Bernie Sanders rallies big crowd at Winthrop
“Where were you on Saturday night?” Bernie Sanders imagined a Winthrop University student asking the next day. “You missed a great party.”
“This is a great party!” someone from the crowd shouted, and the students gathered at Winthrop’s Byrnes Auditorium burst into applause.
The estimated 3,000 people who came to Sanders’ rally – which Sanders himself called the largest he’d seen in South Carolina – didn’t mind spending their Saturday night listening to the surging socialist candidate who is challenging early frontrunner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
Sanders credited his improved standing in recent polls – and the crowds that have come out to see him – to disgust with “establishment politics,” “establishment economics” and “establishment media.”
“You’re looking at a candidate who does not have a super PAC,” Sanders said. “You’re looking at a candidate who doesn’t represent corporate America and the billionaire class.
“And I don’t want their money.”
Sanders’ appearance on the Rock Hill campus capped the Vermont senator’s latest swing through South Carolina ahead of February’s crucial early Democratic primary. Earlier in the day, he spoke at Benedict College in Columbia and held a town hall meeting in Florence.
You’re looking at a candidate who doesn’t represent corporate America and the billionaire class. And I don’t want their money.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential candidate
In a speech that ran over an hour, Sanders told the crowd America is the wealthiest country in the world, but also one of the most economically unequal of the major developed nations.
“If you’re working two or three jobs, you don’t know it’s the wealthiest country on earth,” he said.
Sanders called for a string of reforms to improve that standing, starting with raising the national minimum wage – $7.25 an hour since 2009, which Sanders called a “starvation wage” – to $15 an hour.
“If you’re working 40 hours a week in America, you should not be living in poverty,” Sanders said.
Likewise, Sanders said he would go beyond the health care reforms in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and do what every other industrialized nation has done and establish access to health care as a right, through a “Medicare-for-all, single-payer health care system.”
But perhaps the most popular measure for his college-aged audience is Sanders’s call to create a system of free public colleges, eliminating tuition and the need for students to take out massive student loans to afford a higher education.
Fifty years ago, most state colleges were either tuition-free or “had very, very low tuition,” Sanders told today’s college students, and most European nations still operate their university systems that way.
In America too, he said, everyone would benefit both socially and economically if every child, regardless of family income, could afford to get a college education, and every child knew college was a realistic option for their future. At the same time, Sanders would let college students and graduates re-finance their student loans just as their parents can bring down their mortgage payments.
To pay for such a generous program, Sanders would increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy, something he described as a return payment for the financial bailout of 2008.
“Now it's Wall Street's turn to bail out the working families of this country," he said.
At each event on his one-day tour Saturday, Sanders was introduced by Cornel West, an African-American civil rights activist, former Harvard professor and, like Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist.”
Sanders stands up for the oppressed, West told the crowd, whether they’re oppressed because of race, class, gender or sexual orientation – and against the top 1 percent who control 42 percent of the nation’s wealth.
“We don’t hate rich people,” West said. “We hate greed.”
Now it's Wall Street's turn to bail out the working families of this country.
Sen. Bernie Sanders
West could be a key surrogate for Sanders heading into the South Carolina primary. The senator’s surge in the polls has been primarily driven by white progressives, but black voters are expected to make up the majority of voters in S.C.’s Democratic primary. Previous Sanders appearances have been marred by disruptions from “Black Lives Matter” activists, and political prognosticators have said he needs to broaden his appeal among black voters.
Clinton, meanwhile, has maintained strong support among minority voters, and her campaign will reportedly rely on a political “firewall” in the South to fend off Sanders’ potential early primary surge in Iowa and New Hampshire.
To get over that firewall, Sanders – active in the 1960s civil rights movement as a student himself – called for an end to systemic racial injustice.
As mayor of Burlington, Vt., in the 1980s, he said he worked closely with the police department and respected the difficult job police have to do – but he also read out the now famous list of names of African Americans killed in the course of interactions with police officers, and vowed, “Any police officer who breaks the law must be held accountable.” He also called for sentencing reform to reduce the number of young black men handed lengthy prison terms.
At one point, the candidate tied the issues of criminal justice reform to his education policy, noting it “costs more money to send someone to jail than the University of South Carolina.”
For most of the speech, in between loud cheers and standing ovations after he hit a particularly powerful point, Sanders focused on the what has gotten him as far as he has – not only in the primary race, but rising from a third-party candidate and small-town mayor to the heights of the U.S. Senate – by persistently focusing on economic issues that hit middle- and working-class voters squarely in the wallet.