VADO, N.M. – People waiting for the start of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ rally Saturday afternoon in the playground at the elementary school here were noticeably worn down by the heat and intense sunlight.
Many arrived at the school several hours before Sanders took the podium. A long line of people snaked into the playground after wrapping around the school property’s outer fence and down the street.
The mood changed as the Vermont senator came walking hunch-shouldered to the podium with Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” playing in the background.
The crowd’s energy appeared renewed. Rabid cheering and Gregorian chants of “Bernie, Bernie!” replaced exhaustion.
As Sanders laid out his plans if elected president, the crowd’s enthusiasm swelled even more.
“I am running for president because I do not accept the fact that millions of working people in this country are working longer hours for lower wages,” Sanders said. “I’m running for president because it is unacceptable to me that almost 30 percent of the children in New Mexico are living in poverty.”
Even as more people become millionaires and billionaires, Sanders said, the nation’s rate of childhood poverty also increases.
“We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major nation on earth,” the candidate said. “Together we’re going to change that.”
‘We represent the working families of this country’
Richard Wright, a former Santa Fean who has lived in Las Cruces for nearly a decade, said he likes Sanders “because he is running without a super PAC, he’s down for increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, [protecting] the environment, no interventionist wars, free college tuition, decreasing student debt.”
Wright, who is involved with Las Crucens for Being Extremely Realistic Now In Elections (BERNIE), a nonprofit unaffiliated with Sanders’ campaign that had a presence at Saturday’s rally, said he is pleased with how far the group has come – from “eight people meeting in Milagro’s” to now having a mailing list of some 350 people, 30 active members at any given time, and several committees and working groups responsible for the plethora of Sanders buttons, bumper stickers and T-shirts seen throughout the city.
Wright said he was shocked when he learned Sanders was bringing his campaign to Vado, a federally designated colonia – meaning “a community within the mainly rural US-Mexico border region with marginal conditions related to housing and infrastructure,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website.
Thomas Rowland, an El Pasoan who said he likes “everything” about Sanders, was similarly mystified at Sanders’ decision to come to Vado, which is located about 15 miles south of Las Cruces along Interstate 10.
“Why [did he come]? I don’t know, but I think it’s wonderful!” Rowland said. “I don’t think Hillary would do that and Trump certainly wouldn’t. So I think that shows [Sanders’] integrity.”
Rowland said he supports many of Sanders’ ideas.
“We need socialized medicine. We need tertiary education to be debt free. We need billionaires out; we can’t have them buy politics anymore,” Rowland said.
Sanders said he, unlike Clinton, has no super PACS.
“I do not want money from Wall Street or Corporate America because we don’t represent Wall Street or Corporate America,” Sanders said. “We represent the working families of this country.”
‘A place of great need and little representation’
Donna Greene, a Las Crucen, called Sanders’ decision to campaign in Vado “fantastic.”
“This is a place of great need and little representation, and I just think it’s very special that he would come to a place [of] low population but great need,” Greene said.
In rural areas such as Vado, amenities like clean water, effective wastewater treatment facilities, solid roads and bridges, and reliable and affordable Internet and phone connectivity are difficult to come by, Sanders said.
“The bottom line is that in America, we can create up to 13 million good-paying jobs by rebuilding our infrastructure, making our country stronger,” Sanders said. “That is exactly what we should be doing.”
Gabriela Molina and Maggie Johnson, from El Paso and Las Cruces respectively, also praised Sanders’ decision to come to Vado.
“Bernie’s about the small people,” Molina said.
Johnson said she has greater respect for politicians who come “door to door” when they try to get to know potential voters.
“It’s one thing to go to Los Angeles or New York, but it’s another thing to go to the small towns that may not necessarily have a voice,” Johnson said, “especially in big politics.”
Other candidates show up
Merrie Lee Soules, a Democrat running for New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Steve Pearce, attended the rally – seeming to employ the campaign tactics Johnson said she admires.
“With the voter turnout going down and down and down, people tell me they think government is for sale and their vote doesn’t count – and I think that’s tragic,” Soules said. “So I’m running to change that.”
A Las Crucen, Soules said she attended the rally because “history is being made” by Sanders’ visit to Vado.
“My basic premise is, anybody who’s voting for Bernie, I want their vote,” she said. “I think these are my people and they’re fired up about the same thing I am: taking democracy back to the people.”
Her campaign, like Sanders’, is focusing on economic prosperity – in her case for Southern New Mexico.
“Everything else becomes possible when people have the opportunity for good work in the place they love and call home,” she said.
Current Doña Ana County District Attorney Mark D’Antonio, who’s facing James Dickens in the June 7 Democratic primary, also attended the event. He carried a sign with him much of the time that read, “A Future to Believe In – Bernie 2016.” He also wore T-Shirt advertising his own campaign for re-election.
‘A moral obligation’
Other Sanders supporters who attended the rally included representatives of the National Nurses Organizing Committee of Texas (NNOCT), whose parent organization, the National Nurses Union (NNU), “came out pretty early in support of Sanders,” said NNOCT spokeswoman Sylvia Searfoss.
Among the issues Sanders supports that the NNU values are health-care reform, getting big money out of politics – “because nothing else is going to change until that happens” – and the climate “crisis,” Searfoss said.
Searfoss was especially vocal about the last issue.
“I’m old enough to remember the ‘70s. We let go of climate (issues), and we’re not going to do that again,” she said, adding that it’s “very, very important to keep the issues alive” – and she believes Sanders would do that.
“Climate change is real,” Sanders told the crowd. “You see that everyday. And the climate change is caused by human activity.”
This generation, Sanders said, has “a moral obligation” to leave future generations a planet that is “healthy and habitable.”
The NNOCT has a membership of four hospitals, totaling about 1,500 nurses, while nationwide more than 185,000 nurses are union members, Searfoss said.
‘We are in this together’
“I think this rally today speaks volumes about the core values of Bernie Sanders and shows that he cares deeply about the needs of all of our country’s citizens, including underrepresented minority communities all over New Mexico and the Southwest,” said Sarah Weidmeyer, a Las Crucen who spoke to the rally audience before Sanders came on.
Weidmeyer said she supports Sanders because of his views on creating tuition-free public colleges and universities, as well as easing the burden of current student loan debts.
“Unlike other candidates – Democrats and Republicans alike – Bernie Sanders does not put profit over people, does not put corporations over communities,” Weidmeyer said.
In the Democratic nomination race, Sanders has trailed Hillary Clinton in the number of pledged delegates from the start, despite having won a number of states recently. That has led many Sanders supporters in Weidmeyer’s life to “think that there is no point in voting,” she said.
But she urged them to vote.
“Our vote is our voice, and when enough voices come together, we cannot be silenced,” she said. “Who needs Bernie Sanders more than New Mexico, with the highest child poverty rates and lowest graduation rates in the country? Who could benefit more from radical social reform?”
Alex Burnside also spoke before Sanders took the podium. Having served five years in the U.S. Marines, Burnside said he has seen fellow veterans used as “props.”
“When Bernie Sanders talks about veterans, he talks about getting us the respect and help that we’ve earned,” Burnside said.
Sanders was fighting for equal rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity, Burnside said, “before it was popular.”
Sanders and his message were popular with the crowd in Vado. As the audience started its “Bernie, Bernie!” chant for the umpteenth time, Sanders stopped them.
“I got news for you: It ain’t just Bernie. It’s all of us; we’re in this together,” he said. “If anybody here thinks that Bernie alone is going to be able to take on Wall Street and corporate greed and the drug companies and the corporate media, you are mistaken. We are in this together, brothers and sisters!”