A star-studded crowd joined Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the Burlington waterfront Thursday night to kick off a three-day conference hosted by the nonprofit Sanders Institute. Though many of the national progressive leaders taking part in the event were prominent supporters of the senator's 2016 presidential campaign, organizers said it was not related to a potential 2020 run.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, actress Susan Sarandon, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis were among those scheduled to address such topics as climate change, housing and criminal justice reform during the Sanders Institute Gathering.
Before the panel discussions, though, was a Thursday evening reception at the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain featuring motivational speaker Simon Sinek and a keynote address from Sanders himself. The senator's wife, Sanders Institute cofounder Jane O'Meara Sanders, also spoke. In attendance were actors John Cusack —wearing a jacket that said “good night white pride” on the back — and Danny Glover.
Dr. Cornel West gave a rousing introduction for Sanders and emphasized his dedication to disadvantaged people.
“We’re here to come together in such a way that the moral and spiritual dimension of who we are as human beings can spill over into politics to make this world, this nation, a better place in the face of all the ecological and the economic and the moral and the spiritual and various other kinds of catastrophes with which we must come to terms,” West said to a cheering audience.
Actor Danny Glover, right, is a speaker at the Sanders Institute Gathering.
Sanders’ speech covered a range of his own political priorities, from the plight of children starving in war-torn Yemen to voter suppression efforts in the U.S. He said progressive politicians can and should push “mainstream” media and politicians to focus on issues important to them. He cited the rising popularity of $15 minimum wage and universal health care proposals as successes.
“One of our jobs is to force discussion on issues that are not only right but in fact what the American people want,” he said.
Sanders said that even though Democrats failed to take over the U.S. Senate this month, their newfound majority in the House of Representatives would force Senate Republicans to publicly state their positions on key issues.
“For the last two years you had a Senate that was bad and a House that was even worse, so many of the [progressive] issues that we will be discussing this evening and this weekend never even surfaced,” Sanders said. “What is going to start happening now is legislation, and I hope it will be strong legislation, is going to start passing the House and coming to the Senate."
There, he continued, Republicans would have to take a stand on such issues as raising the minimum wage. "When that bill comes over [from the House], they're going to have to explain to the folks back home why [they] voted no," Sanders said.
While he didn’t address his own plans for 2020, Sanders said Democrats needed to reconnect with voters in middle America.
“We have got to make sure that the Democratic party is not just the party of the east coast and the west coast. It is a party of every state in this country,” he said. “Our job is to make sure that the issues that we deal with, that people understand they impact black families in New York City, they impact white families in Kansas and Latino families in Los Angeles."
While the senator's national profile certainly helped attract celebrity guests to the event, O’Meara Sanders said the conference was unrelated to her husband's potential ambitions.
“This has nothing to do with the campaign, or any campaign,” she said, though she acknowledged that the the founding of the Sanders Institute was “certainly inspired by Bernie’s campaign” in 2016.