PITTSBURGH – Every time Bernie Sanders uttered the word “yuge,” in his Brooklyn-tinged accent (and he did it often), the audience at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center echoed it back to him. That was the mood as the Vermont senator made his first visit of the 2016 campaign stop in Pittsburgh: light and energetic, as he spoke before a crowd of screaming millennials who were definitely feeling the Bern.
“Everyone in this room knows that real change never happens from the top down, it always goes from the bottom up,” Sanders told the gathering, to thunderous applause. “People stand up and say the status quo is not acceptable.”
His stump speech with its familiar themes resonated strongly with the audience: LGBT rights, free college tuition, women’s reproductive rights and workers’ rights. He had harsh words for opponent Hillary Clinton, who he said must have written speeches in “Shakespearean prose” to charge $250,000 for speeches to Wall Street companies.
And in a nod to Pittsburgh’s history as a strong union town, Sanders put a heavy emphasis on the trades, surrounding himself with union supporters before and during the rally.
“It was trade unions that helped build the middle class in this country,” Sanders said. “If I have anything to say about it, we’re going to make it a lot easier for people to join unions.”
Sanders’ staff estimated the crowd, which began lining up in the predawn hours, at around 8,000 people. Several hundred had to be turned away at the door for the rally, which was free and open to the public.
In addition to labor representatives, the audience was heavily populated with young people, who took selfies with cardboard cutouts of Sanders and chanted his name as they waited for him to arrive.
Christopher Carter, 27, of Homewood, said he wasn’t in the Sanders camp at first. “Originally I was a Clinton supporter coming into this election,” he said. “But the more I saw Sanders, he convinced me he’s the better candidate.”
Carter and his friend Devon Swain, 29, said they were tired of hearing that black voters don’t support Sanders (both men are black). They think it’s a myth.
“One of the first videos I saw of Mr. Sanders was when he said ‘we need to apologize for slavery,’” Carter said. “When he attacked the private prison industry, that was when I switched over. This man is taking a stand on something black people everywhere have been saying for decades: ‘This needs to stop.’”
Both are graduates of historically black college Cheyney University and were energized by the Obama campaigns. Sanders has inspired the same kind of feeling in the current election, Swain said.
“I feel very passionately about Bernie Sanders,” he said. “I think you can feel the momentum, after the Occupy Wall Street movement showing the one percent banking off the hard work of the 99, that we need to rally behind a candidate who is revolutionary.”
Beth Ussery of Monroeville started the Pittsburgh chapter of Labor for Bernie earlier this week, when she learned he was coming to town. She’s also an organizer with Burghers for Bernie.
“I think that it is really great have a candidate who speaks to the issues, who wants to strengthen unions, and believes in equal wealth distribution and fair wages, which I’m really passionate about,” she said.
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for Senate who shares many of Sanders’ views, was outside the convention center before 7 a.m., taking selfies with his fans. “We’re going to hear about all the messages he’s brought to the forefront, that inequality is a scourge that has to be addressed, and what better place to do that than in Pittsburgh,” Fetterman said.
At a pre-rally press conference, Sanders appeared with representatives from local labor unions, and ticked off a list of companies that have been part of what he called job-killing trade deals in Western Pennsylvania.
“Over the last 35 years, our trade agreements have been rigged by corporate America to shut down manufacturing plants in Vermont and Pennsylvania,” Sanders said, with many of the jobs being moved to China and Mexico. He pointed to 950 jobs lost in Erie, where General Electric shuttered its locomotive plant in 2013, 600 workers laid off at Allegheny Technologies last year after it shut down two steel mills, and 300 jobs lost in Reading when Hershey closed its York Peppermint Patties plant.
“It’s our job, together, to create an economy that works for all the people, not just the one percent, not just the CEOs in corporate America,” he said.
He also gave a nod to UPMC’s announcement this week that it would implement a $15 hour minimum wage over the next five years. “Who do you think helped create that? That was the trade union movement. It didn’t happen by accident.”
As he wrapped his hourlong speech to the main audience, Sanders implored the crowd to vote in Pennsylvania’s April 26 primary. “If turnout is large we’ll win, if it’s small, we’ll lose,” he said. He exited the stage to David Bowie’s “Starman,” waving to his supporters as the lyrics “let all the children boogie” wafted from the speakers.