Around 2,000 people gathered in Grand Prairie Thursday to hear Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders address the future of the Democratic Party as part of a nine-state, 6,000-mile trip billed as the “Come Together and Fight Back” tour. Sanders promoted a 50-state Democratic strategy focusing on purple states as well as red states with low voter turnout, including Texas.
“Some people say you can’t win in these red conservative states, but I don’t believe that,” said Sanders, a few minutes after taking the stage at the Verizon Theater to thunderous applause. “When you’ve got right-wing governors trying to throw people off their health insurance while giving tax breaks to billionaires, don’t tell me we can’t win in each and every state in this country, including the great state of Texas.”
Organized by the Democratic National Committee, the tour aims to unify the party after the fractious 2016 primary and foment grassroots support in the lead-up to 2018.
Sanders urged members of the crowd to run for local office. “You can do it,” he said. “Don’t be intimidated, thinking that the people up in Congress are some kind of geniuses; I can assure you they are not.”
In February 2016, Bernie drew a crowd of 7,000 to the Verizon Theater. Thursday’s rally was energetic, with people chanting “Bernie, Bernie,” and “This is what democracy looks like.”
“We’re here to show Trump we won’t take his crap,” said Kyle Lightsey, a psychology major at the University of North Texas. “And if you look at this crowd, you can see he has something to worry about come 2018 and 2020.”
After November’s shocking loss, Democrats have drawn succor this month from a pair of narrow misses in special congressional elections in the red states of Kansas and Georgia. The insurgent Democratic candidate in Kansas, James Thompson, lost by 7 percentage points last week in a congressional district that Trump carried by a 27-point margin. In Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff barely missed winning a House seat outright in primary voting Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Sanders said he didn’t know if Ossoff was a progressive, angering some Democrats keen on unifying around the candidate.
Sanders didn’t dwell on those elections Thursday, instead sticking to his themes of the corrupting influence of the “billionaire class” and ballooning wealth inequality.
“He didn’t even talk about Ossoff,” said a frustrated woman at the nearby Starbucks after the rally. “He’s up there talking about introducing a bill for a $15 minimum wage and it’s like, to an all-Republican Congress? What are you doing?”
At the tour’s kickoff event in Maine Monday, CNN reported tension between the so-called Berniecrats and more traditional Democrats, a feud that dominated the 2016 nominating convention. But the spat wasn’t in evidence on Thursday.
At one point, as DNC Vice Chair Michael Blake was listing a number of social injustices that Democrats should reject, a young man interrupted loudly, “And we reject these endless wars.”
“We reject going into wars we don’t need to, so I’m with you, man,” Blake smoothly replied, then switched the topic. Clinton’s relative hawkishness was a sticking point for many diehard Sanders supporters, which may help explain why foreign policy was avoided altogether on Thursday.
Blake, a young and charismatic New York State assemblyman, nearly upstaged Sanders with a preacher-like performance in which he took a selfie of himself on stage.
“When you go after Muslims, you go after me,” said Blake, the son of Jamaican immigrants, prompting a standing ovation.
Former Texas agriculture commissioner and progressive author Jim Hightower added a bit of Texas flavor to an event heavy on New York accents.
“It makes me happier than a flea at a dog show to be here with all you corporate greed, right-wing-buttkickers,” drawled Hightower in his Stetson. “People say Texas is a right-wing state, well, hogwash — we’re not a right-wing state, we’re a non-voting state. And the only way to change that is to get out there with an old-school populist Democratic message.”