Nearly 4,300 people gathered Thursday night in Kansas to hear a self-described democratic socialist call for universal health care, free college tuition and an end to employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.
“You think I scared everybody in conservative Kansas?” Sen. Bernie Sanders jokingly asked as he navigated his way backstage to pose for photos with supporters after delivering a speech full of progressive policy dreams two days before the state’s caucuses.
Sanders began his speech at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds by highlighting that in 2004 he had voted against invading Iraq as a member of Congress. Clinton, in the U.S. Senate, voted for it.
“The cost of war is far, far greater than many people realize,” he said, referring to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions upon coming home from war.
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Working-class kids go to war, not “the sons and daughters of the billionaire class,” he said.
Sanders’ vote against invading Iraq and his history as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War are what draws some supporters to him over Clinton, who advocated for the use of military force as U.S. secretary of state.
“Bernie’s a very moral person,” said Davis Hammet, a 25-year-old Topeka resident who works for the nonprofit Planting Peace. “He’s not going to risk the blood of the sons and daughters of America for needless war.”
Sam Hewitt, a 28-year-old Lawrence resident who runs a Montessori school, considers herself a peacemaker and said, “Bernie Sanders is one of the only presidential candidates I’ve ever seen that I truly believe is a peacemaker.”
Sanders repeatedly referred to the billionaire class during his speech, saying he welcomed hatred from Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry. He lobbed repeated attacks at two billionaires in particular, Wichita natives Charles and David Koch.
“You have heard of the Koch brothers,” Sanders observed when the crowd booed at the mention of their name.
Sanders called the country’s campaign finance system corrupt and boasted that the average donation to his campaign is $27.
“I think that Bernie Sanders actually cares about people and has had a consistent legacy of caring for people, not money or political gain,” said Caleb Stephens, a 26-year-old Lawrence social worker and activist.
‘It’s nice to see someone sticking up for them’
Sanders covered a broad range of topics, alternating between moral outrage over income inequality and climate change to at times verging on stand-up comedy.
He called the Walton family, which owns Walmart, the biggest beneficiary of welfare in the nation, contending that the stores pay employees such low wages that they’re forced to go on food stamps and other government subsidies. He thanked the crowd for their tax dollars on behalf of the Waltons.
“I’ve been a Bernie fan for a number of years,” said Margaret Sweeton, a 55-year-old artist from Wichita who has volunteered for the campaign since September. She pointed to the veterans’ health care bills Sanders has sponsored as a member of Congress and called him a man of integrity.
Autumn Nance, a 21-year-old phlebotomist who recently graduated from Wichita State University and who volunteers with the Sanders’ campaign, pointed to the senator’s promise to enact universal healthcare.
“I work as a phlebotomist right now and a lot of the patients come through saying they’re on chemo and they can’t afford their pills, so they’re having to make the decision between dying or … getting ridiculous loans because they can’t pay for their chemo pills,” she said. “It’s really sad to see, so it’s nice to see someone sticking up for them.”
‘Working together trumps selfishness’
Iris Wilkinson, a 63-year-old professor at Washburn University, said she’s drawn to Sanders because of his promise to offer free college tuition. She also said she thinks he’s the candidate most likely to address climate change.
“I have four grandchildren and I would like to see them have a better world,” she said.
Sanders ended his speech by zeroing in on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who he accused of promoting racial intolerance.
“Working together trumps selfishness,” he said. “… Love trumps hate.”
Meeting with Wichitans
After the rally Sanders met with five activists from Kansas People’s Action, a Wichita-based group that advocates on social justice issues that endorsed him earlier in the day.
“Are we going to get some votes in Wichita?” he asked as they posed for a photo.
Djuan Wash, one of the activists, told the candidate that a pro-Sanders rally recently drew 900 people in Wichita.
“When I talked about a people’s revolution and getting people involved in this process, that’s exactly what you're doing. That’s a grassroots organization,” he said. “That’s what you need all over this country.”