Packed house cheers Sanders as telltale Virginia Democratic primary looms

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rallied last month at the Arthur Ashe Athletic Center ahead of Super Tuesday. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Five days ahead of an important Virginia vote in next week’s Super Tuesday primary, Bernie Sanders appealed to a packed house of youthful voters in Richmond to spurn the Democratic status quo and back his campaign as the next step in the commonwealth’s progressive turn.

Riding a crest of early caucus and primary victories and an advantage over the field in recent polling, Sanders told a few thousand people jammed into a sports arena that his success has startled the party’s establishment.

“That is getting the establishment very, very nervous. And when they see a turnout like this, they get even more nervous,” Sanders said, asserting himself as the only candidate capable galvanizing a multi-generational coalition capable of defeating President Donald Trump.

“If young people vote in the same numbers that people 65 and over vote, we will not only defeat Trump in a landslide, we will transform this country forever,” Sanders said.

He also singled out Michael Bloomberg, a Republican when he was mayor of New York, for scorn. Bloomberg has been blanketing Virginia’s television markets with a heavy advertising buy for more than a month.

“Americans are tired of billionaires, whether it’s Michael Bloomberg or anyone else, trying to buy elections,” he said. “Bloomberg has the right to run for president, but he doesn’t have the right to buy the presidency.

Sanders also appealed to men in the crowd to “stand beside women in this election whose rights are under an unprecedented attack.”

Crowds waited for hours outside Richmond’s Arthur Ashe Center, queued in a line that stretched halfway around a city block on a chilly winter’s day to see the self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont. Not only did it appear overwhelmingly under the age of 30, well over half were women.

Ronald Felton got his 10-year-old daughter, Talaya, excused from her fourth-grade classes at Western Branch Intermediate School in Chesapeake early Thursday and drove 90 miles to see Sanders. He supported Sanders four years ago, will vote for him on Tuesday, and hopes to do so again in November.

“I didn’t like Hillary (Clinton), but I did the right thing and voted for her against Trump,” Felton said.

Should Sanders not be the nominee, he said, he would hold his nose and vote against Trump.

“I don’t think Trump has the best interests of our country at heart, I think he looks after his own interests,” he said. “I also think he incites a lot of divisiveness in this country and I don’t want that for my daughter.”

Myah Hidalgo, a 20-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University student from Fredericksburg, had waited for hours to see Sanders, who she intended to support in her first presidential election.

“I am taking this very seriously because it’s my first time,” she said. “I believe in Bernie and I want him to win. But if he doesn’t … well, we’ll take it as it comes.”

Other Democratic presidential candidates have been focusing on Virginia visits in advance of Super Tuesday, including Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.