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Bernie Sanders urges systemic change at overflowing Durham auditorium Friday

A nearly 16,000-square-foot ballroom couldn’t fit all of Bernie Sanders’ supporters at the Durham Convention Center Friday. 

The room got so packed that the fire marshal pushed hundreds of the 3,100 in attendance to an overflow room that was larger than a football field, which practically filled up too. The Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont senator spoke to the overflow room first. 

“The good news is we had a standing-room crowd,” Sanders said. “The bad news is you could not get in.”

Ahead of the March 3 N.C. primary, electric enthusiasm filled the air for Sanders in Durham, a progressive stronghold in a key Super Tuesday state that Sanders sees as crucial to winning the nomination. In front of a jubilant crowd that danced to Neil Young's “Rockin' in the Free World,” the avowed Democratic socialist railed against the establishment and President Donald Trump as he touted his signature social programs.

“If we stand together as one people, we will not only defeat Trump, we will transform this country,” Sanders said. “We're making the establishment a little bit nervous."

After Sanders suffered a heart attack in October, some wrote off the 78-year-old. But he is fresh off a near-victory in the Iowa caucuses and a one-point win in the New Hampshire primary. After trailing former Vice President Joe Biden for nearly the entire campaign, Sanders has pulled to the front of a crowded Democratic field in national polls. 

As of Feb. 14, Sanders leads the RealClearPolitics national polling average at 24%, followed by Biden at 19%, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 14%, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren at 12.4% and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 10.6%. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who finished third in the New Hampshire primary this week, sits at a distant 5%. 

In North Carolina, Sanders trails Biden by seven points (with Bloomberg in third) in the RealClearPolitics average, but the polls were taken before Biden’s fifth-place finish in New Hampshire on Tuesday. FiveThirtyEight's more recent election forecast data gives Sanders a 42% chance of winning North Carolina, ahead of Biden's 26%. 

"I'm getting a very strong feeling we're going to win in North Carolina,” Sanders said to roaring applause. 

‘An economy that works for all of us’: Sanders discusses vision for spending

As many Democratic candidates have on the stump, Sanders tore into Trump. 

“The American people, regardless of their political views, know that we cannot continue to have a President who is a pathological liar, is running a corrupt administration, does not respect our constitution or democracy, thinks he is above the law, is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe and a religious bigot,” Sanders said. “This is the most consequential modern American history.” 

Sanders also touted his bevy of social initiatives that would dramatically increase government spending to levels never before seen during peacetime, according to a CNN estimate. 

“We believe in an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1%,” Sanders said. 

Among his proposals include raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour. He called the current minimum wage a “starvation wage” that “nobody can live on.” He also called for universal health care in the form of Medicare for All, free public college for all, eliminating student debt and redirecting military funding to boost education spending. His platform also includes a federal jobs guarantee and the “Green New Deal,” a plan to transition fully to renewable energy that would fundamentally shake up the energy economy. 

He also railed against what he sees as the outsized influence of money in politics. 

“We may be old fashioned, but we believe in one person, one vote, not billionaires buying elections,” Sanders said. 

He has accused Bloomberg—who has spent hundreds of millions on advertising and also visited Raleigh Thursday—of trying to “buy” the election. 

Sanders got some of his most booming applause when he touted his pledge to legalize marijuana via executive order and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions. He asked the crowd to raise their hand if they knew someone who has been arrested for marijuana possession. Hundreds of hands shot up. 

“We’re going to end the destructive War on Drugs,” Sanders said. 

Local officials endorse Sanders

Several local leaders and candidates for office stumped for Sanders including Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who has recently sparked controversy by writing an op-ed critical of Durham Police Department’s use of force. Johnson, a state co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, endorsed Sanders Wednesday before taking the stage Friday. 

“The work in front of all us is to be an active part of the only presidential campaign that is bringing millions of people into the brave and important, difficult work of deciding to be leaders,” Johnson said. 

Nida Allam, a Durham County Commissioner candidate and third vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said she backs Sanders because he is committed to fighting systematic oppression. 

North Carolina Senate candidate Pierce Freelon backs Sanders because he’ll raise taxes on the wealthy so they’ll pay their “fair share,” he said. 

Duke students supporting Sanders

With many Duke students standing behind her on the stage, Sanders organizer Katherine Gan, a junior, opened up the rally, calling for a “political revolution.” 

“We’ve been working together for months to build and transform this country with a multiracial movement for everyday working people to get Bernie Sanders in the White House,” Gan said. “Bernie is surging because he’s the right person to lead at this moment, especially here in North Carolina.”

Gan also pushed for people to participate in early voting, which began Thursday. 

Junior Teagan Smith was among the Duke students behind Sanders and Gan on stage. A group of 10 or 15 asked the staff for wristbands to get on stage and the staff was happy to hand them out to about half of them. 

“It felt like a basketball game,” Smith told The Chronicle. 

Smith backs Bernie “fully” on every point of his platform, perhaps save for Sanders’ opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.  

“It’s about time we had a candidate who has compassion for and belief in the people,” Smith said. “He is the only candidate, in my eyes, who is fighting for systemic change for the disadvantaged.”

Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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