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Sanders Reminds Appalachia Voters He Has Championed Their Cause


Let's hear the way one Democrat is thinking about a conservative state.


Sen. Bernie Sanders visits West Virginia today. His stops include a town hall meeting in McDowell County.

INSKEEP: It's in a remote part of the state, a county where the mountains are high, the historic coal industry is dying and incomes are among the lowest in America.

MARTIN: Sanders is there because a Democratic primary is approaching. Hillary Clinton visited this week, too.

INSKEEP: But it also brings to mind a general election. West Virginia is a state that has not voted Democratic for president in this century, even though it is filled with people Sanders would like to help.


BERNIE SANDERS: You know, when we talk about poverty, Steve, we often think - well, it is too bad somebody can't afford a flat-screen TV or go out to eat. But what poverty is really about is that we have millions of people who are dying at ages much, much younger than they should in McDowell County. The average life expectancy for men in that county is 64 years of age. Sixty-four years of age. And yet, you go a six-hour drive to Fairfax County, Va., six-hour drive, a man can expect to live until the age of 82 years of age - 18 years longer than men in McDowell County.

INSKEEP: These are really compelling statistics. But there's another statistic that's on my mind, along with the poverty stats and the life-expectancy - shocking life-expectancy stats. You're going to a couple of counties - McDowell County in West Virginia is one of them - that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and then voted against him for Mitt Romney in 2012. What has been happening to the Democratic Party in the region where you're going?

SANDERS: Well, that's an excellent question. And I think it goes well beyond McDowell County and well beyond West Virginia. And I think that there are many people around the country - poor people, working people - who believe that the Democratic Party is not effectively standing up to them. Now, if I lived in McDowell County and the unemployment rate was sky-high and I saw my kid get addicted to opiates and go to jail, there were no jobs - you know what? - I would be looking at Washington and saying - what are you guys doing for me? And I'm going to look at an alternative.

I think one of the challenges that we face right now - and what my campaign is about - is making it clear that the Democratic Party must be on the side of working people and low-income people. Now, I'm talking a poverty. You got to make a stand. And the stand we've got to make is to stand with the people of McDowell County, W.Va, and poor people and working people all over this country.

INSKEEP: It's interesting when you travel in that region, as we did just a few weeks ago for MORNING EDITION here. You're in coal country. You hear people bring up Hillary Clinton in a specific way. She was criticized for saying that we're going to make coal jobs go away, even though she was going on to say - and we want to help people who lose their jobs. But she was criticized for that one part of the statement. Would you be any better from the perspective of people in Appalachia who are concerned about that...

SANDERS: Look, I have spent my whole life fighting for working people. I have a 98 percent voting record with the AFL-CIO. I have opposed disastrous trade agreements, and I think there is perhaps no candidate in the United States Senate who has a more progressive record than I do. But I also believe and understand, as a member of the Senate Environmental Committee, that climate change is real. It is caused by human activity, and it is already causing severe problems in our country and around the world. And we have a transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

Now, I introduced the most comprehensive climate change legislation ever introduced in the U.S. Senate. And in that legislation - because we understand it is not the fault of the coal miners or people involved in the fossil fuel industry - they have a right to want to feed their families and live in dignity. We have $41 billion in that legislation to make sure that those workers who might be displaced as a result of the transition away from fossil fuels get the extended unemployment benefits they need, get the education they need, get the job training that they need. And also, we are going to invest heavily into those communities.

INSKEEP: How do you speak to people in a community like that who have deeply mixed feelings about government? You may run into the same person who says I'm on Medicaid. I get various kinds of assistance, but I really don't like it. I don't like living like this. I don't like depending on government.

SANDERS: Well, I think it raises a fundamental issue about politics in America today and who we are as a civilized society. I understand that the right wing has done a very good job in suggesting that freedom - and this is the Koch brothers' line - you know, freedom is about ending Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and actually abolishing the concept of the minimum wage. So Steve, you could be a free guy and work for $4 an hour. Aren't you a lucky guy?

But you know what? Most Americans don't believe that. And one of the things I'm really proud of in this campaign is that in election after election, in primary and caucus after caucus - right here in Indiana where we won, two-thirds of the people 45 years of age or younger voted for me. And the reason, I think, is they understand that in a democratic, civilized society, government have a very important role to play. And the word has got to out. It doesn't get out all that often in the media.

INSKEEP: Well, what do you say, then, to people who just say - regardless of my own situation, it bothers me that government has to do so much for people - or is doing so much for people.

SANDERS: I think that that is mythology that has been effectively perpetrated by the big-money interests in this country. To say that, every other country in the world guarantees health care to all of their people. Every other country has paid medical and family leave. A number of countries provide free tuition in public colleges and universities. Most countries take care of their elderly and their children a lot better than we do. I think what you have seen in the last many years is a very coordinated effort on the part of corporate media and the wealthiest people in this country to perpetuate an ideology which says the government is terrible. Government is awful - oh, by the way, except when we can get some corporate welfare.

I point out in all of my speeches, Steve, that Wal-Mart, which is owned by the Walton family, the wealthiest family in this country, worth some $149 billion dollars - they get a huge subsidy from the taxpayers of this country - from you, from me, from every working person because the wages that they pay their employees are so low that many of those workers have to go on Medicaid or food stamps in order to survive. I don't think the middle class of this country should be subsidizing the wealthiest family in the United States of America.


INSKEEP: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke with us yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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