Bernie Sanders draws 7,500 to Santa Maria, hopes for California momentum

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders answers The Tribune's questions

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders answers The Tribune's questions during his campaign stop in Santa Maria on Saturday, May 29, 2016.
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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders answers The Tribune's questions during his campaign stop in Santa Maria on Saturday, May 29, 2016.

Bernie Sanders is ready to fight for California — or at least the Golden State’s wealth of delegates.

The Democratic presidential candidate came out swinging during a Saturday stop in Santa Maria, where more than 7,500 people rallied at Ralph Baldiviez Stadium to hear him speak. Sanders, a Vermont senator, was greeted by a mix of people, from middle-schoolers to seniors. Many wore T-shirts and accessories emblazoned with “Feel the Bern,” Sanders’ unofficial campaign slogan, or phrases disparaging Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.

“It looks to me like all of you in Santa Maria are ready for a political revolution!” Sanders yelled to a cheering crowd at the start of his speech.

Sanders continues to trail candidate Hillary Clinton by more than 700 delegates, but the senator said at the rally that he’s hoping to snag the majority of California’s 546 delegates and go into the Democratic National Convention in July with enough momentum to claim the nomination. He even urged Trump to follow through on the debate the two candidates had thrown out as a possibility earlier in the week, and said he was eager to attack the Republican’s disparaging remarks about Mexicans, women and Muslims.

But Sanders’ opinions on issues that are important to Californians and Central Coast residents formed the core of his talk. He stuck close to his typical stump speech and focused primarily on a few key themes: economic equality, cheaper education, universal health care and alternative energy sources.

Sights and sounds before Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders takes the stage at a campaign rally at Santa Maria High School in Santa Maria on Saturday.

He encouraged large corporations, such as Wal-Mart, to pay workers fair wages so that employees don’t need to resort to food stamps and other public aid. Providing young people with jobs and opportunities for education is key to keeping them out of trouble and reducing the prison population, Sanders said.

“The truth is, 45 years ago here in California, and in states all over the country, tuition at your universities was virtually free,” Sanders said. “Well, if we could provide virtually free tuition to the state universities 45 years ago, we damn well can do it today.”

Although Sanders said marijuana legalization is a state issue, he said he supports making the drug legal “from a criminal justice standpoint.”

In an interview after the rally, Sanders addressed a number of local issues, including water, nuclear energy and the farmworker shortage.

Sanders said the federal government could help Californians manage the drought by pushing for “sensible water conservation practices” and helping in any way possible. Drought is a byproduct of global warming, Sanders said, so the most important way the federal government can address the problem is by being “aggressive” in phasing out fossil fuels and pushing for alternative energy sources.

“We have got to acknowledge that climate change is already doing devastating problems in this country and around the world,” he said. “You’re already on the cutting edge of that. Some parts of this country don’t perceive that.”

When asked about the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, Sanders said he’s not in favor of nuclear energy, and wants to phase out existing power plants.

“Right now, we do not know how to get rid of the toxic waste, the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants,” Sanders said. “We have no place to deposit it right now. So the idea of building new plants or continuing old plants when we don’t know how to get rid of the waste is very problematic to me. Not to mention there’s always the possibility of some tragedy taking place.”

Sanders said addressing immigration reform would be key to solving California’s farm labor shortage, “so that people who are undocumented have legal status and can be treated as normal, legal employees.” Guest worker programs are worrisome, Sanders said, as they have caused “a lot of exploitation of workers,” Sanders said.

“Making sure that these guest worker programs work efficiently and fairly is a high priority for me,” he said.

San Luis Obispo County residents who attended the rally said they approved of Sanders’ approach to income inequality and his attitude toward the power of Wall Street and large corporations.

Elisabeth Demongeot of Los Osos came to the rally with her husband, Ted Shearer. Demongeot said she came to the United States from France as a teenager and that Sanders represents all the attitudes that made her want to become a U.S. citizen.

“Everything he says we are behind,” she said.

The two said they’d support Clinton if she were to win the nomination — “the alternative is horrendous,” Shearer said — but are backing Sanders for the time being.

“I really want him to fight at the convention,” said Scott Lewis of San Luis Obispo. Sanders has a better chance than Clinton to win the national election, Lewis said.

Monica Chugar of Los Osos came to the rally with her husband and 14-month-old son, who was sporting a “Babies for Bernie” onesie. She said she likes Sanders’ affordable education ideas and attitudes toward social inequality.

“I like that he is caring for the common good of everyone,” she said.