Two days before Saturday’s state Democratic caucuses, thousands cheered presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a Yakima rally, embracing his calls for immigration reform, Native American rights, entitlement programs and free college education.
“A country is judged not by how many millionaires and billionaires it has. It is judged by how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us,” Sanders said to raucous applause during a 45-minute speech before thousands who filled the Yakima Valley SunDome.
“As people who were born in America, and people who immigrated, gay or straight, black or white, if we stand together there is nothing we cannot accomplish,” Sanders said.
SunDome officials deferred crowd estimates to the Sanders campaign, which placed attendance at slightly more than 7,000. They came from the Lower Valley, from the Tri-Cities, from Central and Eastern Oregon.
They wore their #FeelTheBern T-shirts and their Unidos Con Bernie stickers. They brought their friends, their parents, their children.
They stood for hours in a line that snaked in and around State Fair Park, waiting for a glimpse of history in the making as the first presidential candidate to visit in 17 years headed to Yakima.
“I always vote, but this is the first time I’ve ever been active,” said 47-year-old Thor Hanson, a cement mason and union finisher from the Tri-Cities. “I’m going to go to the caucus, all of that.”
Sanders said he would work to pass comprehensive immigration reform in Congress that includes a path to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented immigrants. If he can’t do it that way, he would use executive orders similar to what President Barack Obama has done to push the issue.
“We have got to stop the exploitation of undocumented people that is taking place today,” Sanders said. “Immigration reform is uniting families, not dividing families.”
Before the rally, Sanders met privately with some local leaders in the Latino and Yakama tribal communities. He said the federal government has for generations ignored the treaty rights of American Indians.
“If I am elected president there will be a new relationship with the Native American community,” Sanders said.
On worker pay, Sanders pointed to success in Seattle and SeaTac in pushing the minimum wage to $15 per hour. He said that should be the national standard.
“If someone is working 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty,” Sanders said.
Sanders also said college students “should not be financially crippled for decades” for trying to learn and build careers.
Before taking the stage, the U.S. senator from Vermont was introduced by Yakima County Democrats Chairwoman Susan Palmer, who endorsed him on stage. Palmer also spoke about Yakima electing its first three Latino members in 2015, which led to wild applause.
Some speculated whether the successful lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union to change the city’s election system to district voting was the impetus for Sanders’ visit. But regional campaign spokesman Warren Gill said in a text message that the visit was more about “not taking any region, voter for granted.”
“I think it’s more about bringing Bernie’s message to people across the state,” Gill wrote.
Sanders has done well in caucus states and has won 11 primaries in all. Still, he trails his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by more than 300 delegates from those primaries and by hundreds more in terms of independent “superdelegates” who have pledged to support her at the Democratic National Convention.
The Clinton campaign also has an organizer and volunteers on the ground in Yakima, but if Thursday’s rally is any indication, Sanders will do well here among Democrats.
Stephanie Formas, the state spokeswoman for the Clinton campaign, said in an email that the campaign is working hard to secure caucus-goers and delegates across the state as Democrats head into their caucuses Saturday.
“Our volunteers and supporters have been knocking on doors and hitting the phones to share Hillary Clinton’s plans to raise the minimum wage, protect women’s access to health care, and stand with Washington’s small businesses and workers,” Formas said.
Sanders mentioned Clinton once during the speech, eliciting loud boos from the audience — which reflected a concern some have about divisions in the party going forward once a nominee is chosen.
Sanders spoke of Clinton only in terms of electability and poll numbers. He said recent polls show him trouncing Republican challengers such as Donald Trump by as much as 20 percentage points while Clinton’s numbers are closer to Republican rivals.
In addition to Washington, caucuses will also be held in Alaska and Hawaii on Saturday. No independent polls have recently been conducted in any of the states.
Although there’s little to go on, many of those following the elections believe Sanders is likely to win all three. Sanders won caucuses in Utah and Idaho last week by double digits over Clinton.
“If we can do well here in Washington and Hawaii and Alaska, we have a road to victory,” Sanders said.
Democratic caucuses set for March 26
Democrats will meet in five locations throughout the Mid-Columbia on March 26 as part of the statewide Democratic caucuses.
Benton County Democrats will be at Kennewick, Southridge and Richland high schools, as well as the Prosser PUD office in Prosser. Franklin County Democrats will be at the Plumbers & Pipefitters union hall at 1328 N. Road 28 in Pasco.
Delegates for each county’s respective Democratic convention will be selected at the caucuses. The meetings start at 10 a.m. and will go as long as needed but are generally expected to end at noon or 1 p.m.
Voters in Ice Harbor and Burbank precincts will need to caucus from 10 a.m. to noon March 26 in Walla Walla County at College Place High School, 1755 S. College Ave.
Those interested in finding their caucus location and preregistering for the event should go online to wa-democrats.org.