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Sanders, Omar push ‘working class’ politics at Minneapolis rally

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A man and a woman lift their hands in the air.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar raise their hands on stage during a rally inside of Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 10:55 p.m.

As he looks to recapture some of his 2016 magic in Minnesota, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders is showcasing his support from a politician barely on the political scene back then.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar joined Sanders on stage Sunday night for a campaign rally at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, before a raucous crowd of several thousand supporters.

Sanders highlighted his working relationship with Omar and their shared liberal politics including the Green New Deal. The self-described Democratic socialist continued his message of social inclusion, justice and economic equality.

“What we are building is a multi-racial, multi-generational, working-class movement,” Sanders told the crowd. “We are tired of the exploitation of working people of this country.”

People reach out to shake hands with Sanders.
Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking in Williams Arena.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The University of Minnesota’s basketball arena with its distinctive raised court wasn’t full. But it was still rocking — thanks in part to a warm-up set by Prince’s former band, the New Power Generation.

Another “new power” in the program was Omar, who has gained national stature as a Somali refugee elected to Congress last year. She has aligned with other outspoken progressive congresswomen to form the “Squad.” That foursome is a rich target of President Trump, who once said Omar and the others should “go back” to where they came from.

At Sunday's rally, Omar said such efforts to sow division must end.

“Virtually every word out of his mouth is an attack on the very values and ideals that make this country a beacon of hope for me and the people around the world," she said of Trump.

She says Sanders would bring a course correction.

“I am beyond honored and excited for a president who will fight against western imperialism and fight for a just world.”

Omar said Sanders “has always been steadfast in his principles ... ones that are being finally accepted now. For a long time Bernie was underestimated. His ideals weren't taken seriously by the establishment because he refused to fall in line and conform to the pressures in Washington. …

“In the sea of corruption, he continuously has stood for justice and never bowed down to special interests. That's the resolve we need in a president.”

Clasping Omar's hand as he took the stage, Sanders devoted a slice of his 55-minute remarks to a defense of Omar, whom he argued has been vilified by Trump and others because she is a refugee and a Muslim. 

"They thrive on division. They thrive on hatred. They thrive on pitting people against one another who come from different places or who worship God differently," he said of Omar's critics.

Sanders made a call for a cultural healing. But he said his campaign is also built around a socioeconomic reckoning that would require the rich to pay more and the lower and middle classes to get more out of government. It took him more than a half-hour to run through his policy plans -- from erasing student debt to a single-payer health system.

He brushed back those who say his agenda is unrealistic or unachievable, "that all we can do is nibble around the edges. Well, I respectfully disagree.”

Cruz and thousands of other supporters packed the arena for a campaign rally for Sanders, who stopped in Minneapolis to showcase his recent endorsement from Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Sanders won Minnesota in the 2016 Democratic presidential caucus. He’s making a play for the state again, even as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar wages her own campaign for the Democratic nomination.

People fill an arena.
A crowd fills up Williams Arena to see Sen. Bernie Sanders speak in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

He found plenty of support Sunday. Aloni Cruz was in line outside Williams Arena by 6 a.m. Sunday.

The University of St. Thomas student arrived 12 hours early and spent three hours alone before anyone else joined her, but it didn’t matter: Cruz wouldn’t miss a chance to see Sanders in person.

"He's been fighting for the working class for a long time, for people of color, for immigrant rights,” she said of the Vermont senator and Democratic presidential contender. “He just really inspires me a lot."

President Trump is focusing heavily on winning Minnesota, too, after narrowly losing the state to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

As rally-goers lined the sidewalks Sunday afternoon, a small group of Trump’s supporters gathered outside the arena, too. Waving Trump flags and wearing his regalia, the Republican president’s backers said they didn’t want Sanders' event to go unanswered.

But overall, it was a night for searing criticism of the president.

“We have a president of the United States who is a pathological liar, who is running the most corrupt administration in history,” Sanders told the crowd, who responded with chants of, “Lock him up!”

A man hugs a woman on a stage.
Sen. Bernie Sanders hugs Rep. Ilhan Omar as he takes the stage during a rally inside of Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

During his speech, Sanders also tied his campaign to one of Minnesota's most iconic politicians — Paul Wellstone, the liberal senator who died in a plane crash just over 17 years ago. 

"We are going to honor the memories of Paul and Sheila Wellstone because we are going to win in Minnesota and we are going to implement that progressive agenda that Paul spent his life fighting for," Sanders told the crowd.

The crowd appeared to skew younger, mainly younger than 40, but people of all ages and from all parts of the state drove to Minneapolis to see Sanders.

Jess Tryhus and Scott Villery, who have supported Sanders since 2015, drove from Owatonna. The couple said student loan forgiveness is one of their top issues — they said they have $400,000 in debt between them. Villery said he's a legal aid attorney and his fiancee works at a public school

Sanders said Sunday he’d cancel all student debt as president, paying for it by a small tax on “Wall Street speculation.”

“We make an average middle-class salary, and canceling student debt just gives us the best way to move forward, start a family, build a life for ourselves,” Villery said. “Without canceling student debt it will always be a burden to buy a home, raise a family. That just gives us a whole new shot at life."

A man speaks behind a crowd of blue and white signs.
Sen. Bernie Sanders looks out on the crowd during a rally inside of Williams Arena.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Villery said he also supports Sanders’ positions on Medicare for All and keeping corporate money out of politics.

When asked if they would support another nominee besides Sanders, Tryhus and Villery said they are undecided.

“I’m not a huge fan of anyone else,” Tryhus said, aside from Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii.

Diane Knutson is a graduate student studying counseling and has been a Sanders supporter since his first campaign. She applauded his bold positions on health care, college debt forgiveness and climate change response.

“I just love Bernie. He’s going to save us. He’s the modern FDR. There’s a frickin’ mess right now after all that Trump is doing. You need someone with a lot of experience who you can count on to clean it up," he said.

If Sanders doesn't get the nomination, Knutson said she doesn’t feel like she’ll have much of a choice but vote for the Democratic nominee to stop Trump. 

A man speaks in front of a large American flag.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd during a rally inside of Williams Arena in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Many in attendance were far more energetic about him than any other Democratic candidate, even if they weren’t “Bernie or bust” voters who’d only support their top choice.

Peter Tran, a school employee from Duluth, said he’d probably vote for whoever won the Democratic nomination, but doesn’t have the same faith in other candidates as he does in Sanders. He wasn’t bothered by Sanders’ recent heart attack, either.

“Even Bernie on his deathbed is a lot better than any of the other candidates,” Tran said.

Bridget Clifton of Houlton, Wis., said Sanders is the only Democrat she could vote for and “feel good about it.”

She and other supporters cited Sanders’ the consistency in his political record as a primary reason for their support.

“What he says he's going to do, he does,” Clifton said. “Just for decades, there's not really anyone out there in the field that has a record like that.”

People look up at a stage over a banner.
Supporters watch and listen from the front row of a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders inside of Williams Arena.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It was Sanders’ first appearance in Minnesota since he visited the state fair in August. A Minnesota repeat is pivotal to his 2020 hopes.

Among the Trump supporters who gathered ahead of the rally to counter Sanders’ appearance, Melodie Black of Red Wing said Sanders' brand of policies would be dangerous for America.

“Socialism does not work. Let’s look at Venezuela. It does not work,” Black said. “Children are starving to death. There’s no medicine for them there. If you are a diabetic there, you are going to die.”

Tom Blondell of Rochester held a Trump 2020 flag and said he’s deserving of four more years.

“It doesn’t matter who you. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, if you’re successful and the country is in good shape, that will get you elected.”

The pro-Trump forces and the voters who want him out of office will have plenty of opportunities to square off. 

The contested Democratic primary in March is sure to draw more candidate visits beforehand, and both parties see Minnesota as a general election battleground.