Bernie Sanders came to town Friday night, and Tucson showed up. More than an hour before the event began, a line of supporters snaked around Reid Park waiting to get into the outdoor performance center. How many were there? Thousands. A Friday night TV news report said 5,000. Isabel Garcia told the crowd they numbered 11,000. The Star
said the crowd was probably over 7,000. Whatever the exact number, it was a packed house.
The crowd ranged in age: there were 20-to-30 year olds, middle aged people and older attendees in reasonably equal numbers. Sanders' Tucson appeal doesn't have an age demographic. The crowd was predominantly white, though not exclusively so. Tucson's minority communities were well represented.
The Tucson crowd may have had a white majority, but the entertainment and speakers were definitely more "Tuk-son" than "Too-sohn." A mariachi band warmed things up before the event. Isabel Garcia, a local activist in Hispanic causes and other social issues, spoke first and introduced the other speakers. A young woman from the Apache Nation spoke passionately about the need to protect sacred Apache grounds from being taken over by private interests. Ten-year-old Bobby de la Rosa spoke about his mother, who was deported to Mexico, and the struggles his father, brothers and sister faced coping with her loss to the family, a story which was told recently in the Star
. (Sanders said later that he was used to being introduced by local dignitaries, but "I have never heard people—young people—give the kind of statements and stories I've heard in Tucson.") The national anthem was sung a cappella by twin sisters, high school students from Nogales.
And then, of course, there was Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the first Congressperson to endorse Sanders. He said he was asked by other members of Congress why he endorsed Bernie.
"I answered, 'Why not?' Bernie's my friend, and beyond friendship, I agree with his values, I agree with the solutions he's bringing to the American people, and finally, it's way past time when we had a campaign and a voice that speaks truth to power."
Then it was Sanders' turn. He spoke for almost an hour to an attentive, receptive crowd. Nearly every sentence ended with an exclamation point, usually accompanied a hand thrust out to his side, finger pointing at the issue he seemed to be indicating was "Right over there! Look at it!"—as if a mere exclamation point at the end of a sentence wasn't emphatic enough to capture how important, how unbelievably important, it is to focus on the problems this country faces and what needs to be done to fix them. Bernie wins his audiences over with passion and ideas, not polish.
The point that united his speech was stated early and often. "This is a people's campaign," he said, "not a billionaires' campaign!" Again and again, he hit on income inequality, the number of people living in poverty, which is unconscionable in the richest country in the world, and the dangerous power a few very rich people have to dominate the country's politics thanks to the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" ruling.
It was a substantive, energetic, issues-oriented speech that touched on nearly every issue important to progressive Democrats. Only a few times did Sanders use the "When I am president" construction, and never the "On my first day in office I will . . ." ploy. He made a few "promises" about what he would do, but even then, he was talking more about what the country needs than his own political aspirations.
The audience was with Sanders the whole time, alternately quietly attentive, cheering and booing in response to what he said. (When Sanders mentioned the Koch Brothers, the loud, immediate booing from the audience seemed to catch Sanders by surprise. "We have a very informed crowd here in Tucson," he said, almost to himself.) Three lines near the end of the speech brought the night's most thunderous cheers, and chants of "Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" When he talked about the travesty of voter suppression, Sanders spoke of the right he would grant to every adult to vote. "If you're 18 years of age, you're registered to vote, end of discussion!" That got a huge response. Possibly the longest sustained applause came when he said, "Every public college and university must be tuition free!" It'll be expensive, he acknowledged, but he'd pay for it by taking away tax breaks for Wall Street and using the money for education. "When Wall Street collapsed," he said, "they were begging the taxpayers, 'Please bail us out.' Now it's Wall Street's turn to bail out the middle class!"
The third big applause line came when Sanders said, "No president will fight harder to combat institutional racism!"
Only one issue, early in the speech, got a less-than-exclamation-filled presentation from Sanders: gun regulation. He hit all the right notes. His suggestions for legislation were what you would expect from a Democratic candidate. But that was the one point when he sounded more like your kindly Uncle Bernie talking sense to the audience than the fiery orator of the rest of the speech. He made no mention of the NRA, which has become a regular part of Hillary Clinton's discussion of gun violence and gun regulation. He made a point of admitting his state of Vermont has virtually no gun laws, but he went on to say they understand the need for common sense regulation to stem the tide of gun violence. He was more passionate about the need for "a revolution in mental health care!" as a way of dealing with gun violence than about the topic of gun regulation. It's the one soft spot in his otherwise uniformly progressive campaign, but this has always been a weak issue for him, and he was making sure he couldn't be accused of hypocrisy by jumping on the issue too hard to win over voters.
The speech was over and the crowd dispersed. I waited in the backed-up parking lot, which was at a standstill. Then a few police motorcycles with their lights flashing moved slowly down a lane cleared for the motorcade, followed by three cars, then more motorcycles. Bernie had left the building.