Sanders, RAD group stress need for health care for all


BENNINGTON — As he often has, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders drew cheers here Friday as he articulated the progressive agenda during a Rights and Democracy event focusing on health care and economic justice.

But the crowd of nearly 200 that packed a steamy parish hall at St. Peters Episcopal Church responded in equal measure when Ady Barkan, an activist suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, spoke about dedicating the rest of his life to overturning the Republican-controlled Congress, ousting the Trump administration, and electing a more progressive government.

The event was sponsored by Rights and Democracy of Bennington to inspire progressives and galvanize support for universal health care and related economic issues.

Sanders, Barkan and other speakers also made two other stops in Vermont on Friday — earlier in Brattleboro and later in Bristol — to promote universal health care, celebrate the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and promote Barkan's "Be A Hero Tour," which is visiting cities and towns around the U.S.

Speaking slowly as the disease has affected the muscles that allow him to talk, Barkan, 34, said he had what he considered the "perfect life" and family before being diagnosed with ALS two years ago.

While the disease will end his life, he said, the news was also "a clarifying moment," in which he determined to focus on the causes he has pursued for as long as he can.

Barkan asked those in the packed hall to take a moment to look around the room where so many had gathered on a muggy Friday evening.

"There is standing room only in the fight for justice," he said, which Barkan said "means to me that all of you in this room share the same hope."

Barkan said he's found similar hope and enthusiasm during his tour around the country, advocating for "a new social contract" on economic and social issues.

He also advised the crowd to think back to the elections of 2000 and 2016, when Democrats were defeated for the presidency despite winning the popular vote. He asked people to think of what more they could have done then to reverse those results.

"We have two more coming up" that could reverse the current course nationally and in Vermont, he said, referring to the Nov. 6 election and that of 2020.

'An American hero'

Barkan "is a true American hero," said Sanders, who spoke last during the 90-minute stop in Bennington. "He is doing as much as anybody in this country to make the case that the time is long overdue then the United States of America should join every other major country on earth to guarantee health care for all, as a right."

Sanders urged those present to also heed Barkan's advice not "to isolate health care" as a single issue, because it is closely related to economic, rights, justice and other issues.

Sanders said he and others are seeking "a political revolution," which "means not only winning elections — and we have been winning elections all over this country — but it means transforming American society to make this country, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, the country that we know we can become."

Other speakers during the three RAD-sponsored events Friday were James Haslam, of Rights and Democracy-Vermont; Vickie Lampron and Mary Gerisch, of Rights and Democracy-Bennington; Sarah Launderville, of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, and Jennifer Flynn Walker, of the Center for Popular Democracy.

"We are here to get together and be inspired," Gerisch said in opening the event, "and to come together as a democracy and get everybody out and make our voices heard."

Haslam spoke about the effort to have a single-payer health care system in Vermont, which failed to gain enough support and was dropped in 2014.

"It was a tremendous disappointment," he said, but urged a redoubling of effort to continue that fight by electing leaders committed to universal health care, and to "develop a mandate" for change on a range of social issues.

What Sanders has done with his Our Revolution campaign nationally, Rights and Democracy has simultaneously been doing in the state, Haslam said, but the senator has given the movement a name and greater focus since his presidential campaign.

Haslam also lauded the Bennington R&D chapter, calling it "our strongest per capita in the state," and he and other speakers noted the local group's efforts during demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere to oppose the Trump administration's plan to end the ACA.

The event in Bennington was recorded by CAT-TV and will be shown on the network and posted online.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and Email: @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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