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April 06, 2016

Bernie Sanders supporters energetic as surging Democrat rallies at Temple University

Many backers cite Sanders' honesty as prime attraction

Politics Bernie Sanders
04062016_Bernie_Sanders_Temple_Rally John Kopp/PhillyVoice

Matthew Marroccelli, left, and Niko Villani, both of Vineland, New Jersey, show their support for Bernie Sanders while waiting to get into Temple University's Liacouras Center.

Turned off by the political system, Mike Howard said he has not voted in years. But that will change on April 26, when he anticipates walking into a polling booth and casting a ballot for Bernie Sanders. 

"There's a difference now," said Howard, a 56-year-old resident of Wilmington, Delaware. "We're having a challenge to the corporate control of the election process."

Howard was among several thousand Sanders supporters who packed Temple University's Liacouras Center on Wednesday night to hear the Democratic presidential candidate address myriad issues facing the country. 

"I think he has a lot of integrity," Howard said. "What he says, I believe it."

Sanders, fresh off a win in the Wisconsin primary, had a lot to say. And his energetic audience, comprised mostly of young people, spent the entirety of his hour-long speech roaring its support.

The crowd cheered loudly as Sanders pledged to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, fight for universal healthcare and combat climate change, among other progressive goals. His supporters booed as he described the ills of a corrupt campaign finance system, rigged economy and broken criminal justice system. 

Some of the loudest cheers came when Sanders discussed his proposal to make tuition free at all public colleges and universities, an effort to invest in education and mitigate escalating student debt. 

"I shouldn't have to be paying off my debt for my whole entire life to get an education," said Morgan Miller, an 18-year-old student at Downingtown East High School in Chester County. 

Many supporters lined up outside the Liacouras Center several hours before the doors opened at 5 p.m. Sanders was expected to begin speaking at 8 p.m., but he delayed his remarks by nearly an hour so more people could file into the arena. By the time he began speaking, only a couple sections in the upper deck remained vacant.

The arena seats 10,200 for a basketball game but hundreds of Sanders supporters packed its floor to get an up-close look, waving both homemade and campaign signs as he spoke. 

Duncan Brady, 18, of Landisville, Lancaster County, hoisted a poster that included the message "love trumps hate," a line Sanders used in describing unified diversity as America's greatest strength.

"I thought it was incredible," Brady said afterward. "I like that he tells it like it is. I think he's the only man ready to make change."

Like Brady, many who attended the rally were young. But the crowd also included a range of older voters, including at least one longtime Republican supporter.

Jay Falstad had backed Republican candidates for 32 years, voting for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. But the 50-year-old man from Millington, Maryland, found himself standing among a throng Sanders supporters outside the Liacouras Center Wednesday afternoon. He, too, was "Feeling the Bern."

"Right now the system is screwing our young people," Falstad said. "Everybody under 30 is getting screwed over by a political system that doesn't care about them. Sanders is the only candidate that seems concerned about the future."

"The Republican Party has been corrupted," Falstad added. "It's not the party that it used to be. Ronald Reagan's (inclusive) 'Big Tent' idea has been lost to history."

With the Pennsylvania primary on the horizon, Sanders appeared in Philadelphia for the first time Wednesday. Before the rally at Temple, he attended a smaller engagement at the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church on South Broad Street in Southwest Center City.

"He's extremely genuine," said Ed Onorato, a 25-year-old South Philly resident who is volunteering for the Vermont senator's campaign. "He's not influenced by the corrupt campaign finance system. He's been on the right side of history early on in his career."

With 210 delegates at stake, Pennsylvania remains one of the largest political battlegrounds in the Democratic primary. And only Wyoming and New York will hold their primaries before Pennsylvanians head to the polls on Tuesday, April 26.

Four smaller states – Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and Rhode Island – also vote on April 26.

Clinton also appeared in Philadelphia Wednesday, addressing union leaders who gathered at the Sheraton Hotel for the annual Pennsylvania AFL-CIO constitutional convention. Sanders will speak there Thursday morning. 

Sanders has won six straight primary and caucus contests, but still trails Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton by a significant margin in the delegate count.

Still, Sanders' supporters remain optimistic that he can overcome Clinton to win the nomination.

"I think a lot of people in Pennsylvania are receptive, especially working-class and middle-class families," said Lydia Johnson, a 20-year-old Temple student from Upper Moreland, Montgomery County. "They just need to be exposed to his message."

Sanders has gained particular traction among young voters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several Temple students said Sanders' support on campus is unmatched by the other candidates.

"It is super, super strong," said Kaden Russek, a 20-year-old from Pottstown, Montgomery County. "There is chalk graffiti for Sanders down by Anderson Hall."

Russek waited three hours with her friend, Sam Miller, to enter the arena on North Broad. But they knew of people who began lining up outside as early as 10 a.m. Wednesday.

"It's kind of strange when you find somebody who is not a Bernie supporter," said Miller, 18, of Millburn, New Jersey. "You forget that they exist."

Many students cited Sanders' genuine nature as big attraction and pointed to his decision to primarily fund his campaign via individual donors.

"I wasn't really into politics before – this is the first election I got into," said Jake Checkoway, a 19-year-old University of the Arts student. "I like Bernie's honesty. His message has been consistent throughout his life. Compared to Hillary, that's what won me over."