SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt., speaking at the State Theater in Portland on Monday.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, I-Vt., speaking at the State Theater in Portland on Monday.

PORTLAND

More than 1,000 people from across the state crowded into the State Theater in Portland for the kickoff of a “Come Together and Fight Back” tour across several states with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez.

“We are the majority of the American people. The American people do not want billionaires to get tax breaks. They don’t want to see our environment destroyed. They don’t want to see nutrition programs cut for hungry kids,” said Sanders. “We are the majority

— it is time we flexed our muscles.”

On Congress Street, hundreds of Mainers lined up on the sidewalk hours before the event began, waiting for a chance to see the former presidential candidate speak. Despite returning to the Senate as an independent, the Vermont senator remains popular with many Democrats in Maine, where he won the state’s Democratic caucuses in 2016.

Trisha Conley from Saco said she was concerned with the direction President Donald Trump was taking the country, and wanted to hear an alternative from Sanders and Democrat Party leadership.

“I’d like to know what their plan is. Trump’s doing all these executive orders and everything — what can they do? How are they going to fight him in Congress? Can they rally somehow?” she asked.

“I’m a woman, and I’m a mother of an LGBT child, and I’m a school counselor in a high poverty district,” said Sheri Millbury of North Yarmouth. “Personally and professionally, I’m very concerned about our future.”

“Bernie is the voice of reason. He’s kind of energized the opposition,” she added.

“I think before the election he did a lot to kind of draw attention to some issues that I think a lot of people weren’t paying attention to — primarily economic justice,” said Peter Osborne of Jay. ”Even though he didn’t quite make it in the election, I think there’s still a lot of work to do as far as helping people understand that these are not fringer views.”

“I think it’s an uphill battle, but I think it’s good that he’s doing it within the party and seeing where it goes,” added Osborne.

Yet despite the message of unity that Democrats are pushing with the tour, many attendees remained bitter at the party establishment after a hard-fought primary.

“I hope to hear that he’ll go progressive and dump the Dems,” said Soni Biehl, who travelled four hours from Lubec for the rally. “Unfortunately, I think he’s going to just say ‘Get on board with the Dems and do all your grassroots stuff.’”

The newly elected DNC chairman, Perez, was booed early on by the energetic crowd, though when it came time for his remarks he was able to win over the crowd with strong denunciations of Gov. Paul LePage.

“I got asked a number of times, why’d you choose Maine as your first stop? And you know what folks? Here’s one of the reasons: We wanted to choose a state where all of the movement members had experience working with a bully!” said Perez in his remarks. “We need to turn the page on LePage!”

Perez went on to call the governor’s veto of a bill to arm police with Narcan, a lifesaving drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, “unconscionable,” and advocated for getting around the governor’s numerous vetoes of Medicaid expansion via ballot initiative.

But the thrust of Perez’s remarks were about the future of the Democratic Party, and Perez admitted that the Democratic Party had a messaging problem.

“People said to me, ‘You know Tom, I don’t understand what the Democratic Party stands for, and I accept that criticism, and I’m here to tell you what we stand for,” he told the crowd of more than 1,000.

Part of the reason for the tour — a full year and a half before the 2018 midterm elections — was to connect with voters in purple states and make the party viable in all 50 states, and both Sanders and Perez seemed to believe that the Vermont senator’s populist message was needed to win in states like Maine. Throughout the rally, aspects of Sanders’ populist message were weaved into the Democrats’ vision, as Perez called for health care as a human right, free college tuition and strong support for unions among other things.

Maine GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas reacted to the rally in a press release earlier on Monday.

“After their party suffered historic losses in Maine’s 2nd District and across the country, Sanders and Perez should focus on offering real solutions to work with Republicans instead of doubling down on obstructionist tactics and far-left rhetoric. Today’s stop in Portland is nothing more than a dog and pony show that fails to address the deep divisions in the Democrat Party.”

The “Come Together and Fight Back” tour will continue as the week progresses, with rallies planned in Kentucky, Florida, Texas, Nebraska, Utah, Arizona and Nevada.


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