PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders delivered an impassioned address to more than 7,000 supporters in Providence on Sunday, as he battles Hillary Clinton ahead of this week’s Rhode Island primary.
Speaking in front of Roger Williams Park’s Temple to Music, Sanders drew cheers during an oration that lasted slightly more than an hour and touched on his progressive populist themes: income inequality, the political power of the wealthy, and the need to rein in big business. He repeatedly denounced “a rigged economy” that he said leaves too many Americans struggling.
“What I believe today is what I have always believed – that when people stand together united and not divided there is nothing that we cannot accomplish,” the Vermont senator told the crowd.
“What this campaign is about is not complicated,” he said. “It is saying that we are tired of living in a nation where the top one percent controls our economy, controls our political life.”
Political veterans said the size of the crowd at Sanders’ rally likely ranked it among the largest in Rhode Island history, bringing back memories of then-President Bill Clinton’s 1996 event near the Providence train station and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech at Providence City Hall.
While Sanders spent far more time criticizing Republican frontrunner Donald Trump than Clinton on Sunday, he singled out his Democratic rival for failing to support a carbon tax to combat climate change – drawing boos from the crowd. “Join me and impose a tax on carbon,” he said.
Sanders arrived in Rhode Island less than 24 hours after Clinton held her own, smaller rally at Central Falls High School. A Brown University poll released Sunday showed Clinton leading Sanders, but both sides say the race is competitive. Former President Bill Clinton is making his second Rhode Island visit this month on Monday.
Sanders urged those at the rally to get out and vote Tuesday in what he called a “very important primary,” saying his campaign has done best in contests with high turnout. There are 24 Democratic delegates at stake in Rhode Island’s primary.
“I would hope on Tuesday that Rhode Island has the largest turnout for a Democratic primary in the history of the state,” Sanders declared – which would require Tuesday’s turnout to surpass the record of 186,000 set in 2008, when Clinton easily defeated Barack Obama.
Sanders tailored portions of his speech to the audience, reminding them that Rhode Island has the highest poverty rate in New England as well as the most structurally deficient bridges in the country. (“Congratulations!” he added, sarcastically, after mentioning the bridge statistic.)
The youthful crowd seemed particularly inspired by Sanders’ comments on the need for free public-college tuition and lower interest rates on student loans. He also drew applause when he demanded the U.S. switch to a “Medicare for All single-payer” health care system, though he said he was pleased with the steps President Obama has taken.
Recalling Trump’s repeated questioning of whether Obama was born in the U.S., Sanders suggested the GOP frontrunner was motivated by racism and part of “a serious effort to try to delegitimize the presidency of the first African-American president in our history.”
Nick and Sean Grace, brothers from Pawtucket, said they were energized by Sanders’ speech and excited to vote for him – and it’s not clear if Clinton will be able to win their votes should she defeat Sanders for the nomination, as she’s currently on track to do.
“If Clinton is the candidate, I’m going to write in Sanders,” Sean Grace said. “If a lot of people write in Sanders, and Trump ends up winning, I say that’s on Clinton. She should have earned our vote.”Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram