Sanders makes plea to UM students: 'Fight back'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders capped a weekend of campaigning in Michigan Sunday with a plea to thousands of University of Michigan students to vote Tuesday for a candidate taking on the status quo.

"We are taking on in this campaign not just Joe Biden," Sanders said, but also the "billionaires who are funding his campaign" and the corporate and political establishment Biden represents.

"We’re going to win this election," the Vermont U.S. senator said from a stage at the center of the Ann Arbor campus, where he was joined by New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Michigan Democratic former gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed. Roughly 10,240 people attended the event, Sanders' campaign said.

The rally came as Biden campaign surrogates finished a weekend of Metro Detroit events to get out the vote, and the former vice president prepared to make at least two Monday campaign stops. Former Secretary of State John Kerry warned that a self-declared democratic socialist like Sanders would not defeat President Donald Trump.

"I’ve got news for you," Kerry told the crowd at a Saturday Asian American and Pacific Islander Victory Fund event in Farmington Hills. "You’re not going to be elected president of the United States with that label.”

Maryland U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown urged labor supporters to vote for Biden at a Detroit local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which endorsed the former vice president in February. Brown was among other Biden surrogates in Metro Detroit, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware and U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina.

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd on the campus of The University of Michigan, Sunday, March 8, 2020.

Considered a make or break state for Sanders’ campaign, Michigan will hold its primary election alongside five other states.

But Michigan is the first industrial Midwest state to vote in the primary process and controls the most Democratic delegates at 125. A victory would be significant for Sanders, who lost the delegate lead to Biden after Super Tuesday but won the state’s primary in 2016 against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

After a speech touching on his plans for Medicare for All, sweeping environmental policy and criminal justice reform, Sanders encouraged students to bring their friends to the polls.

"Tell them to stop complaining and fight back," he told the students, most of whom had returned to campus after being off a week for spring break. 

The stop in Ann Arbor wrapped a weekend of rallies for Sanders in Detroit, Dearborn, Flint and Grand Rapids. On Monday, he has planned a coronavirus round table discussion and is set to participate in a one-hour Fox News town hall at the University of Michigan-Dearborn's Field House Ice Rink.

Biden is expected in Michigan Monday with planned stops in Grand Rapids and Detroit alongside Whitmer, Duggan and California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a former primary opponent who Sunday endorsed the former vice president.

Sanders brought his own political star power to Ann Arbor in Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the progressive "squad" of female freshmen Democratic lawmakers who include U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit. .

"In November, we'll do everything we can to defeat the margin of despair," Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd. Voters must decide whether to defeat that margin by going back to way things were or by fighting for working people, she said.

The Republican National Committee criticized Sanders and his surrogates. 

“Whether it’s Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michiganders are not interested in a socialist agenda which would decimate Michigan’s economy," RNC spokesman Michael Joyce said in a statement. "Come November Michiganders will reject socialism and vote to re-elect President Trump.” 

Radiation therapist Travis Hugan was one of many in Sunday’s crowd who has been a longtime supporter of the Vermont senator. Hugan said he’s backed Sanders since 2016, based largely on his plans for a single-payer, nationalized health care plan known as Medicare for All.

The 28-year-old Ann Arbor resident said he likely would vote for Biden if he got the nomination, but Hugan said the former vice president’s plan to expand the Affordable Care Act didn’t do enough to address the “big money” in private health care.

“I think everybody should be able to go to the doctor if they’re sick and not have to worry about going bankrupt just to take care of themselves,” Hugan said.

UM students Mary Hoopes and Mikayla Bird initially supported Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who withdrew last week from the race. But they said Sanders also is a candidate they feel they could trust.

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd on the campus of The University of Michigan, Sunday, March 8, 2020.

“I feel like Biden is just so old school politics and he’s just going to be like making deals and working that way and I want somebody who’s’ really for the people,” said Hoopes, a 20-year-old Muskegon resident.

But both Hoopes and Bird said they wouldn’t let a Biden nomination stop them from voting the Democratic ticket in November.

“Anybody’s better than Trump at this point,” said Bird, a 20-year-old New York native.

Staff Writers Craig Mauger and Ariana Taylor contributed