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Sanders in Portland: America perched at 'pivotal moment'

Vermont senator says he's ahead of Trump in polls, and even with Hillary Clinton

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Supporters of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders packed the Moda Center Friday morning, cheering the Democratic presidential candidate.Bernie Sanders may face long odds in the battle for delegates, but that doesn’t seem to be fazing his legions of supporters in the Portland area.

Sanders attracted a crowd estimated at 11,500 Friday to the Moda Center, just five days after delivering the same stump speech across the river in Vancouver. His appearance came one day after a Bloomberg poll showed Sanders running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton nationally.

Sanders got a rock-star treatment at the Moda Center, despite mispronouncing the state — “Ore-gone” — where he has attracted some of his largest audiences on the campaign trail.

The democratic socialist from Vermont enthralled the largely youthful crowd by calling for universal health care, free college tuition at public colleges and universities, and other planks in his “political revolution.”

Providing free public college tuition today isn’t so radical, Sanders said, as they do it in Germany and Scandinavia. He likened it an earlier struggle to provide free kindergarten through 12th grade education, saying a college education now is as essential to advance in the workplace as a high school diploma in past generations. He vowed to pay for it with new revenue.

“We need to impose a tax on Wall Street speculators,” Sanders said. “The American people bailed out Wall Street. Now it is Wall Street’s turn to help out the middle class of this country.”

Sanders praised Oregon leaders for enacting a minimum wage that will rise as high as $14.75 and promised to seek a national minimum wage of $15. In response to Clinton’s and pundits’ claims that his proposals are radical or unrealistic, Sanders said nobody thought seven years ago that the minimum wage might rise to $15 so soon, in a campaign sparked by powerless fast-food workers. Few thought gay marriage would be won by now either, he said.

“Where we are right now is a pivotal moment in American history,” Sanders said. “If we do not allow the Trumps of the world to divide us up . . . there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”

Sanders bashed Clinton for accepting six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and others, for her associated Super PAC that accepted a $15 million Wall Street donation, and for supporting President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Sen. Bernie Sanders reacted to a small bird that landed on his podium during his speech at the Moda Center Friday morning.“We are listening to the American people, and not billionaire campaign contributors,” he said.

Sanders got a rousing response when he said he opposes “fracking” to extract oil and natural gas, and said Clinton supports it.

But he saved his biggest attacks for Donald Trump, increasingly seen as the likely Republican nominee for president.

“The American people understand that we are fighting to destroy ISIS, a terrorist organization, not Islam, a religion,” Sanders said.

At a time when many pundits have called the Democratic primary for Clinton, Sanders boasted that he beats Trump in poll after poll. “We win with overwhelming numbers,” he said.

Interviews with several Sanders supporters showed many share his optimism that the race is hardly over.

Several insisted their candidate has the momentum now to win many Western states and ultimately win the Democratic nomination. Many blamed a biased “corporate media” for depicting the race as all sewn up for Clinton,

“He’s going to win the popular vote and then the Democrats are going to have to decide,” predicted Jonathan Wilfong, who showed up at 5:30 a.m. to be one of the first in line at the Moda Center. “He’s not a corporate sellout,” said Wilfong, 40, a union longshoreman who came directly from his shift in Kalama, Wash.

'Future of the party'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Thousands of people lined up outside the Moda Center early Friday morning to get a chance to see presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders.For Portland, the crowd was surprising diverse, especially since people of color have been Clinton’s strong suit in other states. However, the crowd was heavily tilted toward younger voters.

“Think about the future of the Democratic Party if they alienate these young people,” said 60-year-old Wolf Segal, looking out at the crowd lined up after he showed up at 6 a.m.

Sanders boasted that he has collected almost 6 million individual donations, at an average sum of $27. The grass-roots nature of his campaign was evident Friday, with most of the signs on display made by hand. Volunteers carried signs saying “Ask me how to caucus,” to drum up voters in Saturday’s Washington Democratic caucuses, which Sanders was to win handily. One person waved a sign with information on how to volunteer for the campaign, calling out to people waiting in line: “Please take a picture; share this on social networks.” One woman, who said she had to go to work at 10 a.m. and couldn’t go inside, pedaled her bike to the Moda Center and offered small muffins to people waiting in line, with blue Bs in icing on the top.

Some attendees were Sanders diehards familiar with his long career and consistently progressive stances. Others came along to learn more about him, including Kebret Ketema, an 18-year-old Westview High School student from Beaverton. Her dad is for Clinton, but she’s leaning toward Sanders. Ketema, whose parents are from Eritrea in East Africa, brought along her friend Maame Banfuo, whose parents are from Ghana in West Africa. Banfuo said her interest in the race was piqued by racist comments she heard from Trump. “That’s puts me in jeopardy,” she said, “and my parents in jeopardy.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Supporters clamor to shake hands with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders after his speech at the Moda Center Friday morning.Eric Cansler, 27, said he voted Libertarian in the last election, but likes what he hears from Sanders. How does he square the small-government philosophy of Libertarians with Sanders, who advocates a larger role for government in health care, college financing and other policies?

“What Bernie promises is government helping us help ourselves,” Cansler said. “It teaches us to think and act for ourselves.”

In a totally unscientific sample of Sanders supporters Friday, it appears Clinton has a steep challenge to win their votes if she goes on to win the nomination.

Cansler said he’d prefer Trump to Clinton.

Segal said he’d enter Sanders’ name as a write-in vote, and would organize others to do the same.

Eileen Ryan, 55, who, like Sanders, hails from Brooklyn, said she’d have to think long and hard about casting her vote if Sanders doesn’t win. “I’m really torn,” she said about the prospect of voting for Clinton.

Abraham Olmos, 26, whose parents are from Panama, grudgingly conceded he’d support Clinton if Sanders doesn’t win. “Unfortunately, I would support her,” he said.

Though Sanders didn’t seek to customize his speech for Portland, he did get his own “Portlandia” moment. At one point, the crowd stopped paying attention to him to follow the flight of a small bird fluttering around where the Trail Blazers hold court.

“I think this bird doesn’t vote,” he joked, trying to win the audience’s attention again. But then, as if on cue, the bird alighted on the podium inches from Sanders. It remained there awhile, oblivious to the 11,500 sets of eyes on it.

“I think there may be some symbolism here,” Sanders said. Think of the bird as a dove, he said, asking for peace in the world.

Or, as we say in Portland, put a bird on it.

Better yet, put a Bern on it.

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