SPRINGFIELD – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged a crowd of more than 1,500 here to join the fight against President Donald Trump’s budget plan, which he said would hurt those who could least afford it.
The senator told people to get involved, run for office and engage voters who backed the Republican businessman’s run for the White House.
Sanders, an independent from Vermont, took part in a town hall-style forum Thursday night in front of a standing room only audience packed into the gymnasium at Riverside Middle School.
“This is a fantastic crowd. We had a hard time finding a parking place,” Sanders said after taking the stage. “Democracy is alive and well in Springfield.”
The senator was greeted by well-wishers who said they supported his 2016 bid for president. One man, wearing a “Bernie 2016” T-shirt, told the senator that he was his hero.
While the crowd came to see Sanders, Trump was on the minds of many who disagreed with the new president on the issues
“I know a lot of people who are really hard workers, good living people who voted for Trump,” said Matt Bean, 23, of Claremont, New Hampshire. “It blows my mind … What is the best way to talk to these people and tell them, ‘You can’t keep voting against your own self-interest.’”
Sanders said he has found some areas of common ground with those who supported the new president.
“If you go to West Virginia, if you go to states all over this country where Trump won, people there don’t have horns, they are not hurtful, awful people,” Sanders said.
“In many cases, they’re really hard working people, worried about their kids and they didn’t see an alternative,” he added. “They did not see the Democrats come up with the kind of alternatives that made sense to them.”
Many Trump supporters, according to Sanders, are working class people who don’t believe in tax breaks for billionaires, or support cuts to Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare.
He encouraged people in the crowd to listen to friends who backed Trump.
“Get outside your comfort zone … Try to go outside just the people you agree with, your own friends,” the senator told the crowd. “Start breaking into conversations with people who are glued to Fox television.”
Sanders’ harshest criticism of Trump and Republicans in Congress focused on GOP-backed health care legislation. Sanders said if approved, millions of Americans would lose health insurance currently provided under the Affordable Care Act, passed during President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Let us be clear, if anybody wants to quote me on this, quote me on this,” he said. “Thousands of people will die if they lose their health insurance and are unable to go to the doctor or cannot afford to go to the hospital when they need to.
“A lot more people will die from this legislation than died from the tragedy of 9/11,” Sanders said.
George Karabakakis, CEO of Health Care and Rehabilitation Services, told Sanders that there is a crisis in Vermont of people suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, homelessness and poverty. A repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he said, would make it worse.
“We don’t need to build walls,” he told Sanders. “We need to break down walls. What can we do? This is really serious.”
Sanders said the Republican-backed health care legislation is now even starting to lose GOP support, partly due to the heat that party’s members are getting from the public.
He said Vermont’s congressional delegation is in agreement in opposing a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and encouraged people to contact congressional members who support the repeal from outside the state and let their voices be heard.
“They’re in trouble because the American people are catching on as to what a disaster this is,” Sanders said to cheers. “Donald Trump is learning how complicated health care is.”
The senator hit on themes Thursday night that catapulted him to the Democratic Party presidential nomination last year, including income inequality, free college tuition at state colleges and universities, and universal health care coverage.
Sanders was eventually beat out for the nomination by former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in the general election.
Vermont provided Sanders with his largest margin of victory in Democratic presidential primary season last year: He topped Clinton 85 percent to 13 percent.
The Springfield town hall event Thursday night capped the first of a two-day series of events the senator is holding across Vermont. He started earlier Thursday with town hall meetings in St. Johnsbury. He’ll end with a town hall meeting at 3 p.m. Friday at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.
The town hall meeting in Springfield started with a panel of four people telling Sanders about issues important to them and challenges they face.
They included Tim Ford, president and CEO of Springfield Medical Care Systems; Cathleen Corliss of the Springfield Area Parent Child Center; Mark Curran, founder and co-owner Black River Produce; and Matt Powers, a senior at Springfield High School.
Powers talked about trying to decide where to go to college, and more importantly, how he’s going to pay for it.
Sanders, introducing Powers, noted how the student takes part in extracurricular activities, including track and field.
“I did that too,” Sanders told him.
Then, the senator listed off more of Powers’ accomplishment and activities, included National Honor Society.
“That I didn’t do,” Sanders said, drawing laughter.
John Sarna, 60, who works in a manufacturing facility in Bellows Falls, said health care, and making sure people can afford it and have access to it, is a major reason for his support of Sanders, and why he turned out to hear Thursday.
“Everyone is concerned about the future of medical care,” he said. “It’s nice to know that people are fighting for care for everybody.”
Republicans weren’t the only ones feeling the sting from Sanders or the people in the crowd Thursday night.
One man told the senator that all elected officials need to be held accountable for the dysfunction in Washington, D.C.
“We need to find a way to come together instead of the party politics, keep that crap out of it,” he said. “Tackle the issues like you try to do … A lot of Democrats don’t want to look at the issues, it’s not just Donald Trump.”
“Absolutely correct,” the senator responded, before thanking the crowd for making him the longest serving independent member of Congress in history.
Sanders added that years ago when Democrats controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress they didn’t take on the pharmaceutical companies to reduce drug prices or negotiate trade deals in the best interest of American workers.
“I think Democrats are far better than Republicans,” he said, “but I’m not here to defend everything Democrats do.”
Sanders was also asked if the time has passed for the Democratic Party.
“I think we can all agree that the last election cycle was nothing short of a disaster, I can’t be anymore blunt,” a questioner told Sanders. “Is it time for the Democratic Party to go away and have new progressive agenda rise up from its ashes?”
Sanders replied that on Friday morning he was planning to talk with the new national chairman of the Democratic Party and would relay that message.
“In my view the Democratic Party needs to be fundamentally restructured,” the senator added. “We need to be a grassroots party with relatively young people and working people to help set the direction. Absolutely.”
A woman told Sanders his run for the presidency inspired her to make her on bid last year for state representative, eventually losing her first election by 40 votes.
“The first time I ran I got only 2 percent of the vote,” Sanders told her. “You did better than I did.”
The senator said that a reason he often hears from people why they don’t run for office, whether on the local, state or federal level, is because they don’t feel qualified.
“My response is always, ‘I work in the United States Senate, and if you think you don’t know enough, work with some of my colleagues,” he said. “We need people who feel strongly about issues … You can do it, you really can.”