Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking to attendees at a campaign house party in Manchester, N.H.
At Bernie Sanders’ very first campaign event as an official presidential candidate on Saturday, a distinct lack of the usual campaign signs, stickers, buttons and T-shirts showed just how new his campaign is.
But the Vermont senator had a house full of followers familiar with his offbeat style, and he delivered a message that was not at all new for him.
“We have a grotesque level of income inequality in which the billionaire class is getting it all,” Sanders told a gathering of 130 people packed into the Beech Street home of Elizabeth Ropp and Eric Zulaski in Manchester, N.H. “It’s like if we sat down to dinner — 10 people sit at a table to eat dinner — and one guy eats it all.”
The enthusiastic audience crowded into the living and dining rooms and onto the enclosed porch and the lawn outside, where some listened through the open window as Sanders gave a 32-minute speech.
This sign marked the house-party campaign stop in Manchester, N.H.
“This campaign that we are going to wage in New Hampshire and all over the country is a very different type of campaign than others run,” Sanders said. “We are going to do a lot of door-knocking, and you are the guys who are going to do it.”
Sanders never mentioned Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, or any other potential candidate. Whoever his opponents are, he said, they will raise more money and he will be the underdog — but he could still win.
“I think we’ve got a real shot,” said the former Burlington mayor, who was elected to the U.S. House and Senate as an independent and has never been elected as a Democrat. “I know people say, ‘Bernie’s this, Bernie’s that, but he really can’t win.’ You know what? We really can win.”
Sanders called for gradually raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour; using $70 billion in “corporate tax evasion” money to provide free public college tuition; and putting 13 million people to work over five years rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
Sanders was making his 10th trip to New Hampshire since 2014, but Saturday’s visit was the first since he officially announced his candidacy last Thursday for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. New Hampshire holds the nation’s first presidential primary on February 9, a week after the Iowa caucus.
New Hampshire reporters accustomed to the presidential campaign circuit described the house party with coffee, bagels and fruit as less scripted and less formal than the usual candidate events.
Ropp and Zulaski had cleared their living and dining rooms of furniture to make way for an unknown number of strangers. They had just learned on Tuesday that they’d be hosting a house party for Sanders, arranged through a friend of a friend.
“This is the most people I’ve ever had in my house at one time,” said Zulaski, who works for a nonprofit issue advocacy organization.
Eventually, Sanders’ campaign will presumably have "Sanders for President" stickers, lawn signs and T-shirts, but those have yet to materialize.
On the front lawn of the Ropp and Zulaski home was a single, handmade sign that read, “BERNIE FOR PRESIDENT.” Zulaski said he had made it himself a few days earlier. The sign was festooned with six red, white and blue balloons.
“I believe in homemade signs. It speaks much louder than anything that can be mass-produced,” he said.
“Today is amazing,” Ropp said as she introduced Sanders. “He’s the one candidate to honestly address issues. I give you the man of the 12-hour filibuster and the $12 haircut.”
When it was over, Sanders posed for a few selfies and answered a couple of rushed questions before ducking out for another event in North Conway. He slipped into the passenger seat of a Ford Fusion driven by longtime aide Phil Fiermonte.
Ropp stood on her back steps eating a bagel, feeling good about the event that had overtaken her house. “People want this man to run for president,” she said.
Susan Villaincourt of Manchester, who described herself as partially employed, had listened to Sanders speak from a spot in the dining room. “I think he’s right on,” she said afterward. “He speaks to my issues, particularly about income inequality.”
Villaincourt added her name to a volunteer sign-up sheet. She would work to spread his message and educate voters, she said, but she hadn’t ruled out supporting Hillary Clinton. “I’m still sort of assessing,” she said.