In his first campaign event in the region since his heart attack earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders struck a triumphant tone.
Sanders, an independent U.S. senator from Vermont, was sidelined from the campaign trail for two weeks following a procedure on Oct. 2, during which two stents were put into his heart.
But before a crowd that filled Keene State College’s Mabel Brown Room Wednesday night, he seemed unfazed by the health scare and stayed on brand, delivering his signature pitches — increasing taxes on the rich, creating a single-payer health care system and taking on corporate interests to lessen income inequality.
“Do not accept the fact that we cannot make fundamental change in this country and provide a decent quality of life for every man, woman and child. We can do that,” Sanders, 78, said.
Sanders’ political career began in 1981, after he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vt., and then served four two-year terms. From there, he moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives and, more than 15 years later, the Senate, where he has served since 2007.
He was also the runner-up to Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Sanders spoke for about an hour Wednesday, pausing frequently as members of the 858-person audience clapped and cheered, with the occasional “Bernie” chant.
He criticized America’s “broken and racist” criminal justice system, with a promise to end the use of privately run prisons.
And he continuously touched on the ineffectiveness of today’s political climate.
“We need a president who understands that the function of the president is to bring us together, not divide us up,” Sanders said.
He also reiterated his promise to implement universal health care, to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, to make public colleges and universities tuition-free and to lead a transition to alternative energy sources to combat climate change.
Before heading to Keene, in the weeks before his heart attack, Sanders trailed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former vice president Joe Biden in national polls as well as in New Hampshire.
Then Sanders got a high-profile endorsement from freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and returned to the trail after his stent procedure.
A recent CNN poll — conducted by the University of New Hampshire between Oct. 21 and Oct. 27 with data from more than 1,200 New Hampshire residents — showed Sanders back on top in the Granite State, where he won 60 percent of the vote in the 2016 primary against Hillary Clinton.
Twenty-one percent of respondents said they support Sanders, with 18 percent favoring Warren, the data show. Biden trailed slightly at 15 percent.
Among those who turned out to Wednesday’s event was Kristen Ray, 46, of Woodstock, Vt., who said she’s a longtime Sanders fan.
“He’s been consistent in his policies and opinions and beliefs for years, and that’s important,” she said. “And he has integrity, which is also important.”
Appreciation for this sense of consistency was common among Wednesday’s attendees.
Nathan Daker, 48, of Brattleboro said he’s followed Sanders throughout his career, and strongly agrees with the senator’s plan to end the War on Drugs.
Daker said he’ll be casting his vote for Sanders in 2020, as he remains “for the people,” regardless of the circumstances.
“Bernie always does fantastic because he’s not a showman; he’s speaking from the heart,” Daker said. “There is an authenticity and genuineness that comes across when he speaks because he is authentic and he is genuine.”
Stephen Voorhees, 69, of Putney, Vt., said Sanders has made him “so proud of being a Vermonter.”
“This [event] is such a great testament to a survivor of politics and someone who has won so many hearts,” he said.
Others, like Keene State junior Megan Marcotte of Atkinson, weren’t locked in on Sanders yet. This is only the second presidential hopeful she’s seen, she explained, along with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke.
However, she said she was impressed by Sanders’ speech.
“I support a lot of things that Bernie supports,” she said. “I’m all about women’s rights and changing immigration laws ... so I just came out tonight because I was interested in learning more about what he had to say.”
But whether or not they cast their ballot for Sanders, attendees echoed one goal: to vote out President Donald Trump.
“I’m definitely voting for the person who [I think] is gonna beat Trump,” Marcotte said.