College students, some of them just old enough to vote, crowded near the Bell Tower on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus Thursday afternoon to hear from the oldest candidate in the 2020 presidential campaign.
And 78-year-old Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders did not disappoint. The Democratic Socialist who is among the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination outlined precisely how he planned to upend a system that he said has, for too long, served corporate interests and the 1% at the expense of ordinary Americans.
He included a swipe at former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads the crowded Democratic field competing to take on President Donald Trump but draws support from the more moderate side of the party. Biden was the lone Democratic candidate he mentioned by name, hitting him for attending three fundraisers in Chicago sponsored by multimillionaires.
“We’re going to make the changes,” Sanders said, “when the working families in America stand up to the corporate elite — not take their money.”
The crowd, estimated at around 2,500 and filled with college students as expected, booed the mention of Biden, but cheered as Sanders worked through a list of issues he plans to tackle — like Medicare for All, climate change, equal pay for women, an increased minimum wage and, notably on the campus of the state’s flagship university, wiping out college debt and making college tuition free.
“If the United States, our country, could bail out the crooks on Wall Street, who destroyed this country. If Trump and his friends could give over $1 trillion to large, profitable corporations and the 1%, we can cancel all student debt,” Sanders told the crowd.
“It ain’t a radical idea,” he said.
The crowd, many wearing “Feel the Bern” t-shirts or waving blue “Bernie” signs, cheered. Sanders led among voters age 18-to-29 in a Harvard poll conducted this spring, tapping into a core of supporters that propelled his upstart 2016 challenge to eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“He’s more in touch with younger generations than other people who are younger than him,” said Nayeli Duckworth, 18 and a UNC first-year student.
Said Abigail Leow, an 18-year-old Chapel Hill native and first-year student at UNC: “He’s aligned with how radical I am. Most of the other candidates are pretty moderate.”
Students agree on Medicare for All, LGBTQ rights
In North Carolina, Clinton topped Sanders 54.5% to less than 41% in the 2016 primary. But Sanders is back — and much of the party has moved with him, with other candidates embracing many of his ideas, notably Medicare for All.
Annie Warn, 20, a UNC student, came to the rally with her friend Shriya Sukhwal, 20, of Wake Forest, because “it’s free and we like what Bernie stands for.” For Sukhwal, that’s raising the minimum wage and health care.
“He’s making [health care] accessible to everybody, not making it a capitalistic thing,” Sukhwal said.
The warm September evening was cool once the shade of buildings surrounding the Bell Tower Amphitheater extended over the grassy area where UNC students stood and listened. Sanders told the crowd: “We have a corporate elite in this country that is not only incredibly greedy, and has been at war against the working class of this country for the last 40-50 years, but they are incredibly corrupt. Incredibly corrupt. They have unlimited amounts of money.”
Joseph Crawford, a 19-year-old who is taking a break from college, said he started listening to Sanders speak in 2016, even though he couldn’t vote then. Now that he can vote, he said, he continues to agree with Sanders on topics like education, minimum wage, abortion rights and, in particular, LGBTQ issues.
”I’m trans,” said Crawford, who was wearing a jacket expressing his pride in being queer. “It’s not something that fully drives me, but it has motivated me to get involved in politics. I can still get fired just for being who I am.”
Darren Laville, 18, a UNC first-year student, doesn’t have a strong preference for any of the Democratic candidates, but came to hear what Sanders had to say. The issue most important to Laville is gun control and gun laws, a topic that several attendees mentioned.
“For myself and my fellow students, we’re concerned about all the gun violence,” he said.
Rohan Krishnan, 18 and another UNC first-year student, also cares about gun control, as well as climate change, and he said the minimum wage should be at least $12. Sanders has called for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 by 2024.
Sanders’ plan to wipe out student loan debt
Sanders has proposed wiping out $1.6 trillion in student loan debt and making public colleges and universities free, including two-year, four-year and trade schools. He plans to pay for the program by placing a tax of 0.5% on stock trades, a 0.1% fee on bond trades and a 0.005 percent fee on derivative trades, according to Sanders’ campaign website. McClatchy examined Sanders’ plan and those of other top Democratic candidates.
An average 2018 North Carolina four-year college graduate has $26,683 in debt, according to a new report from The Institute for College Access & Success. Fifty-six percent of 2018 four-year graduates in the state have some debt. The North Carolina figures are slightly lower than the national averages of $29,200 and 65%.
Some states and schools have made their own moves to help make college more affordable. New York is offering tuition-free college to students from families making $125,000 per year or less. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a proposal Wednesday to make undergraduate tuition and fees at state schools free for eligible in-state residents.
Three North Carolina universities saw record enrollment after state lawmakers allowed Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University to cut their tuition to $1,000 per year for in-state students and $5,000 per year for out-of-state students, The News & Observer previously reported.
The chairman of the UNC Chapel Hill College Republicans blasted Sanders’ proposals in a joint statement with NC GOP chairman Michael Whatley released before the event.
“The extreme socialist message pushed by mainstream Democrats like Bernie Sanders is nothing more than an attempt to bribe the American public with their own money,” they said. “College students and voters both know that free college, free healthcare, and other government handouts come at a cost: Our economy, your income, and the American Dream.”
What polling shows
Before the event, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, endorsed Biden, saying he has a better chance to push North Carolina into the Democrats’ column in the 2020 election. Democrats carried the state in the 2008 presidential election, but Republicans won the state in 2012 and 2016.
“He can connect with the average American — black, white or brown,” Butterfield told the AP. “Warren and Sanders cannot win North Carolina. I have great respect for both of them, but they cannot win North Carolina. Joe Biden can.”
General election polling in the state shows Biden and Sanders both leading Trump, though Biden’s lead over the president is larger. They are the only two Democratic candidates with a lead on Trump in the state, which Trump carried by 3.6 percentage points.
“I am here to ask for your help to win the Democratic nomination,” Sanders told the crowd Thursday, “and I am here to ask for your help to enable us to defeat the most dangerous president in the history of this country.”
Sanders follows other Democratic presidential candidates to visit North Carolina this year, most recently Biden, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris. Harris spoke at the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People banquet and at St. Joseph AME Church, also in Durham, and held a campaign event in Greensboro. O’Rourke spoke at three stops in Charlotte, Greensboro and Chapel Hill. Biden raised money at a private home in Charlotte.
Sanders’ stop in Chapel Hill is the first in a series of campus visits over the next few days. On Friday he will travel to Greensboro for an afternoon speech at Bennett College, then speak that evening at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina, before heading to two more South Carolina colleges on Saturday.