Bernie Sanders, who has staked his presidential campaign on fighting poverty and income inequality in America, on Thursday took his message to one of the poorest counties in America.
In the first stop of a day-long swing the Sanders motorcade careened along a two-lane road in rural McDowell County, West Virginia — the state’s southernmost point — on its way to a “community conversation” at Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank.
The Vermont senator’s remarks focused on poverty in America. He and a group of panelists spoke and listened to residents for more than an hour in what he called an “informal hearing, informal discussion.”
“We want to talk about the problems so that I and the American people can understand what’s going on,” he said. Sanders drew from familiar refrains in his campaign stump speech, reshuffling things a bit and refraining from mentioning his Democratic opponent, front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Sanders also lambasted the current campaign finance system, a cornerstone of his presidential platform.
“Anybody put $350K into a super PAC recently?” Sanders asked the crowd, who chuckled in response. “That’s another world.”
He drew parallels between his home state of Vermont and West Virginia in opiate addiction and abuse, a topic that ended up being a large focus of the discussion.
Sanders also spoke about coal, a topic that has put Clinton in a bind this week after she was confronted about comments she made in March that as president, she was going to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
“It is not the coal miners’ fault in terms of what is happening in this world,” he said, referencing job loss and links between climate change and coal mining. For his part, Sanders described his proposed legislation: a $41 billion subsidy bill for communities that have been hurt by the loss of fossil fuel jobs.
Panelist and Sanders supporter Sabrina Shrader spoke of being born into generational poverty.
“For far too long, political and governmental systems have caused and prolonged oppression … instead we need to create prosperity here,” she told the crowd.
The first question came from a young man who asked specifically how the senator would bring industry and jobs to West Virginia.
“We are going to target federal resources and federal contracts to places that need it the most. When we talk about national priorities, it is not to make the rich richer, it is to eliminate poverty and provide jobs to those that need it the most.”
The session appeared almost cathartic for the several hundred people gathered in the food bank, as more than a dozen people stood up to share their personal stories of struggle. One woman, standing shoulder to shoulder with her husband, said that he served 20 years in jail for a drug-related crime but now he has a master’s degree.
“Can he get a job? No,” she told the crowd.
Another woman broke down as she clutched the microphone and spoke of the drug epidemic in McDowell County. “Either you turn to drugs or you fight through. We have nothing else,” she said through tears. Sanders nodded soberly, taking in the stories individually, asking follow-up questions.
Rockwell Seay, a 30-year-old attorney and Democratic candidate for the state Senate, shared his story of growing up in McDowell County and the problems he sees, telling Sanders that “the drug problem, in my judgment, is very severe.”
Later he offered his opinion of the Sanders visit. “I think it’s an amazing thing. We haven’t had a presidential candidate in McDowell County if I’m not mistaken, since John F. Kennedy. If nothing else, I think Sen. Sanders brings the eyes and the ears of the world.”
A Democrat and self-proclaimed “blue no matter who,” Seay says that the challenges facing McDowell County go far beyond what a president can do in four or eight years.
“It is going to require a partnership with the federal government, the state government, the local government, and the people here. I believe that he [Sanders] could be of great help to this area, yes, but I think it’s going to require out of all of us to fix these problems. There is not a savior. There is not person who is going to sweep down from Washington and fix all the problems here.”