Sen. Bernie Sanders works the crowd in Springfield.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made a rare swing through Vermont Thursday, stopping in St. Johnsbury, White River Junction, Brattleboro and Springfield. Everywhere he went, he was met with packed venues and almost entirely enthusiastic audiences.
The day began with a student assembly at the St. Johnsbury Academy, where Sanders announced that he would be back in the spring to speak at the school's commencement. He gave a stripped-down version of his stump speech with a focus on education, and then took questions for a good half an hour. Many of the questions were about education or the future of work, as the high schoolers face a future of college debt and shrinking opportunities.
The most engaging moment came when a student, who's probably an avid reader of Ayn Rand, stepped to the microphone and asked the senator why redistribution of wealth is a good thing. Why, he said, "shouldn't society not allow people to earn what they earn, and not redistribute wealth at all?"
Sanders complimented the student for "being a brave guy because he knows my views." He then asked the student, "Who pays for your education?"
"Um, I guess technically the state," the student replied.
Sanders: "Who is the state?"
Student: "The taxpayers."
Sanders: "Well, why should a guy who's 50 years old and never had kids, or his kids are grown up, why should he pay for your education? Why the hell should I payfor your education?"
He went on to state his own views on wealth, equity and the importance of a strong society — without belittling the student in any way and acknowledging that many share his point of view.
It was a masterful moment from a guy with decades of experience handling crowds.
After the Academy, it was on to St. Johnsbury's Good Living Senior Center. On his way in, a preteen girl asked him to autograph her copy of his book, Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In. As he complied, your reporter pulled out his smartphone and snapped a photo of the two. Afterward, I handed my phone to the girl so she could email the picture to herself. She could barely use the keyboard because her hands were shaking; she was in awe of the moment and spoke excitedly of "Instagramming it" for all her friends.
Sanders makes a young autograph seeker very happy.
Glad to help, kiddo.
On to a packed room, where Sanders tailored his remarks to the mostly older audience. Health care, Medicare, Social Security, the insecure retirements of millions of Americans, the high cost of prescription drugs.
If there were any Trump supporters in the room, they were awfully darn quiet. The Sanders people, on the other hand, gave their hero a rapturous reception.
One man prefaced his question by saying, "You shouldn't be here." He paused. "You should be in the White House!"
The audience erupted.
After spending most of an hour with the group, Sanders headed for I-91 and a closed meeting with staff at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction. He then headed to a "press conference" at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro.
"Press conference" is in quotes because, well, there was no opportunity to ask questions. Which, I'm given to understand, is generally a feature of such events.
He was there for a worthy purpose: the announcement of $300,000 in federal and state grants for Windham Grows, a first-in-Vermont "small business accelerator" — which provides encouragement and expertise to entrepreneurs and startup operators.
Windham Grows is an offshoot of the Strolling of the Heifers, a fixture in downtown Brattleboro and a cause that's near to Sanders' heart. He played a role in getting the Stroll off the ground, and he has attended every year — "except when he was running for president," said Stroll founder Orly Munzing.
Sanders gave a longer version of his stump speech with the familiar talking points — wealth inequality, health care as a human right, free college tuition, the "obscene" cost of prescription drugs, the scourge of the Citizens United decision, the need for a $15 per hour minimum wage. And he slammed the "weakness" of the Democratic party for allowing people like Donald Trump and Paul Ryan to gain power.
Sanders speaking at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro
After his speech, Sanders was given a tote bag full of local food products. Then, several other speakers took the microphone to talk about Windham Grows.
Sanders left before the event ended — he had another meeting to get to.
His final event of the day was a full-bore town meeting at the Riverside Middle School in Springfield. The room was packed, and the audience boisterous. They got The Full Bernie — everything from health care to tax policy to education to climate change to what he called the worst aspect of the Trump administration: its "intentional decision to divide us, getting one group to hate another."
He also provided a fair bit of encouragement.
"The views you hold are not fringe," he said. "They are the majority views of the American people."
He continued, "This is no time for despair. Now is the time to be as smart and creative as you can be. We can win if we are gutsy and smart and willing to engage in the political process in a way we've never done before."
For a reporter who'd been following Sanders all day, the talking points were familiar. But he gave them the same emphasis and spirit in Springfield as he did ten hours earlier in St. Johnsbury. The man is a trooper, and he can sure work an audience.
He was not, however, available to the press. We got a two-minute encounter after the school assembly and that was about it. Sanders had a tight schedule and he rushed from event to event. No time for ink-stained wretches, nor even for their electronic colleagues.
But hey, at least he was in Vermont for an entire day, and held four public events in three cities. He didn't talk to us, but he made a couple thousand people very happy.
During his run for president and much of its aftermath, Sanders has been largely absent from these parts. One has to wonder if Thursday's whirlwind will turn out to be the opening sally of his as-yet-unofficial run for reelection in 2018.