REGIONAL— Northland area residents streamed by the thousands into the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center on Tuesday to hear from one of the most unusual candidates in the current race for …
REGIONAL— Northland area residents streamed by the thousands into the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center on Tuesday to hear from one of the most unusual candidates in the current race for the White House.
Written off by pundits and politicians for months, Vermont’s Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has lit a fire with average Americans, pulling in massive crowds at political events, including the more than 6,000 who turned out to hear him in Duluth this week.
Tracing a political arc reminiscent of another unlikely candidate, Barack Obama, who took on Hillary Clinton and won in 2008, it is now Sanders’ turn to challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination, long viewed as Clinton’s in a cake walk.
The latest polls have the 74-year-old Sanders surging in Iowa just ahead of the Feb. 1 caucuses, with Sanders now leading by a sizeable margin in New Hampshire, which holds its first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 9. Sanders was in Minnesota urging voters to attend their March 1 caucuses, when the state will join several other states in the so-called Super Tuesday primary and caucus.
While Sanders’ economic message, which harkens back to the New Deal, may sound retro to some, it’s clearly appealing to younger voters, who polls show are backing Sanders over Clinton by margins of anywhere from 40-60 percent.
Sydney Swanson, of Tower, was among the thousands of young people who traveled to Duluth on Tuesday to “feel the Bern” firsthand. She said she’ll be attending her local caucus to support Sen. Sanders, but said she’s less certain how many others will actually turn out to caucus on March 1.
Swanson, who will graduate with an Associate of Arts degree from Mesabi Community College this spring, said Sanders has overwhelming support among the young people she knows. She said Sanders’ message resonates with young people, who see a troubled future over issues like college debt, lack of job opportunities, rising health care costs, and climate change— issues that Sanders is addressing forcefully in the campaign.
“I like everything about him,” said Swanson. “I really think he’s dedicated to making a better future. And he’s for cutting loopholes for the One Percent. That’s a really big one for me.”
Elliot Noyce, a young musician from Grand Marais who was at the rally, sounded similar themes, and added that he appreciated Sanders’ authenticity and persistence. “He’s a politician you can trust. He’s been saying the same thing for years.”
Turnout at Tuesday’s Duluth rally suggests Swanson and Noyce aren’t alone. Young people comprised at least a third of the crowd and they were among the most enthusiastic in cheering on the white-haired Sanders as he called for free tuition at public colleges and universities, fixing what he called a “corrupt” campaign finance system, ending the federal prohibition on marijuana, and breaking up the nation’s largest financial institutions.
But Sanders also drew support from seniors, including former state Rep. Joe Begich, of Eveleth, who attended Tuesday’s rally with St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina. Begich said he’s particularly concerned about Republican attempts to defund or cut Social Security and Medicare and likes that Sanders has called for increased funding for Social Security and expanding Medicare, rather than cutting it.
Cuts to those programs, said Begich, would hit seniors hard. “We’d end up worse than in a Third World country,” he said.
Rukavina said the shift in tax policy over the years that has overwhelmingly favored the wealthy is a “major issue” that no one but Sanders is talking about.
Rukavina said Sanders’ call to end the exemption on Social Security taxes on incomes over $110,000 would strengthen the program immensely. “It would fix Social Security overnight,” he said.
Sanders, who was introduced by Minnesota’s Fifth District Congressman Keith Ellison, said it was a common vision that has allowed his campaign to vastly exceed the expectations of the political class.
“When we started this campaign nine months ago, we had no money and no political organization, but we had an idea. We had a vision and that vision was that this country could be much more than it is today,” said Sanders, somewhat hoarsely after weeks of relentless campaigning. “It was a vision that said we will not allow the middle class of this country to continue to disappear. That we will not allow a rigged economy to continue, in which the rich continue to get richer and everyone else gets poorer. And that we will fight against a corrupt campaign finance system— a system that allows billionaires to buy elections.”
Sanders said his campaign turned to average people to raise the funds necessary to run a presidential campaign, and that people responded with millions of small donations, averaging $27, that have allowed his campaign to keep pace with Hillary Clinton, who has relied mostly on so-called Super PACS and large contributions from wealthy donors.
Sanders addressed criticisms that Clinton and her supporters have recently leveled against him, suggesting he is naïve or unrealistic for thinking he could bring the kind of change he espouses. “No president of the United States, not Bernie Sanders or anybody else, can do what has to be done for working families and the middle class of this country unless there is a political revolution,” he said. “So if anybody here thinks that turning out on March 1 means you’ve done your job, you’re wrong. What a political revolution means is something pretty radical. It means that you and millions of other people in this country need to come together and say loud and clear that when men and women fought to defend democracy, it means that we the people are going to have a government that represents all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.”
Sanders said the revolution starts by engaging voters in a discussion of the issues that really affect their lives, which builds interest and increases voter turnout— something that he said will help elect more Democrats across the country. He said Republicans didn’t win in 2014 because Americans supported their ideas. “They have no ideas,” he said. “They won because 63 percent of the people didn’t vote. They won because 80 percent of young people didn’t vote.”
Sanders said his campaign is the only one that will generate the kind of voter enthusiasm to help advance a progressive vision and elect progressive Democrats to Congress, and to thousands of state and local offices around the country.
Sanders talked at length about what has long been his signature issue, wealth and income inequality in America, citing statistics that have become familiar to many of his supporters. “Today in this country, the top one-tenth of one percent now owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Got that? Today in America, the 20 wealthiest people own more wealth than the bottom half of America, a hundred and fifty million people.” He called the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a “starvation wage” and called for raising it over a few years to $15 an hour, which he called a “living wage.” He also called for paid family and medical leave, calling it “a family value.”
Sanders also took time to mock the leading Republican in the race, Donald Trump, who he said thinks wages for working people in the U.S. are too high. “This is a guy who thinks he can succeed by waging racist attacks against Mexicans and against Muslims… I look forward very much to running against Donald Trump,” he said.
Sanders followed up his Tuesday rally in Duluth, held at 3 p.m., with an evening event in St. Paul, which drew a crowd of over 14,000. Sanders’ campaign has put Minnesota among its top priorities as the campaign begins to move past the earliest voting states towards what increasingly looks like an extended race for the Democratic nomination.