The Bronx is Bernin’.
Or so say many of the homemade signs here on a cool evening at Saint Mary's Park in the South Bronx on Thursday, as an estimated 15,000 people thronged to hear the presidential candidate with the oft-punned name.
Noah Biron, a 19-year-old waiter at a country club in Connecticut came of age politically via the unexpected inspiration from the senator from Vermont. Climate change is his No. 1 issue, he says, as he holds a “Mother Earth” poster. He’s also been drawn to Bernie Sanders's proposals for education reform and free tuition for all.
“Bernie is an honest man,” Mr. Biron says. “He speaks his mind – a lot like Trump – but with a lot more love.”
References to the controversial real estate mogul, however, were very few at the rally, in fact. And surprisingly, when there were, there was little vitriol toward the leading GOP candidate, who has also drawn out millions of first-time voters on the Republican side. Sanders supporters here say they see common ground with Trump supporters in their desire to shake up the Washington establishment and their candidates' populist messages.
The actress and Coney Island native Rosario Dawson, who opened the evening rally on Thursday, even described Donald Trump as, in many ways, a fellow revolutionary at this moment in American political history.
“We need to be reaching out and talking to those folks who are supporting Trump,” Ms. Dawson told the Bronx crowd. “Why? Because they are supporting him for a reason. They are standing up behind him because he’s opposed to the establishment as well. And they’re literally standing behind a guy who they know will go into the Oval Office and say, ‘You’re fired!’ ’’
“I can understand that,” Ms. Dawson continued. “But I’m supporting the guy who’s looking at all of us and saying, ‘You’re hired.’ ”
Trump's inflammatory comments about Muslims, Latino immigrants, and women seemed less top of mind in Saint Mary's Park than his supporters’ demand for economic change. While supporters of the two insurgent candidates share a belief they've been left behind by the globalized, digital economy, a new Pew Research Center survey shows that supporters of the two insurgent candidates are far apart on the issues. For example, 69 percent of Trump supporters think that immigrants are a burden on the US, while 14 percent of Sanders voters share that belief. Some 64 percent of Trump voters believe that Muslims should be subject to greater scrutiny, while just 12 percent of Sanders supporters do. Some 77 percent of Sanders voters believe that the government should be responsible for providing health care for all; just 14 percent of Trump voters do.
References to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, drew boos, hisses, and even shouts of anger. And while the Democratic race has not been nearly as much of a bitter intra-party battle as the Republican side, there are continuing signs of deep divisions among the Bernie and Hillary factions.
Dawson excoriated “the other Democratic candidate” for referring to undocumented workers as “illegals” and for using the terms “superpredators” and “deadbeats” when talking about crime and welfare reform in the past. “Shame on you, Hillary,” she said, also referencing the FBI investigation into her use of a non-government email server.
Much of this, of course, can be attributed to the heat of the presidential race, and former Secretary of State Clinton’s commanding, if not nearly insurmountable, lead in the race for the Democratic nomination. But person after person at the rally expressed a deep distaste for “the other candidate.”
“I don’t trust her, and I don’t think I would support her even if the Democratic party chooses her,” says Stephanie Edwards, a public relations specialist from Washington Heights in Manhattan, and an eight-year veteran who served as a combat medic with the US Army. “I feel like it’s time to break the mold, it’s time to do something different.”
She notes, too, that “this is the first time I’ve ever gotten involved in a campaign to this magnitude,” volunteering for Sanders’s phone banks and canvassing operations after hearing something she’s never heard before from a politician. Now 40, this was her first political rally.
Clinton’s support for the crime bill signed into law by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, directly affected her family, say Ms. Edwards. Her uncle was deported to the Dominican Republic after being convicted of two misdemeanor crimes in New York, she says.
Kevin Rose, a bartender in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, who immigrated from Canada 20 years ago, recently became a citizen just to vote for Sanders, he says. But he would “absolutely not” vote for Clinton. “I don’t trust her; never have, never will,” he says. “I will likely still vote for Bernie as a write-in campaign, if she wins.”
Another speaker at the rally, the Puerto Rican rapper and multiple Grammy winner Residente, told the diverse crowd that “It will represent an insult to consider yourself Latin American and vote for her,” since she praised former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “the author of the most despicable Latin American genocide and the architect of Latin American dictatorship, responsible for all of those who disappeared in the '60s, '70s and '80s,” he said.
Still, a path to a Sanders victory seems remote, and the delegate math is more than daunting. Sanders must win about 57 percent of the remaining delegates – or win most of the remaining races by landslides – just to barely surpass Clinton with a majority of pledged delegates. Then, he must convince enough superdelegates, those unbound party leaders and elected officials who overwhelmingly support Clinton at the moment, to shift their allegiance to his campaign.
But most of the pledged delegates will be allocated in five big states – New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and California – where Clinton currently leads Sanders in polls. In New York, the former senator here leads her former colleague from Vermont 54 percent to 42 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday.
Sanders supporters, however, remain undaunted. And Clinton events don’t show nearly the same fervid, boisterous support – some even call it love – that is present at the Vermont candidate’s rallies.
“A great nation is judged not by how many millionaires and billionaires it has,” he told his Bronx supporters on Thursday. “It is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable people in that country.”
He told the Bronx crowd of 15,000 how his father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 “without a nickel in his pocket.” He described how his family lived in a 3-1/2 room, rent-controlled apartment in nearby Brooklyn, where he went to high school, years ago. “So I learned a little bit about what it means to grow up in a family that has no money, and I also learned a little bit about the immigrant experience. Those lessons I will never forget.”
“But this campaign,” Sanders continued, “is about creating a political revolution.”
At this, the crowd erupted. Among those jumping and shouting was Raquel Rodriguez, a 21-year-old student and first-time voter, holding a sign with the '70s-era saying, “The revolution will not be televised.”
Her hand-made poster also slyly included the digital age slogans, #FeelTheBern, #BernieOrBust, and #StillSanders, as well as a diss: “Hey CNN, are you seein’ this?”
Young people, she notes, prefer the free-wheeling hashtag communications of social media, especially since Sanders supporters say news networks have been ignoring their candidate while televising entire rallies of the Republican front-runner, the Queens-born billionaire Donald Trump – himself a master of the provocative tweet.
It’s statements like these that inspire Ms. Rodriguez, who takes college courses online, and says she never thought she would get so involved in politics – or “this revolution.”
“I cannot currently afford to get into a regular college or university, and that’s why I’m so pro-Bernie, so pro-education reform,” she says. “I’ve seen countless kids in situations like mine fall behind, and just sort of fall by the wayside of the educational locomotive. It’s disgraceful, it really is.
“But Bernie’s been there from day one fighting for the people,” Rodriguez continues. “Bernie is only involved in politics because he gives a (darn), and that is a beautiful thing.”