Ninety minutes before the scheduled start of Bernie Sanders’s speech on the night of Sunday July 19, a 500-person-long line snaked around the arena, in 38°C heat – and in Texas.
The Democratic presidential hopeful’s fans showed up long before the doors opened and bellowed their approval once inside. He spoke for more than an hour in front of 5 000 people, concluding a weekend in which he addressed about 25 000 in Arizona and Texas and showed that Republican-dominated states are not immune to Berniemania.
The independent Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist attracted more than 8 000 people to a rally in Dallas earlier in the day and 11 000 in Phoenix on Saturday, the highest turnout of his campaign.
Like his speech at the Phoenix Convention Centre, the Houston rally was moved to a larger venue: an 8 000-capacity basketball arena at the University of Houston. A speech by Hillary Clinton last month at Texas Southern University, about a kilometre away, drew an attendance of 1 000 on a weekday afternoon.
Biting into Clinton’s lead
Other important numbers – the polls – are less favourable to Sanders. A Real Clear Politics poll average shows him in second with 16.3%, and Clinton the frontrunner with 56.8%. Still, his support is growing as he is biting into Clinton’s commanding lead and his campaign office said earlier this month that it has raised $15-million.
Some in the audience on Sunday waved posters with slogans such as “Bernie Sanders 2016, Not For Sale” and “Feel The Bern”. While it was a young crowd overall – especially the 200 or so in the mosh pit in front of the stage – there was a wide range of ages.
“I didn’t figure he would spend much time here in Texas, this bastion of right-wing insanity,” said Eugene Hayman (61). “I don’t know if Bernie has a chance of winning or not but he’s pulling the debate back from the extreme right, so I would love to see him win.”
Hayman said his “dream match-up” would be Donald Trump versus Sanders – but “I like Hillary okay”.
Texas’s largest urban areas are bluer than the state’s reputation suggests. Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker, is a Democrat. While Mitt Romney won 57% of the vote statewide in 2012 and Barack Obama 41%, the president carried Harris County, which includes Houston, by 0.1%. He also beat Romney in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin.
Kenny Jones, of Houstonians for Bernie Sanders 2016, said the group started with 10 people and now has a hundred.
“Something is happening out here. This is blowing me away, quite frankly. Houston is such a conservative town,” the 58-year-old schoolteacher said as he handed out fliers urging voters to “Join the Revolution”. Jones said he has “done left-progressive organising in Houston before, it’s very difficult. This is not difficult.”
He believed Sanders was resonating because he is addressing core but often overshadowed issues such as jobs, healthcare, education and climate change.
Backed by unions
“There’s something about him. He doesn’t seem to be doing a political dance,” Jones said, arguing that Sanders is backed by unions while Clinton is compromised because her campaign is funded by big corporations and so is in thrall to their interests.
“I like secretary Clinton, I respect her a great deal, but she’s dancing the wrong dance. There’s an old Texas saying: you dance with the one that brung ya.”
Initially sounding hoarse, the 73-year-old started his speech saying that he has often been asked: “Why in God’s name would you come to Texas?”
He added: “I do know that this is a conservative Republican state and that is exactly why I am here today. Today it is a conservative Republican state, but that doesn’t mean it will be conservative Republican tomorrow.
“The reason I am here and the reason next month I’m going to be going to Alabama, Mississippi, to some very conservative states, is for a couple of reasons. First of all, in my view, it is wrong for the Democratic Party to surrender half of the states in America. The national Democratic Party must establish a 50-state strategy including the state of Texas and start running the Republicans on the defensive.”
He said that, given the endemic poverty and other social problems in the South, it would be wrong for the Democratic Party to “turn your back on some of the poorest states in America … We are not going to abandon those people.”
In Houston, Sanders named African-Americans who have died during encounters with police – “Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and many others” – and said, to a deafening cheer, that officers should be held accountable if they break the law.
He also addressed many of his key themes: wealth and income inequality, incarceration rates, infrastructure, campaign finance reform, a route to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, free tuition in public colleges, the environment and the evils of Wall Street.
“This campaign is sending a message to the billionaire class, and that message is – you can’t have it all,” he said. “The only way we bring about real change is to create a political revolution where millions of people stand together and say loudly and clearly that this country belongs to all of us.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015