Bernie Sanders' Day in West Virginia Reflects His Campaign in a Nutshell

The senator continues to shine a light on struggling communities like these.

May 6, 2016, 12:25 PM

MORGANTOWN, W.V.— -- Bernie Sanders began his Thursday in one of the poorest, rural communities in America. “This isn’t a political rally,” he said, kicking off the event at a food bank in Kimball, West Virginia.

He called the meeting an “informal discussion” on poverty, and during the 90-minute town hall-style conversation, he did not mention rival Hillary Clinton once by name. He stuck to issues central to his campaign: inequality, wages, health care and extreme hardships felt by many across the country.

More than nine hours and 225 miles later, the Vermont senator, ended the long day in the state with a more typical Sanders-style rally, full of blue “Bernie 2016” signs, rock music and a huge “Future to Believe In” banner behind his stage. There, he framed a good portion of his remarks around the differences between him and the front-running Democratic primary opponent, and mentioned her, by name, a lot.

In many ways, the day was Sanders’ campaign in a nutshell. Here’s why:

During the forum on poverty, Sanders, 74, offered no nuanced policy prescriptions, but instead returned over and over to his got-to platform: raise the minimum wage, end trade deals, institute a single-payer health care and make college tuition free. When pressed about how to bring jobs to the community or fight opioid abuse, which has ravaged the area, he gave only broad lines about investing money from the federal government and “changing our national priorities.”

When women in the room grew tearful talking about battling drug addiction or the stress of poverty, the senator, who is known for being a little brusque, thanked them for their “courage” and moved on, hardly attempting to connect with folks on a personal level in a way many politicians might have done.

Yet those in the room seemed to love him. They liked his anger, his outrage at the injustices they face. He spoke in simple terms.

“Everything is related to everybody else,” he said. “You are not going to get a handle on the crime problem, unless you get a handle on the drug problem. You’re not going to get a handle on the problem, unless we get to some economic issues and deal with the despair and hopelessness that a lot of people are feeling.”

Struggling Americans Never Far Away

With boarded-up houses, broken windows, abandoned schools, closed coal mines and, maybe most shocking of all, only pieces of a functioning sewage system, towns here in McDowell County, like Kimball, are clearly hurting. It’s no surprise, then, that Sanders, with the mantle he now enjoys, continues to shine a light whenever he can.

In McDowell County, with about 20,000 residents, 20.7 percent of households earn less than $10,000 a year, according to U.S. Census data. More than 52 percent make less than $25,000 a year. What’s more, less than 5 percent of residents have a college degree.

Sanders’ own path to White House may be mostly closed, but the senator does have a point: there’s a lot of work to do for whoever gets there.

In joining the race, and now staying in the race, Sanders has pushed the conversation and helped expose the extent to which many Americans are struggling.

PHOTO: Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a town hall campaign event at the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank in Welch, West Virginia, May 5, 2016.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a town hall campaign event at the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank in Welch, West Virginia, May 5, 2016.
Chris Tilley/Reuters

'Anybody Here Been to Dinner Lately for $350,000 a Couple?'

Sanders managed to keep his morning event mostly apolitical, as he said he would. His only reference to Clinton was a veiled one, but it notably focused on the singular issue most important to him, which he says affects everything else, which he will likely continue to talk about in connection to her campaign: campaign finance.

“The problem is the policies that take place in Washington every single day are policies designed to help wealthy campaign contributors,” he said. “People who go to dinners for $350,000 a couple. Anybody here been to dinner lately for $350,000 a couple making a campaign contribution? Anyone give a million into a super PAC lately? That’s another world. But that’s the world of Wall Street and big-money interest.”

Then, Sanders drove over two hours to an afternoon rally in the middle of the state, where he delivered his usual stump speech, again making mention of Clinton.

But just when a fan (or reporter) might have wondered whether it was a trend, whether this were a sign of a more mellow Sanders, the senator came out onstage for his third and final event and laid into the former secretary of state on a number of issues, including her Wall Street speeches and her Senate vote to authorize the Iraq War. It was a reminder that, for him, the primary fight is not over.

The senator may be trailing Clinton by over 800 delegates, but one more fact lingers: He still draws impressive crowds. In Morgantown, West Virginia, population 30,000, where he capped his day, for instance, nearly 3,200 came out to hear him speak.

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