The last time Sen. Bernie Sanders was in North Carolina he filled the sanctuary of Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. On Sunday night, 9,000 cheering, foot-stomping supporters packed Greensboro Coliseum and an overflow hall to chant “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie.’’
Clearly, Sanders has passed from curiosity to phenomenon.
So far this is shaping up as the year of the outsider who can tap into voter frustrations with Washington. For the Republicans, we have seen the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, two people who have never held public office.
For the Democrats, a 74-year old democratic socialist from Vermont is now threatening Hillary Clinton’s front runner status. CBS released a poll over the weekend showing Sanders up over Clinton by 20 points in New Hampshire and by 10 points in Iowa.
That has led to talk that Clinton’s firewall in the nominating process will be in Southern state primaries like those held in the Carolinas early next year.
“You don’t need a firewall if there is not a fire,’’ quipped Mike Briggs, Sanders’ communications director, shortly before his boss took the stage. Briggs knows the state well, having worked as press secretary for former Sen. John Edwards.
The Greensboro crowd was likely the largest one that Sanders has drawn in the South. (Sanders drew 8,000 in Dallas in July.) It was an unusually young crowd much like the ones seen during the presidential campaigns for Barack Obama, except it was overwhelmingly white.
People gave different reasons for why they were supporting Sanders.
Debra Combs, a 53-year-old social worker from Westfield in Surry County, was attracted to Sanders because of her religious views.
“He is a democratic-socialist,’’ Combs said. “I am a born-again Christian. Socialism is consistent with my beliefs. It is the philosophy of Jesus Christ.’’
Dana Webster, 69, of Durham, liked Sanders support for veterans programs.
“I have two sons who are career army so I am for the person who is most supportive historically of our veterans,’’ Webster said.
Omar Benallal, a 17-year old High Point high school student, who will be voting for the first time next year, said he likes Sanders’ idea of offering free college education to all students and providing universal health insurance.
“I feel like Hillary has been clinging to the coat tails of Bill Clinton and even Obama through her tenure as secretary of state,’’ he said. “I think Bernie has lot more substance.’’
Sanders may also benefiting from the polarization of politics. Just as there are many on the political right who are fed up with the Republican Party’s leadership, which they view as too moderate and temporizing, there are many on the left who feel the same way about the Democratic Party’s leadership.
The Sanders stump speech is a populist message about how he says the “billionaire class,’’ is dominating politics and squeezing out the middle class, leading to the greatest income inequality in the country since 1928. He pushes for universal health insurance, public financing of elections, fairer trade policies, better treatement of veterans, higher minimum wages, and fewer jobs shipped overseas.
“The people are sick and tired of establishment politics,’’ Sanders said. “And they want real change in this country.’’
Sanders has acknowledged that if he is to compete in Southern primaries with Clinton he must do better among African-Americans. During the 2008 North Carolina presidential primary in which Obama bested Hillary Clinton, black voters composed 37 percent of the electorate.
Sanders had a long history in support of civil rights that goes back to his arrest in Chicago as a college student for participating in a desegregation demonstration, according to Briggs.
In Greensboro, Sanders was introduced by black labor official. During his speech, Sanders cited high unemployment among young black people, the need to overhaul the criminal justice system, and said more had to be done to prevent the deaths of unarmed black people in police custody.
“Our goal must to be to end all forms of institutional racism and to make make major reforms in a very broken criminal justice system,’’ Sander said.
He also criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision altering the Voting Rights Act, that enable lawmakers to make changes without getting pre-approval from the U.S. Justice Department.
“Hours after that decision you had Republicans all across the country figuring out ways to supress the vote of poor people, of old people, of people of color,’’ Sanders said. “They are doing it all over the country including North Carolina. I say to those governors and those members of legislatures who are too cowardly to stand on their ideas and are working hard to try to prevent people from voting – get another job.’’
Sanders met for 45 minutes with the Congressional Black Caucus last Thursday. Only six of the 46 members attended.
“Senator Sanders speaks our language,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, the caucus chairman. “He unapologetically speaks out on issues such as poverty and corporate greed.
“The question is whether he can get sufficient traction to be a top tier candidate,’’ Butterfield said. He said that Sanders has to prove he can raise enough money to run a competitive national campaign. Butterfield said Sanders must also overcome Clinton’s deep connections in the black community.
At least 20 members of the congressional black caucus have already endorsed Clinton, Butterfield said.
“Mrs. Clinton has a long standing relationship with African-Americans,’’ Butterfield said. “That will benefit her enormously. She is speaking the language that many African-Americans appreciate.’’
Butterfield said that Clinton has assiduously courted the Congressional Black Caucus, and Butterfield has noted that he had several conversations with her.
But Butterfield also noted that Sanders’ approach, like that of Trump, is not to try to collect endorsements of elected leaders, but to directly appeal to voters. In an anti-establishment age, Butterfield said, that might be effective.
Among the African-Americans attending the Sanders rally was Chris Monds, a 29-year-old employee of a Charlotte insurance company.
Monds said he is looking for change. “He is definitely against the status quo. He has some ideas that shakes up things a little bit. I’d like to get him the nomination and get him into office and see what he can do.’’