With the gruff and at times angry rhetoric that made him famous on the campaign trail, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders fired up a crowd of about 4,000 on Friday with a speech calling on Kansans to support progressive ideals and a local Democrat for Congress.
Sanders and Democratic rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came to Wichita to rally on behalf of James Thompson, running for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District seat.
The crowd nearly filled the 5,000-capacity hall at the Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center.
“We must have gotten off at the wrong stop because people told me Kansas was a Republican state,” Sanders thundered. “It doesn’t look like it.”
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They cheered, chanted, and at times shouted out “We love you Bernie!” as Sanders went through his now-familiar menu of issues, including a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all, tuition-free college and sympathy for immigrant families separated by President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy on undocumented immigration.
Sanders hurled many accusations at Trump, who he called a “pathological liar.”
And Sanders contrasted Trump’s tough border policy with what many have criticized as a weak performance in regard to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and what intelligence agencies say was Russian tampering in the 2016 election.
“A few weeks ago when Trump’s immigration polices … resulted in little children being torn from the arms of their mothers, Trump said that is a sign of his strength,” Sanders said, to loud boos from the crowd.
“I say to the president, that is not a sign of strength, that is a sign of moral weakness,” Sanders said to louder cheers. “And we say to Trump, instead of showing us your strength by tearing children from their families, where was your strength in standing up to Putin and Russia?
“How courageous it is to tear children from their families, how cowardly he is to stand up to people who are trying to undermine not only American democracy but other aspects of our lives.”
Some of the loudest cheering came when Sanders called out Charles and David Koch, who jointly own Wichita-based Koch Industries and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting Republican politicians and conservative causes.
Sanders decried the Kochs’ plan “to spend, this midterm election alone, $400 million to elect candidates who represent the wealthy and powerful.”
He said the rule should be “one person one vote and not billionaires buying elections.”
Bill Riggs, a spokesman for Americans For Prosperity, the Koch network’s main political arm, has said the $400 million the network plans to spend this cycle will go toward supporting ballot initiatives and other advocacy efforts along with candidates.
The purpose of the rally was to generate support for the Democratic candidacy of Thompson, who lost to Rep. Ron Estes in a special election last year.
Thompson faces a primary against international trade executive Laura Lombard in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary and a potential rematch with Estes in November.
“It is a compliment to my campaign that my primary opponent felt it necessary to bring in two national figures from the East Coast in an attempt to win the primary against me,” Lombard said in a statement. “While we appreciate Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez coming to town, Kansas Democrats will make their own decisions regarding who they believe has the strongest policies and vision for our entire district.”
Veterans and teachers
Sanders took the stage after a fiery speech by Thompson, who spoke of his rise from an impoverished and near-homeless teenager who bathed, washed his clothes and fished for dinner in a canal, to law school and then a career as a civil rights lawyer.
Thompson opened by recognizing veterans and teachers, saying that it was a teacher who inspired him to rise above his background and the military that provided him with the money and self-discipline to do it.
He said the country is failing to provide needed services to its veterans and he intends to make that a priority if he wins in November.
“Our veterans are dying at a rate of 22 a day from PTSD … because we have a Congress that’s failed to do its damn job and that has got to stop,” Thompson said.
Thompson hit many of the same themes as Sanders, especially the minimum wage and the high cost of a college education.
“It’s not even about Republican or Democrat or independent,” he said. “It’s about all of us coming together because we’re working people trying to make ends meet.
“As someone who graduated from law school with $120,000 in school debt, I know what that burden is like for our students,” Thompson said. “Coming out of school with (the equivalent debt of) a mortgage already, and trying to buy a home, raise a family, it’s extremely hard.”
“It’s impossible!” shouted a woman from the audience.
“It’s impossible,” Thompson agreed.
Thompson also chided Estes for not participating in debates.
“I’ve been busting my backside for the last year and a half making sure I got out to every rural county and making sure I was talking to everybody in that town, because I know that the congressman that’s in office right now sure as hell won’t do it,” Thompson said.
Thompson challenged Estes to a series of 17 debates — one for each county in the district — between now and November.
Earlier, the Estes campaign issued a statement saying Thompson had “resorted to bringing the face of socialism to Kansas” in “a desperate attempt to win the democrat primary.”
Estes’ statement said he “will continue fighting for common-sense Kansas values and looks forward to a vigorous campaign this fall with whomever wins the democrat primary.”
‘Candle of hope’
Ocasio-Cortez vaulted to national prominence and earned a place on stage with Sanders by running an unapologetically progressive campaign that beat House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley in a recent New York primary.
A native of the Bronx, she told her own Kansas story of writing a fifth-grade paper about the state for her teacher, Mrs. Whipple, a Kansas native.
She said she learned a lot about wheat, but also Kansas’ history on the front line of the fight against slavery leading up to the Civil War.
“Kansas was founded in a struggle over the conscience of this nation,” she said. “It was in 1861 the people of Kansas decided we were going to be a free nation. That is the crucible and the soul of this state. Don’t let anyone forget it.
“Kansas has delivered before and it will deliver again,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “You are carrying the candle of hope for this country.”
“You are too!” shouted a man the audience.
Guadalupe Magdaleno, executive director of Sunflower Community Action, said she came to the rally because she was tired of divisive rhetoric against the immigrant community.
“When we see that hate is being spread in our nation and dividing our communities by our color, by our gender, by our religion or by where we’re from, a rally like this brings us hope,” she said. “All around the rally, you saw people from all different backgrounds, showing that we’re a progressive and just nation. This rally lifted our spirits, brought us hope and encourages us to continue the fight.”
Skylar Ward said Sanders’ presence at the rally caught her eye, but she’s wanted Thompson to win since last year’s special election.
“It’s energizing to have this many people all on the same page,” Ward said. “Voting blue is not a wasted vote in Kansas.”