Sanders fires up NO-area crowd at Pontchartrain Center

by Kevin Allman

"I think my colleagues in the Democratic Party have made a very serious mistake, and that is they have written off half of America, including Louisiana. And I'm here to tell you the time is now to fight for 50 states in the country."

Vermont Sen. and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes the stage at Pontchartrain Center.

Vermont Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders roused the Democratic faithful Sunday night in a rally at Pontchartrain Center in Kenner.

A button vendor outside Pontchartrain Center was wearing a "Feel the Bern" T-shirt and vending Sanders campaign buttons — one for $5, three for $10.

Before the rally, Sanders made an appearance at the home of Dr. Gilda Reed, a University of New Orleans professor and former candidate for Louisiana's 1st Congressional District. Addressing about 40 people in Reed's living room, Sanders asked what Louisiana voters were concerned about — the answers included a raise in the minimum wage, universal health care, a ban on fracking and GMOs. Sanders said Vermont labels genetically modified foods, expressed his view that "corporate media" deflects attention from important issues and asked whether the people in the room thought Louisiana would support a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. (The answer: yes.)

At the recent Netroots Nation conference, Sanders and other presidential candidates were interrupted by representatives under the umbrella Black Lives Matter, and Sanders spent some days afterward explaining his position on institutional racism.

Sanders was introduced by local entrepreneur Angela Henderson, who spoke for less than two minutes, saying she'd just met Sanders the night before, and he had pulled her in for a hug.

"Some people told me Louisiana was a conservative state — guess not!" Sanders began his address. "I think my colleagues in the Democratic Party have made a very serious mistake, and that is they have written off half of America, including Louisiana. And I'm here to tell you the time is now to fight for 50 states in the country."

Sen. Bernie Sanders talks with a voter at the home of Dr. Gilda Reed in Metairie.

"I want to begin by telling you what no other presidential candidate will tell you," Sanders said, adding that no single president can make the changes he thinks are necessary. "What we need in this country is a political revolution. ... There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do politics and economics in America today. People want ... new ideas and they want to make fundamental changes."

Sanders said Republicans were afraid of "redistribution of wealth," but said that it already had been occurring since 1985 — "It's going to the 1 percent," he said. "Most of the wealth is flowing into the hands of a few ... it is worse today than any time since 1928." He called it "the great moral issue of our time." He called it "a rigged economy."

"This campaign is sending a big message to the billionaire class," Sanders said. "You cannot have it all." He said "their greed which is destroying this country has to end. And we are going to end it for them."

"We should be investing in jobs and education, not more jails and incarceration," Sanders said, calling the federal minimum wage "a starvation wage. It must be raised. We need a minimum wage that is a living wage, that is 15 bucks an hour."

He got big cheers from the crowd for other progressive red-meat issues, castigating Republicans for their "family values" and saying his family values are different, citing his pro-choice beliefs, support for contraception, LGBT rights and the need for three months of paid family and medical leave for new parents.

Sanders said Americans work longer hours than many other nations, and that many workers work more than 40 hours a week, some with no paid vacation ("We work a hell of a lot more than the French," he said, adding, "God bless the French") before advocating two week's paid vacation for Americans.

"the crooks on Wall Street," and said of banks called "too big to fail" that "we need to break them up." The crowd chanted along with his slogan: "If a bank is too big to fail, that bank is too big to exist."

One of the biggest ovations of the speech came with Sanders' suggestion that all public colleges and universities be tuition-free. Broaching the topic of fossil fuels, he joked, "I know I'm in Louisiana, but ... In terms of climate change, the debate is over." He also reiterates he endorsed "a Medicare-style single-payer for all" health insurance system for those who wanted it.

"The struggle continues, when an African-American woman gets yanked out of her car — " beginning to reference Sandra Bland, the woman who was stopped on a traffic charge in Texas and was later found hanged in her cell. At the reference, the crowd yelled so loud he couldn't continue for a moment. "When that happens, and we all know that wouldn't have happened to a middle-class woman, we all know we need a serious change in the criminal justice system in this country."

The speech timed at almost exactly an hour. A Pontchartrain Center official estimated the crowd to be more than 4,000 people.