It was a warm summer day, and Bernie Sanders was going to be speaking in Waterloo (the next town over from where I live) at a location that is accessible by bike trail. I thought I’d do something unusual and bike there. Of course, when I read the online event description, I saw that parking was limited and they were encouraging people to bike. So, not so novel.
However, when I got to the National Cattle Congress, where Bernie’s event was taking place, there was no place to lock up my bike. I cruised the parking lot in search of a bike rack, but all I found was that the Iowa high school rodeo was also taking place on the premises. I wondered if there might be anyone attending both events. Eventually, I had to lock up my bike on a downspout, but it was right next to a police car, which I think is always the best spot when you’re not sure if you’ve got a legit spot for your bike.
So, Bernie. Full disclosure: I caucused for Bernie in 2016, and I may support him again. I’m remaining uncommitted in the spirit of this project, but I am also remaining uncommitted because I am uncommitted. I’ve generally found something to like in every person I’ve seen speak, though I’ve got my own policy preferences which tilt me more toward some candidates than others. Like most people who view defeating Donald Trump as the existential point of this process, I’m looking for which candidate is best equipped to do that, and it may be Bernie. I was looking forward to seeing him speak, even though I had gone to several of his events during the last campaign. As far as Iowa is concerned, Bernie is the OG of the field.
The event hall had the feel of the kind of place where there would be estate auctions or punk rock shows, and there was already a pretty good crowd by the time I got there. In fact, the crowd looked pretty evenly split between people who attend estate auctions and people who attend punk rock shows. I saw a staffer ask someone if she wanted to be on stage behind Bernie. My ears perked up, as I’ve learned to be shameless about such things. I caught the staffer’s eye and she asked if I wanted to be on stage. Yes, please. She glanced at my bicycling outfit and deemed the colorful RAGBRAI shirt “too busy,” and said I’d have to be in a back row on the stage. I was good with that, so I was given a Golden Ticket. Well, actually, it was just a blue wristband, but it was still going to get me into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Meanwhile, Julie and Devin, along with some friends who were visiting for the weekend to take in some candidate events, showed up. They had been in Des Moines earlier that day to see presidential candidates at the Pride festival where, in one of the best moments ever caught on camera, Devin pestered Bernie for a picture. I had thought they would have had their fill of candidates, but no, they were up for more, and I was going to have company up on stage.
Once it came time to take our places, we were given strict instructions not to be on our phones during the speech. Having given such instructions many times to students, I felt an obligation to follow this rule. Instead we were given signs to wave as needed. However, I was able to take a quick picture of Bernie’s water bottle, which I know was his because it said “Bernie” in big letters.
Things weren’t running too late by the time it all got started. There were about 300 people in the attendance, which was pretty impressive, and it had the feel of one of the big-turnout events in the run up to the 2016 caucus. One downside of being on the stage was that all we got to see was the back of Bernie’s head, and it looked like he had gotten a sunburn on his bald spot. Bernie, use sunscreen!
Following the rules I agreed to, I didn’t take my phone out when Bernie was speaking, so I didn’t get to record any of what he said, but that may not have been necessary because he has been saying the same things for 30 years. I know that sounds like a dig, but it is not intended as one. One of the things that distinguishes Bernie is his consistency. He is always on message, and it’s a message about economic inequality and government can do to both mitigate and reverse it.
So, it was not a surprise to hear him zero in on how much of the nation’s wealth is controlled by a small number of families. The Walton family (of Walmart) were particularly in his sight because he had just spoken at the Walmart shareholders meeting on behalf of low wage workers. There were plenty of applause lines when he targeted big pharma and student loan debt. It was a pretty raucous crowd, and I saw Bernie do something I hadn’t seen him do before in a speech. He shouted out to the crowd asking if people knew how much interest rates were if they took out a payday loan. There were a number of people with stories to share about payday lenders, and Bernie riffed off of their stories. It was more back and forth than you usually see with a big crowd like that.
In the end, I had thought there would be some Q&A, but Bernie was in barnburner mode, and it ended up just being a speech that laid out the task ahead and the forces that had to be confronted. There was no pretending things were going to be easy, and in this regard it wasn’t the most uplifting speech. This was more a “let’s get ready to rumble” call out to Bernie’s people. They were ready for him.
Unlike the last campaign, Bernie now seems to have fully given himself over to selfies. When the speech was over, the true advantage of being on stage became clear. We all lined up for a moment with the candidate and we were toward the front of the crowd. As I passed on my phone to a staffer and stood next to Bernie, I thanked him for coming and said he had had a long day. For the record, he spoke at the Pride festival in Des Moines, had a town hall event in Marshalltown, and then this event in Waterloo. It would be exhausting just to attend all of that in one day, never mind speaking. Bernie gave me a brief nod in agreement. “It was a long day,” he said, “but a great day.”