U.S. senator pushes progressive cause at Lowcountry meeting

dburley@islandpacket.comOctober 19, 2013 

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' visit Saturday to St. Helena's Island resulted in something rare in the conservative Lowcountry: a self-described socialist receiving a standing ovation.

Sanders, I-Vt., spoke before more than 150 people at the S.C. Progressive Network fall retreat and told his audience that "white, working-class people in the South" have a tendency "to vote against themselves."

"How does it happen in these states that they elect people not working in their best interest?" Sanders asked at the historic Penn Center.

Sanders, the longest-serving independent member of Congress, has visited four southern states -- Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi are the others -- in an effort to unite progressives and working- and middle-class conservatives.

"We may have disagreements," Sanders said. "That's democracy. But let's stand together on the basic economic issues we agree on."

He said the South has much to offer the progressive movement.

In an hour-long speech, Sanders, 72, laid out the issues threatening lower- and middle-class Americans.

When the figure is adjusted for inflation, the average American male worker makes $200 less now than he did 44 years ago, he said.

The median family income is also less than it was 24 years ago, he said.

One percent of the country's population owns 38 percent of its assets, he said.

"The middle class of this country, once the envy of the entire world, is disappearing," he said. "Meanwhile, the people on top are doing quite well. Better than ever."

Sanders has a fresh opportunity to address his concerns about the middle class.

On Friday, he was appointed to the congressional budget conference committee, a bipartisan group of lawmakers asked with drafting a long-term budget plan designed to avoid another government shutdown Dec. 13.

"The way to balance the budget is not on the backs of the poor, the sick and the elderly," he said. Sanders said he would fight to maintain Social Security and Medicare.

Of the government shutdown that ended last week after 16 days, Sanders said some on the Republican side Congress are driven by extremism.

He was no less sparing to Democrats.

While he caucuses with that party, Sanders refuses to run as one.

"If I ask an average person if they think the Democratic Party is the party of the working class, what do you think they would say?" he asked the crowd.

It responded loudly: "No."

Sanders ended his speech with a nod to the realities of politics in the South.

"You guys are probably under constant political pressure here," he said. "The political climate is a little different than Vermont. But I think we can and we will make progress."

His visit to Penn Center was the final stop in a tour that included meetings in Jackson, Miss., Birmingham, Ala., Atlanta and Columbia.

A spokesman for Sanders said the visits don't mean the senator has presidential ambitions in 2016. In a recent Playboy interview, Sanders said he is "99 percent" sure he will not run.

Donna Dewitt, president of the S.C. Alliance for Retired Americans, set up Saturday's meeting.

"We figured the Progressive Network event was a good place for Bernie," she said. "It's a place without political labels."

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

Related content:

Bernie Sanders website

Today's progressive activists fit right in at Penn Center

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