BENNINGTON — Bernie Sanders demonstrated Saturday that his political rock star status hasn’t faded. Nearly 700 people attended a rally in Bennington for Democrats seeking statewide offices and local House seats in the Nov. 8 election.
The Vermont senator may have lost the Democratic nomination for president to Hillary Clinton, but his leadership role in a surging American progressive movement was evident from the moment he was spotted entering the event at Mount Anthony Union Middle School.
His presence prompted a spontaneous roar and applause from the crowd and an instant swarm of beaming supporters, seemingly propelled forward from their seats.
Attendees said the still hot enthusiasm Sanders has generated will fuel the progressive movement past Election Day.
“I think one of the things we’ve seen the most coming away from Bernie Sanders’ run is that he was speaking to issues and solving our country’s problems in a way that resonated with a lot of people,” said Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington.
“And there is an expectation when people are running for office that they will try to uphold that,” she said, “because that is what the people wanted … I think the momentum was there, but I think he gave a platform and a voice for people to say, this is what I want to have happen, this is what I have been looking for.”
Mary Gerisch, of Rights and Democracy (RAD), which organized the event, said, “People really do have power when they stand together to make change. And that, of course, is what RAD is all about, people standing together to make change."
“I think Bernie has allowed people to realize that we can shift the balance of power away from the oligarchal structure if we keep at it and if we speak in a loud voice and in one voice,” Gerisch said.
For Rep. Steve Berry, D-Manchester, the key is that “you have to be able to commit yourself to working really, really hard, because most people don’t realize the kind of effort that is necessary for you to get involved with the progressive movement.”
He added, “I am very optimistic that this [movement] is going to continue. We have the standard bearer here in this state. Bernie is the standard bearer.”
In his remarks, Berry thanked Sanders for “bringing back the conscience of America.”
James Haslam, executive director of Rights and Democracy, said Sanders “was able to capture the imagination of the whole country and kind of lift the hopes for a population of people who were very disillusioned with government, with politicians, with the political system, the economic system — and really show that there is a huge appetite for some pretty big changes, nationally and in Vermont. And what we think Bernie has created for Vermont is a real opportunity to lead, to lead in that direction for something that works for the people and not just a wealthy minority.”
Vanessa Haverkoch said she believes Sanders and others will be pushing Hillary Clinton hard as president to address the concerns of progressives. “I think he is going to have his fingers all over Hillary’s back,” she said, adding, “I would like to see a little more equity with the rich and the poor and taxing, and just helping people in general.”
“It is my fondest wish that the seeds that he has sown, especially among younger people, will continue,” said Jim Carroll, a member of the town Select Board.
“Not to despair that Bernie lost,” he said, “but that he laid the foundation for what could be a really positive movement. I tell you, for myself when I was a kid, JFK and Bobby were the people who made me who I am. So I hope they will follow Bernie’s example and not give up.”
Frank Barnes, director of educational technology for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, said, “I hope the progressive movement will continue to grow. Vermont is in a unique position; we always have been, being very independent minded. Bernie doing so well, I think he sparked something that is not going to go away.”
Referring to Donald Trump and the political divisions raging across the nation, Barnes added, “I can’t help but look at how divided we have become, and if there is any hope for us to come together as a nation, I think it is through the progressives who are onboard with Bernie.”
When he spoke, Sanders touched on progressive themes familiar from his campaign rallies, but no less powerful in terms of the effect on his audience.
After praising the large turnout, Sanders asked, “Are you ready for something radical? We’re going to practice democracy.”
He asked those present to support the slate of Democratic candidates, “who I believe are thoughtful and serious people.”
Those Democrats included gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter, lieutenant gubernatorial candidate David Zuckerman, Secretary of State Jim Condos, candidate for Attorney General T.J. Donovan, and local state Reps. Morris and Berry, and House candidate John Moran.
People understand that in the richest country in the world, “there is something is profoundly wrong,” Sanders said, when millions live in poverty, many work two or three jobs to make ends meet; when the U.S. is only major country that hasn’t guaranteed health care for all citizens; when tax breaks are given to billionaires, and when “the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much the bottom 90 percent. It is unacceptable.
“So what we are seeing in America is yes, the economy is better than it was eight years ago,” he said, “but nevertheless we have grotesque levels of income and wealth inequality.”
Sanders decried that there are millions of people still uninsured or underinsured, that higher education is out of reach for many, and that hanging over everything is a dire need to deal with climate change and wean the nation from fossil fuels.
Beyond “an economy that is rigged” toward the wealthy, he said, the country has “a corrupt campaign finance system … I believe democracy is about one person, one vote, not billionaires buying elections.”
After the November election, he said, “one of our most important jobs is to reinvigorate American democracy. Because at the end of the day, the only antidote to billionaires buying elections is millions of people all over this county standing up and telling the billionaires they are not going to get away with buying elections, that the people’s will will prevail.”
Sanders, who has served as an independent before seeking the Democratic nomination for president, endorsed the Vermont Democratic candidate slate on Friday in Montpelier and was scheduled to appear in a series of rallies around the state over the weekend.