HIBBING, MINN. – Wearing a steelworkers union jacket, Bernie Sanders focused his Friday campaign stop on what had many in this Iron Range crowd worried: 2,000 miners out of work.
The Democratic presidential hopeful used his appearance at Hibbing High School to denounce trade agreements and Wall Street as the reasons behind the area's economic downturn.
"I do understand what's going on up here on the Iron Range," Sanders told a crowd of about 800 people gathered in the opulent auditorium, built in the 1920s by mining revenue during better times. "The loss of many, many, many hundreds of good-paying jobs because cheap Chinese steel has been dumped into the United States.
"And together, we are going to end that."
The rally — Sanders' second in northern Minnesota — came just days before Super Tuesday, when Minnesota will join 11 other states in casting votes for presidential hopefuls. His supporters began lining up at 6 a.m., braving single-digit temperatures, but did not fill the 1,800-seat auditorium. (His rally in Duluth last month drew about 6,000 people.)
In a nearly hourlong speech, the 74-year-old U.S. senator from Vermont railed against super PACs, a "rigged" economy and "disastrous trade policies," some of which have affected the steelworkers of northeastern Minnesota. More than 2,000 workers have been laid off on the Iron Range since last year, mostly due to a glut of steel in the global market and the slowdown of the Chinese economy.
Waiting to enter the high school Friday, Kevin Thompson of Eveleth clutched a "Labor for Bernie!" sign.
For more than 30 years, Thompson has worked at United Taconite, which was once Eveleth Mines. But he's been unemployed since August, when work at the mine shut down. Sanders has been "on the right side of every issue for about 50 years," Thompson said, citing Sanders' opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"His hindsight isn't 20/20," Thompson said. "His foresight is 20/20."
Thompson worries that, if passed, the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership could deal an even bigger blow to U.S. manufacturing, and said he appreciates Sanders' opposition to the controversial new trade agreement.
"He's a big opponent of that and he speaks against it," Thompson said. "It's our bread and butter — it's our jobs."
Sanders' speech hit on themes familiar to his supporters: He called for a $15 minimum wage, free college tuition and universal health care.
But he also took aim at Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination. Sanders said "disastrous trade policies" are one reason "the middle class of this country is disappearing." He contrasted his stance on trade agreements with those of Clinton, pointing out her early support for NAFTA and claiming that she opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership only after unions pressured her to do so.
"Trust me, I will stay in opposition to the TPP," Sanders said to loud cheers.
In an op-ed column published this week in Minnesota, Clinton highlighted her opposition to TPP: "We have to set a high bar for any new trade agreements and only support them if they will create good jobs, raise wages and advance our national security," she wrote. "I opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership when it failed to meet those tests, and would oppose future agreements if they failed to meet that bar."
A passionate following
On Thursday, Clinton's campaign announced that Chelsea Clinton would include Duluth among a series of stops in Minnesota ahead of Tuesday's caucuses. In January, a Star Tribune poll of Minnesota voters showed Hillary Clinton with a 34-point lead over Sanders.
That didn't faze the passionate Sanders boosters Friday.
His supporters started lining up in front of the Hibbing High School more than two hours before the scheduled start of the rally, forming a line down the block in this city of more than 16,000 residents.
Vicki Andrews, 71, and Pat Helmberger, 80, left nearby Grand Rapids at 6 a.m., then waited in the cold, holding Sanders signs.
"Oh, we were so excited when we heard he was coming," Helmberger said.
Both Andrews and Helmberger, who identified themselves as DFLers, said they support Sanders because of his focus on income equality. They said they also appreciate his refusal to take super PAC money. Instead, he gets funds from "just ordinary people, giving what they can," Andrews said.
While Andrews is "all for a woman president," she prefers Sanders to Clinton because he is "so much more sincere and liberal and just more of a real person."
"I think the fact that [Clinton] gets so much money from Wall Street and large corporations really troubles me," Helmberger said. "When it comes time to put pressure on them, is she going to be able to do that?"
Sanders' campaign sees Minnesota as key in its fight against Clinton, and on Friday announced another rally in the state — at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester on Saturday.
"If we can win here in Minnesota, we've got a real path to victory for the Democratic nomination," Sanders told the crowd in Hibbing, to cheers and applause.
Former state Rep. Tom Rukavina, who introduced Sanders at Friday's rally, said afterward that he put a Sanders sign in his yard six months ago. He said Sanders' message, which Rukavina summarized as "the middle class is getting screwed," resonates on the Iron Range, which has a history of supporting pro-union candidates.
"What he's talking about — unfair trade and jobs moving overseas," Rukavina said, "we've felt it more than anybody."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168