Sen. Bernie Sanders welcomed the thousands of roaring supporters gathered for his mid-July rally at the Phoenix Convention Center.
"Somebody said that Arizona is a conservative state," Sanders said. "Somebody told me that people have given up on the political process. That's not what I see here tonight."
The crowd went wild.
It wouldn't be the last time. Sanders tossed out plenty of red meat that liberals have wanted to hear for years:
What we are saying to the billionaire class is that their greed is going to have to end and we are going to end it for them!
I want our country to have the best-educated people! More people going to college than any other country! Not more people in jail than any other country!
The American political (system) has been totally corrupted and the foundations of American democracy are being undermined!
I have introduced legislation to make every public university and college in America tuition free!
Climate change is real! Climate change is caused by human activity! Climate change is already creating devastating problems in our country and all over the world!
We are going to pass a Medicare-for-all single-payer program!
If you were picking him out of a lineup of politicians, Sanders seems an unlikely future president of the United States. The 73-year-old Brooklyn-born Jew isn't even a Democrat, although he caucuses with Democrats in the Senate; he has run as an independent and has called himself a democratic socialist.
Sanders has been politically active all his adult life. He earned a degree in political science at the University of Chicago in the early '60s and, while he attended the college, he was involved in the civil-rights battles of the time, including protests against segregated housing and the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
After losing a few big races in Vermont in the 1970s—governor, U.S. Senate—he finally won a municipal race when he became mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981. He won a seat in Congress in 1990 as an independent and captured Vermont's Senate seat in 2006.
Since launching his presidential campaign at the end of April, Sanders has been drawing big crowds as he travels the country. His early support has been healthy; although he has said he won't form a Super PAC, Sanders reported raising more than $15 million in the months of May and June, mostly from small donors who gave less than $200.
On the stump, Sanders makes it clear that he's ready to raise taxes on the rich to pay for his many proposals, including universal preschool, free college tuition and a government-run, single-payer healthcare system. "We have a message tonight to the billionaire class," he thundered in his Phoenix speech, "and that message is: You cannot have it all!"
He's a ferocious critic of what he calls a "grotesque level of income inequality." He ties his complaints about the rich to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the utter disgust many have with the ever-escalating cost of political campaigns driven by corporate campaign spending and dark money. He cites the Koch brothers' reported plan to spend almost a billion dollars in the 2016 election cycle: "When one family spends more than either of the two major political parties, that's not democracy," he said in Phoenix. "That is oligarchy!"
Judging from the crowds that he's drawing, Sanders' words are resonating. Justin Besonen, an award-winning Arizona school teacher, has only been following Sanders for a few months but said he likes "everything" about him. In particular, Besonen is behind Sanders' call for education reform and "getting money away from big businesses and back to the rest of us."
Mike Gordy, a retired TUSD history teacher and former Tucson Education Association president, said he likes "that Bernie says this isn't just about an election, it's about taking back the power from folks who have stolen it from us over he past couple of decades." Gordy has skepticism about Clinton's ties to Wall Street and energy companies, although he'd still vote for her "in a heartbeat" over any of the Republicans in the race.
That's a recurring theme among Sanders' supporters; it's not that they would vote against Clinton in a presidential race, but they remain suspicious that she is too cozy with Wall Street, energy companies and other big-money special interests.
Alfredo Gutierrez, a longtime Arizona Latino organizer and majority and minority leader in the Arizona Senate in the 1970s and '80s, told the Weekly there's "a certain authenticity" to Sanders. While Gutierrez said he's likely to vote for Clinton, he's "very uncomfortable with her almost incestuous relationship with Wall Street and her position on war. It's antithetical to what I believe. But I think it's going to be better than Donald Trump."
Gutierrez remains skeptical about Sanders' ability to win the White House.
"I don't think Sanders has a chance," Gutierrez said. "But look, it's beginning to change. I'm not sure he can win this thing, but he's going to be a major force—much more than I anticipated."
In the early primary states, Sanders is picking up steam from where he started out the year—but he started out so far behind that he can gain a lot of ground yet still have a big gap. An NBC News-Marist poll released earlier this week showed that in Iowa, Clinton was leading Sanders by 29 percentage points; the same pollster showed that Clinton was leading by 61 percentage points in February. The same survey showed that in New Hampshire, Sanders was behind by 56 percentage points in February; now it's down to 13 percentage points.
In a national poll released by Public Policy Polling last week, Clinton's lead over Sanders had shrunk from 56 percentage points to 35 percentage points—which is still a healthy margin.
That same PPP survey shows Clinton leading all the Republican hopefuls in a general election (ranging from 3 percentage points over Rand Paul to 13 percentage points over the GOP electorate's flavor-of-the-month Donald Trump). Trump is the only Republican that Sanders leads (by 10 percentage points); Jeb Bush is beating Sanders by 7 percentage points, while Scott Walker is just 1 percentage point ahead.
But a Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Clinton behind her GOP rivals in swing states Colorado, Iowa and Virginia.
Admittedly, polls this far ahead of the election are not reliable indicators of where voters will be in November 2016. (Does anyone really believe that current GOP primary pack leader Donald Trump with be the GOP nominee?) But the surveys do show that the concerns that Sanders supporters mention about Clinton's establishment ties and trustworthiness are shared by others along the political spectrum, even if liberals are likely to support her against a GOP candidate should she end up the nominee.
Nate Silver, the polling specialist behind FiveThirtyEight.com, noted last week that Sanders could win Iowa and New Hampshire but lose elsewhere because those two states are "really liberal and really white, and that's the core of Sanders's support." He referenced two polls that showed that "Sanders has so far made very little traction with non-white Democrats. The most recent CNN poll found his support at just 9 percent among non-white Democrats, while the latest Fox News poll had him at only 5 percent among African-American Democrats.”
But Yolanda Bejarano, a Latina union activist with the Communication Workers of America who introduced Sanders before his Phoenix speech, said he won her over when she recently visited Washington to lobby members of Congress to oppose fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal being negotiated by the Obama administration.M
“I didn’t know much about Bernie Sanders, to tell you the truth,” Bejarano said. “I did some research on him—I wasn’t just going to jump on board just because everyone is on board with Bernie and I wanted to see what he stands for. And what he stands for, to me, makes more sense than any other candidate.”
She said that she is worried about Clinton’s ties to big banks and Wall Street, but like others, said she’d support her over a Republican candidate.
“It was like Hillary against Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, I would definitely vote for Hillary,” Bejarano said.
Sanders’ weakness among people of color was on display in Phoenix. While he had a great night at the Phoenix Convention Center, his morning didn’t go smoothly.
Sanders was in Phoenix to speak at the Netroots Nation Conference, a gathering of lefty activists, bloggers and politicians. He was scheduled to sit down for a one-on-one town hall interview with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented journalist who ran into trouble with ICE in 2014. But before Sanders took the stage, activists with the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted the town hall interview Vargas was conducting with Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who is seeking the White House. O’Malley was forced to watch uncomfortably as his moment to reach out to liberals across the nation was overshadowed by a protest and he was booed by the crowd when he said: “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter”—a statement he later apologized for.
When Sanders came out for his turn in the spotlight, the group was still rowdy and began to shout questions at Sanders, who launched into a condensed version of his stump speech. He was heckled several times and responded, at one point: “Listen, black lives of course matter. And I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and dignity. But if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK. I don’t want to out-scream people.” Vargas questioned Sanders on his immigration record, asking him why he voted against a comprehensive immigration reform bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain and the late Ted Kennedy in 2007 but supported the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013.
Sanders said he voted against the earlier bill because it didn’t contain enough protections for American workers—“I do worry that corporate America and the big money interests want to bring cheap labor into this country with guest-worker programs and continue the race to the bottom”—but supported the 2013 version because it contained a provision that would have provided $1.5 billion to create youth jobs. He added the bill would have brought 11 million undocumented people “out of the shadows where they are living, legitimately, in fear of being deported.” He said he would push further than the Obama administration has in the use of executive action to give undocumented immigrants protection from deportation. “Of course we need a path to citizenship for undocumented workers,” Sanders said. “Of course we shouldn’t be dividing up families. Of course I support the DREAM Act.”
As he discussed the trade-offs of agreeing to more border security measures as part of comprehensive immigration reform, Sanders was heckled by a member of the crowd. He snapped back with a response that acknowledged the challenge of getting legislation passed in the current political environment.
“That’s fine,” Sanders said. “We may want in this room what we want. But you’ve got a United States Congress. Which gets back to my first point. If you want a Congress that begins to address the needs of the American people, we’ve got a lot of work to do. This Congress does not do that.”
The Black Lives Matter activists said they disrupted the presidential town hall with their protest because the conference had focused on immigration issues this year and did not have enough focus on the high-profile issue of police brutality against the African-American community. Just days before the Netroots conference started, a black woman named Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas jail cell, an alleged suicide, after she was arrested for getting into an altercation with a cop who pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change after he sped up behind her.
The Netroots Nation conference was in Phoenix because organizers wanted to focus on border issues—and Arizona is ground zero when it comes to political battles over undocumented immigrants. Members of the group marched on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail one afternoon and attended a number of panels featuring DREAMers and other immigration activists.
But there were other panels on everything from redistricting to fundraising that were designed to both train activists to turn out voters and inspire them to get to work on the 2016 campaign.
One of the most inspirational speeches came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the former Harvard professor who helped design the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but was passed over at its director because of Republican opposition. Warren instead ran for one of the Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate seats and defeated Republican incumbent Scott Brown.
Warren is a rock star on the left; Sheila Murphy, a Phoenix resident who decided to check out the Netroots conference because it was in town, is a “huge fan.” Murphy said she likes Warren’s “clarity, specificity and her drive. … she is dynamic.”
Warren—introduced on stage by Southern Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva, who praised Warren’s “strength, intellect and the hardest trait of any elected official, consistency”—told the audience that their perspective represented the majority’s view in this country. She cited polls on numerous issues: 73 percent of Americans oppose allowing the federal government to profit on student loans. Seven out of 10 support an increase in the minimum wage. Eight out of 10 think companies should provide sick leave. Three out of four believe that the federal government has gotten too cozy with big business. Eighty percent want better Wall Street regulation. One issue after issue, Warren repeated, “the American people are progressives.”
“I don’t care what Insider Washington says,” Warren said. “They can be oh-so-sophisticated and tell us how our ideas are too progressive, too far left or just not realistic. But here at Netroots Nation, we have news for Insider Washington’—the American people ARE progressive—and our day is coming.”
Warren concluded her speech with a call for the audience to call on a Democratic presidential candidate—and there’s little doubt she was looking in the direction of Clinton—promise to not allow Wall Street insiders to collect bonuses if they take a job as a federal regulator or leave a regulatory gig to return to their old company.
“I need your help, Netroots Nation—the country needs your help,” Warren said. “The only way that candidates for President—or for any office—will slow down the revolving door, the only way candidates will say ‘enough is enough’ is if you—you—demand that they say it.” She concluded her speech with a call for action.
“Insider Washington isn’t listening,” Warren said. “Insider Washington turns its back. So it’s on us. It’s on us to show that our agenda is America’s agenda—that America’s agenda is a progressive agenda. It’s on us to fight for the values that we believe in. We get what we fight for—so let’s get out there and fight.” ■