More than 9,000 people cheered and stomped their feet in response to the arrival of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–Vt.) at Eastern Michigan University’s Convocation Center Monday.
Sander’s visit was his first to the state of Michigan during his campaign and comes just three weeks before the Michigan primary on March 8. Sanders will return to Michigan on March 6 for a Democratic debate held in Flint.
At the Monday rally, he largely addressed familiar topics surrounding his campaign, many of which had personal connections to the mostly young, local crowd — including issues pertaining to Flint, higher education and youth voter turnout.
He also touched on recent events, referencing U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Saturday.
There is immense speculation about whom President Obama will choose as his nominee to replace Scalia, and how much resistance that nominee will face from the Republican majority in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement Saturday that he thought the seat shouldn’t be filled until the next president takes office.
Calling the GOP’s response to Scalia’s death an example of the party’s doctrine, Sanders said it was their chance to prove that they do, in practice, follow the text of the Constitution.
“I say to my colleagues in the U.S. Senate, my Republican colleagues, you talk about the Constitution a whole lot. How about obeying the Constitution and start holding hearings when President Obama nominates the next Supreme Court Justice?” Sanders said. “Talk about cowardice, obstructionism. Here you have the Constitution clear as can be.”
Speaking more broadly during his remarks, Sanders said he was pleased by the large crowd attending the rally, noting that the issues he focuses on require the attention of everybody.
The crowd was comprised of residents and students from all over the state wanting to witness the candidate in person, including LSA senior Lucy Licht.
“I was really interested in seeing what the real-life energy was like,” Licht said. “I’ve watched Bernie on TV and read stuff about him but I don’t think I really captured the experience of the excitement and energy of everyone coming together to hear what he has to say.”
Sanders’ visit follows two separate campaign stops in Flint for opponent Hillary Clinton, in the race for the Democratic nomination — on Feb. 7, Clinton herself, and a few days later, her daughter Chelsea Clinton. During his speech, Sanders said he met with residents of Flint earlier that day but did not make any official appearances while there.
Both Sanders and Clinton have criticized the state government for their slow response to the Flint water crisis. Clinton has brought the issue to national attention by referencing it during two recent Democratic debates, calling the current efforts insufficient. Sanders — echoing several state and national groups who have held protests in recent weeks — has taken a harder stance, calling for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder.
During his remarks, Sanders said prior to his meeting with Flint residents he did not fully understand the gravity of the crisis.
“I really did not know how ugly and how horrible and how terrible what is going on in our community (is),” he said. “It is beyond my comprehension that in the year 2016, in the United States of America, we are poisoning our children.”
Sanders also touched on his plan for addressing student debt and making public colleges and universities tuition free. Sanders' plan calls for taxes on Wall Street speculation — which would require banks to pay a fee for various financial transactions included under the umbrella of speculation such as stocks and bond trading — to finance the tuition-free college initiative.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Dearborn) has co-sponsored legislation that addresses the loan-refinancing issue Sanders calls for, though she is supporting Clinton in the race.
Sanders said higher education is key to maintaining a competitive economy, and characterized student debt as a “punishment” for individuals seeking education.
“Everybody knows that for our economy to be strong we need the best education,” he said. “How insane is it to punish people for the crime of trying to get an education? That is why as part of our legislation, we are going to allow people to refinance their debt with the lowest possible interest rates.”
Recent surveys suggest a large base of Sanders' supporters come from younger generations — particularly those of college age. In New Hampshire, Sanders won 83 percent of voters under the age of 30, The Atlantic reported.
Sanders promised college students in the room a future without mounting student debt and higher minimum wage, but cautioned the crowd that they must remain active in their campaigning and get friends and peers out to the voting booth.
“Your job, in every creative way, is to determine and make certain that every American is actively involved in shaping the future of our country, not just the 1 percent,” Sanders said.
Sanders also stressed that a true political revolution requires action from the bottom up. To take power away from the 1 percent — a rallying cry of the Sanders campaign — movement must come from the masses, he said.
“Real change never takes place from the top on down … real change takes place when people by the tens of millions look around and say you know what, the status quo is just no longer acceptable,” Sanders said. “It’s got to change. When the people lead, the leaders follow.”