Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Friday rallied a frustrated Democratic base in South Carolina with tough talk against income inequality and other issues he says prevent the working and middle classes from enjoying the benefits of the economic recovery.
Speaking for well beyond an hour to large crowds in Columbia and Greenville, the Vermont senator continued with the talk that has fueled his surge in popularity among progressives. Polls suggest Sanders is closing the gap among potential Democratic voters, but still trails former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps trying to expand his base, Sanders also sought to reach out to issues seen as important to African-American voters — such as the Voting Rights Act, police overreach, and criminal justice reform.
“In South Carolina, in Vermont and throughout America, children are going hungry,” he told a crowd of roughly 2,700 people at Medallion Conference Center in Columbia. “It is not acceptable that billionaires become richer when kids in this country go hungry.” He made the same remarks earlier Friday to a similar-sized crowd at the TD Center in Greenville.
Sanders, who identifies himself as an democrat socialist, reiterated his previous campaign vows to push for free college tuition, 12 weeks of required paid family leave for all employees, and raising the national minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15.00. He also got heavy applause when he called for a single-payer healthcare system and later for “rethinking the War on Drugs.”
The Vermont senator did not go into details on how he would pay for the new college or healthcare programs, other than saying a “tax on Wall Street speculation” could help cover the costs of secondary education.
He spent the most time during his speech on what he considers a growing class divide between the wealthiest Americans and the majority of the middle class. He decried the 2009 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC that removed donation limits to third-party political groups. Sanders said that allowed billionaires to wield hefty influence in Washington.
He cited the Libertarian-leaning Koch brothers, who fund dozens of conservative nonprofits. “When you have one family spending more money than either of the major political parties, that is not democracy,” he said. “That is oligarchy. And we’ve got to overturn it.”
Sanders’ message resonated with the younger, predominantly-white crowds in both Greenville and Columbia.
“I thought he was pretty captivating and I liked what he said,” said Sherrie Slocum, a University of South Carolina student from Hawaii. “So much so that I bought a shirt. I liked how he explained why the middle class is disintegrating.”
However, the largely-white audiences do illustrate a challenge for the Vermont senator. Non-whites make up 56 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2008 and most polls show African-American Democrats favor Clinton among the relatively small field.
Sanders praised the progress America — particularly the South — has made against racism, but added, “the bad news is… racism still remains a much too real part of American life.” He cited the “sickness” that led to the shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston last June (making sure to never name the shooter).
He condemned the Supreme Court for ending the Voting Rights Act’s “preclearance” requirements for Southern states, saying it has opened the door for voter discrimination. He also called for a revamp in how police interact in the community, particularly in the use of force doctrine and departments’ purchase of military-grade vehicles.
African-American members of the audience said afterwards they appreciated Sanders’ comments. But those who spoke with South Carolina Radio Network primarily listed the same top pro-Sanders issues as whites in the audience — employee benefits, student loans, and sentencing reform.
“Being a mother, that really stood out when he talked about being able to stay home, increasing the amount of time that you get on your family medical leave,” Columbia resident Veronica Waites said. “Parents need that time to bond. So that’s a really important issue to me.”
Sanders will continue his tour of South Carolina this weekend, with stops at the Sumter County Civic Center at 11:00 a.m. and the Charleston Convention Center at 7:00 p.m.