NEW YORK – “The Bern” came to the Bronx on Thursday night amid signs that the insurgent presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is catching fire across New York State less than three weeks before the April 19 Democratic primary.
A crowd of thousands, many of them young, filled St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx to hear Sanders deliver the same sort of gruff-voiced progressive stemwinder that’s made him an unexpectedly strong challenger to the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state.
“What this campaign is about is creating a political revolution,” Sanders said. “And the 15,000 people who are here this evening, you are the heart and soul of this revolution.”
Sanders began his speech by proudly noting that he was born in Brooklyn to poor immigrant parents from Poland.
“I learned a little bit about what it means to grow up in a family that has no money, and I also learned a little bit about the immigrant experience,” he said. “Those lessons I will never forget.”
But beyond retelling those family experiences, Sanders stuck closely to the stump speech he has delivered throughout his campaign, spelling out a plan for a remade economy that would redistribute income from top to bottom.
“We will not accept a situation where the top one-tenth of one percent has almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, where the 20 wealthiest people have more than the bottom half of America,” he said. “We are going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the people on top.”
Higher taxes on Wall Street and the wealthy should be used, Sanders said, to pay for government health care for all and free tuition at public colleges and universities.
Noting that the American taxpayers bailed out Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis, Sanders said: “Now it’s Wall Street’s turn to help the middle class.”
Wall Street seemed to have no fans among the huge pro-Sanders crowd. When the candidate said he thinks the biggest Wall Street banks should be broken up, the crowd responded with a chant of “Break them up! Break them up!”
While the Democratic race has been tame compared to the battle among Republican presidential hopefuls, Sanders took a few shots at Clinton in his speech.
He noted, for example, that she supported the Iraq War and that he did not, and that she has supported most major trade agreements over the years, while he has not.
But again, Sanders turned his talk back toward Wall Street, noting that Clinton has super PACs that have raised millions from Wall Street to boost her campaign while he has not. Similarly, he noted that Clinton gave six-digit speeches on Wall Street – which he said she should release – while he, not surprisingly, has never been invited to give a speech on Wall Street.
“We don’t represent Wall Street,” he said. “We don’t represent the corporate interests. We don’t represent the billionaire class. We don’t want their money.”
Noting that his campaign has raised a record amount in small individual contributions, Sanders said: “To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, this is a campaign of the people, by the people and for the people.”
And it’s a campaign where the New York primary will play a key role, he said.
“New York State will be having a very important primary,” he said. “If there is a large voter turnout, we will win. And if we win here in New York, we are going to make it to the White House.”
Sanders launched his New York campaign on the same day that Quinnipiac University released a poll showing Clinton with a lead of 54 percent to 42 percent lead over Sanders in the state.
That’s dramatically closer than the margin in the two previous polls from other pollsters, which showed Clinton with leads of 21 and 48 points.
Sanders’ rise in New York is likely tied in part to the increasing publicity his campaign has received as the race for the Democratic nomination has proceeded from state to state, said Maurice Carroll, associate director of the Quinnipiac poll.
“Sanders is a likable guy, and he’s tapping into a lot of dissatisfaction,” Carroll said.
Still, Clinton remains a huge favorite in the primary in the state she represented in the Senate for eight years, Carroll said.
Similarly, Clinton remains a strong favorite in the nationwide Democratic race, given that she has 1,243 delegates compared to 980 for Sanders in the race for the 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the nomination .
Given that the number of large states on the primary calendar is dwindling, both campaigns promise to wage an intense, statewide fight for New York’s 291 Democratic delegates. Delegates are distributed by congressional district in New York, thereby making the battle really a collection of 27 local contests.
Sanders is getting help in those contests from the Working Families Party, a key left-leaning player in New York politics.
“Anyone paying attention on the ground will tell you Bernie’s momentum is real,” said Bill Lipton, state director for the Working Families Party.
The Working Families Party has been working from Buffalo to Long Island to organize volunteers to turn out the vote for Sanders, Lipton added.
The crowd at Sanders’ rally reflected the same demographics that have shown themselves to be his key supporters in exit polls from the primaries so far. Most notably, the crowd was significantly younger than the one that greeted Clinton a day earlier when she kicked off her New York campaign with a speech at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Several people in Thursday’s crowd said Sanders had captured their imagination with his calls for Wall Street reform, income equity, government-run health care and free tuition at public colleges and universities.
“I support Bernie because he supports people like us,” said Isaac Santos, 24, a supervisor at a Burlington Coat Factory store. “He’s for the middle class, for people in college, for people who can’t pay for college.”
Jozefina Preci, a 20-year-old student at St. John’s University, agreed.
“He’s focused on the marginalized,” Preci said. “He’s a presidential candidate who has compassion.”
Philip Economas and his girlfriend, Navi Bhullar, attended the rally wearing matching “Bernie 3:16” T-shirts.
Economas, a 25-year-old carpenter from the Bronx and a self-proclaimed Buffalo Bills fan, said he backs Sanders because he’s the only candidate who offers a better chance and better wages for the middle class. “I support Bernie because he’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” Economas said.
Meanwhile, Bhullar, 23, offered a much more personal reason for supporting the Vermont senator. She noted that after her father had two heart attacks and needed financial support, she had to cut back from full time to part time at Nassau Community College because she could no longer afford to pay the full-time tuition.
“I trust Bernie,” Bhullar said. “I’m hoping he can help me finish college.”