SAN DIEGO (CN) – Thousands of Californians turned up at the San Diego Convention Center Tuesday to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders talk about “the revolution” he’s leading and the changes he’ll make if elected president.
Californians won’t vote in their presidential primary until June 7, but the proximity of western contests Tuesday night, provided the Vermont senator with the perfect opportunity to kick off his campaign in The Golden State.
Prior to Sanders taking the stage, a line a mile long and mostly consisting of young people, snaked around the convention center on the waterfront in downtown San Diego.
Anthony Vasquez came down from Riverside, Calif., because he said “it’s time for things to change.”
A Hillary supporter at the start of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Vasquez said he changed his mind after learning more about Sanders. He said he now donates $50 a month to the Bernie campaign.
“I didn’t even give any money to Obama and I was pro-Hillary in the beginning, but I changed my mind immediately, especially when I found out Hillary got money from Wal-Mart,” Vasquez said.
Spirits were high outside the convention center, with some supporters dressed in costumes. One man wore a black and white-striped suit holding a sign that read “Beetlejuice for Bernie”; another wore a huge paper mache “Bernie head” and quickly proved popular with the selfie-taking crowd.
Riverside Bernie supporter Joey Aszterbaum drove down in a caravan with more than a dozen friends and family members from the city of Hemet.
The Episcopal priest-in-training said he held counter-protests in Murrieta in 2014, when hundreds of people blocked buses carrying undocumented immigrant kids from dropping them off.
He said Sanders’ commitment to immigration reform is a major reason he volunteers to run phone banks for the campaign and is why he took the day off work to come to the rally.
“We have harsh immigration policies, even in the current administration. We’re keeping the lowest paid workers in fear and deporting thousands,” Aszterbaum said.
Ironically, the social services worker for the county of Riverside said he works for the “Welfare to Work” program created by Bill Clinton when he was president.
Aszterbaum said while the program has its critics, it has worked well in Riverside and other California cities.
Bernie volunteer Alex Vega said he is a musician and recent graduate from San Diego State University.
He said he thinks Bernie will better address the needs of the black community than President Barack Obama has.
“I think his views align more with the black community than Obama. He wants to end mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. It’s where I would like to see the country go,” Vega said.
Vega’s African American family has always voted Democrat, but when asked what he thinks of the substantial support Clinton has among black voters, he said “older black people just don’t know who Bernie is.”
“I’m trying to educate my family on the issues,” Vega said.
Actress Rosario Dawson introduced Sanders with a rousing speech that touched on the lack of media coverage of the Sanders campaign and the importance of getting out the vote.
“I’ve been here to this convention center many, many times but I’ve never seen anything like this. The mass media said ‘don’t bother,’ but you showed them what’s up,” Dawson told a screaming crowd.
A voter registration volunteer for 11 years, the actress reminded the audience to “make sure you’re not just liking this on Facebook.”
“Understand how significant this is. You’re here because you’re talking to each other. You can say I voted for the person who turned the tide,” Dawson said.
Sanders then came on stage to booming chants of “Bernie! Bernie” to address the standing-room only crowd of 9,000 supporters and an overflow room of thousands more.
During a 45-minute speach, Sanders touched on several of the now-familiar points that have gained him such a strong following among millennials.
He also touched on voter ID laws and other obstacles he said Republican politicians are introducing to “suppress voting.”
“If you are not prepared to engage in a free and democratic election, get another job, get out of here,” Sanders told the cheering crowd.
When Sanders offered his condolences to victims of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, peace signs were held up by the audience.
Despite such somber moment, Sanders did manage to get a few laughs, especially when he mentioned the $200,000 plus going-rate for corporate speeches given at meetings by his opponent Hillary Clinton.
“It must be a speech that can transform our world. It must be a speech written in Shakespearean prose,” Sanders told the laughing crowd.
He also told the crowd he thought it was “nuts” marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin, noting he wants drug abuse “to be dealt with as a health issue.”
When Sanders addressed his support for “Latino brothers and sisters” the large crowd of Latino supporters started chanting “Si Se Puede” or “Yes We Can.” The presidential candidate promised to use executive powers if elected president and his immigration reform laws are blocked in congress.
“Eleven million undocumented people are living in the shadows, living in fear. We unite families not divide families,” Sanders said.
But nothing Sanders touched on got the loudest cheers as when he talked about free college tuition, making note that the “world economy has changed” saying “it’s not good enough to just talk about 1st grade through 12th grade.”
Before leaving the stage, Sanders reminded his supporters to get out the vote at the California primary early this summer.
“In early June, California, the largest state in our nation, will have a major role to play. If there is a large voter turnout, we will win here,” Sanders said.
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