Bernie Sanders addressed thousands of supporters assembled in the South Bronx last night in the lead up to New York’s presidential primaries, on April 19. He repeated his vision of economic, criminal and social justice reform to the massive crowd assembled in St. Mary’s Park.
Sanders promised that a victory in state’s upcoming primaries would propel him to the Democratic nomination and eventually to the White House itself. “If there is a large voter turnout, we will win,” he said to the diverse crowd of 15,000. “And if we win here in New York, we are going to make it to the White House.”
The excited crowd repeatedly broke into chants of “Bernie,” from the moment Vermont’s junior senator stepped on stage until his exit. He repeated his call for creating a political revolution, taking on special interests and creating a host of publicly-funded social services like universal healthcare and tuition-free public education.
“You are the heart and soul of this revolution,” he said. “We want a government that represents all of us, not just wealthy campaign contributors.”
Sanders delivered his strongest points towards the end of his speech, when he critiqued “establishment politics and establishment economics,” for advancing wealth inequality, childhood poverty, low wages and the gender pay gap.
The rally also focused on cementing Sanders’s association with New York City, especially its minority communities. Rosario Dawson, a famous daughter of the city who grew up in the Lower East Side, took to the stage prior to Sanders’s speech, in part to criticize the Clinton camp for trying to convince voters to support her for the sake of defeating Donald Trump.
“No, we’re not in the general election. We’re in the primary and everyone should have their say,” she said. Director Spike Lee, who grew up in Brooklyn, simply proclaimed, “Bernie has to win New York City.”
The stakes are high for Sanders and Clinton in New York, given their connections to the state. Despite residing in Vermont for decades, Sanders identifies strongly with his Brooklyn roots; his unmistakable accent doesn’t belong to the Green Mountain State. And Clinton served New York in the U.S. Senate for eight years before becoming Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term.
“I think he spoke about the issues, especially in the climate sense, because the Bronx has really bad air pollution,” said Angello Maggio, a Yonkers resident who works in the city and is volunteering for the campaign. “Everyone knows that except the media, because no one talks about it. It’s one of the most polluted areas in the country and he really hit that spot really hard. No other candidate came to the South Bronx. Most candidates would have gone to Manhattan or Brooklyn.”
Other attendees, undeterred by arguments of political unfeasibility, were attracted to the common sense message and tone of Sanders’s policies. Sanders promised a federal minimum wage of $15 if he became president in November and cited the recent victories of the $15 minimum wage movement in Seattle, New York City and, most recently, the entire state of California as proof that such a plan was politically feasible.
“I just feel that his ideas are very practical and they’re very much what a normal person would be thinking,” said Mena McCarthy, a college student living in Queens. “He’s really trying to appeal to the masses of people, but in a good way. Not through hatred, but through love and equality.”
“Our current system is not sustainable. Our healthcare costs are soaring. The ACA covered a lot of people but I think people are getting really frustrated with rising deductibles and copayments,” said Hannah Moreira, a medical and public health student studying in the Bronx who has fought for a single payer health plan for five years. “There’s going to be a huge pushback from special interests, but I think it is feasible.”
Despite Clinton’s strong roots across the state, Sanders and his policies have the opportunity to perform well outside of New York City, too. The demographics of upstate New York resemble those of other Midwestern states where Sanders has performed well. And his brand of progressive populism has already been well-received in those parts of the state.
In 2014, Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor with very little money and no name recognition, ran a surprisingly strong challenge to Andrew Cuomo’s bid for the Democratic nomination during the state’s gubernatorial race, on a platform calling for political reform and limits on campaign contributions. She is now running for a congressional seat in New York’s 19th congressional district, which includes counties she handily won during her 2014 challenge to Cuomo. Her campaign’s insurgent strength could provide a roadmap for Sanders.
Most polling has shown Clinton leading by double digits over Sanders in New York; in one Quinnipiac poll of the state taken over the past week, her lead was reduced to 12 points. There are 291 delegates up for grabs in the state, making the New York primary the greatest electoral prize of the Democratic race so far. Only California exceeds New York in delegate count.