Sanders returns to Vermont for rally at Statehouse

  • People cheer as Bernie Sanders speaks at his first rally as a candidate for president in Vermont in Montpelier on Saturday, May 25, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Published: 5/25/2019 9:05:54 PM
Modified: 5/25/2019 9:05:52 PM

MONTPELIER — Three months after formally announcing a 2020 presidential bid in his birthplace of Brooklyn, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders returned to his home state of Vermont on Saturday for a capital city rally planned as a morale-refueling pit stop as he aims to regain the lead in his Democratic primary race.

“In this pivotal and unprecedented moment in American history, I am here today to ask for your support,” he told a surprisingly underwhelming crowd of more than 1,000 supporters at a Statehouse event that campaign and city officials estimated would draw between 3,000 to 5,000 people.

Sanders, who surprised many with a strong 2016 primary run against eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, had topped 2020 polls as late as a month ago — only to watch former Vice President Joe Biden springboard ahead upon entering the contest April 25.

Sanders, now in second place, is 17 points behind Biden in the latest average of leading coast-to-coast surveys. But the Vermonter is just 4 points behind in the first-caucus state of Iowa and 13 points behind in the first-primary state of New Hampshire.

Sanders used his Montpelier rally — broadcast live on several national press platforms from what ABC News noted was “America’s smallest state capital by population” — to play up his four-decade political career and “the impact it’s had on Vermont.”

The 77-year-old lifelong socialist upended the political establishment in 1981 when he won the first of four terms as Burlington mayor by 10 votes.

“I don’t think this revolution is going to happen overnight,” the newly elected leader said in archival footage spliced into a campaign ad unveiled over the weekend, “but I do think it’s important that in Burlington, Vermont, and in cities and towns all over this country, workers and people who are interested in true democracy begin talking about these ideas.”

Sanders went on to become history’s longest-serving independent member of Congress with his election to the House of Representatives in 1990 and the Senate in 2006.

“Let me thank the people of the state of Vermont who have given me an opportunity that, when I was a kid, I never would have dreamed of in a million years,” he told the crowd. “It has been the honor of my life.”

Sanders then replayed his talking-point greatest hits, with invitations to boo multinational corporations and the military-industrial complex and clap and cheer for progressive proposals to help working people.

The candidate also responded to recent calls by critics to apologize for condemning U.S. armed conflict with Iranian forces in the Middle East.

“As a young man, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others, I marched against the war in Vietnam,” he said. “As a member of the House of Representatives, I helped lead the opposition to the war in Iraq. I did not believe Dick Cheney or John Bolton or President (George W.) Bush and others when they told us that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that we had to invade that country.”

“Finally, right now, this minute, I am doing everything that I can to prevent Donald Trump and John Bolton from taking us into a war in Iran,” he continued. “And I make no apologies.”

Sanders formally kicked off his first presidential campaign almost exactly four years ago in Burlington, where national news outlets preparing for the coronation of Clinton were surprised to see an estimated 5,000 people applaud a Vermonter whose polling percentage could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Since then, Sanders has morphed into a political powerhouse, with the “radical” ideas he pushed in 2016 — a living wage, free college and health care to all — now promoted by a majority of Democratic candidates.

A series of warm-up speakers praised Sanders’ vision.

“Remembering where you come from matters,” Vermont U.S. Rep. Peter Welch told the Montpelier rally crowd. “We don’t have somebody in the White House (referring to President Donald Trump) who can remember who his friend was, let alone who his wife was the other day.”

Added Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen: “Ice cream is good, but a president of the United States who truly believes in justice in all its flavors? That’s euphoric.”

Many Montpelier residents weren’t sure what Saturday’s program would serve up, with a forecast of rain, flashing signs along Interstate 89 warning “Event at Statehouse/Expect Delays” and talk that locals were grocery shopping early as if the capital city was about to be hit by a storm.

But attendees had enough room to unfold picnic blankets on the sun-splashed lawn as Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile performed as the opening act.

“There’d be more farmers here today if we didn’t have this one good day of the week,” said introductory speaker Jenny Nelson, herself one as well as a former Sanders staffer. “Doesn’t matter that it’s Memorial Day weekend. Those fields have got to get planted. The cows have got to get milked.”

Even so, enough Montpelier police and emergency medical technicians stood by that the capital city will add up the costs and ask the Sanders campaign for reimbursement.

(The request has precedent: Brooklyn College charged $70,000 for hosting this year’s kickoff.)

The Montpelier event was just one of several campaign stops this month, following visits in six Iowa communities and four Southern states. Sanders will move on to New Hampshire for a series of ice cream socials on Monday and public speeches on Tuesday in Concord, Londonderry and Manchester, and then fly west to the early-voting states of Nevada on Wednesday and Thursday and California next weekend.

Running for the second time, Sanders’ campaign is a well-oiled machine that so far has outpaced its rivals by raising more than $20 million. But it’s about to supplement its online solicitations with new “grassroots fundraiser and friendraiser” events featuring tickets ranging from $27 to $2,800.

“We are facing a bit of a dilemma,” campaign manager Faiz Shakir wrote in a recent email to supporters. “We still have more individual donations than anyone else. By a lot. But the truth is that our average contribution has been steadily in decline.”

The campaign’s average contribution of $27 in 2016 has dropped to about $16. That means Sanders must collect 175 donations to match one $2,800 maximum contribution received by a competitor.

“Bernie is very proud of the way we are funding this campaign,” Shakir continued in his email. “In fact, he is thrilled that our average donation is lower than it was in 2016. It means that this is truly a grassroots campaign built by a record number of people donating small-dollar contributions.”

At the same time, Sanders is attempting to broadcast his message in a big way. Saturday’s rally closed the street in front of the Statehouse for television satellite trucks and reserved a sight-blocking set of risers in front of the stage for national reporters.

“One thing many Democrats can agree on is that Sanders changed the playbook, and they give him credit for that,” the Washington, D.C. news outlet Roll Call wrote of the progressive anti-establishment politician. “But now that the stakes are higher than ever and the game has changed, can Sanders retain the enthusiasm of his millennial base and broaden his appeal while competing with a double-digit field of candidates he didn’t have in 2016?”

The answer: “Nobody Knows What’s Going to Happen in 2020,” New York Magazine says in its latest headline.

“This campaign is a marathon, not a sprint,” RealClearPolitics adds, “and with over 20 serious Democratic candidates running, it is likely to have multiple twists before the election season is over.”

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