Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders brought his campaign to Santa Barbara County on Saturday, “bern-storming” in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria before thousands of supporters, most of whom queued up hours ahead of time to see him.
At each rally — a morning stop at Santa Barbara City College’s West Campus and an afternoon visit to Santa Maria High School — Sanders did not disappoint his enthusiastic fans. Authorities estimate the crowds topped 6,000 at each venue.
“In my view, a great nation is judged not by how many billionaires it has or by how many nuclear weapons it has,” Sanders said under gray skies at SBCC.
“It is treated by how it responds to the needs of the weakest and most vulnerable in that country.”
The Vermont senator’s message about the effects of wealth inequality and his calls for a political revolution that he says is vital to bringing about transformative change appeared to resonate in the North County, as well.
Joelyn Lutz of Santa Maria said his speech gave her hope that he actually could unite the nation.
“He’s got great ideals and my heart is with him,” she said.
Still looking to pull off a now-long-shot bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sanders has been campaigning in California ahead of the tightening June 7 primary. A Thursday rally at Ventura College drew nearly 10,000 people, according to the Ventura County Star.
Sanders has developed a passionate following from college students and millennials, many of whom are drawn to his plans to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, to cut student loan interest rates and to allow such loans to be refinanced.
“Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who is actually talking about what people need to be thinking about at this time in history,” Scott Lancet of Carpinteria said at the SBCC rally.
“Locally, if I may, when you talk about an unfair and unequal economy, in fact, Santa Barbara — right here — is one of the 10 most expensive ZIP codes in the country,” Sanders said from the flag-draped stage overlooking the Santa Barbara harbor and the Pacific Ocean beyond.
“But with all of the wealth in this community, Santa Barbara County has the fourth-highest poverty rate in California.”
According to data from the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research institution, Santa Barbara County, at 24.1 percent, ranks second behind Los Angeles County in terms of poverty rate between 2011 and 2013.
Clinton has a significant lead over Sanders in the number of party delegates needed to clinch the nomination, and she, too, has been campaigning in Southern California this week. She does not appear to have any local events planned, however.
Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, also has been campaigning in Southern California.
Sanders criticized Trump for what he said are dangerous and divisive attitudes, reiterating the outcomes of polls showing him leading the Republican by wider margins than Clinton, whom he said he hoped would join him in progressive stances like a call for an end to energy industry fracking.
“I just think (the California primary) plays a big, important role because if (Clinton) wins it, she can clinch the nomination,” SBCC student Vincent Gonzalez said. “Or, he can really show that he has a stronger position than what he already has.”
“I’ve been working for the campaign, and I wrote a book before about why public higher education should be free, and a lot of his proposals are similar or came from my book,” he said. “I’ve been working with the campaign and trying to get other people involved.”
In addition to his primary issue of wealth inequality, Sanders discussed the need for an expanded, less expensive education system; minimum wage increases and equal pay for women; criminal justice reform; stronger climate change laws; a more compassionate approach to immigration; and an end to the War on Drugs.
“There will be an item on your ballot in November,” Sanders told the SBCC crowd. “If I were a citizen of California, I would vote for that ballot item to legalize marijuana.”
In Santa Maria, thousands of people waited for hours for Sanders to arrive at Santa Maria High’s Dave Boyd Field. He took the stage at 2 p.m. for the rally, which lasted more than a hour.
Before his entrance, the crowd heard in English, Spanish and Mixteco about the plight of undocumented immigrants who are farm workers.
Santa Maria Valley resident Pedro Reyes told the crowd he came to the United States as a 6-year-old grandson of a Bracero worker who picked produce during World War II — “immigrants who contribute to the economic and cultural greatness who also gave life to the American dream.”
But he said the American dream became a nightmare for many of those who work in the fields, families without decent salaries or health care, pregnant women working with pesticides and workers forbidden to unionize.
“Today, all of us can create a great positive change for all of humanity,” Reyes said. “Today, we can vote and stop the dirty wars. Today, we can stand together as human beings and leave a legacy to our children to care for our planet.
“Today, more than ever, California needs to come out and vote.”
Sanders’ visit to Santa Maria is believed to be the first presidential candidate rally in recent memory. Lutz expressed skepticism that Clinton or Trump would follow suit.
“I don’t believe the other two will have anything to do with us,” she said.
Gabriela Barash drove from Atascadero to attend the rally.
“At this point I would say anybody but Trump,” she said. “That’s how desperate we are.”
Freddy Godinez donned a suit for the festivities. He said he plans to join the military and views Sanders as the person he would like to have as his commander-in-chief.
“I like Bernie,” he said, adding that Sanders focuses on the issues.
After immigrating from Iran 35 years ago and becoming a naturalized citizen, Fariba Khallaghi of San Luis Obispo said she loves what she hears from Sanders.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “I never thought I’d live this long to see such a thing happen in America. It is just incredible.”
Khallaghi cited Sanders’ stances on the need to reform the justice system, education and more.
“Every single thing that he says,” she added. “There is hope.”
Late Saturday afternoon, Santa Maria police Lt. Dan Cohen said approximately 6,000 people went through metal detectors set up at the Santa Maria High venue.
The department brought in 45 extra officers to work the event with assistance coming from other public safety agencies, including Lompoc police, the Sheriff’s Department, UCSB police and State Parks officers.
Public safety surveillance cameras also were placed in the area as a precaution, Cohen said.
Additionally, Santa Maria municipal staff also assisted, including city rangers and others. With parking spilling into neighborhoods, the city opened the Adam Park soccer fields to accommodate vehicles at $10 each.
Cohen said some drivers who illegally parked in Buena Vista Park ended up getting towed.
In addition to having to scramble to plan for the rally, police also had to account for the fact the rally was occurring next to the Santa Maria Fairpark, which this weekend is hosting the 35th annual West Coast Kustoms Cruisin’ Nationals car show.
Despite the overlap, Cohen said therer were few traffic problems and the crowd was well-behaved.
“It was incredibly smooth,” he said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at email@example.com and Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli contributed to this report. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.