Bernie Sanders rally draws thousands to Florida fairgrounds

Hours ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders' scheduled appearance in a large arena at the Florida State Fairgrounds, a long line of people snaked through the parking lot.

An hour before the Democratic presidential hopeful's expected campaign speech, the venue was already on the way to meeting its 10,000-person capacity  (a Secret Service officer put it at 6,000 at that point, and they were still filing in).

A live band played acoustic rock and old country covers. 

The large crowd was there to hear from a candidate who has sparked passionate support among progressives around the country with a message touting peace, equality and social justice.

click to enlarge Bill Valliere and his dog, Zoe, feel the Bern. - ivy ceballo
ivy ceballo
Bill Valliere and his dog, Zoe, feel the Bern.
Sanders' visit comes ahead of Florida's ever-important presidential primary March 15 and on the heels of an unexpected win in Michigan Tuesday against Democratic establishment favorite Hillary Clinton.

Among those who waited in the incredibly long line in the afternoon sun was Melissa Rogers, 31, who drove from Cape Coral with her infant son Joshua and a fellow Sanders supporter she met through social media.

Technically she had been in line since about 1, she said (it was about 4 when she spoke to CL), but she'd been anticipating a Sanders visit for much longer than that.

“I've been waiting for Bernie to come to Florida the whole time — for months and months and months,” she said. “Tuesday night I found out he was in Miami, and I was at work.”

She said no other candidate reflects her views on issues like paid family leave, foreign policy or college tuition more than Sanders.

“The same things that he's been fighting for since the beginning are the same things he's fighting for now. His integrity, his history. And the issues that he talks about are the same issues that are important to my household.”

Also outside was Holiday resident Bill Valliere, who brought his companion Zoe, an 8-year-old English Mastiff, to see Sanders, whom Valliere called “the sandman.” Zoe, who went on tour to “support” Barack Obama in 2012, sported two “We Want Bernie” buttons on her camo harness.

“We want Bernie,” Valliere said. “To me he's the only hope, really. The rest of them are puppets.”

As the large audience (which ballooned to 9,000 by the time Sanders took the stage) intermittently chanted and did the wave, a handful of activists and officials warmed up the crowd, including Tampa civil rights attorney Hassan Shibly, who condemned the GOP candidates' use of racism and xenophobia in their attempts to win over Republican voters.

click to enlarge Bernie Sanders rally draws thousands to Florida fairgrounds - ivy ceballo
ivy ceballo
Bernie Sanders rally draws thousands to Florida fairgrounds
“Fear-mongering does nothing but undermine the principles of liberty and justice that make America so great,” he said. “Only in America do you see Muslims united to support the first Jewish president of the United States.”

Other speakers included Hawaii Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who left her post as Democratic National Committee co-chair to endorse Sanders. Gabbard, a veteran, praised Sanders for his thoughtful approach to foreign policy and other matters.

When he took the stage, Sanders went over a spate of issues, noting up front the momentum his campaign has gained in recent months, perhaps best signified by the unexpected Michigan win against Clinton.

“Well, as of Tuesday night we have won nine states,” he said. “In Michigan about a week ago we were 20 to 30 points down in the polls and then something started to happen. We won Michigan.”

The reason, he told the audience, that the campaign has been doing so well is easy: "We tell the truth," he said.

As with past rallies, the subject of campaign finance reform was big; specifically, the Citizens United decision, which he vowed to reverse.

“What I don't want to see are billionaires and Super PACs buying elections,” he said, adding that outside groups are expected to spend some $900 million trying to influence elections this year. “That's not Democracy. That is oligarchy.”

Other points he hit on over the course of his speech: pay equity among genders, a $15 minimum wage, an end to mass incarceration and a call for expanded security.

While much of his speech consisted of talking points he has long been stressing on the campaign trail, he made mention of problems that affect Florida in particular. Those who work at Disney World, he said, struggle to make ends meet.

Then there's climate change, with its rising seas and ocean acidification that could be detrimental to Florida's economy, even if Republican leaders in the state want to put their heads in the sand.

“I have talked to scientists all over the world and what they are saying is climate change is real, climate change is caused by human activity, climate change is already causing devastating problems in Florida and all over the country and all over the world,” he said. “There is no Republican running for president who has the guts to tell the truth about climate change.”

The enthused audience — largely consisting of young adults but nonetheless diverse in age — hung on every word, cheering loudly before Sanders could finish his sentences in some instances.

While Sanders did not mention his Democratic opponent, he did include a few subtle digs at Trump.

“The American people know that what every religion in the world tells us is that at the end of the day, love trumps hatred,” he said toward the tail end of his speech.

He ended his 40-minute speech by urging his supporters to vote March 15.

“If there is a large voter turnout, we will win," he said before making his exit.

CL contributor Ivy Ceballo contributed to this report.

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