Bernie Sanders drew 11,000 people to a convention center floor, Saturday night. You know, one of those cavernous spaces you could put a passenger jet in. It was the largest campaign event of any candidate this season, and it broke his record crowd of 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin, a couple of weeks ago. But this event was not in some liberal bastion like Madison. This was Phoenix, Arizona. This was Maricopa County, half-a-mile from where the anti-immigrant birther, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has his jail. This is McCain country.
Why would so many come from across the southwest on a triple digit desert day to hear this man? Because people all over the United States know the truth about the growing wealth disparity and the shrinking middle class.
“What this campaign is about,” Bernie told the crowd, “is saying that our great country and our government belong to all the people, and not just the billionaires.”
“It saddens me how many politicians are there for themselves and not for the people,” said Richard Gibson, who drove in from El Paso, Texas, to hear the populist candidate. “Bernie’s the only one who stands up for America, the way thinking Americans want it to be.”
Liz Leith, who is married to Gibson, agreed. “I like that he’s ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,'” she said.
Indeed, most of the people we spoke with are gravitating to Sanders’ longstanding commitment to what he called the “moral issue” of “grotesque” wealth inequality, and “putting money in the hands of working people.”
“Our economy cannot do well when so few have so much, and so many have so little.”
Says Leith, “He’s standing up and saying all the things we want to hear from a politician, and he means it.”
“He says what he means,” echoed Mark S., also from Phoenix.
“He talks just simple, plain, common sense, concrete solutions, that used to be things that were taken for granted in this country, pre-1980,” said Prato.
In stark contrast to those on the other side of the political spectrum, not surprisingly, this group is not nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, but for a different time, that almost all of them remember well.
“This is a man who is authentic,” Prato added, “he’s held his convictions for decades.” Her yearning for a pre-Reagan social safety net, and her belief that Sanders has always been working to restore that, was not unusual.
“He seems like someone I went to high school with, but stayed the course,” asserted Mike Harris, from Glendale, Arizona, who says he grew up protesting the Vietnam War in the 1970s. “Some people, along the way, meander off into little tangents. He doesn’t strike me as a meanderer, and I like that.”
“He has stayed the course,” agreed Mark S., “He doesn’t waiver.”
Prato said she specifically admires Sanders’ stated policies on “raising the marginal tax rate on the rich, Wall Street transaction taxes, things that were commonplace back in the Fifties and Sixties, things that built the middle class.”
“You cannot hide your billions in profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, when we have unmet needs in America that must be addressed.”
Despite the nostalgia, it isn’t this country’s past that concerned these Sandernistas. It is the nation’s future, our people’s future.
“It’s not for me. It’s more for my grandchildren,” said Julian Acosta, of Phoenix, when asked why he attended the event. “I want them to have a good education, free college, good, inexpensive healthcare. I want them to have everything they need.”
That is exactly what Bernie said he wants to make happen. During his speech, that night, he called for free college in public universities, refinancing student loan debt, and a medicare for all, single-payer public health system.
But the biggest issue, in the minds of many, was campaign finance reform, and overturning the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision.
“What the Supreme Court said to the wealthiest people in our country, they said, ‘Okay guys. You already own much of the economy. We’re now going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government,’ and that is what they are trying to do.”
“I think the number one thing is getting money out of politics and getting our democracy back,” said Fara Pastorius, who had come in from Buffalo, New York, to visit family, and was attending the event. “You shouldn’t be able to buy a [political] seat for anything. It’s not what this country was founded on; it’s not what it’s for; it’s very sad that it’s happening.”
Earlier in the day, when addressing the Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix, Sanders promised a “litmus test” for any prospective Supreme Court justice and their stand on Citizens United. He also called for public financing of campaigns.
But Bernie wanted to make one thing clear. All the changes he’s calling for can happen, but not without us. He calls it a revolution, but it’s really a call to be engaged in the system we already have to “bring about the changes we need.”
Sanders went on to clarify that by “people all over America,” he meant all Americans, and he urged the crowd to get out of their “zone of comfort” and talk to their Republican family, friends and neighbors. Why?
“It is one thing for the billionaire class to be voting Republican, but there are many Republicans out there – you know them – these people are working at two or three jobs, they have no healthcare, their kids can’t afford to go to college, and yet they are voting [for] people who are voting against their best interests, everyday.”
Mobilizing the working class is not just the only way someone like Bernie can get elected. It’s the only way we can elect a truly representative Congress, that is more beholden to our interests than they are to lobbyists and corporate interests.
As Bernie said, in one of his opening lines to the overwhelming Phoenix crowd: