Bernie Sanders kicked off his New York campaign with a rally in the heavily Hispanic South Bronx area of New York City on Thursday night, telling the crowd he'd win the presidency if he secures a victory in the state on April 19.
"If there is a large voter turnout, we will win," Sanders said to loud cheers. "And if we win here in New York, we are going to make it to the White House!"
Fresh off sweeping wins in Washington state, Alaska, and Hawaii last weekend, Sanders is hoping that New York, which has 247 delegates up for grabs, will deliver him a straight path to the White House. That claim is ambitious. Sanders is currently polling between 12 and 48 points behind Clinton in the latest surveys from New York. And nationally, Clinton currently has a 263-delegate advantage over Sanders. The proportional system the Democratic Party uses to allocate delegates means Sanders will have to secure victories by large margins in many of the remaining states to overcome Clinton's lead.
Both candidates this week launched their campaigns in the Empire State, each highlighting their ties to New York at separate events. On Thursday night, Sanders, who speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent, began his speech by noting he was born in New York City's most populous borough, where he grew up in a rent-controlled apartment with his family.
Sanders then launched into his familiar campaign speech on economic inequality and promised to invest in education, healthcare, and infrastructure in the South Bronx and elsewhere across the country. The speech was largely the same one he's given in every stop he's made across the country in his quest for the Democratic nomination.
On Thursday night, the smell of marijuana wafted in some parts of the park as thousands gathered to hear the Vermont senator speak — many for the first time. According to estimates from the Sanders campaign, some 18,500 people turned out to the rally in Saint Mary's Park in the Bronx Thursday. But emergency medical personnel and police at the event told VICE News they believed there were only between 2,000 to 5,000 people who actually made it into the closed off park area near the stage where Sanders spoke. Others were relegated to an overflow area in a baseball diamond adjacent to the park, where they watched Sanders speak on a big screen.
Sanders was joined on stage Thursday by actress Rosario Dawson, film director Spike Lee, and Puerto Rican rapper Residente. The Bronx has one of the largest populations of Puerto Ricans of any county in the US.
The rapper lamented Puerto Ricans' lack of self-determination in solving its crippling debt crisis. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated US territory, and residents can vote in the Democratic presidential primaries, which will be held on June 5, but not the general election. There are currently more than 4.9 million Puerto Ricans in the US — more than the population on the island of Puerto Rico itself, which had 3.7 million residents in 2011, according to the US Census Bureau.
The US territory is approximately $70 billion in debt and near default and Congress has yet to decide how to handle the issue.
On Friday, the Sanders campaign released a statement calling on Congress to allow Puerto Rico more time to restructure its debt by using "the same authority granted to every municipality in this country to restructure its debt under the supervision of a bankruptcy court."
The Sanders campaign has been ramping up its ground game ahead of the New York primary, and opened its first field office in Brooklyn last weekend. More offices will be opened in coming days and weeks, the campaign told a crowd of several hundred. Across New York state, volunteers are also hosting dozens of canvassing and outreach events, including phone banking and get out the vote canvassing sessions, in the days ahead.
Clinton's campaign established its national headquarters in Brooklyn Heights almost a year ago, roughly two miles away from the new Sanders campaign office. The former secretary of state began her New York campaign in earnest on Wednesday with a rally in Harlem, where she emphasized her eight-year stint as a senator for New York, which covered the pivotal 9/11 era.
Sanders has been pushing to schedule an additional Democratic debate in New York before the April 19 contest. On Tuesday, Clinton indicated at a campaign stop in Wisconsin she was open to the idea, but the campaigns have not yet set a date or location for the event. A Clinton campaign operative initially suggested the secretary would not agree to a debate unless the Sanders campaign changed its "tone" and refrained from negative attacks against the secretary.
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