Bernie Sanders Says More Than 200,000 People Have Signed Up to Help His White House Bid

The Vermont senator talks budgets and 2016.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, left, arrives to speak at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, April 30, 2015.

hotographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

MITCHELLVILLE, Md. – On Tuesday, a bit after 5 p.m., Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders voted against the Republican budget. Shortly thereafter, he sat for an interview with MSNBC’s Hardball–his second interview on the channel in 24 hours. At 6:40 p.m., the independent who is running in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary bounded up the stairs of an anonymous suburban office park into an IBEW meeting hall, to report that his bid was succeeding more than he'd ever hoped it could.

"In the first five days, about 200,000 people have signed up to work on the campaign," said Sanders, as around 200 people from Maryland and Washington applauded. "How's that? Two hundred thousand! We're gonna be have to working overtime to figure out how we use those people."

The town hall meeting had been billed as a discussion on "How the Republican Budget will hurt working Americans," and Sanders's Senate staff drove him to and from the union hall. He was, after all, the ranking member on the Budget Committee. Most of the senator's 40-minute speech did focus on the budget, as a jumping-off point for everything his campaign would be about–a discussion that took place as Hillary Clinton, the other declared candidate for the nomination, was holding a tightly controlled event on immigration three time zones away.

The low-key style of the Sanders campaign was on display from the start, as a union member introduced the senator, who introduced two people worried about the budget. Richard Bruno, a 35-year old Baltimore doctor, spoke next to Ulysses Pulley, a 54-year old black man who'd counted on Medicaid to get healthy after some setbacks.

“People are saying, 'enough,'" said Bruno. "Enough of people being unemployed, uninsured. Enough of the lead poisoning. Enough of the police brutality. The one thing I wish I could actually help my patients with his poverty. You know that the antidote to poverty is not wealth. It's justice."

Sanders led a round of applause, and lit into the Republican-passed budget. “This is the story of tens of millions of Americans who are totally dependent on Medicaid,” Sanders said. “Those cuts will throw some 11 million Americans off of health insurance. On top of that, they ended the Affordable Care Act, which would throw 16 million Americans off of health insurance. I may not be a math expert, but 11 million plus 16 million is 27 million people without insurance if their vision, their idea, goes into law."

The senator took his audience on a tour of American injustice, gluing subjects together with patented Sanders-isms: "I want to say just one thing," "this is something the media does a bad job of reporting," "let me bore you with a few statistics."  

"We're debating the biggest trade deal in years, and last I heard, network television–ABC, NBC, CBS–has yet to mention one word about it," insisted Sanders. "NAFTA? A failure! CAFTA? A failure! Normal trade relations with China, a total disaster. Since 2001, this country has lost more than 60,000 factories."

Sanders called for "card check" legislation, a labor-union priority that would have made organizing far easier, and was scuttled in 2010 by a nervous Democratic Senate. He repeated a promise to introduce legislation that would make college free, twinning that with items from the Republican budget that cut taxes with no benefit to the poor.

"They are now voting to repeal the estate tax, which will provide over $269 billion of relief, over 10 years, to the wealthiest 0.2 percent of families in this country," said Sanders. "This is a reflection of Citizens United. This is the vision of the Koch brothers and where they want to take this country."

As 8 p.m. approached, after Sanders called for raising the Social Security tax cap, he took questions. They ranged from the friendly to the adoring–no surprise in a room where more than one person wore stickers or t-shirts from the long, successful campaign to encourage a Sanders presidential bid. Ivan Sucic, an immigrant from Croatia, spoke in thorny English about how Sanders was the only politician with the courage to compare the continent to America.

"I come from Europe, a country where everybody has some form of Obamacare, and nobody has any problem with that!" said Sucic.

 "The most conservative political party in Europe would never, ever come up with an idea like ‘well, everybody in our country should not have health insurance,’” said Sanders.

When the conversation turned to 2016, Sanders insisted that he was only discussing the race because he was asked. "We won't have a super-PAC," he said, beaming about the 50,000-plus donors who'd given an average of $43 to him. Matter-of-factly, he agreed to every progressive position that the audience asked about. Prison reform? For it. Paper ballots? "In Canada, they do their votes with a paper ballot," he said, approvingly. Immigration? "People in this country want a path toward citizenship and I want to establish that path."

As the sun set, with a few hands waving in the air, Sanders ended the town hall. Only one participant had left, and that had been to take car of a restless baby. The senator slowly worked his way out of the building, being stopped every few inches for photographs, or signatures, or to be plied with a business card from someone who wanted to work for the campaign. The crowd was mostly white, though the surrounding Prince George's County is two-thirds black.

"The biggest thing is just the straight talk and energy that Bernie has," said Jake Parent, a 34-year old political activist who wore a t-shirt with the NSA logo and the jokey slogan, "The Only Part of Government That Really Listens." "I'm super excited about this. I'd love to work on the communications side of the campaign, if there's a way."

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