With fiery rhetoric that denounced inequality in America as immoral and “grotesque,” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rallied thousands of supporters in Kenner on Sunday evening at the end of a swing through Louisiana.
Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont on the left wing of the Democratic Party, kicked off his speech by acknowledging that Louisiana does not frequently see Democratic candidates for president, something he said was a problem with an electoral strategy that writes off large swaths of the country.
“Somebody told me Louisiana was a conservative state. Well, guess what?” Sanders said as the crowd erupted in cheers. “I think my colleagues in the Democratic Party have made a serious, serious mistake, which is they have kind of written off half of America, including Louisiana. The time is now for us to fight in 50 states in the country.”
While Sanders is largely seen as having little chance of overtaking Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, the turnout Sunday showed his message can draw a crowd, even in a mostly conservative state.
The rally was something of a foray into enemy territory for Sanders. Statewide, Louisiana is solidly in the GOP’s column. The venue chosen for the rally, the Pontchartrain Center in conservative Jefferson Parish, hosted Gov. Bobby Jindal last month when he announced his own campaign for the presidency.
Sanders packed a larger room at the center for his speech, with supporters filling bleachers and crowding into a standing-room section of the venue. Estimates by organizers suggested the crowd was about four times as large as the roughly 1,000 people who came out to see Jindal’s speech.
Sanders’ message focused on the economic issues that have been the basis of his campaign, railing against growing inequality in the country and arguing that a “political revolution” is needed.
“This great country of ours, our government, belongs to all of us and not just a handful of billionaires,” he said.
Throughout his speech, Sanders rattled off statistics on income inequality, arguing that the country has a higher level of inequality today than any other major nation and the highest level of any time since 1928, and that the problem continues to get worse.
“This grotesque level of income and wealth inequality is immoral, it is bad economics, it is un-American, and together we’re going to change that,” Sanders said.
Supporters were already lined up to get spots at the rally by 5 p.m., two hours before Sanders began speaking.
“To get a crowd like this in Kenner, you’ve got to have some sort of message people are listening to,” said Ray Guidry, who said he came out to hear another voice from the Democratic side. With Clinton facing unrelenting attacks from Republicans, he said it would be good for Democrats to have an alternative ready in case someone lands a “knockout punch.”
Many of those in the audience said they appreciated Sanders’ approach, which they described as “honest” about economic issues and problems.
Sanders’ rally Sunday came after appearances Saturday at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s convention in Baton Rouge and at the Louisiana Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in New Orleans.
The Sunday speech touched on a variety of topics, most of them economic in nature. Sanders called for paid family leave, mandatory paid vacations and a raise in the minimum wage, arguing that “if someone is working 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty.”
He called for a trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure that would employ people and fix what he described as the country’s “crumbling” roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
He also blasted pay inequality based on gender — saying that women make about 70 percent of what their male counterparts make — and racial disparities in unemployment. He cited statistics that unemployment among white youths is about 33 percent while it is about 51 percent among African-Americans.
He said the government should be focused on rebuilding the American middle class, which he said was once the envy of the world but which has been torn down in recent decades as more and more of the nation’s wealth has gone to a small group of people and many workers have slipped into poverty.
“The middle class of this country is on the move. The problem is we’re moving in the wrong direction,” Sanders said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.