Sanders brings message to rallies in Billings, Missoula

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders took his message to Montana on Wednesday, appearing at large rallies in Missoula and Billings.

Thousands turned out at each rally, with long lines stretching outside the Montana Pavilion in MetraPark for hours before the speech began.

With no seats in the Pavilion, those hoping to “feel the Bern” had to stand to hear his speech. Even at that, and with a speech that began 15 minutes late—sort of a slow Bern— the Billings audience responded enthusiastically to his call for a political revolution in America.

They shouted “We want Bernie” and “We are the 99 percent” as they waited for the speech to begin and interrupted it repeatedly with cheers and applause. When Sanders reeled off a list of problems in America that he deemed “not acceptable,” the crowd chanted in unison, “Not acceptable.”

Much of Sanders’ support has come from young people, and they turned out in huge numbers Wednesday, along with some older citizens and families carrying armloads of kids. When Sanders asked who in the crowd owed student debt, hands went up all over Montana Pavilion.

Many wore Bernie Sanders clothing or carried posters, and there was even a pair of Bernie Sanders underwear. A couple of high school students, one from Joliet and one from Billings Central Catholic High School, showed up in support of Republican candidate Donald Trump, wearing red “Make America Great Again” caps. A second Joliet student wore a “Make Skiing Great Again” cap.

Given the general level of noise and excitement, even while dozens of people were taking photos of Sanders with their phones, it was hard to tell which of his lines drew the greatest applause. But the audience cheered especially loud when he called the war on Iraq a mistake and when he called for free tuition for college students.

“We should not be punishing people for getting an education,” he said. “We should be rewarding them.”

He said that young people also tell him they are worried that without changes in the economy they will become the first generation in American history to have a lower standard of living than their parents. That threatens the American dream, he said.

“If we do not change the economy,” he said, “that dream will die.”

He also laid out other parts of his campaign platform: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, reforming campaign finance, passing comprehensive immigration reform, dealing with climate change, providing healthcare for all Americans, placing a “speculation tax” on Wall Street companies and switching from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources.

He also said that he had met before the speech with elders from Montana Indian tribes.

“We have a debt we owe the Native American people that we can never fully repay,” he said.

He called his campaign an effort to achieve economic, social, racial and environmental justice. But he repeatedly emphasized that his campaign is not just platform of campaign planks but a call for revolutionary changes in American politics.

“We are doing something very unusual in contemporary politics,” he said. “We are telling the truth.”

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Sanders makes a point.

He compared his campaign to historic American movements to build unions, end slavery, give women the right to vote and allow gay people to marry each other.

“Nobody at the top ever gives you what you need,” he said. “You’re going to have to stand up and fight for it.”

He said little about his political opponents in Billings, other than to say that he and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton disagree about many issues but both agree that electing Trump would be a disaster.

In Missoula, he said, “Donald Trump will not become president of the United States.” He noted that he leads Trump in national polls by greater margins than Clinton does.

He also complained in Billings about Democrats’ super delegate system, which allows some delegates to vote at the nominating convention for whomever they choose, regardless of primary results. Clinton, he said, had commitments from 450 delegates before any other candidates even entered the race.

“That is not democracy,” Sanders said. “That is the establishment defending its own interests.”

He won his 19th state in the presidential race by taking West Virginia this week, and he said he still has a chance to win the race, even though he acknowledged that it is a “steep climb.”

He urged Montanans to help make that happen by turning out in record numbers in the June 7 primary here.

“Here in Billings, and here in Montana and across the country … people want real change. People want a political revolution,” he said.

He also used the speech to flesh out over some 70 minutes the arguments he has made in sound bites during televised debates. For example, he criticized America’s wealthiest family, the Wal-Mart-owning Walton family, for paying employees so little that many qualify for food stamps and Medicaid.

“I say to the Walton family, get off welfare and pay workers a living wage,” he said.

He said that some people in Montana can’t afford to fill doctors’ prescriptions because of lack of access to healthcare and that some seniors have to cut their prescribed pills in half to save money.

At the same time, he said, America has the most expensive healthcare in the world.

He said that America now has the greatest income inequality since 1928 and that Americans work longer hours than in any other industrialized country. Women make only 79 cents for each dollar that men earn, he said, and America has lost 60,000 factories and millions of jobs this century.

“We have got to open the doors of the Democratic Party to working people and young people, to their ideas and energy,” he said.

He said he realized that parts of his message would be unwelcome among Montanans who depend on coal for a living, but he said it was more important to send the same message everywhere. He also called for $41 billion in new spending to help those damaged by the transformation to a sustainable energy possible.

“I hope this beautiful state will help lead this nation into a political revolution,” he said.

Introductory speeches were given by Brian Maier, Jennifer Merecki and Kari Boiter, a Democratic candidate in House District 44.

Boiter called for prison reforms, equal pay for women and an end to corporate greed.

“We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines when there’s a champion like Bernie Sanders in the race,” she said.

Merecki introduced the theme of political revolution that dominated the evening.

“Revolutions have never been easy,” she said, “so why should this one by any different?”

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