Under the swaying palm trees on a sweltering Sunday at the Fresno Fairgrounds, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders rallied thousands to his long-shot bid for the White House.
“Fresno,” the Vermont senator said just before 8 p.m., “welcome to the political revolution.”
Sanders took the stage at the Paul Paul Theater as part of a whirlwind campaign weekend in which he spoke in several Southern California cities on Friday and Saturday before visiting Visalia and Fresno on Sunday. Sanders’ swing through the San Joaquin Valley was the third visit to the region by a major presidential candidate or their surrogate ahead of the June 7 California primary election.
Last Monday, former President Bill Clinton appeared at Fresno State on behalf of his wife Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. On Friday, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump made an appearance at Selland Arena in downtown Fresno before flying to San Diego.
At Sunday’s event at the Fresno Fairgrounds, the crowd chanted “Bernie” as he walked to the podium at the Paul Paul Theater, which was set up for 5,000 people and was vastly overwhelmed. So many people showed up that the gates had to be closed, leaving a large crowd to listen on loudspeakers outside the theater.
He began his speech, which ran more than an hour, by recounting his campaign’s long odds.
“When we started, people said ‘oh, he’s not going to win any states,’ ” Sanders said. “Well, we’ve won 20.”
He added that he expected to win California – “and we’re going to win it big.”
Sanders told the crowd of his visit to Delano, where the United Farm Workers union was born more than 40 years ago. He said that much has been done to help migrant workers but that a lot more is needed.
“Corporations make billions by exploiting farmworkers,” he said, “and that’s going to end.”
Sanders promised to end low wages and limited access to health care and ensure clean water for migrant communities.
Before taking the stage, Sanders went into more detail about issues confronting the central San Joaquin Valley in a private interview with The Bee.
Sanders said he does not believe that most people around the country know just how bad the water crisis is here.
“There are thousands and thousands of homes in this region where you turn on the water and you can’t drink that water,” he said.
The issue was a complicated one, but he said he believes the solution involves a partnership between public, private and government to demand that billionaires in agribusiness stop polluting the water supply with dangerous pesticides.
Sanders also attacked Trump for being “the only person in the world who believes California is not in a drought,” referring to statement made by the Republican during his Fresno speech.
Sanders’ speech in Fresno mostly centered on his established national positions: a $15 minimum wage, campaign reform, health care and criminal justice adjustment, and higher taxes on the wealthy.
Sanders added that he is the only candidate who can defeat Trump, citing polls that put him ahead on a one-on-one match-up.
“Let me give you some very good news: Donald Trump will not be president of the United States,” Sanders said, drawing huge cheers from the crowd.
He had some similarly harsh words for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Sanders reminded the audience that he’s been funding his campaign with small donations. Clinton, he said, has relied on corporate America, and that’s where he said she owes her allegiance.
“I find it hard to believe you’re going to take on Wall Street when you take their money,” Sanders said.
Sanders was warmly received by those who showed up in both Fresno and Visalia, and many said they found his talk inspiring.
At the Paul Paul Theater, many rushed to the front of the stage to catch a glimpse of Sanders as he left.
“I came to see the person who has encapsulated everything that I’ve always wanted for this country,” said Eva Mendoza of Orange Cove. Mendoza said she gave “no second thought” to driving 45 miles and waiting in the high-90s heat.
“It was one small sacrifice on my part to see someone who can help change the country for the better.”
Olivia Haagenson sat near the stage wearing overalls adorned with political pins that read “Pro child, pro choice,” “Fresno Democrats” and “burn one for Bernie.”
“I finally feel like a politician represents what we (young people) want,” she said. “Hillary and Obama came close, but he really gets it. And that’s pretty tight because he is almost 80, and he still gets it.”
Folk groups and rock bands played songs – some with lyrics praising Sanders – for more than an hour before he hit the stage. The crowd danced and sang along with 60s favorites like “Come Together” and “Revolution.”
Like the Clinton rally and unlike Trump’s speech, Sanders drew a diverse crowd. Men, women and children of different ethnicities crammed into the outdoor theater, and each did their best to find shield themselves from the sun.
Not all were successful.
Just before 6 p.m., a woman near the front passed out under the hot sun. Cal Fire first responders and a nurse who happened to be in the audience helped as those sitting near her carried her out of the theater.
Sanders’ appearance earlier in the day at Golden West High School in Visalia came as temperatures were hovering in the 90s. Sanders noted that the weather was far warmer than what he is used to in his home state of Vermont, adding: “I guess everybody is feeling the Bern today, huh?”
Heat may explain why some attendees left the rally early. Two people were taken by ambulance for medical attention after showing signs of heat exhaustion, police said.
In Visalia, Sanders stumbled a bit over Valley towns, calling Delano (a stop earlier in the day) “DEL-a-no” and Visalia “Viz-alia,” but the crowd quickly corrected him and kept on cheering his lines.
As he did in later in Fresno, Sanders’ speech in Visalia touched on familiar themes of income inequality, corporate America taking advantage of working people, and Clinton and Trump.
The speech was well received, especially by young people.
“It was definitely a life-changing experience,” said Natalee Ruiz, 22, of Lindsay, a student at College of the Sequoias. “It was my first political rally. I liked his genuine caring nature. You can feel the truth behind what he says. When he say he’s for the people, he means it.”
Visalia financial adviser Gene Yunt said he attended the rally with his graduate-student daughter Chantayle Yunt to see what the Sanders phenomenon is all about.
“I respect his enthusiasm. I don’t agree with his likely taxes” to fund some of his proposals, Gene Yunt said. “It’s other people’s money.”
Hours before his Visalia appearance, a large crowd lined up at the stadium. Four people, one equipped with an American flag, carried anti-Sanders signs and walked by the crowd waiting to get in, but most people ignored them. Police did not intervene or ask them to leave.
The crowd included Porterville college student Alex Resendez, 23, who said she was a Sanders supporter.
“It’s just his whole way of thinking,” she said. “He hasn’t changed over the years.”
Mayeli Rodriguez, 20, of Ivanhoe is a sophomore at Fresno State.
“I’m very excited,” she said. “Bernie is hopefully going to lower college costs.” After the rally, she said she found the speech “inspiring and motivating. He has such a way with words, he just grabbed the entire crowd.”