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Sen. Bernie Sanders Offers Familiar Message To Enthusiastic Supporters

Antonio Licon
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders visited Pittsburgh on April 14, 2019.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont - whose upstart 2016 campaign shook up the Democratic primary - returned to Pittsburgh Sunday, bringing a familiar, if updated, message that called for a wholesale remaking of the country’s economic and political underpinnings.  
“We’re not going to let Trump divide us up,” he said of the current President. “We’re going to come together and address the real crisis facing this country and create an economy that works for all of us.”

Sanders spoke for roughly an hour, to a crowd at Schenley Plaza in Oakland that organizers said police estimated at 4,500 people. It was part of a swing that included stops in Michigan and Ohio. Sanders said the reason for choosing those stops was “pretty simple. … Donald Trump won them two-and-a-half years ago. We’re not going to let him win them in 2020.”

The democratic socialist reprised many of his policy prescriptions from the 2016 camapign, including a "Medicare for All" health coverage system and heavy investment in renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. Not surprisingly, Sanders also heaped criticism on Trump, calling him “a pathological liar” whose most “monstrous lie" was pretending to care about working people. 

Some of Sanders’ criticisms were for polices Trump has backed but failed to deliver, like overturning the Affordable Care Act. But he scathingly denounced Trump for failing to reduce the trade deficit. Last year’s trade deficit was $621 billion – the highest in a decade, and $119 billion higher than it was when Trump took office.

Sanders, who denounced the original version of NAFTA during the 2016 stops in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, was critical of Trump’s efforts to renegotiate the deal.

“For once in your life, keep a campaign promise,” Sanders addressed him. “Do not send this treaty to Congress unless it includes strong and swift enforcement mechanism … to prevent corporations from shutting down in America and going abroad.”

Earlier in the day, Sanders visited Lordstown, Ohio, where General Motors has closed a factory that manufactured Chevrolet Cruzes. Sanders noted that General Motors had received a federal bailout a decade ago, and that it earns hundreds of millions from federal contracts for defense components and vehicle fleets. And he suggested that those contracts should be at risk if companies offshore labor.

“Our message to General Motors and the other corporations is that you cannot continue to treat your employees with disdain and contempt," he said. "If you want a federal contract, paid for by taxpayers, treat your workers with respect and dignity.”

In 2016, Sanders was accused of focusing on economic issues to the exclusion of issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. In his speech Sunday, he visited those concerns repeatedly. “The underlying principles of our government will not be racism, will not be sexism, will not be homophobia or religious bigotry.,” he said.

He noted too that rates of incarceration and poverty were higher for people of color. But he also repeatedly exhorted the audience not to let concerns divide them.

Sanders' visit was the first to the area by a Democratic contender for 2020. He said little about the other Democrats in the field, but he did touch on his 2016 bid and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. He briefly mentioned a controversy over Democratic “superdelegates” – elected officials and other party figures who had their own votes in the presidential nomination, and largely supported Clinton. And he boasted that “we ended up winning more votes from young people – black and white and Latino, Native American and Asian American – we won more votes from young people than Trump and Clinton combined.”

More broadly, he said that while the Trump Era had brought numerous setbacks, it also showed a groundswell of support for his ideas.

“The ideas that we talked about four years ago, that seemed so very radical at that time -- well today virtually all of those ideas are supported by a majority of the American people, and they are ideas that Democratic candidates from school board to President of the United States now support.”

Sanders also went local, briefly touting an effort by graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh to unionize. He hailed Pitt as “a great academic institution, but I say to them that your greatness lies not only on your research and your teaching. Your greatness lies in how you treat your employees. Sit down and negotiate with your workers.” 

The atmosphere prior to the event was also reminiscent of 2016. A mix of college-age voters,  union activists, and veteran progressives waited on the Schenley Plaza lawn as 2016 staples like “Disco Inferno” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” played over the sound system. 

Among those on hand to see Sanders was Grace Klutinoty, a Butler native in her first year at Slippery Rock University. The last time Sanders was on the ballot, she hadn’t been old enough to vote.

“It was frustrating," she said. "But I had a real political awakening in college.”

Klutinoty said she was drawn to Sanders by his support for free college tuition and his backing for a radical overhaul of the health insurance system.

“It’s depressing that people in college have to think about whether they will have healthcare, and have to worry about the weight of student debt," she said.

She said she expected to graduate with $25,000 of debt herself.

But unlike the 2016 campaign, Sanders supporters have more than one choice. While Sanders had the progressive lane to himself in his bid to challenge Hillary Clinton, several candidates are now seeking to don the progressive mantle.

Matt Martocci, of West View, attended the rally with his 16-year-old daughter and a four-year-old “Bernie 2016” t-shirt. He said the years since had been “disappointing,” and he voiced some frustration with the Democratic Party for nominating Hillary Clinton instead. “They locked Bernie out and this is what they got,” he said.

But he said he was open to options that included Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend mayor who formally announced his campaign earlier in the day. “Mayor Pete would be the next option for me. I don’t know much about him, but from what I know, he sounds like he could take a moderated Bernie position.”

Martocci said his daughter, Vanessa, “was embarrassed by the Bernie bumper sticker on the car” four years ago. Vanessa professed not to remember that, but Martocci said she’d have an occasion to do so. While there was no bumper sticker on the car currently, he said, “There will be soon.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.