A largely young and fully adoring crowd heard Bernie Sanders’ pitch Wednesday in Kansas City for an economy no longer “rigged” for the rich and a political system less awash in money.
The midday speech by the Democratic presidential candidate to several thousand at Bartle Hall focused on his usual themes of economic inequality. The talk came flush with unabashedly liberal specifics.
“Wall Street is getting nervous,” Sanders said, his outer-borough New York drawl distinct amid Midwestern supporters. “We have taken on the political establishment. We have taken on the media establishment. We are gaining momentum every single day.”
The senator from Vermont arrived shortly after losing last week’s Nevada caucuses, needing to turn things around quickly to pose a serious threat to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Yet he brimmed with electoral optimism.
“If we stand together, we can make American history,” he said, calling on “my brothers and sisters” to get involved in politics as Kansas and Missouri votes come up next month.
His speech hit many of the same notes it has throughout the campaign season, and the long stretch of his political career. He called for major reforms curtailing Wall Street influence on the economy and on corporate money in elections, for smaller banks working under tighter investment rules, for a higher minimum wage. He spoke in defense of same-sex marriage, said police should be held more accountable for shootings — “unarmed African-Americans … killed in cold blood” — and argued for equity pay laws for women.
He promised Medicare-for-all health insurance, tougher pension protection and three-month family medical leave mandates.
Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, delivers speeches that go all in for big government policies. The Democratic Party has eased away from such unbridled liberalism at least since George McGovern was its doomed nominee in 1972.
But in this topsy-turvy political cycle, his message clicks with a sizable chunk of the Democratic electorate.
“Income inequality, women’s rights, I want to get rid of for-profit prisons. I just want to see a politician start caring about the little guy,” said Ann Jackson of Independence, part of a crowd that an organizer estimated at 7,500. Many started lining up before dawn. “I’ve been watching Bernie for 30 years, and he’s always, always been fighting for us.”
On Wednesday, he continued to talk about “greedy corporations and billionaires” as the nation’s enemy and government assistance to its working families as a salvation.
“It’s Wall Street’s turn to help the middle class,” he said, saying he’d tax speculative investments to fund college tuition.
Midway through the 48-minute speech, he jabbed at Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s lower taxes, smaller government model and its welfare reforms.
“In Kansas, you’ve got a governor who likes to beat up on the poor,” Sanders said. “It’s always an easy target to beat up on the poor, to talk about welfare abuse among the poor.”
That prompted the Republican governor’s office to issue a statement: “It’s hardly surprising a socialist from Vermont disagrees with the governor’s welfare-to-work reforms. In Kansas, we believe higher incomes and more employment for those leaving food stamps is a good thing.”
The youth of the crowd showed when Sanders talked about the burden of college debt, which drew a far more thunderous applause than when just a moment before he said people on Social Security were struggling to get by on “$11,000 or $12,000 a year.” He’s promising an end to tuition at public colleges and help for refinancing school debt.
“We shouldn’t have to be in such debt to go to school,” Madison Crook of Topeka said after the speech.
Poverty and economic inequality came up time and again.
“This candidate for president will talk about poverty, will stand together with the most oppressed people in this country,” Sanders said. “Why is it that millions and millions are working 40 and 50 hours a week and still don’t earn enough money to take care of their families?”
Sanders took the stage about 1:15 p.m., 15 minutes late but with still scores outside trying to clear security and crowd in with the upstairs throng.
His Kansas City stop came as the pace of primaries sets to speed dramatically. The next vote comes in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday. Clinton appears to hold a commanding lead there. RealClear Politics estimates she leads Sanders by 24 percentage points. That reflects the political headwinds Sanders faces nationally.
Sanders’ Wednesday speech marked the first time the presidential contest steamed through Kansas City since the start of the primary season. The stop appears almost an aberration. After South Carolina, the race turns to the Super Tuesday on March 1 and a potentially deciding turn in the race. Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts and a handful of other states hold primaries that day.
Only after that come the Kansas caucuses on March 5, a Saturday. Another handful of states will vote shortly after that.
Then on March 15, Missouri, Illinois, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio will hold their primaries.
All of that voting, potentially enough to settle the nomination fights in both parties — Donald Trump scored a deciding win Tuesday night in the Nevada caucuses — comes within the next three weeks.
Sanders did not mention Clinton’s name in the Kansas City speech. But he did make a pointed attack on Goldman Sachs, the massive investment banking firm that recently agreed to a multi-billion dollar settlement to resolve claims stemming from the marketing and selling of faulty mortgage securities. Clinton has been under attack from Sanders and others for speaking fees she took from the firm.
On a CNN town hall broadcast Tuesday night, Sanders dug at Clinton for her connections to Wall Street.
“I don’t get speaker’s fees from Goldman Sachs,” he said.
Sanders was careful to avoid the mistake of many visitors to Kansas City, acknowledging that the market straddles both Kansas and Missouri. He made a call for voters to head to the polls on his behalf in the Kansas caucuses and the Missouri primary.
“Democracy,” he said, “is not a spectator sport.”