Sen. Bernie Sanders drew a crowd of thousands at a Super Tuesday rally on March 1 at the Champlain Valley Expo. (Photo by Oliver Parini)

Homecoming

Bernie Sanders draws thousands to Essex rally

TOP: Sen. Bernie Sanders drew a crowd of thousands to a Super Tuesday rally at the Champlain Valley Expo. ABOVE: Attendees at Bernie Sanders' rally at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Jct. waved bright blue signs in support of the presidential hopeful. (Photos by Oliver Parini)

TOP: Sen. Bernie Sanders drew a crowd of thousands to a Super Tuesday rally at the Champlain Valley Expo. ABOVE: Attendees at Bernie Sanders’ rally at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Jct. waved bright blue signs in support of the presidential hopeful. (Photos by Oliver Parini)

Thousands of Vermonters felt the bern on Tuesday night, packing into the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Jct. to welcome their senator home with cheers and chants.

Bernie Sanders’ huge margin of victory over Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the Vermont’s primary, one of 13 this Super Tuesday, only cemented their message.

“It is good to be home,” Sanders told the thunderous crowd, thanking them for their prolonged support of himself and wife, Jane. “You have sustained me.”

The senator spoke to 4,000 ebullient supporters for 15 minutes on familiar policy points, including reforming the criminal justice system, investing in renewable energy, expanding health care and making public colleges tuition free.

“I know Secretary Clinton and many of the establishment people think that I am looking and thinking too big,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

His supporters didn’t think so, either. Many who showed on Tuesday were longtime Vermonters who have backed Sanders since his early days as mayor of Burlington.

“I feel as though we know him,” Middlebury resident Mark Evancho said, recalling images of Sanders in the town green or marching in local parades.

Milton resident Rick Dooley was impressed with Tuesday’s showing.

“You hear about these rallies with tens of thousands of folks,” he said. “It was fantastic to be one of the tens of thousands.”

Dooley said Sanders’ message of “taking back the political process” resonates with him and many others, including some of his Republican friends.

An American flag provides a thematic backdrop for this Sanders supporter. (Photo by Oliver Parini)

An American flag provides a thematic backdrop for this Sanders supporter. (Photo by Oliver Parini)

Supporters repeatedly said part of the senator’s appeal is his consistency; they’ve heard many of the populist refrains he delivered on Tuesday night for decades at home.

“He’s never changed,” Burlington supporter Kathleen Ryan said. “I feel like you can rely on him.”

At 28, Montpelier educator Laura Ballantyne credited her parents with the genesis of her support for Sanders.

“They’ve always supported Bernie, so his values were instilled in our everyday lives,” she said. “It carried over to the next generation.”

Young people, a key demographic pundits say Sanders must mobilize for a chance at the nomination, showed up in force.

Ryan, 26, particularly connected with Sanders’ stance on reducing student loan debt.

“I feel like he really understands the problem,” she said. “I like a lot of what he has to say.”

A Massachusetts native, Ryan was unfamiliar with Sanders before moving to Vermont seven years ago. She was first acquainted with his policies through her work with seniors when she took several to a dinner he hosted.

“After that, I was like, I like this guy,” she said.

Her affinity only grew when Sanders joined singer-songwriter Ben Folds and a group of local musicians in a soulful rendition of “This Land is Our Land” following his speech.

“Who does that?” Ryan said. “You can’t tell me that’s not a genuine person up there.”

There was a definitive homegrown feeling when Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield energized the crowd before Democratic candidates for governor Sue Minter and Matt Dunne each took the stage to stump for Sanders.

“I am so proud to see this man who has inspired us year after year catch fire across this country,” Minter said. “Let’s keep the fire burning.”

Supporters used any fire metaphor to proclaim their eternal “bern,” rendering the crowd a sea of bright blue with outstretched campaign signs.

“Bernie Sanders has changed presidential politics,” Dunne said, “but Bernie has not changed.”

Sanders and wife, Jane, address the large crowd. (Photo by Oliver Parini)

Sanders and wife, Jane, address the large crowd. (Photo by Oliver Parini)

2015 Vermont Teacher of the Year Rebecca Haslam also pledged her support at the rally.

Sanders used Vermont’s Town Meeting Day tradition to pontificate on the importance of democracy.

“One person, one vote,” he said to loud cheers. “Billionaires could not buy town meetings. In America, we have a corrupt finance system.”

Sanders pledged to level the playing field, drawing roars from the assembly.

“By the end of tonight, we are going to win many hundreds of delegates,” he said.

By press time, unofficial reports showed Sanders winning Vermont, Colorado, Minnesota and Oklahoma; Clinton took Massachusetts by a slim margin.

Thirty-five states remain up for grabs after Super Tuesday’s primaries, and Sanders assured supporters he would maintain the momentum they helped him build over the last nine months since first announcing his run for highest office on the Burlington waterfront.

“This campaign is not just about electing a president; it’s about making a political revolution,” he said. “I am so proud to bring Vermont values all across this country.”

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