Bernie Sanders brings his populist message to Santa Monica

By Gary Walker

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a high-energy speech from a stage erected on the Santa Monica High School football field. Photo by Maria Martin

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a high-energy speech from a stage erected on the Santa Monica High School football field. Photo by Maria Martin

Santa Monica College student Melissa Jimenez, 21, worries the rising fortunes of Silicon Beach will price her family out of their Mar Vista home.

Venice entrepreneur Brandon Deroche, 32, believes there’s only one presidential candidate who “genuinely lives his values rather than just talking about them to win votes.”

Badi Hernandez, a student at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica whose mother is from El Salvador, wants fair immigration policies and “to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t win.”

After waiting hours in a line that stretched three city blocks, a predominantly young but considerably diverse crowd of some 6,700 people packed the football field at Santa Monica High School on Monday to hear presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speak to their concerns.

Casting the June 7 primary in California as the “most important in the entire nominating process,” Sanders urged supporters to help him bridge the delegate gap between him and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“We win when voter turnout is high. I believe that if working people and younger people come out in large numbers, we will win the lion’s share of [California’s] delegates,” Sanders predicted to thunderous applause.

Against the backdrop of an American flag, the self-described democratic socialist electrified supporters with fiery rhetoric about social and economic justice issues while also taking aim at Clinton and Trump.

Sanders blasted Trump as divisive and bigoted: “The American people,” he said, “will not support a candidate who insults Mexicans, Latinos, Muslims, women, veterans and the African-American community.”

He attacked Clinton, who has largely refocused her campaign on the general election, for refusing to debate him ahead of California’s primary: “I have to tell you that I find it a little bit insulting that she is not prepared to have a discussion with me on how she would help California address the major crises that we face,” he said.

Clinton was also campaigning in Southern California this week, and Trump was expected to attend a fundraising dinner in Santa Monica on Wednesday night.

Throughout a roughly 70-minute speech, Sanders hammered home core campaign issues including the growing wealth gap between rich and poor, criminal justice reform, support for more paid family leave, campaign finance reform, universal health care and free tuition at public colleges — the last two drawing raucous ovations.

“From the deepest depths of my soul, I believe that health care is a right, not a privilege,” Sanders said.

Some of Sanders’ loudest applause lines came when he linked arrests for marijuana possession to his calls to reduce the nation’s prison population, noting that California could become the fifth state in the nation to legalize if a November ballot initiative is successful.

“I will tell you that if I lived in your state, I would vote for that initiative,” Sanders said.

Many at the rally said they support Sanders largely because they agree with his stances on the issues.

Others — particularly those in the teens and 20s — said they believe the 74-year-old is the most credible candidate in the presidential race because he’s stuck by those same principles throughout his career.

“He’s an honest dude. Doesn’t flip-flop like the others. He’s been fighting for the same things for decades,” said Santa Monica resident Julio Jimenez, 27.

Actor Dick Van Dyke drove home that point while introducing Sanders at the rally (Van Dyke, 90, quipped that “I like giving young politicians like Bernie Sanders a hand”).

“You can feel the hope and the spirit in the air. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement brought about a political revolution, and Bernie has been fighting that same fight for over 40 years.”

Actress Rosario Dawson, who spoke before Van Dyke, said she believes the Sanders campaign is a “movement, not a moment. This is not a destination; it’s a journey.”

Mar Vista resident Evan Cooper said Sanders’ vote against the invasion of Iraq and Sanders’ longtime support for campaign finance reform resonated powerfully with him. Cooper said he’d become jaded about politics before Sanders entered the national conversation.

“As far as politicians go, I believe what he’s saying and I believe that he means it. I believe that he has a track record and he’s not just saying what he needs to say in order to get elected. He gives me a sense of optimism,” Cooper said.

“He’s the only one who’s prioritizing human rights over everything else,” said Jason Charles Ambrose, 36, of Malibu.

Despite the potential for Clinton to become America’s first female president, many women in the crowd cited Sanders’ support for women’s reproductive rights and ending the gender wage gap.

College students Allison Cowan and Melissa Merick, both 18, cited Sanders’ pro-choice position among the reasons he earned their support.

“Our family values are very different than Republican family values,” Sanders said of his support for gay marriage and extending three months of paid family leave to new mothers.

Cowan, Merick and many others voiced concerns about the rising costs of college tuition.

“We want a country where students can seek knowledge and wisdom and not be denied an education because of massive college debt,” said Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member Oscar de la Torre, who helped rally the crowd before Sanders arrived.

Venice community activist Sylvia Aroth also attended the rally with high hopes for Sanders.

“I feel very strongly that we no longer have time for business as usual in politics, and we need to do something for the have nots instead of just for those who have money. Bernie comes the closest to any  of the [presidential nominees]  who gives so many of us
hope that we can achieve what people really need — better health care, housing and [eliminating] income inequality,” Aroth said.

Near the end of his speech, Sanders displayed the optimism that his supporters have grown accustomed to seeing since he launched his campaign for president last year.

“I believe that if we win here in California and in the other five states that day, we’re going to go marching into the Democratic convention with a helluva lot of momentum and we’ll march out with the Democratic nomination,” he said.

The speech left Jack Barry, a 43-year-old restaurant worker in Santa Monica, feeling the Bern.

“I’m totally inspired,” Barry said. “He’s the very first political person who is speaking to me and not above me.”

Managing Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.