RICHMOND — Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and front-runner among Democrats vying for the presidency, pitched his campaign to a Richmond crowd Thursday as the “strongest multigenerational, multiracial, grassroots movement this country has ever seen.”
“The way we defeat Trump is with a vibrant, energized movement and an agenda that speaks to the working class,” Sanders said to a nearly full room at the Arthur Ashe Center, during a high-energy rally that kicked off with live musical performances.
Sanders’ stop in Richmond is one of three he plans in the state ahead of Virginia’s Super Tuesday primary. Virginia and 13 other states will hold primaries on March 3.
Here and elsewhere, Sanders will seek to build his delegate lead in a crowded field in which he has risen as the top choice for voters to the left of the party’s center.
A Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic primary voters in Virginia, conducted Feb. 13-16, showed Sanders tied for the lead with Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, at 22%, with former Vice President Joe Biden at 18%.
Sanders on Thursday took aim at Bloomberg, decrying the high personal spending that rivals say has driven his quick rise in polls. Bloomberg, who is focusing on Super Tuesday states, did not compete in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, but has spent more than $400 million on his campaign to date.
“Bloomberg has every right in the world to run for president, but he doesn’t have the right to buy the presidency,” Sanders said.
At the center of Sanders’ speech, however, was President Donald Trump, who some Sanders critics say won’t be defeated in 2020 should the senator prevail as the Democratic nominee.
“No matter what your political views may be — progressive, conservative, moderate — you understand that he is not somebody who deserves re-election,” Sanders said of Trump.
“The reason the American people are going to reject Donald Trump is they are looking around seeing a reality they don’t like,” Sanders said, citing income inequality and stagnant wages.
The Trump campaign, in response to Sanders’ Richmond visit, said in a statement: “Virginians will reject Sanders’ and the Democrats’ extreme socialist policies and re-elect [Trump] in November.”
On Thursday, Sanders continued to pitch his campaign as a social movement that is energizing young people and the working class more than “any other campaign,” including Biden’s.
“Joe is not going to bring new people into the political process,” Sanders said. “Not going to create excitement among working people.”
Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, introduced Sanders, aiming directly at criticism that Sanders “is not electable.”
“I was inspired by the senator and his message to run for office. When they told me Virginia wasn’t ready for a brown person, or an immigrant woman, you came out and proved them wrong,” Guzman told the crowd.
“He has a consistent message of progress. … He is the front-runner!” Guzman said.
“And we are ready to deliver Virginia to Bernie Sanders!” she added to loud cheering.
Charlottesville City Councilor Michael Payne also spoke, using the platform to mention the importance of local activism in pushing back against racism and white supremacy during and beyond the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
“There’s a narrative of Charlottesville that most people know the narrative of a white supremacist terrorist attack which a racist demagogue of a president refused to condemn. But there’s another narrative of Charlottesville as well,” he said. “The narrative of the organizers who came together to directly confront and stop the rise of violent white supremacy in our country. The multiracial movement which has demanded that we not only remove Confederate statues, but we remove the racist statutes and policies that uphold the legacy of white supremacy, institutional racism, and classism in our community.”
Dels. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, and Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, who also have endorsed Sanders, attended the rally.
Like Sanders, all three Virginia lawmakers have sometimes stood to the left of their party. In laying out his policy views Thursday, Sanders pitched ideas that he said have been criticized as “radical.”
Sanders promised to deliver on a $15-an-hour minimum wage, universal health care, universal child care and debt-free higher education.
“I don’t think it’s so radical to think working people should live with dignity and security,” he said.
To a riveted crowd in the 6,000-capacity athletic center, Sanders said that if he is elected, his presidency would reform the criminal justice system, legalize marijuana and address the “climate change crisis.”
The March 3 primaries could prove decisive in a crowded nomination fight in which more moderate candidates have split the vote to the benefit of Sanders.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Biden and Bloomberg are scheduled to make stops in Virginia this weekend ahead of Tuesday’s primary, when the state has 124 delegates at stake.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., spoke in Arlington County on Sunday. Also in the race are Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Tom Steyer, a wealthy activist; and Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii.