LONG ISLAND CITY, N.Y. (CN) – This week’s presidential debates ended with an announcement that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez planned to throw her clout behind the presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Just south of the young firebrand’s congressional district — under the backdrop of the Queensboro Bridge — the “Squad” leader made that endorsement official on Saturday afternoon at a time that Sanders needed a lift.
“Holy cow!” Ocasio-Cortez yelled at the mass of thousands of Sanders supporters crowding the park on Saturday afternoon.
After some introductory remarks, the congresswoman launched into her well-known origin story as a waitress in downtown Manhattan working without a living wage and health care.
“I didn’t think that I deserved any of those things,” Ocasio-Cortez recounted, saying that she accepted the “very basic logic” that she said had been used to hold back working people.
“It wasn’t until I heard about a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being who deserves health care, housing, education and a living wage,” she added.
Now the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, the 30-year-old Ocasio-Cortez hopes to rescue her political inspiration at a critical time. One generation of democratic socialist, the longest-serving independent in the U.S. Senate, embraced the other, the youngest Latina woman in Congress, at the end of a speech. Both kicked off their oratories by marveling at the crowd size.
“Let me begin by making an apology: We made a permit for 20,000 people and we had to close the doors,” Sanders said, walking a fine line between a deadpanned boast and regret that he could not accommodate his backers.
The campaign later reported the above-capacity crowd at 25,872.
“I look at this YUGE crowd,” the senator continued, hamming his Brooklyn-ese delivery. “Brothers and sisters, I have no doubt that the political revolution is going to sweep this country, drive Donald Trump out of office and bring the change that this country has long needed.”
Roughly two weeks after his heart attack, Sanders bounced back to fiery form at this week’s Democratic debate, laying out his pitch — “as somebody who wrote the damn bill” — for why he believes “Medicare for All” is attainable. Saturday’s rally marked his first since his release from the hospital.
“I’m here to tell you Bernie is back,” his wife Jane Sanders announced, as first speaker of the afternoon.
Tired of headlines about the senator’s hospitalization and stagnant polling in third place, Sanders supporters hammered a defiant chant throughout a roughly two-and-a-half hour rally: “We will win.”
Any chance for a reversal would require a strategy change and powerful support: Sanders has polled consistently behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, even as his fundraising drives consistently outpace both on small donations. Even a strong debate performance in Ohio this week, which drove New York Magazine to declare “Bernie Sanders’s Campaign is Alive and Well,” did not meaningfully move those numbers.
Filmmaker Michael Moore skewered critics who call Sanders too old or ill to be viable.
“The only heart attack we worry about is when Wall Street hears Bernie Sanders is president of the United States,” Moore quipped.
“Here’s what’s too old: The Electoral College is too old,” the filmmaker shot back, saying the same of the $7.25 minimum wage, the Democrats’ superdelegate system and fossil fuel economy.
“A 78-year-old knows what it’s like to defeat fascism and white supremacy,” Moore said.
In a grassy park nearly completely covered blue signs and memorabilia, there were flashes of red “Make America Great Again” hats and shirts. President Trump’s supporters protesting the rally waved giant “Keep America Great” flags on the pedestrian walkway of the bridge overlooking the rally. One apparent Trump supporter, vastly outnumbered by the crowd around him, wore a MAGA hat and waved a Bernie sign. The two camps may have shared some of the anger at the news media fomented by the speakers.
“On that island behind you is the headquarters of the corporate media,” Moore bellowed, with the crowd booing on cue as he gestured toward Manhattan.
Unlike a Trump rally, there was no singling out of individual reporters vilified as the “enemies of the people.” The theme, and hashtag, of the day had been #BerniesBack—in the view of his supporters, taking on those holding onto 1% of the wealth in the world’s most powerful nation and written out of the race by the “media establishment” as a result.
The old Sanders applause line from 2016 remained unchanged in a United States of new threats to press freedom in a Trump era. Longtime Sanders surrogate Nina Turner cast all but alternative media as antagonists.
“Memo to the mainstream media,” she said. “Memo to the haters: Bernie is back.”
Quoting rapper LL Cool J, Turner quipped: “Don’t call it a comeback.”
Trump supporters might recognize another chant that cropped up, directed at their own candidate.
During a speech by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, Sanders supporters chanted: “Lock him up,” before the Puerto Rican politician redirected the crowd back to shouting, “Vote him out.” She referred to herself as a “climate change survivor,” slamming Trump’s response to her storm-battered city.
Joining a line-up filled with black and Latina women, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are widely expected to follow suit, injecting youth and diversity into the drive to elect a 78-year-old New Englander.
For Tommy, a 26-year-old attorney clad in Bernie memorabilia, their backing debunked a common portrayal of his movement, which he said was illustrated by a reporter’s question to him.
“You look like a Bernie Bro,” he quoted the reporter as saying.
Tommy called his support for longtime support for Sanders grounded in the personal experiences of his family, not fandom for a candidate. Growing up with a diabetic father who had to ration insulin made Medicare for All resonate with Tommy, he said.
Sanders’ base does not seem to be demoralized by their candidate’s personal and campaign setbacks.
Led by campaign director Faiz Shakir, a crowd waving blue Bernie campaign placards chanted: “We will win.”
During his first New York City rally in 2016, Sanders visited the South Bronx, in a neighborhood rarely in the spotlight of presidential politics. The site of this afternoon’s rally had also been laden with symbolism.
“Just beyond this park is a power plant that spills and spews toxins to the poor,’ Ocasio-Cortez said of the Ravenswood Generating Station, whose fossil-fuel emissions she referred to in support of her Green New Deal.
Sanders called it no accident that the power plant had been built next to one of the largest housing projects in the United States, a legacy that he called one of “environmental racism” and one he announced he would combat with his recently launched “Housing for All” plan.
That initiative too had been close to Ocasio-Cortez’s heart.
Just north of Queens, Ocasio-Cortez noted, had been the Bronx that burned during her father’s youth. The congresswoman added that the reason for that was that landlords cared more about insurance money than the families inside the units. She said both boroughs have a strong connection to public housing initiatives.
“This is the ground zero for the fight for public housing and the fight for dignified housing in the United States,” she said.
Though their campaign partnership begins today, Sanders said that they will take this local issue nationally.
“I look forward to traveling with her all over this country,” the senator said.
As thousands poured outside, a tiny band of Trump supporters held a protest behind barricades below the bridge. One held a sign calling Bernie a “Bolshevik,” as the president continues to paint the Democratic Party with a Red Scare brush.
In the bright-blue borough of Queens, Sanders supporters drowned out their heckles as the throngs of people dispersed.