A high school gymnasium transformed briefly into a scene from the 2016 campaign trail as Sen. Bernie Sanders urged Kansas Democrats to fight for progressive policies.
The U.S. senator from Vermont urged his supporters in an hour-long speech to remain engaged in politics even if they are anxious or discouraged about the direction of the Trump administration.
“We can defeat the Trump agenda,” Sanders said. “We can create a progressive America if millions of people stand up and fight back.”
“Nobody has the right to throw their hands up and say ‘I quit.’” Sanders said. “Despair is not an option.”
Sanders also delved into many of the economic issues that defined his populist campaign for president, such as income inequality.
“We have a middle class which is disappearing,” Sanders said. “We are seeing the very wealthiest in this country becoming ever more wealthy. Brothers and sisters, that is an issue we’re going to have to deal with.”
“Our job together is to end that rigged economy and create an American economy that works for all, not just the one percent," he said.
Sanders criticized many of Trump’s cabinet nominees and accused the president of reneging on campaign promises regarding cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid
“Instead of draining the swamp, he has brought the swamp into his entire administration,” Sanders said.
He said the United States should explore a pathway to citizenship for immigrants not in the country legally instead of "rounding up people." He also urged action to confront climate change.
"We must transform our energy system away from fossil fuels," he said.
Sanders largely focused on national politics, but also called Kansas state government "ground zero for trickle down economics."
"I look forward to working with you in the years to come," he said. "If you transform Kansas as I know you can, we’re going to transform this country."
Sanders was introduced by a trio of Wichitans: congressional candidate James Thompson, state Rep. Gail Finney and former state Senate candidate Gabriel Costilla.
“Bernie Sanders’ message spoke to me,” said Thompson, who is running against Republican Ron Estes and Libertarian Chris Rockhold in the race to replace CIA Director Mike Pompeo in the U.S. House. “He talked about progressive values. He talked about health care for all. He talked about returning the working class to prominence in this country.”
A number of other Wichitans made the drive up I-35 to see Sanders speak. Wichitan Ron Schauf said he hoped the speech would encourage Democrats to unite around common issues.
“It’s important for the party to find its footing again,” he said.
Phillip Rogers from Shawnee said he hoped the rally would show "people who oppose Trump are still willing to resist."
“Even though it seems dark right now, things will get better if we just stick together," he said.
Bill Shoemaker of Topeka said he hoped the speech would underscore the importance of turning out for each election.
"I hope he’ll inspire a whole group of people to fight the…ill-effects of this administration," added Barbara Whittmer of Topeka.
Sanders was the Democrats’ keynote speaker for their annual Washington Days convention. Sanders comfortably won the Kansas Democratic Caucus last March.
Kansas Sen. Tom Hawk said landing Sanders for the keynote speaker was "huge" for the state party.
"It’s one of the more big-league things we’ve had happen," he said.
In addition to guidance under the Trump administration, Hawk said he hoped the Sanders’ speech would inspire Democrats to be more active in state government, where Republicans control the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature.
“We’ve got to resist,” he said. “That message needs to be loud and clear.”
After Sanders spoke in the gymnasium, he spoke briefly to an auditorium with students from three high schools.
"Defending democracy, being part of the decision-making process, is something people fought and died for you to have," Sanders said.