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Bernie Sanders Tulsa
Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a splash in the 2016 presidential race by drawing large crowds like he did Wednesday, Feb. 24, at the Cox Business Center in Tulsa. (Joshua M. Jones)
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TULSA — “Climate change is real, climate change is caused by human activity, climate change is already causing devastating problems in our country and around the world, and — in my view — we have got to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.”

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pulled no punches in his stump speech Wednesday at the Cox Business Center in Tulsa. With close Sooner-state polling numbers between Sanders and rival Hillary Clinton going into the March 1 super Tuesday primary, the Vermont senator took direct shots at traditionally sacrosanct institutions in the conservative stronghold of Oklahoma.

“You’ll hear from my Republican colleagues about welfare abuse, that poor people rip off the welfare system. Let me tell you who the major recipient of welfare is, it is the Walton family,” Sanders emphatically bellowed from the podium, his tone almost dripping with contempt as he referenced the founding family of Wal-Mart.

In 1918, Sam Walton was born about 140 miles away in Kingfisher.

Nearly 100 years later, Sanders’ remarks about the Walton family and the oil and gas industry — both economic powerhouses in Tulsa — were well received by supporters who said they are primarily motivated by their frustrations with the status quo, a seemingly common thread for both parties during the 2016 presidential election.

“It takes balls to say that [about the Walton family] so close to their home,” said Maddie Divine, a St. Louis native who recently graduated from the University of Tulsa. “I think he represents the kind of hungry, unapologetic change that a lot of American people are ready to see given the current dynamic.”

Feel the Bern
At the Bernie Sanders rally in Tulsa on Wednesday, Feb. 24, a supporter holds a sign featuring Sanders’ top hashtag and slogan: Feel The Bern. (Joshua M. Jones)

The energy was palpable

The attacks on excessive wealth and unbridled capitalism hit home for the throngs who made it into the rally, with some estimates putting the attendance between 6,000 and 8,000. Up to a couple thousand more people were stuck outside when the venue reached capacity.

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I overheard one member of the press corps summarize the crowd by saying: “I have been to all the rallies, Cruz, Trump, and Hillary, and none compare to this in terms of energy.”

Indeed, the energy was palpable. In fact, it was undeniable. Every person I spoke to was similarly impressed with the turnout and the passion of the crowd, which never dissipated in the three-plus hours that the venue doors were open.

Marq Lewis, founder of We the People Oklahoma, a community advocacy group instrumental in the removal of disgraced Tulsa Sheriff Stanley Glanz, agreed.

“I think [Sanders] galvanizes people,” Lewis said. “That he gives people hope.”

It’s clear that something has caught on since NonDoc’s December coverage of the Hillary Clinton rally in Tulsa when polls showed Clinton up 46 percent to Sanders’ 12 in the state. Now, the Sanders campaign has closed the gap to just 2 points, according to a PPP poll. Clinton also spoke about human-created climate change in Tulsa, but her campaign has been dogged by public impression that she is giving lip service to issues Sanders truly feels.

‘He has really brought it to the kitchen table’

Polls were not the only topic in which Hillary Clinton’s name came up among attendees.

“I’ve seen Bernie Sanders on the ground in Baltimore talking to people, being with them, and I just haven’t seen that from Hillary,” Lewis said. “It’s no surprise the democratic establishment wants Hillary to be the president, but I think they need to understand that they will have a major defection if they do not listen to the supporters of Bernie Sanders. Just look at the crowd we have here today.”

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In regards to Sanders’ rise and the ripple effect it has had on the entire democratic primary, Oklahoma State Rep. Mike Shelton (D-OKC) credited an appeal to economic issues.

“He has really brought it to the kitchen table with the struggles and frustrations that people have every day,” Shelton said. “I’ve appreciated how he has caused the Hillary Clinton campaign to bring it back to the basics.”

Both Lewis and Shelton agreed they would ultimately support Clinton should she become the eventual nominee, but not everyone felt the same way.

One attendee named Matt, who declined to give his last name, said, “To be perfectly honest, I probably won’t even vote if she becomes the nominee.”

Bernie Sanders mask
A Bernie Sanders supporter dressed up in a full costume to show support at the senator’s Tulsa rally Wednesday, Feb. 24. (Joshua M. Jones)

‘Bernie is the only candidate against fracking’

In recent weeks, criticism that Sanders is a single-issue candidate has intensified. That issue, of course, is the concentration of wealth in America. Wednesday night, Sanders sought to quell that attack by talking about a variety of domestic issues: paid family leave after childbirth, climate change, criminal justice reform, minimum wage, free college tuition and exploding student loan debt.

Some supporters praised the diversity of Sanders’ platform.

“Bernie is the only candidate against fracking, which is very unpopular, especially in Oklahoma,” said Boone Reynolds, a 24-year-old Tulsa native. “But I think it would stop the earthquakes.”

Sanders’ appeal touched on other issues that typically do not find traction at the Oklahoma Capitol.

“Health care is huge for me, and I completely agree with Canada and most of Europe when they provide health care for everyone,” said Alex Herndon, a sophomore at Carl Albert college in Poteau.

Herndon is is studying social sciences and drove two hours to attend the rally. He said he believes Sanders’ priorities are all part of a larger and interconnected philosophy.

“You can look at Lawrence Lessig, now that’s a one trick pony,” Herndon said.

Bernie Sanders Woody Guthrie
2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visited the Woody Guthrie Museum on Wednesday, Feb. 24, before holding a rally in Tulsa. (Will Simcoe)

Criticizing and enjoying billionaires like George Kaiser

In all, the rabid support of Sanders that was on display Wednesday in Tulsa may not be enough for him to survive a slate of Super Tuesday contests stacked heavily with southern states. A surprise Oklahoma victory could inject life into his campaign, and it could also evidence a strong polarity in Oklahoma politics if it pairs with a Donald Trump win on the state’s Republican ballots.

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A deep conservative and oil-dependent state, Oklahoma could send its electoral votes to a billionaire mogul who wants to build a border wall and has trouble pronouncing books of the bible, as well as a Jewish democratic socialist who is pushing tax increases to finance expanded government programs.

The dichotomy is fierce.

Throughout his speech Wednesday, Sanders did not mention Clinton by name, but rather referenced Super PACs and mega donors who have undue political influence. In her December rally, Clinton also did not utter her primary opponent’s name.

Sanders threw jabs at the ultra-wealthy, consistently describing an elite group of individuals who use money and power to keep the rest of the population in a stranglehold. Sanders said they must be forced to put their money into programs that help the middle class.

While the crowd cheered Wednesday, the remarks stood in stark relief to Vice President Joe Biden’s wry joke at a Tulsa fundraiser in November when he said, “I’m not Bernie Sanders. I don’t want to punish millionaires and billionaires.”

Biden made his statement while looking in the direction of local philanthropist George Kaiser, one of the richest men in America.

Sanders made his remarks to the general public and dozens of cameras.

Perhaps ironically, Sanders had just toured the Woody Guthrie Center to view the archives of a socialist American hero from Oklahoma.

The archives were bought by Kaiser for about $3 million and are housed in the center thanks to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s ongoing support.

Bernie Sanders Tulsa
Hundreds of people lined up for hours prior to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ speech to perspective voters Wednesday, Feb. 24, in Tulsa. (Seth Feldman)

(Editor’s Note: For audio of Bernie Sanders’ stump speech in Tulsa, visit the NonDoc Soundcloud page.)

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