ST. PAUL – Bernie Sanders hit on all the progressive high notes Tuesday during a two-stop mini-tour of Minnesota.
The Vermont senator drew crowds of more than 6,000 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Arena in the afternoon, while more than 4,500 were diverted to overflow viewing on top of the 10,000 admitted to the St. Paul RiverCentre during the nightcap of his visit.
With a large part of the crowd in St. Paul looking like this voting season would be their first, Student Farhiya Ali of St. Paul’s Hamline University warmed up thousands who waited in line as early as five hours before the event with her story of why she would be voting for Sanders in the March 1 caucus.
A recently-naturalized Somali-American, spoke on common Sanders campaign refrains of racial and gender equality and a rigged economy that benefits only the ultra-rich.
“Bernie is not afraid to say what many Americans today think, but many politicians are scared to say,” she said.
It was Sanders himself, though, who drew extended ovations while laying out his platform. He also took shots at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Walton family of Wal-Mart, billionaires who Sanders says embody the corrupt economic system in the country.
“It is not acceptable that the 20 wealthiest people in this country own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of people,” he said.
In an old hockey rink rife with millennials holding smartphones but also sprinkled with older progressives and families with kids, Sanders called on northern Minnesota residents to climb on board his campaign not just for the White House but for a wholesale, national "political revolution."
"If we stand together, if we have a vision of what this country can become, there is nothing, nothing, nothing that we can't accomplish," Sanders said.
The Vermont senator, who was an independent but joined the to Democratic Party just last year, brought his "A Future to Believe In" campaign to Minnesota as he gains in national polls and surprises pundits with his growing popularity.
Sanders said his campaign started nine months ago with little money and no campaign organization, but it has blossomed with more than 2.5 million contributions averaging just $27 each while accepting no money from corporations or Political Action Committees.
Sanders, 74, wearing a rumpled blue sportcoat and no tie, was self-deprecating about his less-than-GQ looks and his "well-combed hair" that always seems a bit out of place.
He walked into the arena to Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own" and talked for 62 minutes, touching on a litany of progressive issues -- left-wing, liberal, even socialist to his detractors -- including a doubled-to-$15-per-hour federal minimum wage, universal single-payer health care, combating global warming, reforming a broken criminal justice system, rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, decriminalizing marijuana, gender equity for pay, free public college, paid family leave for new mothers, same-sex marriage, abortion rights and an end to "endless wars in the Middle East."
But Sanders was especially passionate about economic reform, calling for increased taxes on and regulation of the finance industry and what he called the "'elephant in the room ... the greed and reckless and illegal behavior of Wall Street."
"We will not allow a rigged economy to continue," Sanders said, saying too much wealth is accumulating in too few hands, leaving most Americans feeling like they are working harder and earning less.
He also pledged to lead an overthrow of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened corporations to unlimited campaign contributions. With his voice cracking at perhaps the loudest point of the speech, Sanders said he would "fight against a corrupt campaign finance systems that allows billionaires to buy elections."
"Democracy is the right of the people to determine the future of this country, not a bunch of billionaires," he added.
Sanders cautioned his supporters not to stop working for change if he wins the Minnesota caucuses or even if he wins the White House. Instead, he said, no president can succeed at a progressive agenda "unless there's a political revolution" that shakes government to its core.
Sanders hardly mentioned his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, other than to note that he was polling better than Clinton against Donald Trump. It was Trump, in fact, who drew the brunt of Sanders' criticism, saying the Republican candidate is trying to win the election by dividing the nation across race, religion and social norms.
"We know that the road to success is to bring all the people together," Sanders said. Republicans can win in November, he added, only if people are too demoralized too vote.
Sanders first was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. Before that he served in the U.S. House, first elected in 1990. Prior to Congress, he served as mayor of Burlington, Vermont's largest city, for eight years.
Sanders is running even or just ahead of Hillary Clinton in opinion polls for the upcoming Feb. 1 Iowa party caucuses. He's also ahead in New Hampshire polls ahead of that state's Feb. 9 primary.
So far, with more than a month to go, opinion polls put Clinton ahead in Minnesota, one of several states that will hold caucuses or primaries on March 1 -- "Super Tuesday." Minnesota's delegates to the national Democratic convention will be decided based on the results of the straw poll at those caucuses in neighborhoods across the state.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis, and former state Sen. Becky Lourey introduced Sanders on Tuesday, urging supporters to remain active through the campaign into the March 1 caucuses and beyond.
"Don't say it can't be done, because it already has begun," Ellison said.
Dan Russell, DECC executive director, confirmed the crowd was "well over 5,000 ... closer to 6,000." It appears to be the largest campaign rally in Duluth since President George W. Bush appeared in the same building, drawing nearly 8,000 people in July 2004 during his re-election effort.
Forum News Service reporter Robb Jeffries contributed to this report.