Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at a 2015 event at the Phoenix Convention Center. The former presidential candidate will be back in Phoenix on Sunday.EXPAND
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at a 2015 event at the Phoenix Convention Center. The former presidential candidate will be back in Phoenix on Sunday.
Gage Skidmore/flickr

Bernie Sanders to Rally in Phoenix, Talks ‘Unprecedented’ Trump Moment

He’s the best-known left-leaning politician, is reportedly mulling another run for president, and on Sunday, he’ll rally in Phoenix to hammer home a message for people living through the Trump era.

“These are unprecedented times,” Senator Bernie Sanders said. “And in my view, people in Arizona and all over this country have got to be involved in the political process in an unprecedented way.”

The Vermont senator and 2016 presidential candidate will rally Phoenix supporters on Sunday. Arizona Congressmen Ruben Gallego and Raul Grijalva, both progressive Democrats, will join him at the Orpheum Theater.

In an interview with Phoenix New Times, Sanders said that people are responding to the Trump moment. By way of example, he pointed to high turnout in the Democratic primaries in Texas, Parkland school shooting survivors speaking out for gun reform, and the successful teacher’s strike in West Virginia for higher pay. These efforts are just the beginning, and need to “accelerate,” Sanders said.

“If there was ever a time in the modern history of this country where people have got to stand up and fight back, now is the time,” Sanders said. “Our goal is not just to take on the reactionary policies of the Trump administration, whether it's trying to throw millions of people off of health care or their disastrous views on immigration or giving tax breaks to billionaires, but we've got to fight for an agenda that works for working Americans.”

That agenda, according to Sanders, needs to encompass broad efforts to lift up working-class Americans economically. Sanders wants to raise the minimum wage and has consistently argued that health care is a right that should be available to everyone. When asked how progressive candidates ought to campaign in order to win in a conservative state like Arizona, Sanders said that he doesn’t subscribe to the red-state, blue-state dichotomy. These proposals are popular everywhere, he argues.

“I think that in every single state in this country you have many, many people — working people — who are struggling economically,” Sanders said. “They're working in two or three jobs. They're worried about whether their kids are going to be able to go to college, or not leave college deeply in debt. If they're women, they're worried about making sure that they get equal pay for equal work.”

Problems of this kind “demand that the government of the United States start listening to the needs of working people, not simply billionaires and wealthy campaign contributors,” he added.

Sanders will also visit Texas before heading to Arizona, border states where comprehensive immigration reform is top of mind for many. Congress has repeatedly failed to put a clean Dream Act up for a vote, and protections for DACA recipients are in jeopardy after Trump ended the program last fall, only surviving past the March 5 deadline thanks to a court battle. Approximately 25,500 DACA recipients live in Arizona.

Sanders put the blame squarely on Republicans in Congress. He says they are catering to an anti-immigrant base, despite broad polling support that shows voters want a pathway to citizenship and legal protection for these undocumented young people.

“The Republican leadership, instead of listening to the 80 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, who want to protect the young people in DACA, are listening to an extreme, right-wing xenophobic group of people in the Republican base,” Sanders said. “That is the answer.”

Sanders recently met with survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Although Vermont has its fair share of gun owners and Sanders has cast votes favorable to the gun industry in the past, recently he has been outspoken on the need for reform. “In Vermont and, I suspect, in Arizona, you are having gun owners and people who don't own guns understanding that we need sensible, common-sense gun safety legislation,” Sanders said.

He argues for expanding background checks to ensure that people with criminal pasts or histories of domestic violence can’t obtain guns. Sanders also said that lawmakers should close loopholes that allow people to buy guns at gun shows without a background check, or allow individuals to buy guns legally, then sell them to people who otherwise wouldn't be able to buy the weapon.

“Very few people I know think that we should not expand and improve the background check process to make sure that people who should not own guns do not get guns. That's number one,” Sanders said.

He believes that the U.S. should expand mental health capabilities so people of all incomes can get help, and reiterated his support for an assault weapons ban. “I personally believe that now is the time to ban assault weapons, which are military-style weapons designed not for hunting, but just to kill people,” Sanders said.

Like the other items on his agenda, Sanders said that these gun reform measures have broad support. “It saddens me very much that right now in the U.S. Senate and in the House we can't even begin that discussion on the floor,” he said.

Lots of Democrats are gearing up for Arizona races next fall, but it’s hard to tell whether a wave of anti-Trump energy will help defeat incumbents in the races here. Sanders and his speaking partners Gallego and Grijalva are to the left of other Arizona Democrats, including Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

Sinema seems to be leaning heavily on a triangulation strategy to win the statewide race, and has veered to the right during her time in Congress. She frequently votes with Republicans, including on anti-immigrant legislation endorsed by Trump, angering progressives here. (Grijalva has so far held back from endorsing Sinema.)

Sanders represents a different approach. Not long ago, centrist Democrats said that a single-payer health care system was a political nonstarter. But Sanders’ sustained pitch for a Medicare-for-all system has found traction. Tons of Democrats are joining him on the issue, including other potential 2020 presidential candidates.

The senator said that more and more people have come to recognize that the U.S. health care system is a disaster, where millions are uninsured or underinsured and health care costs are higher than practically anywhere else on earth.

“If we're finally going to get a handle on those issues, the only way forward is to expand Medicare to cover all of the people in our country — men, women, and children — and that's what a Medicare-for-all, single payer system is,” Sanders said. “I think we're seeing very significant growth in the support for a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system, and I think that is what will be the norm in the very near future.”

Sanders remains tremendously popular among left-leaning Democrats, and reports suggest he may end up running for president again in 2020. Even in a crowded field, the senator would have instant name recognition thanks to a strong showing in the 2016 primary, and could conceivably be the front-runner.

You can expect Sanders to give a campaign-style rally to progressives in the audience on Sunday. His best advice to progressive candidates in Arizona and elsewhere? Don’t shy away from taking on corporate interests.

“Speak to the needs of working people, have the guts to stand up to Wall Street and the drug companies and the insurance companies and all the powers that be,” Sanders said. “And start speaking to the needs of ordinary working people and provide real ideas that can solve the crises that people are experiencing.”

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