Bernie Sanders rallies for Gretchen Whitmer, rails on President Trump

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor —  U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders brought his star power to the University of Michigan late Friday, urging supporters to turn out the vote for gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats in what he called "the most most important mid-term election in the history of our country."

An enthusiastic crowd packed the 1,100-seat Rackham Auditorium to hear Whitmer and Sanders, who also spoke to a smaller overflow crowd on the fourth floor of the building before joining the larger rally.

“No more complaining, no more despair,” said Sanders, who blasted Republican President Donald Trump and what he called “ugly” policies coming out of Washington D.C. “Now is the time to stand up, fight back and vote.”

The 77-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont, who scored a surprise win in Michigan’s 2016 presidential primary by energizing young voters, has not yet said whether he’ll run for president again in 2020. But in his speech, he said he understood why Michigan voters picked Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election.

"You’re hurting financially. You’re working longer hours for lower wages. You’re worried about your jobs leaving the country,” Sanders said. “But what I want to say to you, and what I think people are realizing, is that in Donald Trump, we have a president who is a pathological liar.”

Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing who is running for governor against Republican Bill Schuette, rallied the crowd on state and national issues, drawing Democrats to their feet with calls to stand up for reproductive rights, LGBT rights, clean drinking water, worker’s rights and education.

“The people of our state are counting on us and the work we are going to do,” Whitmer said. “Not just for the next 18 days, but for the next four or eight years and to set the stage for the future of this state and you.”

Sanders endorsed Democrat Abdul El-Sayed in the Michigan gubernatorial primary but is now backing Whitmer in the general election. She was the only primary candidate who did not echo his rallying cry for a single-payer health care system but has said she'd be pleased by federal action to expand coverage. 

Trump and other Republicans are attacking his "Medicare for All" plan, Sanders said, because they know it is a winning idea and “the American people understand health care is a right, not a privilege.”

Hundreds of supporters huddled in the rain outside the auditorium prior to the rally, the line for entrance stretching around the block.

Whitmer and running mate Garlin Gilchrist “are just both very well spoken on the issues that I’m really interested in, especially education in Michigan and health care,” said U-M junior Chris Thompson.

Freshman Emily Buckley, preparing to vote in her first gubernatorial election, said she likes Sanders because he is a democratic socialist – “kind of more along the lines of anti-capitalism,” she said. She and her sister, a U-M junior who accompanied her, said they both support Whitmer for governor.

“First of all she’s a woman,” Buckley said, “so I’m going to support her if she aligns with my values. Also we just found out she is a (sexual assault) survivor, so we support her even more.”

Activists with Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, protested Whitmer outside with a moving truck, suggesting her policy proposals would end up moving jobs out of the state after economic growth under Republican leadership.

People line up outside Rackham Hall in Ann Arbor to see and hear U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont stump for the Democratic candidates including Gretchen Whitmer at a campaign rally for Michigan Democrats

“She went from an extreme liberal to a socialist here tonight with Bernie Sanders, embracing him,” said AFP-Michigan director Pete Lund, a former state legislator. “We have got to move forward. We don’t want to go back to the lost decade.”

The conservatives stood just feet away from Democrats waiting to enter the venue. “We’ve had a few people who have not been happy with us that we’re here… but we’ve actually had a lot of nice conversations,” said Danny Gustafson.

“Are we going to change them to vote against Whitmer? No, not necessarily, but at least they were open to talk to us.”  

Democrats up and down the ticket warmed up the crowd ahead of Sanders and Whitmer.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, up for re-election against Republican challenger John James, got a standing ovation when she told the crowd she was “proud to cast my vote no” on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, citing both sexual assault accusation and his record as a judge.

“When you think about Brett Kavanaugh on the United States Supreme Court, go out and organize and vote,” she said.

Attorney General candidate Dana Nessel noted new Republican attack ads labeling her “Dangerous Dana,” a nickname she said actually sounds “kind of bad ass.”

“I’m going to be dangerous to the Trump administration,” said Nessel, an attorney who helped topple Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban with a challenge that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I will be dangerous to anybody who infringes upon the rights and civil liberties of people here in Michigan,” she said. “I will be dangerous to bigots. I will be dangerous to homophobes.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat who represents Ann Arbor in congress, railed against President Trump and talked about difficulties sexual assault victims face when they take their stories public.

Public opinion polling has Democrats optimistic for Nov. 6.  But Dingell, calling herself “Debbie Downer,” noted that she repeatedly warned skeptical Democrats that Trump could win in 2016 even though he was trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls.

“I’d rather be where we are today than where Republicans are, but this election is not over,” Dingell said. “We cannot let them win.”

The Ann Arbor rally was part of a nine-state swing for Sanders, who was in Indiana earlier Friday. He is stumping for Democrats across the country ahead of the mid-term, which he called an opportunity for voters "to elect people who bring us together, not divide us up."

Looking to Whitmer and Gilchrist, Sanders warned the crowd that if Michigan Democrats fail to turn out in the mid-term election, "they lose." But if turnout surges, "say hello to your next governor," he said to applause.

Schuette's gubernatorial campaign criticized Whitmer when Sanders visit was first announced, saying she stands with a "radical" who supports "a full government takeover of our health care, higher taxes and smaller paychecks for families."

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said earlier Friday that he welcomed the visit from Sanders, who "has talked about making sure we have an economy that works for everyone."

"The fact is the majority of voters want us to expand access to health care and not get rid of it like Republicans do," Dillon said. "I'll take Bernie Sanders over Donald Trump Jr. and Ted Nugent any day of the week."

Trump Jr. stumped for Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James on Wednesday in Pontiac. Nugent and Kid Rock were also on hand for the GOP rally. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing has not been among the expected guests listed on advisories for Sanders' Friday night event.