa Newton, a young black teacher at Fox Ridge Middle School in Aurora, said it was the candidate’s promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour that really got her.
“Even not making minimum wage right now, I still, as a teacher, cannot afford to live,” she said. “I’m hoping for a lot of change.”
She’d come with her dad Daryl, who had never been politically active before.
“This is a first for me,” he said. “I just like the togetherness, the lack of divisiveness. You’re just for everybody all the time and that’s what I like.”
Watching the crowd of thousands filter out were Ana and Rich Cornelius, standing near the doorway to the convention center with their kids. They would have loved to hear what Sanders said that night in Denver, but they were turned away when the venue hit capacity. Ana had asked her boss to let her out from work early, they’d driven from Golden and taken the RTD into the city. They missed their chance to get in by about 20 people. Why Bernie? He’s the peoples’ candidate who speaks their language about inequality and healthcare and college tuition, they said.
For Rich, who wore an Oneida Nation shirt, the fact that Sanders has spoken out about native lands being attacked in Wisconsin hits home. Sanders is the only candidate he knows standing up to protect sacred native sites there, he said. They’re both registered Democrats who plan to caucus for Sanders.
Ana flashed a photo on her phone of the crowd of people behind her who also couldn’t get in. They were jealous of those who got to hear him, of course, but also thankful so many showed up.
“I wanted to thank everybody,” Ana said. “I was telling my husband, I said ‘I just want to yell, Thank you all for caring about America.’”
Hours later, a bicycle pedicab driver was peddling through the downtown Denver crowds of politicos. Asked if he had any preference for president, he said, yeah, that guy Gordon.
“You mean Bernie?”
“Yeah,” he said: The guy with the polls.