Sanders fires up Middlebury crowd

MIDDLEBURY — In a 20-minute appearance at a Labor Day rally on Middlebury’s town green, Bernie Sanders whipped up the roughly 300 supportive spectators with one of the U.S. senator’s classic orations.
The Vermont Independent exhorted the crowd to become involved in the political process in order to reverse national trends in income inequality and to advocate for action on climate change, national health care, campaign finance reform and free college tuition.
“Our job is to revitalize American democracy,” Sanders boomed into a microphone in the town bandstand. “That means not just voting; it means giving thought to running for office — whether it’s school board or city council or board of selectman. Get involved in the process. When we stand united — black and white and Latino, or Native American, gay, straight, male and female — when we stand together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”
Sanders was in full throat in spite of a rigorous schedule that has seen him in much demand nationally following his inspired, though unsuccessful, run for the Democratic nomination for president. Middlebury Progressives and union activists have since 1992 sponsored a Labor Day rally featuring Sanders. This year’s edition, dubbed the “Labor Day Political Revolution Party,” honored the one-year anniversary of the “Rights & Democracy” group. Sanders’ political “rock star” status, coupled with great weather, entertainment and food, resulted in a record turnout for the event.
Ellen Oxfeld, a Middlebury College professor, longtime advocate for single-payer health care and a member of “Rights & Democracy,” was again a lead organizer of Middlebury’s Labor Day rally.
If one were to assign a title to Sanders’ fiery speech, it would probably be, “Why not?” He urged his supporters to think in those terms if they are told that their ideas for social and political changes are too ambitious.
“What they always tell us is, ‘You’re thinking too big,’” Sanders said, referring to opponents of such proposals as free college tuition and a $15-per-hour minimum. “But what can be done is bailing out Wall Street to the tune of $700 billion. What can be done is getting involved in wars we never should have gotten into. What can be done is giving tax breaks to billionaires as children in this country go hungry. Our job is to think big and to ask, ‘Why not?’”
He continued that narrative in alluding to some familiar themes he has reiterated during a political career that has spanned around four decades.
“Why should the United States of America be the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care for all people as a right?
“Why do our people continue to pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs when last year the five major drug companies made $50 billion in profit?
“Why is it in this country — the wealthiest country in the history of the world — we’ve got millions of people working for starvation wages?”
“Why is it that in America we have more income and wealth inequality than any other country on Earth?”
Sanders said his message resonated with people throughout the country while he was stumping for the highest office in the land.
“Let me tell you what I have learned during the past year,” Sanders said. “What I learned is the American people are in a very, very different place from what the media and the establishment tells us they are. I have been all over this country, and I can tell you that whether it’s the West Coast, or up in Maine, the American people are sick and tired of an economy in which they are working longer hours for lower wages, an economy in which 47 million Americans are living in poverty, and an economy in which almost all new incoming wealth is going to the top 1 percent. The American people have had it. They want real change.”
Vermont media who have covered Sanders for many years have grown accustomed to his recitation of statistics in underscoring the wealth disparity among classes in the United States. During his first campaign for the U.S. House in 1990, Sanders often voiced concern about the gap between the wealthiest 10 percent and the remaining 90 percent. On Monday, Sanders took aim at the top one-tenth of 1 percent.
“In the last 16 years, the number of billionaires in this country has increased by 10 times: from 51 billionaires to over 500 billionaires, and over half the kids in this country who are in public schools are on free or reduced school lunch programs,” Sanders said. “We have got to, from a moral perspective and from an economic perspective, understand that this level of income and wealth inequality is unsustainable, that the rich and the large corporations will start paying their fair share of taxes.”
Sanders also warned about another potential disaster in the savings and loan industry.
“We have got to take on Wall Street,” he said. “Wall Street right now has six financial institutions that have assets of $10 trillion — 60 percent of the GDP. And three our of the four largest banks in the country today are bigger than they were when we bailed them out when they were ‘too big to fail.’ The time is now to … break up these huge financial institutions.”
He cited finance reform as a particularly pressing priority. Sanders said he will be visiting Ohio later this month to help the cause of Ted Strickland, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate this November. Sanders said Strickland’s opponents are expected to spend upwards of $100 million in an effort to make sure he does not defeat incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
“If you are concerned about any issue of significance, you must be concerned about the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the fact that billionaires today are buying elections in this country and moving this nation into an oligarchic form of society,” said Sanders, who advocated for publicly funded elections.
“We have got to make it clear that too many people have fought and died in this country to defend American democracy,” he added. “We are not going to let the Koch brothers and the other billionaires buy our government and move us to oligarchy.”
The large number of young people in Monday’s crowd was not lost on Sanders, who touched on the high cost of education.
“You should not have to end up $50,000 or $100,000 in debt because you’re doing the right thing; you’re trying to get an education,” Sanders said. “The day will come … where we are going to make public colleges and universities in America tuition-free, and we are going to significantly lower student debt by allowing those with that debt to refinance their loans at the lowest interest rates they can find.”
He also had a message for grassroots environmentalists, some of whom warmed up the crowd with a plea for people to oppose the Addison County natural gas pipeline. Construction workers are already burying segments of that Colchester-to-Middlebury project.
“All of these issues are enormously important, but there is one issue that may be even more important — and that is the understanding that for the scientific community, the debate is over: Climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, it is already in this county and all over the world causing severe (problems),” Sanders said “If we do not get our act together, what the scientists are telling us is that by the end of this century, this planet Earth could be 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, which will mean more droughts, more floods, more extreme weather disturbances, rising sea levels, acidification of the ocean — and by the way, more international conflict as people all over the world fight over limited natural resources.”
Sanders urged the nation to embrace a more aggressive policy toward renewable energy, an industry that he said would help the environment as well as the economy.
“We can turn this around if we start investing in energy efficiency and in sustainable energy,” Sanders said. “If we pass a tax on carbon, if we transfer our energy system, we can create millions of jobs, end pollution and effectively combat climate change. This is not a technological issue, this is not a scientific or engineering issue, it is a political issue. It is a need to take on the fossil fuel industry and their paid employees in Congress and tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet.”
Sanders has been publicly supporting his erstwhile opponent and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He did not mention her by name during his brief Middlebury appearance, but did allude to her Republican opponent, Donald Trump.
“We should come together and not let the Donald Trumps of the world divide us up on whether we were born in this country or born someplace else, or whether we’re Muslim or Jewish or whoever we may be,” he said. “When we come together, there is nothing that cannot accomplish.”
The Independent on Aug. 31 put in a request for a 10-15 minute phone interview with Sanders sometime prior, or after, Monday’s rally, but was unsuccessful. Sanders was also unavailable to the Vermont press after his Middlebury speech. The senator was besieged by well wishers as he strode purposefully to a black sedan waiting for him on Merchants Row. While walking, he obliged fans with a few “selfies” before slipping into his waiting vehicle.
Monday’s rally also served as an opportunity for Democratic and Progressive candidates for office this November to briefly state their campaign priorities and/or talk about Sanders. Among them were Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes; Mari Cordes, a Democrat running for a seat in the Addison-4 House district; Jill Charbonneau, a Progressive candidate for one of Middlebury’s two House seats; and Vermont state Sen. David Zuckerman, a longtime Progressive who in August won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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