Berkshirites turn out in droves for Bernie Sanders rally at UMass


AMHERST >> Dozens of Berkshires residents headed east on Saturday to "feel the Bern" up close in personal as Sen. Bernie Sanders took his presidential campaign and progressive activism to the University of Massachusetts.

An hour-and-a-half long speech saw the 74-year-old candidate pushing populist social causes, single-payer health care and a trillion-plus dollar federal jobs plan at home, restraint in the use of force abroad and action on climate change.

"The guy is genuine," Pittsfield resident Chris Thomson, who attended the rally, said. "Everything he said resonates."

Hitting a similar note, Pittsfield resident Jim Hunt said, "The man just seems incredibly sincere. He's not beholden to lobbyists and corporations, and certainly does not flip-flop his positions. He's been saying the same things throughout his career."

A key point in the rally came when Sanders was interrupted by a heckler wearing a shirt supporting Republican frontrunner Donald J. Trump.

"Here's a Trump supporter worried about Mr. Trump's money," Sanders boomed over the heckler, as the audience began to cheer "Ber-nie, Ber-nie, Ber-nie."

Sanders added, "I say to Mr. Trump and his supporters that the billionaires of this country will not continue to own this nation."

The heckler exited the room after the disturbance, hoisting a homemade sign reading, "Obama is as Christian as Bruce Jenner is a woman."

The rally drew thousands, packing the college's Fine Arts Center and the walk outdoors, where a projector was set up for the overflow audience. It came as Sanders' campaign announced it banked more than $33 million in the final quarter of 2015 — within $4 million of the amount raised by Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination.

Rather than super PACs and business interests, the campaign said it receives the vast majority of donations from individuals and the average contribution is $30.

The numbers show more than one million individuals made more than 2.5 million contributions to the campaign, putting it beyond the previous record-holding campaign in terms of individual donors — President Barack Obama's successful reelection campaign in 2012, which boasted 2.2 million individual donations.

A young man months ago told Sanders he was a supporter because his campaign addressed the public like "intelligent human beings."

"The truth is that in American politics today, treating people like they are intelligent human beings is a pretty radical idea," Sanders said in his address Saturday. "To much of the corporate media, politics is like a baseball game or soap opera, focused on who said what dumb thing the other day. That's not what this campaign is about: A serious discussion of serious issues, and finding a path forward to make this country what we all know it can become."

Sanders hit on a diverse range of issues in what followed.

He advocated a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street speculation, higher taxes on the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations, publicly funded elections, an end to the War on Drugs and reduction in the 2.2 million prison population, pay equity for women, a minimum wage increase to $15, a one-trillion dollar federal jobs program to fix infrastructure and create 13 million jobs, free tuition at public colleges and universities and aggressive green-energy goals.

"He kept calling it a 'political revolution,' and I never really thought of things that way, but he's right," Pittsfield resident Ellyn Brown said. "In order to make the changes we need in this country there needs to be a revolution against all that isn't working."

Brown said she thinks Sanders can break Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton's twenty-plus-point lead in the polls by tapping into disaffected young voters, who cast fewer ballots than any other demographic but overwhelmingly support the causes Sanders has championed in his campaign.

Pittsfield resident Jeffrey Ross, who attended the rally, said he prefers Sanders' "reality-based policies" and "110-percent support for the environment," which he said was unique among any presidential contender.

Natalie Clifton, another Pittsfield resident who carpooled to the event with Ross, said she supported Sanders' initiative to tax the rich and Wall Street to better fund the country's infrastructure, employment and educational needs.

"The youth are our future and without them there is none," Clifton said.

In his address, Sanders said, "When Wall Street went broke [in 2008] they came begging to the middle class for a bailout. Now it's their turn."

He added, "How about creating an economy that is not rigged, an economy that works for working families, not just a handful of billionaires?"

Sanders departed to a cheering house at roughly 2:30 p.m., headed for a second, 5 p.m. rally in Worcester.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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