Senator Bernie Sanders (VT-I), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, delivered a rousing speech to an overflowing audience in Richmond on Thursday. His speech focused on the growing economic inequality in the United States and argued for the importance of electing candidates who will implement progressive policies in the face of the growing influence of big money in politics.
“At this profound moment in American history, where the billionaire class wants to get it all … we have got to fight back tooth and nail,” Sanders said, drawing boisterous applause from a crowd of about 500. “We cannot allow them to take over Richmond … we cannot allow them to take over America.”
Sanders was invited to Richmond by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin to help rally her progressive base in the face of $3 million in spending by Chevron Corp. to oppose McLaughlin and her allies in the Nov. 4 election. Federal law allows unlimited spending by large donors through independent campaign committees.
“There’s no place like Richmond to see the blatant evil that is Citizens United,” McLaughlin said as she introduced Sanders, one of Congress’ fiercest critics of the Citizens United ruling.
Sanders’ hour-long speech at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium touched on a range of progressive issues.
He discussed the struggling middle class, and growing inequality.
“Since  95 percent of all new income created in America has gone to the top one percent,” Sanders said. Corporate profits are at all-time highs, CEO’s make 270 times what their employees make, and one in four corporations don’t pay federal taxes, Sanders told the crowd.
Sanders also had harsh words for the political strategy of the billionaire Koch Brothers, Charles and David Koch owners of Koch Industries, who have funneled hundreds of million of dollars through PACs and charitable organizations to influence elections around the country.
He walked the audience through some of the positions from David Koch’s 1980 vice-presidential run on the Libertarian ticket, drawing boos and hisses from the audience in describing a platform that included eliminating campaign finance laws and the EPA, defunding public education, scrapping minimum wages and slashing Social Security.
When Sanders finished his remarks, the crowd erupted into a chant of “Run, Bernie, run!”
Before the speech, Sanders met with volunteers and activists at the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s downtown office.
Sanders huddled with McLaughlin, Vice-Mayor and city council candidate Jovanka Beckles, councilmember and mayoral candidate Tom Butt, and city council candidate Eduardo Martinez. They chatted about progressive reforms that McLaughlin and the city council have implemented in the past eight years.
They discussed community policing, eminent domain, tax policy, and youth programs, along with the challenges they are facing in this election while trying to overcome the $3 million being spent to defeat them.
The progressive candidates running for office in Richmond are counting on an energized volunteer base to counter their opponents’ deep pockets.
Delilah Leval, who lives in Berkeley but follows Richmond politics, attended the event at the RPA office and was ecstatic to meet Sanders. “Without flying to Washington, D.C. I actually got to give him a hug right here,” she said, grinning.
Octavio Gocobachi, 27, a life-long resident of Richmond came to the event after hearing about it through Facebook, and was inspired by Sanders’ speech to get more involved in the election.
“We’re here to pretty much listen and relay the message to people in the street” Govobachi said. “You can’t let a company take over a city,” he said. “If a corporation takes over Richmond, what can’t they do?”