ELDRIDGE — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders drew hundreds of people to Scott County Park, railing under a hot Sunday sun against the 1 percent, the Koch brothers and pledging a range of far-reaching policies aimed at helping the American middle class.
Sanders, a Democratic candidate for president, has been drawing large crowds across the country. And Sunday provided another example.
People arrived early, with shuttle buses helping some get from the parking lot to a shelter, where a stage was set up outside.
They waved Sanders signs, wore Sanders T-shirts and shouted like they were at a revival as he spoke for about 40 minutes.
The Vermont senator tackled a wide variety of topics, but economic inequality was the centerpiece of his remarks.
“What this campaign is about is saying to the billionaire class, ‘You can’t have it all,’” Sanders said.
Sanders said the country needs to help the middle class. He proposed three months of paid family leave, a single-payer health care plan and raising the minimum wage to $15. On the latter, he said, “it is not a radical idea. It is an American idea.”
He said too much wealth had been concentrated at the top, and that government policy gave too many tax breaks to the rich.
He also called for a massive new investment in infrastructure.
It wasn’t clear how many people attended the rally, which coincided with the Scott County Democratic Party’s annual “Picnic in the Park.”
Sanders' event was moved to the picnic early last week, when it became apparent he’d have a large crowd.
Usually, the picnic draws about 150 people, party officials say. But Sunday’s crowd went far beyond that.
Sanders not only drew Iowans, but there also were people from other states, too. There were cars in the parking lot with Illinois license plates, as well as a smattering from other states.
Still, the senator’s message is tapping into Iowans, including some who aren’t typical caucus-goers.
Bobbie Fersch, a Sanders supporter from Davenport, said she doesn’t typically go to the precinct caucuses. But this year’s she’d like to.
“He stands for the common people,” Fersch said.
Some regular party activists were at Sanders' side Sunday, too. Maria Bribriesco, who has run for the state legislature as a Democrat twice, introduced him.
Karl Rhomberg, a former county party chair, said afterward that he also is a Sanders supporter.
“Bernie speaks to all of the issues I’ve spent my life on. He really does,” Rhomberg said.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still holds a wide lead in Iowa, according to opinion polls.
A Public Policy Polling survey last week that Clinton had the support of 52 percent of Democrats, while Sanders was at 25 percent.
Still, the senator has improved his standing since getting into the race, and the size of his crowds across the country is turning heads.
Rhomberg said he believes it is too early to tell whether the big crowd and enthusiasm that was evident Sunday will turn into caucus support.
“We all loved Gene McCarthy, and we all loved Howard Dean,” Rhomberg said, speaking of candidates popular with the Democratic base early in the 1968 and 2004 party nomination races.
“The August enthusiasm may or may not carry through to January,” he said.
As Sanders left the event, he was mobbed by cheering supporters, giving him only a narrow lane to get to the campaign vehicle that whisked him away to his next event in Dubuque.
The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, was represented at the picnic by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who spoke after Sanders exited the stage.
While most of the crowd left with Sanders, Stabenow told those left that Clinton is the most prepared to be president.
She said that Clinton had fought for women’s rights and equal pay, has a new plan for bringing down college costs and would put fight passionately for the working people.
She said President Barack Obama had pulled the country out of a mess. “We are poised with the right president to move forcefully ahead and reclaim our place in terms of having a strong middle class in this country."
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also is running for the party’s nomination, as are ex-Sen. Jim Webb, of Virginia, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Vice President Joe Biden also has been more actively looking at a bid, according to recent reports.