For a time it looked like Bernie Sanders might not make it through his stump speech in Chicago on Monday. The white-haired 73-year old Vermont senator had endured a sweaty appearance on a sunny soapbox stage at the Iowa State Fair the day before, and it showed. He sauntered over to the podium under the purple glow of lights at the Park West and almost immediately hunched over the wooden stand for support, his loose-fitting suit nearly swallowing him whole. He frequently wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and when delivering his remarks croaked out the words between sips of bottled water.
But as if feeding off the energy of his own fiery message, Sanders managed to deliver an entire hour’s worth of rhetorical red meat for the several hundred supporters who’d paid $50 to $2,500 to see his first appearance in Chicago since announcing his presidential run this spring, promising to address issues of racial justice, climate change, mass incarceration, and the growing gap between rich and poor, with plenty of invective against his favorite targets—greedy corporations and Wall Street.
“I don’t believe in the agenda of corporate America. I don’t believe in the agenda of the billionaire class, and I don’t want their money,” he growled while the transfixed crowd—some of them holding “Bernie for President” signs or wearing “Feel the Bern” pins—roared in approval.
Sanders has very little in common with Chicago’s favorite son, Barack Obama, the man he wants to replace in the White House. He isn’t handsome or telegenic (“He just does not look like a president” commented someone on the live video stream I was hosting via Periscope), and his speeches don’t soar, they bite. He’s the cranky Jewish uncle—Larry David minus the sense of humor. The event’s opening speakers, Chicago alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and former mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, delivered a few scattered laugh lines, but the closest thing for Sanders was a scathingly sarcastic remark about America’s hypocritical justice system.
“When we talk and use words like greed, fraud, dishonesty, and arrogance, these are just a few of the adjectives to describe Wall Street,” he said. “I find it very interesting that some kid who gets picked up for smoking marijuana can have an arrest record, but the crooks who destroyed our economy don’t.”
Likewise, he doesn’t have Obama’s PR-friendly persona and doesn’t indulge the media’s more facile inclinations. When a reporter from the New York Times asked him about coverage of his hair compared to that of Hillary Clinton’s, he incredulously responded “Is that what you’re asking?” before going on to chide her, “I am running for president of the United States on serious issues, OK? Do you have serious questions?”
The DIY raggedness of Sanders’s event in Lincoln Park stands in sharp contrast to the current president’s $33,000-a-person fund-raisers in the posh mansions of Hollywood’s A-listers. I tried to register for press credentials on Sanders’s campaign site and the website crashed. When I arrived at Park West, I told a Sanders staffer I was with the Reader and she didn’t ask for proof, but simply wrote my name in pencil on a white piece of paper and ushered me in. No one seemed to know whether there was Wi-Fi—considered standard for such events.
A presidential fund-raiser conjures images of expensive bottles of champagne popped by well-heeled men wearing black ties, but the only suit I spotted in the crowd of hundreds of supporters was worn by a TV newsman, and I witnessed people sipping cheap domestic beer instead of bottles of bubbly. Many of the supporters I chatted with were college students dressed like they’d planned to attend the kind of concert that usually takes place in the intimate theater instead of a presidential fund-raiser.
Katherine Esposito and sisters Sarah and Jessica Walter said they paid the minimum of $50 to attend—a significant chunk of change for college students—because his ideas inspired them.
“It’s the first time in my entire life I’ve ever been excited about a political campaign,” said Esposito. “I liked Obama, but he didn’t really grab me like this. I’m pumped.”
But the question remains whether the presidential campaign equivalent of an underground punk-rock show can actually compete on the big stage of American politics with the exceedingly well-funded likes of Hillary Clinton and all the billionaire-backed Republican candidates. Just ask the man who introduced Sanders, Chuy Garcia, who fell way short in his own grassroots efforts to unseat Rahm Emanuel as Chicago’s mayor.
Even Sanders seemed to acknowledge the extreme uphill challenge he faced, saying that what the country needed is a “political revolution.” Could this unlikely avowed socialist somehow be the one to help lead us there?