Pittsburgh: Bernie Sanders for President: Yes, He Could!

Pia Colucci, right, of Oakland waits for Bernie Sanders to begin speaking during a telecast broadcasted at a meet-up held in Lawrenceville on Wednesday. Supporters of the Democratic presidential hopeful gathered across the country to watch the telecast. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

By Tony Norman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 31, 2015 – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has more than a few fans in Pittsburgh, judging by the turnout for his first televised meet-up since his poll numbers began shifting in a positive direction nationally. The muggy Wednesday evening air did its best to discourage a line from forming outside the Spirit Lounge on 51st Street in Lawrenceville, but 350 supporters squeezed into the former Moose Lodge that had once been the home to many a studio ’rasslin’ night.

After ponying up the suggested $5 donation at the door, the cross-generational crowd of Democrats and fellow travelers jockeyed for the best vantage point in front of a projection screen on the east end of the hall. Mr. Sanders would televise his remarks to 3,100 similar gatherings across the country from an apartment in Washington, D.C., shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern time.

According to organizers, Mr. Sanders would be addressing as many as 100,000 supporters nationwide — a number that should concern the complacent Democratic establishment, even though the insurgent candidate trails former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by as much as 40 points in some polls.

Still, Bernie Sanders has roughly the same level of name recognition that Sen. Barack Obama had at this point in his underdog campaign against Mrs. Clinton. Unlike Mr. Obama, who was still trying to justify his candidacy to skeptical black leaders already committed to Mrs. Clinton in the summer of 2007, Mr. Sanders is drawing more energetic and enthusiastic crowds than Mrs. Clinton — a sign that the party’s progressive and liberal base is hungry for something it isn’t getting from its presumptive front-runner.

There is still time for Mrs. Clinton to ignite the passion of grass-roots Democrats, of course, but Bernie Sanders is on fire right now in ways no other candidate for the nomination can remotely claim. When he finally appeared on screen to make his speech, there was a collective roar from the crowd that felt almost primal — a mix of sweat, genuine giddiness and exasperation that it has taken so long for a candidate who shares their deepest convictions and disappointment with the status quo to finally emerge.

Technical difficulties with the live stream signal on Pittsburgh’s end prevented him from being heard at first, but when his Brooklyn-forged accent finally broke through the buffering silence, the crowd was primed to hear the candidate declare his allegiance to their issues and priorities.

“The American people are saying loudly and clearly — enough is enough,” Mr. Sanders said after ticking off a series of priorities that would occupy his days in the White House. The candidate would return to this mantra many times after promising to reverse 40 years of middle-class decline and income inequality, raising the minimum wage, affordable college education and combating the “real unemployment rate” he insisted was over 10 percent.

“Maybe, just maybe, instead of higher rates of incarceration,” he said referencing minority youth, “we could provide them with education and jobs.” In a tip-of-the-hat to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that heckled him a week earlier, Mr. Sanders pledged to fight against institutional racism. Just as he was beginning say something about instituting a campaign finance system that didn’t reward corporate bribery, Mr. Sanders’ image froze on the screen, prompting someone in the crowd to shout: “It’s a conspiracy!”

Everybody laughed. Meanwhile, the organizers frantically tried to stop the buffering from undermining the evening’s No. 1 intent: generate commitments to work on the Sanders campaign and recruit others. The event’s technicians restored the signal only to watch as it got sluggish and stalled again minutes later. I’m sure the irony was not lost on the tech-savvy crowd as they shouted out possible fixes. Still, the crowd had already gotten the gist of the speech: Bernie Sanders was their man — for now.

“It’s more intense compared to even half a month ago,” said Josh Sickels, one of the Pittsburgh for Bernie meet-up organizers and the administrator of the campaign’s local Facebook page. Mr. Sickels said the Spirit Lounge meet-up tripled the size of the first meet-up at Schenley Plaza. “My friend Alex Austin, who helps me organize, held an event at Pitt and over 100 showed up there. I think there were 20 separate events in Allegheny County alone.”

Mr. Sickels said the campaign’s local Facebook page is flooded with people asking how they can help. “We are seeing a lot of people who are for the first time in their lives getting involved in the political process because of Bernie Sanders,” he said.

The Democrats are a long way from deciding who their standard bearer will be in 2016, but if enthusiasm for Mr. Sanders continues to build in places like Pittsburgh, the race for the White House could look far different than anyone ever imagined a year ago.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631, Twitter @TonyNormanPG.