In red-state Arizona, fervent supporters await Bernie Sanders’ visit

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent and Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute event in Washington this week. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Arizona supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders – here at a September speech in Chicago – say they are attracted by the Vermont independent’s focus on income inequality. (Photo by Jim Young/Reuters)

WASHINGTON – Republican-dominated Arizona might seem an unlikely place for left-leaning Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to find votes, but what his supporters there lack in numbers they more than make up for in fervor.

The Vermont senator has evoked “an interest I have not experienced since I was in college in the ’60s,” said Lawrence W. Lee, a professional artist from Tucson, who had donated to the Bernie 2016 campaign 16 times through June 30, the most recent filing date with the Federal Election Commission.

Lee, 68, who said he has made even more donations since then, will be there with other supporters Friday night when Sanders comes to Tucson.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, is also scheduled to be there to give Sanders his first congressional endorsement – well shy of the more than 100 that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has received so far, according to published reports.

Grijalva is the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Its first chairman was Sanders, who is currently the only Senate member of the caucus.

Dan O’Neal, the Arizona state coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America, said there are clear reasons for Sanders coming to Tucson, his second visit to Arizona on the 2016 campaign trail. A July visit to Phoenix drew thousands.

“The pretty obvious reason is the Latino vote – not just in Arizona but all over the country – is so critical,” said O’Neal, who chapter is organizing the “We Want Bernie” campaign in Arizona, which is separate from Sanders’ national campaign.

O’Neal said Sanders, an independent who is running for the Democratic nomination, can deliver important messages on immigration and unity, and he can counter Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “crazy” plan of building a wall at the border and deporting the estimated 11 million people who are in this country illegally.

For Paul Barby, a retiree and progressive activist in Tucson, Sanders’ economic message of “how can people be more secure in what they earn and have to take care of their families” is driving his support. He disputes those who label Sanders a socialist.

“It’s not socialism. It’s how capitalism needs to function,” said Barby of Sanders’ focus on changing a system that gives almost all profits to the investors. Barby added that the “invisible hand is a very selfish thing.”

Barby supports Sanders regardless of the political climate in the state. He said that people have been “conditioned in Arizona” so that they don’t even think about Democrats, but that Clinton and Sanders have changed the dialogue.

“He’s been a catalyst for the dialogue in the Democratic Party,” Barby said.

Even within the Democratic Party, however, Sanders faces obstacles.

Besides her lead in endorsements, Clinton still leads in every national poll. Although that support has dwindled, she still had a 22 percent lead over Sanders in an August poll of Arizona voters by Gravis Marketing.

Clinton also had a commanding fundraising lead nationally and in Arizona as of June 30, according to the FEC. Her campaign had a total of $47.1 million in contributions, with $173,841 coming from Arizona; his had $15.1 million total, of which $44,481 was from Arizonans.

The third quarter campaign reports are due to the FEC by Oct. 15.

Barby acknowledged that money helps to spread the word, but he said people are not listening to the money as much as the message. That message will be on display Tuesday in Las Vegas, when Democrats square off for their first debate.

And whoever gets the Democratic nomination still faces a tough road in Arizona, a state that has backed the Republican nominee in 15 of the last 16 presidential elections.

But O’Neal said he believes Sanders can win in Arizona against both Clinton and the eventual Republican nominee. If he did that, he would join Bill Clinton as the only Democrat to capture Arizona’s electoral votes since Harry Truman did so in 1948.

Lee said people are generally disgusted with the state of politics in the country, and even Republicans are turning out to hear Sanders’ message on issues like income inequality.

“It’s very important for me to see there is someone standing up for the people who don’t have millions or billions of dollars,” Lee said,

He said the only thing Sanders can do in the face of his long odds in Arizona is “stay the course.”

“I hope that his overall message continues to be positive,” Lee said.