WORCESTER — Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders brought his fiery populist message to North High School on Saturday, telling nearly 3,000 supporters he wants a fairer political system that helps the working and middle classes.
"Here's a radical idea," Sanders said during the evening rally, which followed an earlier event in Amherst. "We're going to create an economy that works for working families, not just a handful of billionaires."
He also criticized what he called "the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America today."
The Vermont senator then rattled off a number of proposals that he says will close the gap, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, instituting a single-payer health care system, providing free public higher education and vocational training, and tightening regulations on Wall Street bankers.
Sanders spoke for 45 minutes in the gymnasium of the public high school, standing in front of a banner emblazoned with his campaign slogan, "A Future to Believe In."
He joked that when his campaign began, political experts said he would need to start a super PAC to raise large sums of money to have a chance of winning.
"It took us about 12 seconds to conclude that we do not represent the billionaire class or corporate America, and we don't want their money," said Sanders, whose campaign has touted a $33 million fund-raising haul in recent months through largely small individual donations.
He also took a swipe at GOP presidential front runner Donald Trump, who has made waves during the campaign with controversial remarks about Latino immigrants and Muslims.
Among Trump's statements was a widely criticized proposal to block all Muslims from entering the country in the wake of recent terror attacks in the United States and abroad.
"What we have to do is not let Trump and these other people divide us up," Sanders said Saturday night.
He also called for paid maternity leave for workers, equal wages for women, pressuring American corporations to manufacture products in the United States, and rolling back what he said are failed drug policies that have saddled young people with police records for arrests for marijuana possession.
In addition, he proposed easing the student debt burden faced by many Americans and for weaning the country off fossil fuels.
"The debate is over," Sanders told the crowd, which spilled into an overflow room. "Climate change is real, and it's caused by human activity."
He conspicuously failed to mention his rival Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for the nomination.
However, he said he felt he was within "striking distance" of winning the Iowa caucus and polling slightly ahead in the New Hampshire primary.
He also got a loud ovation when he referenced the Massachusetts primary and said "Don't tell anybody. We're going to win here."
Most in the crowd seemed to agree.
Enthusiasm was high before his arrival, as a line of cheering supporters snaked around the building while they waited to enter the gymnasium. Once inside, supporters packed the gym floor and bleachers, many holding placards with his slogan and chanting "Ber-nie, Ber-nie" as rock music blared from speakers.
The crowd even did the wave at one point before Sanders emerged.
Kathleen Walker, 73, of Charlton said she is supporting Sanders in part because he is the only Democratic candidate who she thinks can defeat Trump in a general election.
She said she fears many independents would be leery of casting their vote for Clinton.
"A lot of people, for whatever their issue is, don't trust her," Walker said. "Everyone likes Bernie and a lot of people trust him."
She described the Vermont senator as "an honest and good man" who has never wavered from his principles during a decades-long career in public office.
"Since the '60s, he's said and done what I believe in," Walker said.
Another supporter, Meg Miller, 23, of Providence, said Sanders's stance on climate change is appealing, as well as his vision for "breaking up big banks."
"Wall Street definitely isn't going to like him," said Miller, adding that Sanders understands "you're going to make some enemies as president if you're going to make some big changes. . . . I like that Bernie's willing to make some hard choices."
Jerry Jeffrey, 69, of Dudley said Sanders is "not beholden to anybody," whereas Clinton is too much of a Beltway "insider."
Jeffrey said he also supports Sanders's economic agenda and that the candidate recognizes that "trickle down economics, it doesn't work. It doesn't trickle [to the general population]. It stays [with the wealthiest]."
He continued, "We need to change the mindset, and that's what I think Mr. Sanders is trying to do."
Sanders echoed that sentiment at the end of his speech.
"You are now a part of the political revolution," he told the crowd before waving, shaking hands with supporters up front, and quickly exiting the stage.