Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders draws estimated 3,400 at UMass rally

Last modified: Tuesday, January 05, 2016

AMHERST — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders drew a crowd estimated at 3,400 to the University of Massachusetts on Saturday afternoon for his first rally of 2016, calling the new year a pivotal moment in the nation’s history.

“There is a profound anger and disgust at the status quo,” said the independent senator from Vermont. “People want change.”

The change he proposes, encompassing reforms related to campaign finance, jobs, family leave, pay equity, the criminal justice system, immigration, student debt, sustainable energy, health care and more, requires grassroots support, Sanders said, highlighting the 2.5 million donations his campaign has received, and calling for greater political engagement across the country.

“Together, we are going to revitalize American democracy, and create a government which represents all of us, not just a handful of criminals,” he said.

Around 1,900 people filled the Fine Arts Center auditorium, and another 1,500 watched on a screen outside, according to UMass audience services manager Melissa Cleary and university spokesman Edward Blaguszewski.

National polls have Sanders trailing Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, though he maintains a slight lead in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary Feb. 9, according to a Real Clear Politics average of recent polls. The Massachusetts primary is on Super Tuesday, March 1.

Launching into a “serious discussion of serious issues” over 75 minutes, Sanders began as he often does with a focus on the economy. Amherst, Sanders said, is fortunate to have strong universities and economics professors, but he learned what he knows about the economy from the way he grew up, not from school.

A man wearing a Donald Trump shirt near the front of the crowd interrupted Sanders as he spoke about the nation’s wealth gap, and was then escorted out as the crowd booed.

Sanders received some of his loudest cheers when he called for overhauling the nation’s campaign finance system. “Our very democracy is being undermined,” he said as the crowd erupted. His emphasis on pay equity and paid family leave also drew applause. Crying echoed in the hall right after his comments — “the baby agrees,” Sanders said.

Audience members were also enthused by his proposals for tuition-free college and lowering student loan interest rates, a move he said would be possible through taxing Wall Street speculation. “Tax the rich!” an audience member shouted.

Sanders called attention to youth unemployment levels, calling them a “tragedy,” and pushing for more investment in “jobs, not jails.” He also reiterated calls for comprehensive immigration reform, highlighting the plight of 11 million undocumented workers in the country, whose families he said deserve to stay together.

Among those who spoke before Sanders was 22-year-old Carlos Rojas Alvarez, of Boston, who said that as an undocumented immigrant he felt Sanders was the most likely to protect people of all stripes.

Also speaking to the crowd before Sanders, Massachusetts Nurses Association regional chairwoman Patti Healey said the candidate’s approach to governance echoed her professional philosophy: “As nurses we don’t choose who we’re going to take care of.”

‘Bernie city’

Christian Knapp, 20, of Westfield arrived around 9 a.m., scoring the first place in line and reading a book called “Scarcity” to pass the time. He said he’s still deciding whom he wants to vote for, focusing on candidates’ economic policies, and was there to see what message Sanders would emphasize.

Wearing a “Feel the Bern” sweatshirt, Michelle Blakesley, 34, of Westhampton, said she’s been a supporter since “the minute he entered the race.” Standing in line with her wife, Blakesley said the hoodie was the one Christmas gift she asked for, and something she plans to wear every day until the election.

“He’s the only candidate that represents all people, the people that don’t have the power to stand up for themselves,” Blakesley said. “He’s a real leader.”

To Maya Apfelbaum, 54, of Greenfield and Athol, that leadership transcends his rhetoric and she feels a deep personal connection with the senator, who she said strikes her as both a leader and “servant of the people.” Standing with her, John Bailey, 67, of Greenfield, said Sanders appeals to him the way he believes Trump likely appeals to many of his supporters — and says things people have been waiting to hear.

“He talks like me,” Bailey said of Sanders, explaining that when he saw him speak at a rally in Springfield last year, he was so moved he cried.

June Roberts, 93, of Greenfield, whom her son-in-law Jonathan Lagreze, 66, of Colrain called a “lifelong socialist,” is an ardent Sanders fan — she rode a float dedicated to him during a rainy Franklin County Fair parade in September. Apfelbaum walked alongside the float on stilts, throwing red, hot candies into the crowd. Roberts could not pinpoint one part of Sanders’ speech that most struck her, saying she loved all of it.

A flier calling all “SINGLES FOR BERNIE!” was taped to a wall outside the Fine Arts Center. Nearby, supporters posed for photos with their faces in a Sanders-head-shaped hole, part of a wooden prop made by UMass junior Elliot Jerry, 21, of Shutesbury. Jerry, who founded the UMass chapter of supporters, said he thought it was “wise” the campaign organized the rally during winter break, because there’s no venue in the Pioneer Valley that would hold all the local people backing Sanders.

“It’s Bernie city out here,” he said.

In the parking lot after the rally, Adi Bemak, 68, of Amherst, said she had walked into the rally with hesitations about the plausibility of some of Sanders’ proposals. But he convinced her it was time to get on board and start making calls, she said.

Everything he said resonated with her, Bemak added, describing Sanders as committed to fairness and justice, to “making life livable for the average person.”

“This is our moment,” she said.

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at


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