Last week Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders brought his message of economic and social justice to the South Bronx, one of the poorest parts of New York City, where residents welcomed the positive attention on the national stage.
The Democratic primary in New York State, set for April 19, has become more heated since the rally last Thursday, with Sanders and his rival Hillary Clinton squaring off over the timing of the next debate. Sanders has said that he must win New York State to win the presidential nomination. It would be a major upset for Clinton, who represented New York in the Senate from 2000 to 2008, when she ran for president the first time.
Free public health care and education, criminal justice reform and ending federal prohibition of marijuana drew loud cheers from the diverse, enthusiastic audience at St. Mary’s Park. Sanders estimated the crowd at 15,000 people, but the Associated Press put the figure at 18,500.
He began his speech with a message showing solidarity with the South Bronx in challenging the nation’s wealthy elite.
“It looks like the South Bronx is prepared to tell the billionaire class that they cannot have it all. It looks like the South Bronx wants to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” said Sanders.
Supporters from Sanders’ hometown of Brooklyn and all across the city made their way up to a part of town where they rarely have reason to venture. Some had camped out from early in the morning to see their favorite candidate come to town.
“It’s exactly what should be prescribed—social cohesiveness,” said Bronx native Mike Forrester, 45, who recalled another visit by an elected official of the federal government—President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Carter came to see the rubble left by years of arson, neglect and poverty.
“This was the urban Vietnam. Everything was burnt out,” Forrester said.
Sanders’ rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton, held her event in Manhattan earlier in the day. Forrester said he appreciated how Sanders’ visit, unlike Carter’s almost 40 years ago, was casting the borough in a positive light.
“Clinton is all about opportunism,” he added. “She’s so clearly transplanted into New York. She’s not a New Yorker. She’s so clearly transplanted. She’s all about Hillary.”
Clinton was born outside of Chicago, Ill. and moved to upscale Chappaqua, N.Y. in the year 2000. Sanders grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn, the son of a Polish immigrant, a fact he noted to the Bronx crowd where many held signs featuring Puerto Rican flags.
Forrester said Sanders was the real New Yorker—he means what he says—but added that birthplace doesn’t matter.
“He could be from Mars—what matters are his policies,” Forrester said.
Margarita Espada, 50, from Long Island, said she had been a fan of Clinton until she learned more about Sanders’ proposals for free public education and health care. The message of revolution resonated with her.
“His revolution is one of love and civic engagement, not violence. We need to unite and work together,” she said.
Before Sanders addressed the audience, other native New Yorkers, Coney Island-born Rosario Dawson and Fort Greene’s Spike Lee, spoke on behalf of Sanders, who started his political career in Vermont.
“Shame on you, Hillary,” Dawson said, challenging Clinton for saying Sanders dismissed women’s reproductive rights.
The day before, Sanders had said a Trump proposal to criminalize all abortion was a grating distraction from “a serious discussion about the serious issues facing America.”
“Trump has received $1.9 billion dollars in free media coverage, and Sanders has received $321 million—and it’s come with a lot of eye rolling and dismissiveness,” Dawson said.
Echoing the enthusiasm of the crowd, she said Sanders was better than Clinton, who in a race against Trump would be merely the “lesser of two evils.”
“I don’t have to vote against someone; I can vote for someone who’s on our side,” she said.
But there was also evidence of growing division among Democrats at the rally. Sanders has lead an insurgent campaign drawing on widespread frustration with an economy still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. This year’s primary election has turned into a test of loyalty for Democratic voters and politicians to the party’s establishment, which Clinton herself helped create throughout her long political career.
Bronx resident Ephraim Cruz, 43, said he was supporting Sanders because the current leaders of the Democratic party had not done much for the borough, even though it was loyal to Democrats.
“We are a Democratic stronghold, solid blue, but still all we get are the crumbs,” he said.