Supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) filled Crisler Center Monday for the candidate’s first visit to Ann Arbor: a “Get Out To Vote” rally the day before the Michigan primary.
The crowd began by chanting, “Feel the Bern, Bernie will make it easy to learn; Feel the Bern, Bernie will make it free to learn.”
Sanders’ first visit to Michigan was in February, when he held a rally at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
“Words cannot describe how excited I am,” said LSA sophomore Nicholas Kolenda, president of Students for Sanders, before the rally. “We’ve been wanting him to come here for months, and for him to come here on Monday — right before Michigan’s primary tomorrow — we’re ecstatic. We’re all ecstatic, so excited.”
The student organization helped distribute posters and get the crowd excited for the rally.
Choosing the University of Michigan to host the rally in particular may have been less about politics as much as it was about logistics: though the University's Spring Break was last week but most colleges in the state including Michigan State, Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University, among others, do not have class this week. The Sanders campaign has relied on youth voters throughout the primaries thus far, and the Michigan primary falling on many colleges’ Spring Breaks could hurt the campaign on Tuesday.
After Sunday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton is currently leading Sanders nationally by 9.6 percent according to a RealClearPolitics polling average. In Michigan, Clinton leads Sanders by 20.4 percent, according to a polling average by RealClearPolitics.
Aiming to inspire voters, Sanders said Monday night that the campaign is seen as revolutionary not only in its radical policies, but in their high voter turnouts.
“We believe ultimately that when millions of people come together and get involved in the political process, there is nothing that we cannot do,” Sanders said.
Before the senator took the stage, Detroit-based band JR JR performed, followed by Nate Ruess of the band FUN. Actress Shailene Woodley, Sen. Nina Turner (D–Ohio) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) also all spoke favorably of the candidate.
Sanders’ speech covered all of the major points of his platform, from social issues like the wage gap and high incarceration rates to trade, revamping the higher education and health care systems to addressing climate change and the Flint water crisis.
The senator said his focus has been on listening to women, children and African Americans, along with other marginalized groups.
“What this campaign is about is raising issues that many other people prefer not to talk about at all,” Sanders said.
LSA freshman Jonathan George, who attended the rally, said he would be voting for Sanders in Tuesday’s primary because of his stance on listening to marginalized groups.
“I’ve been a longtime Sanders fan and I finally wanted to get the opportunity to see him in person, so I was very excited to be here,” George said. “I really like how Bernie, like he said, he focuses on policies that not many people talk about. He focuses on income inequality, gender issues, racial inequality — things that aren’t usually brought up in the normal election cycle. To find somebody who connects to their audience like that to the middle class so well and has the best interests of the middle class at heart the best, that he should be our president.”
LSA freshman Victoria Thach said she was inspired to support Sanders because of his inclusive campaign.
“I am a supporter of Senator Bernie, just because I am a first-generation student,” Thach said. “I don’t come from a very high class, and being here at the University of Michigan, it’s a bit hard being surrounded by so many people of higher income, it makes me feel a little small sometimes, and I enjoy that he’s giving us smaller people a voice.”
In front of an audience of largely college students, Sanders discussed in depth his intentions to fix the higher education system. The senator said a college degree has become what a high school diploma was 50 years ago, and the inaccessibility of a diploma based on the rising cost of college has led him to view tuition-free education as the only option.
“When we think outside of the box, we choose to conclude that we need to make public colleges and universities tuition free,” Sanders said. “We need to substantially reduce student debt by allowing those with debt to refinance their loans at the lowest possible interest rates as they can.”
Kohlenda said it was this mindset about college that sparked engagement in the Student for Sanders chapter on campus.
“(Students like him) especially for his proposals that go much farther than any other candidate to deal with college debt, and to basically make sure that college is universal,” he said.
Countering claims that his plan wasn’t feasible, Sanders explained he intended to fund a free-tuition program with a tax on corporate speculation.
“When people say: ‘How can we afford free tuition at colleges and universities? How can we pay to reduce student debt? It’s an expensive proposition.’ It is,” Sanders said. “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to propose a tax on Wall Street speculation.”
He also tied investment in the education system to another piece of his platform — fixing the issue of mass incarceration.
“If anybody here thinks that there is not a connection between that very high rate of youth unemployment and the number of people we have in jail — you would be mistaken,” Sanders said. “Ready for a radical idea? We are going to invest for our young people in education and jobs, not jails and incarceration.”
In addition to investing in jobs, Sanders touched on resolving the wage gap between men and women, which he said is maintained based on “old fashioned sexism.”
The loudest audience responses of the night, however, occurred when the senator discussed the issue of women’s health.
“(The movement is) telling Republicans who talk about family values that we know what they talk about, and what they’re talking about is telling every woman in this arena, in this state, in this country, that she cannot control her own body. I disagree,” Sanders said.
That enthusiasm was also clear when Sanders repeated a call for Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) resignation in wake of the Flint water crisis.
“What I saw in Flint, Michigan, was one of the most unsettling and disturbing things that I have ever seen in my whole life,” Sanders said. “I do believe that the governor of this state should resign.”
Sanders began his speech focusing on differentiating himself in the Democratic race, attacking Clinton’s views on trade and countering a claim she made in Sunday’s Democratic debate that he did not support the auto industry bailout.
Sanders voted against funds for the bailout included in the larger Troubled Assets Relief Program, which also included mechanisms to bail out several large banks. He voted in favor of a different, smaller package of funds for automakers.
“That is absolutely false, there was one vote in the United States Senate, that would be on December 11, 2008, and of course I voted to defend the auto bailout,” Sanders said. “What I did not vote for was a middle class bailout of the crooks on Wall Street.”
He ended his speech in a similar manner, discussing his confidence as the Democratic nominee in defeating Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“We will win because the American people do not want a president who insults Mexicans and Muslims,” Sanders said. “The American people do not want a president who insults women. The American people do not want a president who insults African Americans … We will together defeat Trump because the American people understand that we need our people together — Trump’s divisiveness is dividing us up. The American people will defeat Trump because they understand that community — helping each other, standing with each other in our times of need trumps selfishness.”
After the speech, Sanders joined JR JR and Nate Ruess on stage to sing “This Land is Your Land,” one of several songs the candidate recorded in a 1987 folk album while serving as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
LSA freshman Holden Kardos said he came to the rally as a supporter of Sanders and was drawn to the candidate because of his character.
“I like Bernie Sanders a lot and I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn a little bit more about him — especially with voting happening tomorrow,” Kardos said. “He’s a very genuine guy who’s really into what he does.”