Probably the most surprising thing about Bernie Sanders’ rally in the Graduate’s Wayne Ballroom Sunday afternoon was what wasn’t said. None of the speakers — not Sanders, not Rep. Ro Khanna, Rep. Rashida Tlaib or Varshini Prakash — mentioned that the Vermont senator had risen to first place in the Iowa Poll that was released less than 48 hours earlier. The Iowa Poll, conducted by Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., has provided the most accurate results of any opinion survey in the last several election cycles.
Instead of celebrating Sanders peaking in the poll with just 22 days left before the caucus, Khanna, who spoke before Tlaib and Sanders, started his remarks on almost a grim note.
“We meet at a difficult time in our history,” Khanna, whose Bay Area congressional district includes Silicon Valley, said. “It’s a time of division, of grievance, of violence, and our government seems paralyzed to answer the challenges of humanity, the greatest crises of humanity.”
The rally was scheduled before the poll was published, and was intended to highlight last week’s endorsement of Sanders by the Sunrise Movement, a nonprofit aimed at organizing young people to advocate for policies addressing climate change. The members of group, best known for proposing the Green New Deal, voted overwhelmingly to endorse Sanders, according to Sunrise co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, who introduced both the other speakers at the rally.
“There is no politician running for president with as consistent a record of fighting for working people,” Prakash told the crowd gathered in the ballroom, explaining why Sunrise trusts Sanders to effectively address climate change. “There is no candidate for president who has maintained his conviction, his moral compass, unapologetically stood by his convictions than Bernie Sanders.”
Khanna, one of the four national co-chairs of Sanders’ campaign, also praised the senator’s long record of consistency, not just on climate issues, but also in foreign policy.
“There’s been a lot of talk about foreign policy experience,” Khanna said. “About needing the judgment, the toughness, the steady hand to lead in the 21st century. Let me tell you what that really means. It means we need Bernie Sanders, who had the judgment, the toughness and the steady hand to stop prescriptive policies of endless war.”
It was, of course, an implicit criticism of Joe Biden, who, as a Senator in 2002, voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Sanders voted against that authorization.
“Bernie Sanders as president, as commander-in-chief, will stop the unconstitutional wars that are causing death, and pursue a foreign policy to affirm life,” Khanna said. “That’s what is at stake in this 2020 election.”
Sanders, Khanna said, “wants to stop the wars and he wants to deal with America leading in the battle to tackle the climate change crisis.”
The need for America to provide international leadership on climate change was something Sanders addressed when he spoke at the end of the rally. But before he took the stage, Rep. Rashida Tlaib described how environmental issues hit close to home for her.
The first-term member of Congress from Michigan was the afternoon’s most energetic speaker. While Khanna was almost solemn, Tlaib exuded an air of joyful determination.
“I was born and raised in southwest Detroit,” said Tlaib, who now represents that area in Congress. It was an area in which the air was polluted, many homes didn’t have clean water and large swaths of the soil were contaminated by industrial pollution. Factory smokestacks literally cast shadows over the public park near Tlaib’s home.
“I really had no idea what environmental racism was, what environmental justice meant,” Tlaib said, describing growing up a neighborhood that was bearing the brunt of industrial pollution. “I didn’t understand that that smell wasn’t normal.”
“Later I found out that so many of our children, so many of our neighbors, had cancer, had asthma” as well as other health problems, she said.
As an attorney and Michigan state legislator, Tlaib helped organize community members to push back against industrial polluters in Detroit. The We Have the Right to Breathe campaign did have successes, but the cost of pollution is still very evident in Tlaib’s district.
“Rows and rows of homes have these white crosses in front of them,” Tlaib told the Iowa City audience. The crosses mark houses where a resident either has, or has had, cancer, she explained.
Tlaib said that very local toll caused by corporations polluting poor communities and communities of color, and the global issue of climate change influenced her decision of which presidential candidate to back.
Tlaib said she thought about her two sons, Adam and Yousif, asking herself, “who do I hand the future of my two boys to?”
“It has to be somebody who’s not going to waver. It has to be somebody who’s not afraid to stand up to the corporations. Somebody that is just not going to look the other way when it comes to us.”
Sanders also evoked children in his discussion of climate change, when he took the stage.
“I cannot, for the life of me, understand how you have people who reject science [on climate change], and are literally endangering the well-being of their own kids, their own grandchildren and future generations,” Sanders said. “That is something I cannot understand.”
The Vermont senator stressed the size of the challenge that climate change poses.
“I do not want to for one moment kid you,” he said. “The task in front of us is literally unprecedented. Literally, going to the moon was a small change compared to what we have to do now. Because what we have to do now is take on the fossil fuel industry, then we’ve got to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. OK?”
“And then what we have to do is lead the entire world. Because what make this crisis so difficult is that even if the United States did all of the right things, that in itself is not good enough.”
Sanders said that in this decade, countries “maybe led by the young people all over the world” must “invest in ways to combat climate change, not more endless wars.”
“Let us start right here in Iowa by making it clear that we will take on the greed and corruption of the fossil fuel industry,” he concluded. “That we will hold accountable those people in the industry who are lying to the American people, and that we have the courage — we have the courage — to begin the process of not only transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels, but leading the entire world.”