Randolph Center — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., dropped out of the U.S. presidential race about eight months ago, but many of the supporters who showed up to hear him speak at a town hall event at the Vermont Technical College Friday afternoon acted as if the campaign had just begun.
“If there is a silver lining in the midst of the Trump election, it’s that millions of people are asking (what they can do about it) and getting involved,” Sanders told a crowd of hundreds filling the Judd Hall gymnasium during a half-hour speech that was marked by frequent outbreaks of cheering, and a standing ovation.
Sanders urged those in the audience to let legislators see and hear their opinions.
“Get involved. Run for school board. Run for the board of selectmen. Start thinking about the legislature. Put pressure on your government. ... It is not just elections. It is fighting, for example, for the transformation of our energy system.”
Sanders sounded familiar themes during his talk, and related most of the country’s ills to a massive income inequality in which, he said, the wealthiest tenth of one percent of the country own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
“We are moving toward an oligarchic society,” he said, referring to a system of government in which a small number of people control an entire country. “I know you might think that is a radical analysis, but that is a factual analysis,” adding that “people don’t want to talk about it, because it is economically and morally indefensible.”
Sanders also tied his message to the issues of the day, including the Republican-sponsored American Health Care Act proposal that drew heavy criticism even before the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that it would result in 24 million fewer Americans having health insurance in 2026.
“What Republicans are doing ... will make a bad situation much, much worse. ... When 24 million people lose their health insurance, thousands of them will die,” he said. “If you can’t get to a doctor, your illness will get worse and you will die.”
Sanders also attacked President Donald Trump as a “pathological liar,” and contrasted his actions with former President George W. Bush, who he said was “very conservative,” but “operated within the framework of American politics.”
Trump said that political demonstrations such as the Women’s March, which drew millions to Washington, D.C., in January, are having an effect on the political discourse.
“It is having an impact. The Republicans were very nervous about making their health care plan public,” he said. “And when it did go public, phone lines started lighting up. ... (As a result), people said, ‘I can’t support this because I am hearing from my constituents.’ ”
Sanders held the meeting as part of a two-day swing through the state, during which he scheduled five town-meeting style events and smaller meetings with various other groups, including administrators and staff at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction.
On Thursday, Sanders released a news release about Trump’s proposed budget blueprint, which increases military spending, but includes dramatic cuts to various federal agencies and social services.
Sanders listed a variety of impacts that he said the budget would have in Vermont, including eliminating a program that provides heating assistance to 21,000 Vermont families, eliminating college grants for 5,700 Vermont students, and cutting Section 8 housing vouchers that currently help 550 Vermont families.
People in the crowd said they turned out to hear Sanders speak for various reasons.
Michelle Poulin, an 18-year-old student enrolled in a science and technology program at the college, said she is politically conservative, but she came with an open mind because she wanted to hear what Sanders had to say.
She said she’s in support of women’s rights, but that, having grown up immersed in the strong work ethic of a family farm in Brookfield, Vt., she didn’t like the idea of big government giveaways.
“I think he’s too soft,” she said.
But Poulin’s grandmother Connie Poulin, who sat next to her on the bleachers, described herself as a liberal who was very excited by the chance to see Sanders in person.
The enthusiasm and energy that the 75-year-old, often cantankerous Sanders inspires has become almost an in-joke for his followers.
“He’s a Beatle,” said Tom Vinelli, who works at GW Plastics in his hometown of Bethel.
“He doesn’t talk like a politician. He talks like I talk,” Vinelli said shortly after the event. “This is the first time I really understood politics as far as what’s going on. He really opened my eyes up.”
“As soon as I walked in, I just started crying,” said Diane Spambanato, a friend of Vinelli’s who works for a robotics animation company in Stockbridge. “I just thought, ‘What we could have had.’ ”
Others in the audience, like Erin Rose, of Calais, Vt., were more measured in their support. Rose is an outreach coordinator for a racial justice program, and was very focused on what Sanders said — or didn’t say — on that particular issue.
“I love Bernie. He’s someone to get excited about,” she said. “But he didn’t discuss racial justice much.”
After Sanders’ speech, Rose and Mark Hughes, a Cabot, Vt., resident who is an official with the Vermont Democratic Party, were hosting a workshop about impartial policing and legislation they said will help promote racial justice in Vermont’s criminal justice system.
“I love Bernie’s message, but without the racial justice issue, it could be just like Donald Trump’s message,” he said.
During his address, Sanders did mention race once, when he said that Trump’s questioning of Barack Obama’s birth certificate was part of a racist movement against the nation’s first black president.
Though many people said they were inspired by Sanders’ railing against corporate greed, some supporters wound up beelining from the town hall to the nearby McDonald’s, where a long line of a dozen cars, some bearing Bernie bumper stickers, temporarily backed up the drive-thru window.
Inside, Spambanato, Vinelli and Marie Hart, a Bethel resident who works for a barrier packaging company in town, were eating cheeseburgers and discussing the senator’s message.
“My whole life, I’ve been a polite follower,” Spambanato said. “Now I’m more of an informed voter.”
“Bernie’s the dream,” Hart said. “Trump’s the nightmare.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.