Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders brought his insurgent Democratic presidential primary campaign to Rhode Island Sunday, giving an impassioned speech to 7,000 cheering supporters at a sun-dappled Temple to Music at Roger Williams Park in Providence.
In an hour-long address, Sanders focused on his standard themes and domestic policies. There was scant emphasis on foreign affairs and he didn’t mention opponent Hillary Clinton by name, referring to her obliquely just once by saying he was the stronger candidate on climate change and regulating the fossil fuel industry.
Sanders appearance was the first of his presidential quest in Rhode Island, which holds its primary Tuesday along with four other northeastern states in what the national media has dubbed the Acela primary, after the high-speed Amtrak train that links the states, which also include Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
A Brown University public opinion survey released minutes before the Vermont’s senator’s appearance showed Clinton leading him and Trump ahead among the Republican aspirants. The survey was comprised of 426 Democratic primary voters and just 164 Republicans. Clinton led Sanders 43 to 34 percent with a fairly high number of undecideds for this late in the cycle at 16 percent. On the GOP side, which has an error margin that is unusually high, 38 percent backed Trump, 25 percent supported John Kasich, 14 percent are with Ted Cruz and 17 percent are undecided.
The Sanders campaign disputed the poll; senior adviser Tad Devine said their candidate polls better than the Brown numbers in internal campaign polls. But he did not disclose specific results.
``What this campaign is about is not complicated,’’ Sanders said. ``It is saying that we are tired of living in a nation where the top one-percent controls our economy, controls our political life.’’
He was cheered often as he recited his campaign talking points – the need for a Canadian-style single-payer health care system, a $15 per hour minimum wage, tuition-free public colleges, an effort to help students with college loan debt refinance it at lower interest rates and changing a campaign finance system that he asserts favors the wealthy and the top one-percent of the country. He also wants to break up the `too big to fail' banks and reinstate a version of the Glass-Steagal Act that was repealed during Bill Clinton's presidential administration in the late 1990s. That law established a firewall between commercial and investment banking.
The huge throng was the largest of any presidential campaign event in Rhode Island recent political memory, with the turnout of supporters bested only by the 1996 general election rally held by then-President Bill Clinton in downtown Providence near the train station.
Sanders also criticized corporations that have moved manufacturing jobs to such low-wage countries as China and Mexico. And he localized his message with data on Rhode Island’s economy, which has been slow to recover from the recession. He noted that Rhode Island has the largest childhood poverty rate in New England and has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs.
`` Stand up….this country belongs to us all, not just the people on top,’’ he bellowed, to the delight of the crowd.
He slammed the giant retailer WalMart, saying the company pays workers so little that many of them qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. That, he says, means that middle-class taxpayers end up paying or those programs and in effect, subsidize WalMart. (He didn’t mention that Hillary Clinton was once member of the retailer’s board).
And he skewered Trump as a divisive demagogue, which his backers loved.
The noontime event was festive, with thousands of supporters and their families, and in some cases, their dogs, mixing with Big Nazo puppets dressed as Sanders and Republican presidential aspirant Donald Tump, who is scheduled to come to Rhode Island tomorrow.
Sanders speech drew protracted applause and laughter from the crowd. The 74-year old left-leaning Vermont quoted from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and joked that he actually wasn’t present at the time in the 1860s.
It was a busy day for the Vermont senator, who was up early for interviews with four network television Sunday news shows. Then he sat for interview sessions with three Rhode Island journalists – Yours Truly (Scott MacKay of RI Public Radio, the npr affiliate in R.I.), Ted Nesi of WPRI-12 television, the local CBS station, and Ed Fitzpatrick of the Providence Journal, the state’s largest newspaper. After his Rhode Island stop, Sanders was off to campaign events in New Haven and Hartford.
Sanders came to the Ocean State a day after Hillary Clinton’s speech at a much smaller rally in Central Falls. She took no questions from local media.
Former President Bill Clinton is slated to come back to Rhode Island tomorrow for his second campaign appearance this month on behalf of his wife.
``What I believe today is what I have always believed,’’ said Sanders, arms waving at the assembled. ``When people stand together united and not divided there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.’’