“I think that this candidate represents the best chance for substantive change that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Kristin Reed, 41, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor. “This is really not just an election. This is a movement.”
Also in the crowd was Zhue Azuaje, 27, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union in Richmond. “As a queer, Hispanic, immigrant woman, his campaign has really spoken to me,” she said, speaking for herself and not her organization. “He has such a strong, diverse base.”
Sanders began his remarks by apologizing to those who had to be turned aside from the huge gymnasium in the Arthur Ashe Junior Athletic Center. Campaign officials said the fire marshal estimated that 4,700 people attended the event.
“We will defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of this country,” he said, calling President Trump a “pathological liar” who is running a “corrupt administration,” and is “moving this country into an autocratic-type society.”
“Trump, you’re not going to get away with it,” Sanders said to enormous cheers. “We’re going to defeat you.”
As he has throughout his two presidential campaigns, Sanders promised sweeping changes on many fronts, including education, immigration and criminal justice. On the last of those alone, he said he would end mass incarceration, private prisons and the “destructive war on drugs.” He said on his first day in office, he would sign an executive order to legalize marijuana.
His takedown of the health-care and pharmaceutical companies drew claps and cheers, even as he got into the nitty-gritty of what would be provided to Americans.
Although “hearing aids,” “eyeglasses” and “home health care” are not traditional applause lines, each prompted the crowd to erupt.
Sanders said if young people vote at the same level as those 65 and older, he would “beat Trump in a landslide, we will transform America.”
“So I say to young people here, don’t complain about your student debt, don’t complain about climate change, don’t complain about racism or sexism or homophobia. Your complaints don’t mean anything. What means something is standing up and fighting.”
Ticking off his electoral successes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, he said, “That is getting the establishment very, very nervous.” He said establishment Democrats were “staying up day and night trying to figure out how to stop us. And when they see turnout like this, they get even more nervous.”
Sanders also drew cheers with promises to raise teachers’ salaries to at least $60,000 a year, cancel all student debt and make public colleges and universities tuition free.
Before he arrived onstage, Charlottesville City Council member Michael Payne took the microphone to speak of “challenging corporate capitalism” and “political revolution.”
Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William), one of two Virginia lawmakers who has endorsed Sanders, said he first started inspiring voters in the state four years ago, “despite [the] establishment [being] against us. We had a base, and now we’re expanding the base.”
“And we are getting ready to deliver Virginia.”
Sanders visited Manassas in November to boost the reelection campaign of Del. Lee J. Carter (D-Manassas), who, like Sanders, is a self-described democratic socialist. In July, he spoke to a crowd of striking catering workers at Reagan National Airport.
His rally Thursday was initially scheduled for the National, a historic downtown concert venue that holds 1,500 people, then moved to accommodate more people. He is scheduled to return to Virginia on Saturday for rallies in Springfield — where he will be joined by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — and in Virginia Beach.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar will campaign in Falls Church on Friday and in Richmond and Norfolk on Saturday. Former vice president Joe Biden will appear in Norfolk on Sunday night. Bloomberg, who has plowed more than $10 million into promoting Virginia Democrats since 2013, headlined a Democratic Party gala in Richmond on Feb. 15 and will be back in Virginia on Saturday.
Before the Sanders rally Thursday, one group briefly led a chant to show their dislike for Trump and Bloomberg: “No Trump! No Mike! Billionaires are all alike.”
The 14 primaries scheduled for Tuesday will be the first test of Bloomberg’s unorthodox campaign strategy: skipping early-voting states and tapping his personal fortune to blanket Super Tuesday states with TV ads.
Virginians have traditionally favored establishment Democrats over more liberal ones in statewide elections. Current Gov. Ralph Northam beat former congressman Tom Perriello handily (56 to 44) for the party’s gubernatorial primary in 2017.
A year before that, Clinton won 64 percent of the vote, compared with 35 percent for Sanders.
But Sanders could have more success in the state this year if Biden, Bloomberg, Klobuchar and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg splinter the moderate vote.
Malachy McKenna, 40, said he is a strong Sanders supporter, and considers other candidates he likes to be Sanders knockoffs.
“I just think he’s got a long, proven record for always speaking out for the working men and women,” said McKenna, who owns a small business that supplies yeast to breweries.
“There’s a couple good ideas out there, but Bernie had those ideas first,” he said. “Might as well go with the original.”