Bernie Sanders speaks during the Come Together and Fight Back Tour in Mesa on April 21, 2017. Courtney Pedroza/azcentral
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, the former presidential candidate, took the stage during the Come Together and Fight Back Tour in Mesa on April 21, 2017. Patrick Breen/azcentral.com
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People arrive ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ speech, part of the “Come Together and Fight Back” tour, in Mesa on April 21, 2017. Patrick Breen/azcentral.com
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Sen. Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez presided over a raucous gathering of Democratic faithful in Mesa on Friday night, keeping the crowd on its feet and cheering by highlighting the party’s values and slamming President Donald Trump and other Republicans.
The duo touched on the party’s core 21st-century priorities such as health care as a right, public education and free public college tuition, comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women, supporting labor unions and working families, criminal-justice reform, and confronting climate change and discrimination.
“The Democratic Party will always have your back,” promised Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman.
Sanders pounded Trump for failing to stand up for the working class as he promised and implored Americans not to despair and give up.
“The right response is we’re going to stand up, we’re going to fight back and we are going to create an economy and a government that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” Sanders told the adoring audience of 3,800.
‘Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!’
Sanders, the left-leaning senator from Vermont, last year became an unlikely political star after his progressive challenge to the party’s establishment front-runner Hillary Clinton caught fire in the Democratic primaries, especially among Millennials.
He remains an unlikely savior for the Democratic Party; he is listed as an “independent” with the Senate and, despite his bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination, still categorizes himself that way. Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist.
Even so, the Mesa crowd appeared to be there largely for Sanders and his populist economic message, loudly chanting “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” every time Perez, who spoke first, mentioned his name. Sanders received a thunderous standing ovation when he came on stage.
“All those people in Arizona who voted for Trump must understand that he is an agent of the billionaire class and he’s going to sell the working people of this country out,” Sanders said.
Sanders repeatedly pounded the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill, which he said will be funded by cutting needed government programs, as well as what he called “a corrupt political system” that lets billionaires buy elections and “cowardly” Republican governors make it more difficult for people to vote.
“You do not have to have a Ph.D in economics to know you don’t give tax breaks to billionaires and cut programs for children,” Sanders said.
Perez slams Republicans
While Sanders was the crowd favorite, the audience also cheered Perez when he hit Trump and waxed nostalgic for former President Barack Obama.
“This first 100 days has been nothing less than carnage and chaos,” Perez said of Trump’s presidency.
Perez also lived up to his reputation for using earthy language to make his anti-Trump points.
Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border will need a garage door because of “all the (expletive) he makes in Mexico” needs to get into the United States, Perez said of Trump’s companies.
He also noted how voters recalled state Sen. Russell Pearce, the author of Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law known as Senate Bill 1070, and “kicked his (expletive).”
Perez also riffed on a report that the Trump administration has deported a “dreamer,” an undocumented immigrant brought into the country as a child.
“Dreamers shouldn’t be deported, they should be respected,” Perez shouted to more applause and cheers.
Sanders called immigration reform a personal issue for him because his father came from Poland. Undocumented immigrants “are living in fear, and living in the shadows, and many of them are being exploited every day on the job because their employers know that they have no legal rights,” he said.
“I say to Trump and his friends: Stop scapegoating undocumented people. Work with us to pass comprehensive immigration reform and a path toward citizenship,” Sanders said.
Perez, who earlier this year was elected DNC chairman, is Obama’s former secretary of Labor. Perez won his post with the support of the Obama/Clinton wing of the party. Sanders backed liberal Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, whom Perez defeated for the job.
Tensions on the ‘Come Together’ tour
The name of their cross-country swing is the “Come Together and Fight Back Tour,” although tensions between the party’s two factions remain. The idea, Democrats say, is to boost the party in all 50 states. Arizona was carried by Trump but Clinton made a surprisingly strong showing.
Perez said he and Sanders decided to come to Arizona because they wanted to go to a couple of places that had experience “taking down bullies, bullies like Joe Arpaio,” the long-serving Republican Maricopa County sheriff whom voters ousted last year. Perez returned to Arpaio a couple of times, calling him “a bully with a badge” at one point.
Republicans mocked Perez’s and Sanders’ efforts in a written statement attributed to Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel: “The Democrats’ dysfunction has only grown during this train wreck of a tour, and to make matters worse Perez and Sanders are disturbingly quiet on whether or not they stand behind their buddies at the Arizona Democrat Party for accepting money from shady donors. It’s no wonder Americans across the country continue to repudiate Democrats at the ballot box. Voters entrusted President Trump and Republicans to move our nation forward and enact their vision to better life for all Americans. The derailing crazy train and failed liberal policies on display tonight will do nothing to change that.”
Despite the tour, new rifts in the Democratic Party have continued to emerge, including this week when the Washington Post quoted Sanders saying Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat running in a closely watched House special election, was “not a progressive.”
If a Democrat can win in the traditionally GOP congressional district, it could be a good sign for Democratic momentum in the 2018 midterm elections.
On Friday, Sanders issued a written statement clarifying his support for Ossoff.
“Let me be very clear. It is imperative that Jon Ossoff be elected congressman from Georgia’s 6th District and that Democrats take back the U.S. House,” Sanders said in his statement. “I applaud the energy and grassroots activism in Jon’s campaign. His victory would be an important step forward in fighting back against Trump’s reactionary agenda.”
The Georgia race also was on the minds of many at the Arizona rally. The musical act that warmed up the crowd dedicated its rendition of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to Ossoff. Perez also gave a shout out to Ossoff’s campaign from the stage.
Even before Sanders’ and Perez’s appearance in Mesa, the liberal New Republic dubbed the unity tour a bust, saying it just put a spotlight on the party’s problems. The Arizona crowd showed few if any signs of the fissure within the party, but it did react positively to Sanders’ calls for Democratic Party reform.
For instance, Sanders said the Democrats need to become a “50-state party,” not one just for the East and West coasts. It also needs to be an inclusive “bottom-up party,” not a top-down one, he said.
Firing up the crowd
Belén Sisa, the dreamer whose Facebook post about paying her taxes even though she is undocumented went viral in March, was among those who helped fire up the audience before Sanders and Perez by taking shots at Trump and, a couple of times, at Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
“So are you ready to fight? Because I’m ready to fight with you,” Sisa said to claps and cheers.
Other speakers talked up the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood, the women’s health-services provider under fire from Republicans.
The Sanders-Perez Arizona rally was at the Mesa Amphitheatre, part of the same downtown complex where Flake last week was blistered at an angry town-hall meeting.
Sanders credited the voters and activists who have flooded congressional town halls and attended rallies this year with helping stall GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which critics call “Obamacare.”
“Despite the gains of the Affordable Care Act, we remain the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care for all people as a right,” Sanders said.
Sanders promised to push a new “Medicare for All” plan. “Health care is right not a privilege,” he said.
As the rally ended, the Beatles’ “Come Together” played over the sound system.
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