Senator Addresses Income Inequality
For the energy in the room, one could easily believe that Vermont’s junior senator was still running his presidential campaign rather than settling resolutely back into the nation’s legislative work.
That’s the scene that follows Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose surprisingly successful bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. President propelled him into the national spotlight in 2016.
Senator Sanders paid a visit to Randolph Center Friday afternoon, meeting with Vermont Technical College’s senior leadership team to discuss the school’s student outcomes and myriad projects.
Before that brief meeting, however, Sanders spent about an hour speaking to constituents in a town-hall style address inside Judd Hall.
VTC’s interim college president, Pat Moulton, warmed up the 700-or-so people crowded into the former gym to see Sanders.
VTC, Moulton said, had a 100% placement rate in either the job market or higher education within six months of graduation. The college was also named the 11th best school for veterans in the nation by Military Times and also boasts lower-than-average levels of student debt and higher-than-average wages for its graduates.
Moulton called upon Deema AL Namee, VTC’s student council president and a student in the manufacturing program, to introduce the senator, which she did to a cacophony of applause.
Sanders strode across the floor to a standing ovation and didn’t wait long to whip the crowd into a frenzy.
A democracy, he explained, “is not supposed to be billionaires buying elections; it is supposed to be one person, one vote; it is supposed to be civil discourse—hearing each other out and learning from each other.”
Sanders, who is in his second term in the Senate, having served in the House of Representatives since 1991, noted that middle-class Americans are bearing the brunt of the country’s financial woes.
Sanders pointed to corporatism and greed in politics as the root causes of this dilemma.
“Most people don’t know we are the wealthiest country in the history of the world because almost all of that wealth and all of that income is going to the people on top. Today in America, the one-tenth of one percent… owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%.”
The day’s presentation was filled with such shocking statistics.
One family, he pointed out—the Waltons of Walmart fame—own more wealth than the bottom 42% of Americans combined.
On the issue of health care, Sanders railed against the power of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. The U.S. system of health care, he said, is less inclusive and costs much more than any other developed country and is bound to get much worse, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.
Sanders said he intended to introduce, as he has in the past, legislation for a Medicare-based, single-payer plan.
“Do you know how many cosponsors I’m going to get in the United States Senate for that legislation?” he asked. “Probably less than five.”
Sanders also touched upon higher education, which he said is a vital component in the economic success of the country, but plagued by high student debt.
On climate change, he noted that “if we do not get our act together and transform our energy system away from fossil fuel…the planet we will be leaving our kids and our grandchildren will not be a very healthy planet.”
Sanders commended VTC for its work in programs such as green energy, as well as nursing, dentistry, and technology, which he emphasized would be critical to the needs of the country’s economy.
After his wide-ranging speech, Sanders took a handful of questions from the audience.
Ray Albanese, a second-year VTC student, asked about the hearings to confirm President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, which began this week. Albanese wondered if the Republican majority would suspend the Senate rules to push through the nomination.
Sanders replied that he didn’t believe they would. Presidential appointees have traditionally required a 60-vote majority in the Senate, a requirement that was controversially changed by Democrats to combat filibusters during confirmation of Obama appointees.
Sanders said he believed that Democrats and Republicans were in general agreement that Supreme Court justices were too important an appointment for a simple majority vote.
Several audience members wondered what people in Vermont should be doing to make a difference in the U.S. political scene.
“If there’s a silver lining of the Trump presidency,” he said, “it’s that millions of people are asking that question and getting involved.”
Gina Capossela of Sharon, who founded Belly Dancers for Bernie during Sanders’ presidential campaign, pushed the question further. Contacting Vermont’s representatives seemed to have little effect on national issues, she said.
His advice was to nationalize efforts for change, citing work against the Affordable Care Act as an example.
“You have the majority leader in the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell, from Kentucky, whose state maybe benefitted [from the ACA] more than any other state. He is leading the effort to throw hundreds of thousands of people in his own state off of health care. You know anyone in Kentucky? Well, start making some friends.”
Randolph Town Manager Mel Adams similarly asked Sanders, “What can we do and what can you folks do in Washington to maintain the sense of civility and equity that represents who we think we are?”
The senator acknowledged that he didn’t have all of the answers to that question.
“What you have now is something new,” he warned.
“Does anybody remember,” Sanders asked the audience, “a couple days after 9/11, where [President George W.] Bush went? He went to a mosque. Remember that? And he stood with Muslims and said, ‘look, we have some barbaric people, who did a terrible thing in this country, but [let’s not] take it out on an entire religion.’ That was a very decent thing for him to do. That’s not what this president is doing,” he said.
“What we have got to do is stand together when [Trump] starts attacking Muslims or undocumented people, or when he lies…Our job is to stand with people who are being scapegoated and tell the truth in the midst of a lot of lies.”
This first appeared in the Herald of Randolph March 23, 2017.