MANCHESTER, N.H. —Bernie Sanders returned to the campaign trail on Monday and received the warmest welcome possible – a Labor Day breakfast, sponsored by the AFL-CIO, in the state that gave him one of his biggest primary wins. His mission: to help elect the Democrat who had run against him.
“We are not talking about personalities,” said Sanders, explaining why he’d endorsed Hillary Clinton and would be stumping against Donald Trump. “We are talking about which candidate will better represent the needs of the American people.”
Monday’s speech was Sanders’s first outside Vermont since the launch of his new group, Our Revolution, and his first for another candidate since the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. He had spent the weeks in between working on a book, to be published after the November election, and weighing in on politics via Twitter and occasional interviews.
In New Hampshire, Sanders was back in campaign mode, telling a roomful of Democrats and labor activists that Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, who has built a narrow lead in polls, needs to win her Senate race.
“The future of the United States Senate is to a large degree the future of the United States of America,” he said. “Our democracy today is being threatened in a very significant way by the wealth of the Koch brothers and other billionaires. You see that with Maggie Hassan. In Ohio, the billionaires will spend $100 million to buy that seat.”
Sanders’s pitch for the presidential race had not changed from the speech he gave in Philadelphia. Clinton, he said, would “nominate Supreme Court justices who will overturn Citizens United” and “fight for real criminal justice reform, something that has never occurred to Donald Trump.” After adding that Clinton would fight to make public college affordable, he noted that his campaign had moved her toward that position. “I am proud to have worked with her on this issue.”
Those sorts of reminders may prove crucial in New Hampshire, where many independents who backed Sanders have been reluctant to support Clinton, who won the state in the 2008 Democratic primaries. Sanders demolished Clinton in the primary, winning statewide by 22 points.
The lingering disappointment about Sanders’s loss was visible inside and outside the St. George Greek Orthodox Church, where the breakfast was organized. The windows of a Jeep in the church’s parking lot were soaped with the slogan “STILL SANDERS,” and two other cars had stickers for Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential candidate, sandwiched between stickers for local Democrats. Inside, speakers strenuously made the case for Clinton, based on her record and the threat of Trump, while acknowledging that she had work to do.
“We have the single-most-scrutinized presidential candidate in the history of politics,” said state AFL-CIO President Glenn Brackett.
Meanwhile, Paula Iasella, 61, stood on the side of the road waving a sign that read “No Clinton Corruption.” She’d brought a back-up sign – a painting of Sanders with the bird that had flown onto his podium during a speech in Portland, Ore. – and said she couldn’t even support Democrats like Hassan because they’d served as Clinton superdelegates.
“It’s very difficult when a man you support endorses a person you can no way support,” Iasella said. “Something so beautiful happened during the primary, thanks to this man. And it’s been replaced by this rage, this ugly rage.”
As cars rolled by and drivers honked their horns, Iasella was outnumbered roughly seven to one by supporters of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s nominee. But Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., one of the candidates who spoke before Sanders, used some of her time to admonish anyone thinking of casting a protest vote because of their love for Sanders.
“I hear from a lot of people that they’re not excited about either candidate in this race, or that there’s no difference between them,” Shaheen said. “You know, the last time I heard that was in 2000. And Al Gore lost New Hampshire by 7,000 votes, while Ralph Nader won 19,000 votes. So we got George W. Bush. We got the Iraq War.”
Shaheen spent the rest of her time ticking off achievements that Democrats had won for labor during Barack Obama’s presidency and Hassan’s two terms in Concord. “We’ve revitalized the [National Labor Relations Board], which is working hard to reform election rules and restore labor rights in this country,” Shaheen said.
Sanders took a similar tack, arguing that the gains of eight years could be lost if Republicans controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. If they lost, he said, the agenda on which he ran – a $15 minimum wage, the repeal of Citizens United – had a chance to succeed.
When Sanders wrapped up, he got a reminder of what life on the campaign trail would be like with his national profile boosted and his Secret Service detail retired. As Sanders talked to a national AFL-CIO leader, a man approached his car yelling about the threat of “empire” in America.
“Be a real socialist!” the man said. “Speak out against the empire!”
Sanders looked at him quizzically, then ducked into the car that had brought him from Vermont and would deliver him to three more events before the end of the day.