HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — While political pundits were surmising his campaign’s “narrow path” to demise, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., gave no indication Tuesday he was dropping out of the race to an energized crowd at Huntington’s Big Sandy Superstore Arena.
Sanders’ visit marked the first to the Mountain State by any Democratic presidential candidate and he was greeted by more than 6,000 people, speaking for nearly an hour in front of local and national media. As Sanders delivered his message in Huntington, the polls were closing in five states in the Northeast, with Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton winning four of the five contests and GOP front runner Donald Trump sweeping all five primaries. Sanders ended up winning Rhode Island and he currently leads Clinton in polls in West Virginia.
Besides encouraging those gathered to get out and vote, including voting early in the May 10 primary, Sanders spoke about some issues affecting West Virginia. The senator specifically spoke about McDowell County in relation to poverty in America.
“What being poor is about in America is, you die at a significantly lower age than people who have money,” he said. “McDowell County, here in West Virginia, is one of the poorest counties in the United States of America … the United States of America being the richest country in the history of the world. In McDowell County, 77 percent of children under the age of 18 are living in poverty. In McDowell County, men can only expect to live (on average) until age 63. Drive six miles north from this county to Fairfax County, Va., … men live on average until 82 — 18 more years than men who live in McDowell County. The average lifespan for women in Fairfax County is 85, in McDowell County, it is 73 years of age. And it’s not just McDowell County, we have counties like that … all over this country. These are issues of inequality that as a nation, we have got to address.”
Sanders then talked about climate change, acknowledging it wasn’t the most popular of subjects in West Virginia. He said he felt two things needed to happen to address this issue.
“We have a moral obligation to our kids and future generations to make certain we leave this planet in a way that is healthy and habitable,” he told the crowd.
He then talked about those affected by this issue, who rely on the fossil fuel industry to make a living: “We have a moral obligation to protect those workers in the fossil fuel industry. We cannot leave those people in the coal industry, in the oil industry, in the gas industry, high and dry. We cannot do that and this is why we have a moral obligation to make certain that those people who may lose their jobs, get new jobs, and get the education and all of the benefits that they deserve.”
Sanders also touched upon the opioid abuse epidemic, which is rampant in West Virginia.
“There is no debate that we have a tragic crisis in America today with opiate and heroin addiction,” he said. “And, I know, that it is a serious crisis here — trust me it is a serious crisis in my state as well — and the issue of how we deal with it seems to me, to reach the conclusion that we have got to deal with the substance abuse and addiction as a health issue not a criminal issue. Again, think outside the box. We have got to revolutionize mental health treatment in America. We have got to provide treatment to people when they need it, not six months from now.”
Sanders’ speech wrapped up by asking those in the crowd, many of whom appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, to imagine the change that has occurred in the last 100 years, such as organizing labor unions, giving women the right to vote, attempting to address racism and segregation. He then talked about change in the last 10 years, like the legalization of same-sex marriage and then change in the last five years, like raising the minimum wage, in some states, to $15 an hour.
“My point is, ideas today that seem so radical … raising the minimum wage, making public colleges and universities tuition free, providing health care for all people as a right, having paid family medical leave, ending a corrupt campaign finance system, addressing the crisis of climate change, making sure that women are paid equal pay for equal work, making sure our kids have jobs not jail cells … all of these ideas today, may seem radical but they are not radical. They are ideas, that in fact, are supported by the vast majority of the American people, but they are not supported by the billionaire class, by Wall Street and corporate America.
“So what this campaign is about is asking millions of people throughout this country, working people, middle-class people, young people, old people, gay people, straight people, black, white, Latino, Asian Americans … we need to make certain the Donald Trumps of the world do not divide us up. Understand that when we stand together, there’s nothing — nothing — we cannot accomplish.”
Sanders ended his speech by saying: “I hope that on May 10, West Virginia will have the largest voter turnout in the history of the state. And, I hope very much that West Virginia will join the political revolution.”
Reach Beth Sergent at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BSergentWrites.