“For a little town, there are a lot of people here today,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told a boisterous crowd of nearly 800 guests at the Rockingham Ballroom in Newmarket on Sunday, Jan. 3. “My first question is, are you all ready to make some history?”
The audience members seemed ready. Earlier, while waiting for buses to shuttle them to the site from a parking lot about a half-mile away, a woman handed out “Feel the Bern” chocolate sticks. Members of the Stamp Stampede, an organization dedicated to getting money out of politics, held signs and distributed stickers.
In the packed ballroom, the Vermont Democrat spoke for about an hour, touching on dozens of topics before answering a handful of questions from the audience. Highlighting the strength of his campaign, Sanders said he received 2.5 million individual contributions during the first eight months of his presidential campaign.
“That is more individual contributions than any campaign in the history of the United States of America,” Sanders said. “And the average contribution was less than 30 bucks.”
Those small contributions have helped Sanders compete with his top Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, despite running his campaign without support from big corporate donors or a super PAC. In New Hampshire, where the nation’s first primary takes place on Feb. 9, Sanders has maintained a slim lead over Clinton in most polls.
During the town-hall meeting in Newmarket, Sanders spoke at length about the “grotesque level of income inequality” in the United States, where he said there are 47 million people living in poverty.
“Are you ready for a radical idea? How about creating an economy that works for the middle class and not just a handful of billionaires,” he said.
“The wealthy and the powerful make
the rules, the rich get richer and almost everybody else gets poorer.”
Sanders laid out some stark numbers regarding the nation’s wealth gap. He said the top 10th of 1 percent of the country’s wealthiest people own “almost as much” as the bottom 90 percent. He said a single family — the Walton family, owners of Walmart — has more wealth than the bottom 40 percent combined. He said 58 percent of all new income generated is going to the wealthiest 1 percent.
“My friends, it is clear that we are living in a rigged economy,” Sanders said. “The wealthy and the powerful make the rules, the rich get richer and almost everybody else gets poorer.”
Sanders outlined a number of ways he would help the middle and working classes. He said he would invest more money in public education and job creation, while reducing money spent on prisons and incarceration. He pointed out that marijuana is listed on the federal Controlled Substances Act at the same level as heroin. While Sanders said he is not advocating for or against the legalization of pot, he said it should be taken off the list of controlled substances so that people do not get thrown in jail for possession of the drug.
“I just don’t want to see lives destroyed and young people have police records for possession,” he said.
Sanders also reiterated his call for raising the nation’s minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour.
“So here’s another radical idea,” he said. “Nobody who works 40 hours a week in America should live in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage to a living wage, 15 bucks an hour, in the next several years.”
Sanders credited President Barack Obama for improving the economy over the last seven years, but said the country still has a “jobs crisis.” He called for a “massive federal jobs program” that would include hiring more teachers and child care workers. He said the government should also invest in repairing roads and bridges.
“We can create 13 million jobs by investing $1 trillion in rebuilding our infrastructure, and that is exactly what I intend to do,” he said.
Sanders said he would fight to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and substantially reduce student debt. He estimated the cost of these efforts at $70 billion, which he said he would pay for with a new tax on Wall Street speculation.
“When Wall Street went under, they were begging you and their representatives for a handout. Well, they got a handout. Now it is their turn to help the middle class of this country,” he said, noting that he voted against the Wall Street bailout.
Sanders said he would also aim to prevent corporations from shipping jobs overseas. (“If they want us to buy their products, they better start manufacturing those products in the United States of America.”) And he said the nation’s biggest banks should be broken up. (“In my view, if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.”)
Sanders also repeated his call for a single-payer health care system. And he said he supports legislation that would provide three months of paid family and medical leave for all families.
Sanders said the nation must “take on the fossil fuel industry” and invest in more sustainable energy sources.
The reason most Republicans refuse to recognize the severity of climate change, he said, is that the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel advocates fund their campaigns for office. “That is what a corrupt campaign finance system is doing to this country,” he said.
He added that he would only nominate a U.S. Supreme Court justice who would vote to overturn Citizens United.
Sanders also discussed how he would deal with global terrorism.
“I think ISIS has got to be destroyed, but we have got to do it in a way that is smart, and we have got to learn from the mistakes we made in Iraq,” he said. Sanders noted that he, unlike Clinton, voted against the Iraq War in 2002.
Sanders called for the creation of an international coalition that would support Muslim countries in the fight against ISIS and other terror networks. He said Muslim countries should have troops on the ground, while the United States and other world powers provide support from the air and through other means.
While Sanders’ views resonate with many Granite Staters, some voters find him too radical. Emma Valinski, a Newmarket native studying at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, attended the event out of curiosity, but said she is supporting Republican candidate Marco Rubio (who held an event in Hampton that same night). She said Rubio, a senator from Florida, is more moderate and “down to Earth.”
“(Sanders) goes to extremes on a lot of issues that I think would not help the nation,” Valinski said.
But William Turner of Newmarket said Sanders is the only candidate who is demanding campaign finance reform.
“He understands the problem with money in politics, and he’s willing to do something about it,” Turner said. “I’m not a one-issue voter, but it’s gonna be hard to deal with a lot of other issues until we deal with that.”