Bernie bombs da Bronx; Kicks off N.Y.C. campaign with big Mott Haven rally

Bernie Sanders speaking in Mott Haven, the Bronx, on Thursday, kicking off his campaigning for the critical April 19 New York presidential primary.  Photo by Sarah Ferguson

Bernie Sanders speaking in Mott Haven, the Bronx, on Thursday, kicking off his campaigning for the critical April 19 New York presidential primary. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

BY SARAH FERGUSON | New York — it’s on. Suddenly the New York primary on April 19 is being played as a critical contest for who will get to head the Democratic ticket.

And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is making headway into former New York Senator Hillary Clinton’s “home” base.

Whereas Clinton chose to jumpstart her New York campaign with a packed pep rally at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, Sanders drew more than 16,000 people to his open-air rally at St. Mary’s Park in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx.

“If we win here in New York, we are going to make it to the White House,” Sanders told the boisterous crowd, underscoring the importance of the New York primary to his underdog campaign.

Though Hillary can lay claim to two terms as senator here, Sanders emphasized deeper roots.

“My father came to this country at the age of 17 from Poland without a nickel in his pocket, so I know a little bit about the immigrant experience,” Sanders told the boisterous, multiracial crowd.

“You are the heart and soul of this revolution,” added Sanders, who grew up in a three-and-a-half-room rent-controlled apartment in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.

Sanders’s voice was hoarse as he cycled through the many themes of his campaign, from our “broken criminal justice system,” to the exploitation of immigrants, crushing student debt, and the clear and present threat of climate change.

“Instead of spending trillions of dollars on wars that never should have been fought, we are going to reinvest in the South Bronx,” Sanders vowed. “There is no reason that people should be paying 40 to 50 percent of their limited income for housing. What this campaign is about is telling Wall Street and the billionaire class that they cannot and will not have it all.”

Photo by Tequila Minsky

Photo by Tequila Minsky

People waited for more than three hours to pass through the elaborate Secret Service screening in order to enter the cordoned-off section on the south end of the park, with a large and boisterous overflow crowd watching from big monitors in an adjacent baseball field.

Warming up the crowd, actress Rosario Dawson, who endorsed Sanders last week, sought to debunk the criticism coming from the Clinton camp that Sanders had dismissed the concerns of women when he declined to lambaste Trump over his comment about “punishing” women who obtain illegal abortions. (Sanders called the proposal, which Trump later reversed, “shameful.)

Dawson said Sanders had merely been urging the media to stop giving Trump so much free airtime and instead focus on more important issues than the latest Trumpism.

“Shame on you, Hillary,” she said.

Dawson pulled no punches when it came to taking on Clinton’s record.

“Two million people were stopped because of [the N.Y.P.D. program] stop and frisk when she was senator, and she said nothing,” Dawson said. “I’m a New Yorker… We’re not interested in being divided. We don’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils.”

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Photo by Tequila Minsky



Also turning out for Sanders was movie director Spike Lee, who told the crowd: “We have to speak to our parents. The older generation, they’re on this Clinton thing. We got to get their minds right! Bernie’s gotta win New York — even Staten Island!”

Sanders was introduced by Grammy-winning rapper Residente of the Puerto Rican group Calle 13, who called Sanders “the most honest candidate there is.”

Residente, whose real name is René Pérez Joglar, took Clinton to task for praising the work of Henry Kissinger — the former U.S. secretary of state whose policies helped prop up Latin dictatorships that “disappeared thousands of people,” Joglar said.

“That alone is enough for me not to support her,” added Joglar, who has 2 million Twitter followers. “Hillary does not deserve my vote.”

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Photo by Tequila Minsky

It was a feeling expressed by many at the rally. Anathea Smuckler, a Marine veteran from Goshen, N.Y., stood at the entrance waving people in.

“Bernie is a once-in-a-lifetime candidate,” said the 26-year-old mother of two who has already traveled to South Carolina and Massachusetts to help spread the word.

“I don’t want to vote for someone who is going to have to apologize in 20 years for what they did in office,” said Smuckler, taking a stab at Clinton’s Iraq War vote and the Libya debacle. “We saw how pointless that war was already. I haven’t met a single serviceperson who supports Hillary.”

Photo by Tequila Minsky

Photo by Tequila Minsky

At her side was Ada Vargas, a 23-year old Mexican-American from Bushwick, who became a Berner after hearing Sanders speak at a little rec center in Iowa City, when she was attending the state university there. Vargas, who became a U.S. citizen three weeks ago, has been tabling on weekends in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in order to reach Latino voters, many of whom she said are being misled by the Spanish media into thinking Clinton already has the nomination wrapped up.

“Bushwick is traditionally a low-priority area because of low voter turnout, but that’s exactly who we want to reach,” Vargas said. “Once people hear who Bernie is and what he stands for, they support him.”

Spike Lee rallied the crowd and told them to "do the right thing." Photo by Tequila Minsky

Spike Lee rallied the crowd and told them to “do the right thing.” Photo by Tequila Minsky

Denise Sharp, a schoolteacher from Throggs Neck, said she was impressed that Sanders chose the South Bronx to rally the troops, in contrast to Clinton’s choice of venue at the Apollo — which she felt smacked of cliché.

“He picked a place like the South Bronx to get in the middle of us, the real people,” she said.

It was far from the stereotypical white “Bernie bro” crowd. Luis Sepúlveda, the state assemblymember for Mott Haven, drew big cheers when he said: “I am proud to be a Democrat, but I am not part of the Democratic establishment.

“They say Bernie is only supported by white men,” he added. “What I am seeing here is a beautiful mosaic of people from all different backgrounds.”

Photo by Tequila Minsky

Photo by Tequila Minsky


Sepúlveda also spoke on behalf of his home country of Puerto Rico.

“Right now, our island is being choked by the debt crisis that was created by the hedge-fund managers,” he said. “Sanders has provided the best plan to deal with the problems of Puerto Rico. Many have given lip service, but he’s said he would contribute $1 trillion to create 140,000 new jobs. That is real — that is how you solve a crisis.”

Nor was the crowd overwhelmingly young, as in past rallies. Ellen Saltzberg, who is 78, brought her 95-year-old mother, Leona Richman, and two other 60-plus friends from City Island in the Bronx.

“I like Hillary but I love Bernie,” said Richman, a former occupational therapist, her eyes twinkling. “I want a revolution. This country needs it.”

Photo by Tequila Minsky

Photo by Tequila Minsky

There were also many children. Melissa McKay, a yoga and meditation teacher from Williamsburg, came with her 11-year-old son, Phoenix, who was dressed in a blue suit jacket, tie and glasses, so he could look like Bernie. McKay said it was Phoenix who made her question her support for Hillary Clinton.

“I was going to support Hillary all throughout the fall, until I actually heard what he is talking about — the issues that I believe in,” she said. “It makes me excited again about the political process. It feels unbroken.”

Photo by Tequila Minsky

Photo by Tequila Minsky

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