Bernie Sanders draws crowd in Northern Virginia

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) participated in the public policy forum “Rebooting Our Policy Agenda to Reclaim the American Dream” on July 9 in Arlington.Photo by Josh Marks
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) participated in the public policy forum “Rebooting Our Policy Agenda to Reclaim the American Dream” on July 9 in Arlington.
Photo by Josh Marks

The Bernie Sanders show arrived in Arlington as the unexpected rock star of the 2016 presidential race was greeted by chants of “Bernie!” from hundreds of supporters who came to hear the Vermont senator.

The July 9 event, titled Rebooting Our Policy Agenda to Reclaim the American Dream, was billed as a public policy forum and not a campaign rally. But when Sanders started railing against the “billionaire class,” many in the crowd got out of their seats and roared their approval.

The self-described democratic socialist is among five declared Democratic candidates for the White House. Hillary Clinton is leading former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chaffee, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, Sanders and former Virginia senator Jim Webb in the polls.

Sanders was joined at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association building on Wilson Boulevard by Rep. Don Beyer, a Northern Virginia Democrat whose district includes Arlington and a Clinton supporter. They were invited to speak as members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Jewish Northern Virginians came to see what all the buzz was about.

“I’m really excited about the issues that Bernie Sanders is bringing to the forefront, and I want him to help ignite people to create more change,” said Falls Church City resident Debra Roth.

“I’m excited to hear what the reboot of the American dream is all about,” said Del. Marcus Simon, a Falls Church Democrat. “I suspect that he and I have a lot of ideas and values in common about restoring the American dream for working families here and so I hope to learn a lot from him.”

In his opening remarks, Sanders took a shot at Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, accusing him of being beholden to billionaire donors. Bush’s Right to Rise Super PAC raised more than $100 million in the first six months of this year.

“It is no accident that Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates who take huge amounts of money from the wealthy and the powerful come up with an agenda that represents the wealthy and the powerful,” said Sanders.

Sanders put forth his policy proposals at the event: single payer health care; making public colleges and universities in America tuition free; raising the minimum wage; paid family medical leave; paid sick days; paid vacation; public funding of elections; a jobs program to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure; and fighting climate change by lessening the country’s dependence on fossil fuels and investing in sustainable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal.

Both Sanders and Beyer were challenged on some of their positions during the question and answer session.

Beyer was heckled when he attempted to explain why he supports President Barack Obama’s trade policy, which included voting for Trade Promotion Authority that allows the president to negotiate trade deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. Sanders opposes TPP.

Beyer defended his position, saying that TPP “is the most progressive trade agreement in American history. It will have the highest labor and environmental standards ever and it will fix many of the things that were wrong with NAFTA and CAFTA.”

A woman from the Arlington chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America put Sanders on the defensive for casting a vote to prevent gun manufacturers from being sued.

He defended his vote, saying it didn’t make sense to blame the company if someone steals a weapon and commits a crime. He also said he has made some difficult votes in favor of tighter gun safety regulations, including for the assault weapon ban, instant background checks and closing the gun show loophole.

While Sanders repeatedly has said that bridging the urban-rural divide when it comes to guns is the only way to make progress on gun violence prevention policies, his mixed record on gun control could cost him Democratic voters.

One place where he is not picking up Democratic support is in the Senate.

“No,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Politico Monday when asked if he would consider supporting his Senate colleague. “I’m totally behind Hillary.”

The same goes for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. “I just don’t believe that someone who is a self-described socialist is going to be elected to be president of the United States,” she was quoted as saying.

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UPDATE: A correction was made to this story on July 15 to reflect that the Congressional Progressive Caucus did not sponsor the event. The host sponsor was the National Affairs Committee of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. There were also 13 Democratic and labor groups that cosponsored

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