QUEENS, N.Y. ― In an endorsement speech to an overflow crowd in Queensbridge Park on Saturday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) credited Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with inspiring her to run for Congress.
“The only reason I had any hope in launching a long-shot campaign for Congress is because Bernie Sanders proved that you can run a grassroots campaign and win in an America where we almost thought it was impossible,” she said, referring to the 2016 presidential run for which she volunteered.
Then, with the crowd of tens of thousands roaring their approval, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress welcomed her “Tio Bernie” ― the oldest presidential candidate in a crowded field ― to the stage.
The image of the pair of progressive rock stars with their clasped hands raised triumphantly as they waved to the crowd perfectly encapsulated the message that Sanders hoped to send with his first rally since having a heart attack at the start of the month: that he is not only prepared to serve as president, he is the voice of the rising generation of progressive, multiracial youth.
“I am happy to report to you that I am more than ready ― more ready than ever to carry on the epic struggle that we face today,” Sanders declared. “To put it bluntly, I am back.”
Sanders, who normally ascends the stage to the sounds of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Power to the People,” chose a different track for his big comeback rally: AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
The event management firm staffing the event and providing security estimated that 25,872 people attended the rally, according to the Sanders campaign.
The New York City Parks Department said it had provided a permit for a crowd of 15,000 for the event. And while it is impossible to independently verify the figure, there were indeed throngs of attendees outside the rally perimeter and down the street because the campaign had determined the event was at its legal capacity.
If the estimate is even loosely accurate, it makes Sanders’ rally the largest of any Democratic candidate this election cycle. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts likely came closest with a mid-September rally in Manhattan that Warren’s campaign estimates drew 22,000 people.
As with other Sanders campaign rallies, the “Bernie’s Back” gathering in Queens had a festive, carnivalesque atmosphere as devout, mostly young, Berniecrats from across the metropolitan area donned swag, held homemade signs and chanted progressive slogans ― “Bernie’s back,” “Green New Deal” and “A-O-C” were just three of the favorites. At least one attendee was wearing a giant, papier-mâché mask of Sanders and was affectionately imitating him.
But Saturday’s Queens rally felt more jubilant than his other campaign rallies, which have generally not been preceded by such formative — and at times, for his supporters, frightening — developments.
At 78, though, he remains under additional pressure to prove his health and vitality after the Oct. 1 heart attack.
His campaign was working at breakneck speed in the run-up to the rally, highlighting new policy proposals and announcing three additional endorsements from New York elected officials in the hours before Sanders took the stage.
Nabbing Ocasio-Cortez’s backing was a particular coup for the campaign, given her enormous following. She said on Saturday that after nearly a year in Congress, she found Sanders’ staunch independence throughout his three decades in the same institution even more impressive.
“Behind closed doors, your arm is twisted ... and every trick in the book ― psychological and otherwise ― is used to get us to abandon the working class,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It has been in that experience of the past nine months, that I have grown to appreciate the enormous, consistent and nonstop advocacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders.”
In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, the roster of speakers that preceded Sanders was a who’s-who of progressive stars and Sanders partisans: his wife Jane; filmmaker Michael Moore; San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz; former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner; and former Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán. Each of the speakers made a point of pushing back against concerns about Sanders’ health and finding ways to distinguish him from Warren, who has overtaken him in the polls.
“The only heart attack that we should be worried about is the heart attack Wall Street is going to have when Bernie Sanders is president of the United States,” Moore bellowed.
Turner, a veteran of the 2016 campaign known for her pugnacious style, went on an extended riff blasting both former Vice President Joe Biden and Warren without naming either of them.
“There are some people who sat on the sidelines before and there was only one person who stood up to the establishment and his name is Bernard Sanders,” Turner said, referencing Warren’s neutrality during the 2016 presidential primary.
“There are many copies, but there is only one original,” she added. “I don’t know why you would take the copy, baby, when you can have the original.”
“Together, not only will we clean up our environment, but we will finally put an end to environmental racism.”
There was no substitute, however, for Sanders himself declaiming for nearly an hour, his voice occasionally growing raspy, about the ravages of corruption and inequality.
“Brothers and sisters, Congress may not talk about it, the media may not talk about it, but not only will we talk about income and wealth inequality, we are going to do something about it,” he said.
Sanders even tailored parts of his speech to fit the location, deviating from his famously consistent messaging. The campaign deliberately chose to hold the rally in a park next to the largest public housing complex in the country ― and in the shadow of New York’s dirtiest power plant.
Sanders promised that his affordable housing plan, which would create a national rent control system preventing significant rent hikes, would allot an additional $20 billion to New York City’s public housing authority alone. And he framed the Green New Deal as a solution uniquely designed to address the kind of “environmental racism” embodied by the concentration of public housing next to sources of pollution.
“Together, not only will we clean up our environment, but we will finally put an end to environmental racism,” he said.
It is not yet clear the size of the impact that Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement will have on Sanders’ campaign. Her strongest following is with left-leaning young people, who already make up Sanders’ biggest bloc of support ― albeit one where recent polling has shown him losing ground.
But there was no question at Saturday’s rally that she had breathed new excitement into Sanders’ supporters, as well as the senator himself. Sanders said he looked forward to her accompanying him on the campaign trail across the country.
“I’ve been around politics for a few years,” he said. “And it is hard to believe the degree to which in less than one year, this woman ― the youngest woman ever elected to Congress ... has transformed politics in America.”