By Enrica Nicoli Aldini
DAVENPORT, Iowa – Bernie Sanders is tailgating Hillary Clinton in Iowa. With only four points separating the Democratic frontrunners, the Vermont senator is working to overtake the former secretary of state in the final days before the Iowa caucuses.
Tapping into his ambitions for a political revolution in America, he is casting himself as the non-establishment Democratic candidate who would redistribute the country’s income to benefit the middle and working classes, reform the criminal justice system and reduce the cost of education and health care.
“When we talk about the anger that’s going on in America, it is the fact that ordinary people today are working longer hours for low wages and yet they’ve been seeing that most of the new income and wealth go to the top one percent,” he told a crowd that filled the Danceland Ballroom on Friday in Davenport, Iowa’s third-largest city. “And whether the establishment likes it or not, we are saying enough is enough, that’s going to change.”
Money and the economy formed the bulk of Sanders’ speech, intersecting with his positions on education and criminal justice as he introduced plans to reduce incarceration and increase college access for people without deep pockets.
Sanders lamented “off-the-chart youth unemployment,” especially among Latinos and African-Americans, calling it “the tragedy that nobody tells you about.” And he called a jail and prison population of 2.2 million “perhaps an even greater tragedy.”
“You want a radical idea?” Sanders asked wryly. “How about investing in jobs and education for our kids instead of jail and incarceration?”
Rethinking drug and substance abuse as a health issue instead of a criminal issue would help lower the number of inmates across the country, Sanders said. He called for lifting the federal ban on marijuana and condemned what he believes is an inherently racist and unequal system of arrests and detention.
While young African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession and have their records stained forever, he said, Wall Street executives avoid prosecution and only pay fines, despite “massively defrauding the American people and helping to create the worst recession since the Great Depression.”
Turning to education, Sanders described supporters plagued by student debt and spoke at length about his ambitious plans to make tuition free at public colleges and universities. To finance this plan, which would cost $75 billion, a Sanders administration would impose a tax on Wall Street speculation, the senator explained. Only an educated workforce, he said, will enable the nation’s economic growth.
“Shamefully, many kids in our country are smart but can’t go to college because their families don’t have the money,” Sanders said. “Not only is this unfair to the kids, it’s also dumb for the future of our economy.”
To reiterate his image as the champion of middle-class families, Sanders outlined his plans to expand the Affordable Care Act to insure a greater number of families. “The middle class families will save thousands of dollars a year,” he said.
He also discussed his proposal to pass a three-month paid family leave. He called the current two-week leave period afforded to most families “an international embarrassment for America.”
Sanders did not spare his intra-party rival Clinton from a series of punches about how he has been catching up in the polls, finding himself in a near-tie. He reminded the audience that the Democratic Party historically wins elections when voter turnout is high. He called on his younger supporters to caucus on Monday, telling them they could change the outcome of the caucuses.
“If thousands of people who were not previously involved in the caucuses come out on Monday, we win. If there is a low voter turnout, we lose,” he said. He joked that the audience should do some “short-term kidnapping of people,” to bring friends and relatives to the caucuses. “The entire country will be looking at whether or not the state of Iowa is prepared to lead this country forward in a political revolution which transforms America.”
While the revolutionary component rings a bell with Sanders supporters across the demographic board, much of the enthusiasm at the Davenport rally came from the young people in the audience, the core of the senator’s supporters.
Kerry Peters, a 24-year-old graduate student in Davenport, admires the fact that Sanders is funding his campaign through small contributions, while Clinton is raising large sums from political action committees.
“He believes that everyone can come together and do their small bit,” she said. “I just donated $25, for example.”
Davenport-native Marilyn Linhart said what draws her to Sanders is that “he is worried about the people, and he wants all of us to succeed and be better.” Jason Block, 28, said the Vermont senator is the only candidate who talks about issues that unite the country, while everyone else on the campaign trail is being divisive.
“Do you feel the Bern?” he asked, enthusiastically repeating one of Sanders’ campaign mottos as he stood in line for the rally. Block took a leave from work and traveled from Colorado Springs, Colo., to help canvass for Sanders in Iowa.
“Feeling the Bern means acknowledging that income inequality exists and that it affects everything, like gender and race,” he said. “Income inequality is the underlying issue in this country.”
What makes his campaign different and what makes it fresh, Sanders said, is the acknowledgement that inequality exists – and can be reduced.
“What this campaign is about is telling it like it is. And for that, we got the establishment a little bit nervous,” he said. “We’re not playing by their old rules. We are calling for a political revolution.”