Democratic Party rides coattails of Bernie Sanders' popularity

PHOTO: In this April 17, 2017, photo former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets the crowd at a packed State Theater at the "Come Together and Fight Back" tour in Portland, Maine. PlayBrianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via AP
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Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders headed to Louisville, Kentucky, on Tuesday night for the second stop of their weeklong "Come Together and Fight Back" tour.

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The evening was billed as a joint event, but it was evident from attendees that Sanders was the main draw. Three hours before it kicked off, for example, many "Feel the Bern" T-shirt-wearing folks had lined up outside the venue, the Louisville Palace.

Joanie Olin from Louisville, who said Sanders was "her man" during the presidential campaign, said Tuesday's event was "about boasting Bernie" and "giving him more airtime ... letting people know that we haven't just laid down because the Trumpster won."

Jane Peters, a retired education official, echoed Olin's sentiments. "I came out in support of Bernie," she said. "He has to be a leader. We need a leader badly, and I think he is the one."

Rally attendee Melinda Feldman said she supported Hillary Clinton in the primary race but she was turning to Sanders for direction and ideas for moving forward. "We just want to hear what Bernie has to say and how we can go forward with the Democratic Party, how we can get more people elected to our side of the issues," she told ABC News before the event. "We are all sort of hanging in limbo, not really knowing what to do, and I am hoping he can give us some clues."

After the November election, voters wondered if the Democratic Party would embrace Sanders and his fiery brand of progressive politics. During the presidential primaries, Sanders and his team were often pitted against the party apparatus. He ran in part on a platform calling for major changes to the party's policies, operations and structure, and the fighting between his team and the party's top brass often boiled over.

Sanders' team sued the Democratic National Committee over voter rolls, and his campaign manager called for the party chairwoman at the time to resign. When he was unable to make inroads with the party's superdelegates, he and his faithful talked about the "rigged" party system, and after he endorsed Hillary Clinton and campaigned on her behalf, it was almost always on the party's terms.

But now he and his team are working closely with the newly elected Perez, allowing him and local Democrats to appear before crowds that only Sanders can draw — and deciding on the look and feel of events around the country.

The packed rally Tuesday night was just the second that Sanders and Perez have scheduled together this week in battleground and red states across the country, including Texas, Nevada, Nebraska and Utah. Sanders' staff organized much of the trip, down to the music.

Sanders still does not call himself a Democrat. During an interview with ABC News before the rally Tuesday night, he proudly said he was "the longest-serving independent senator in U.S. history."

He said his road trip this week with Perez was not about sending a message of unity but rather about focusing attention on the issues and encouraging voter participation. "It's not about a message. What I'm trying to do — and I've been doing this for a number of years in a variety of ways — is to revitalize American democracy, to create a political system that is not dominated by billionaires and large corporations but bring working people into the political process.

"We're trying to revitalize American democracy and rebuild the Democratic Party, making the Democratic Party into a grass-roots party, in which decisions go from bottom on up and not the other way around."

Still he said he is "thrilled" that the party is making some of the changes.

“We are seeing a lot more people involved in the political process," he said. "We're seeing a lot more people in general getting involved in the political process, and I think that is a good thing."

During interviews with people in the crowd Tuesday, it was clear there is still a lot of skepticism about the Democratic Party among Sanders' supporters. Perez endured occasional boos from the crowd as he introduced the senator but seemed to earn points in the room when he veered from bashing President Donald Trump and instead listed what he saw as the values of the Democratic Party, including support of labor unions, universal health care, public education and renewable energy initiatives.

Perez praised Sanders' ability to energize voters. Sanders did not shy away from discussing reforms he still thinks the party needs to make.

"We need to transform the Democratic Party," he told the crowd, slipping into familiar lines from the campaign. "We need to make the Democratic Party not just a party of the East Coast and the West Coast but a party for all 50 states."

A part of the opening act, local Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth seemed liberated and encouraged by the space to stand with and openly agree with Sanders. He talked about how he too supports a single-payer, Medicare-for-all-style health care system. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

"I am really glad you reacted like that way," he said when the cheering died down. "I think it is the single biggest electoral advantage we would have in next year's election if we as a party embraced single-payer."