U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders asked a Lexington crowd of nearly 5,500 people Tuesday night to join his “political revolution” aimed at taking America back from the billionaires.
Sanders, who is trailing Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, won thunderous cheers by promising to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for free college education, expand daycare and repair to the nation’s failing infrastructure. But he reminded his crowd — many of them in their late teens or 20s — that if they want this future, they must show up at the polls on May 17 when Kentucky holds its Democratic primary.
“We win elections — we win primaries and caucuses — when voter turnout is high, and we don’t do well when voter turnout is low,” Sanders said. “Let’s see Kentucky have the biggest voter turnout in its history!”
More than 43 percent of registered voters turned out for Kentucky’s last contested Democratic presidential primary, pitting Barack Obama against Clinton in 2008. Clinton won Kentucky by 35 points but ultimately lost to Obama nationally.
Some Sanders supporters who packed into the Lexington Center for his “A Future to Believe In” rally said the 74-year-old senator inspires them like no politician ever has.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve cared about politics because this is the first time I feel like can actually change things,” said Tyler Kelley, 22, of Lexington.
Kelley said he works 60 hours a week at two jobs, one at the University of Kentucky Physical Plant Division, but he still can’t afford to attend college or buy health insurance.
“I’m exactly who he’s talking about,” Kelley said. “I’m young and I work, but I’m broke.”
Standing behind Kelley, 20-year-old Shelby Huston said she studies interior design at UK.
“I just paid $6,100 for one semester,” Huston said. “I had to get a loan at 9.5 percent interest. I’m going to be in debt for the rest of my life at this rate.”
Sanders’ biggest applause line of the night came when he declared that the concept of free public education in the United States must be expanded from K-12 schools to encompass state colleges.
“Public colleges and universities should be tuition free!” Sanders said. “Do not allow anyone to tell you that is a radical idea. That is not a radical idea. It is a very common sense idea that already exists in other countries around the world — in Germany, in Scandinavia, other countries. Those countries understand that it is in the best long-term interests of their economy that they invest in their young people.”
Sanders said he would pay for free college education through “a tax on Wall Street speculation,” although he offered no further details, or a price.
“It requires having the guts to stand up to the billionaire class,” Sanders said.
Sanders called for mandatory paid parental leave and said the national minimum wage should be $15 an hour rather than $7.25. Some cities and states already are moving to raise the minimum wage because they’re tired of waiting for Congress to act, and their economies have not suffered as a result, he said.
“It’s not a radical idea that when somebody works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty,” Sanders said.
Over the last generation, much of the nation’s wealth flowed into the hands of its richest 1 percent, a “rigged economy” made possible by friendly tax laws for the wealthy and anti-labor policies that kept wages stagnant for the working class, he said. The Walton family of Arkansas, which owns Wal-Mart, is worth $149 billion, while many of its store employees are poor enough to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, provided by the taxpayers, he said.
Sanders said he could raise $1 trillion to employ Americans in the rebuilding of cities and rural communities by “doing away with outrageous corporate loopholes.”
“How does it happen that we can spend trillions of dollars on a war in Iraq that we never should have gotten into, but somehow we don’t have the money to rebuild the crumbling inner cities of America?” Sanders asked.
Several of Sanders’ supporters said that if he’s not the Democrat in the November election — if it’s Clinton versus likely Republican nominee Donald Trump — they either will stay home or write in his name on the ballot as a protest.
“I’m, like, 80 percent ‘Bernie or bust,’” said Joy Lourie of Wilmore, standing over her daughters, Myra, 8, and Natalie, 5. “I would like to see a Democrat in the White House. But Hillary is just so untrustworthy — all the scandals, all that history. I might have to make a decision at the very last minute.”