TUCSON, Ariz. — Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders made a pair of spirited pitches here Friday night to address continuing gun violence and pass comprehensive immigration reform during a boisterous rally that drew an estimated 13,000 people to a city park.
In a departure from his usual stump speech, which focuses heavily on economic inequality, the senator from Vermont began his remarks by zeroing in on two issues that have been prominent in Arizona — and on which his positions have not always been as liberal as most others.
Sanders, who is heading into Tuesday’s first Democratic debate in a stronger position than most anyone anticipated, referenced two shootings Friday at campuses in Arizona and Texas. In Flagstaff, Ariz., a college freshman was taken into custody after he shot four people, killing one, near a residence hall at Northern Arizona University.
Sanders offered his condolences and prayers, but then added: “We also know that we are tired of condolences, and we are tired of just prayers.”
“The truth of the matter is … the issue of gun violence is not going to be solved easily,” Sanders said, but he said that is no excuse not to seek common-sense solutions and to move the current debate beyond “yelling and demeaning” one another.
Sanders, who represents a state with a deep hunting tradition and little gun control, has a mixed record on the issue, including a vote in 1993 against the landmark Brady Bill. But he has pledged to develop a comprehensive package of reforms to stem violence, including stronger background checks for gun purchases and “a revolution” in the way the country treats mental illness.
On immigration, Sanders sought to connect with a racially mixed crowd in a state with a large Latino population by relaying the story of his father’s arrival in the United States from Poland at age 17 with little money and little ability to speak English.
“My family’s story is a story very similar to many people who are here tonight, and that story is the story of America,” Sanders said, calling it “a story rooted in family and fueled by hope.”
Sanders repeated calls he has made previously to provide legal protection for 11 million undocumented workers in the country and for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And if elected president, he said would take executive actions aimed at keeping families together.
“Our job is to bring families together, not tear them apart,” Sanders said.
Despite his inclusive tone, Sanders has in the past found himself at odds with immigration advocates at times, including a 2007 vote against a comprehensive immigration bill and voicing concerns that “open borders” are a threat to American jobs.
On Friday, he stressed his vote for a 2013 comprehensive immigration bill, and other aspects of his rally suggested a commitment to a path forward on the issue.
Among the speakers who took the stage before Sanders were 10-year-old Bob de la Rosa, who relayed to the audience that his mother had been deported and remains in Mexico.
“She tells me we are separated because she wants me to have a good education,” de la Rosa told a hushed crowd. “Kids like me need our families together.”
A mariachi band entertained the crowd gathered in the city park before Sanders took the stage at an outdoor performance center. Several audience members who sat on the stage behind Sanders held signs that spelled out “VIVA BERNIE.”
Sanders also picked up his first formal endorsement from a sitting member of Congress: Rep. Raul Grijalva, a liberal Democrat whose southern Arizona district that includes Tucson.
Grijalva is co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which Sanders helped co-found as a House member in 1991. Grijalva is also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and in a position to help Sanders with outreach to Latino voters, one of the challenges confronting his campaign once the contest moves beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.
Grijalva told the crowd he considers Sanders a friend and shares his values.
“It’s way past time that we had a national campaign and a voice that speaks truth to power,” he said.
While the endorsement was a boost to Sanders, it also served as reminder of a big advantage that Hillary Rodham Clinton maintains in the Democratic race even as Sanders has gained or surpassed her in early state polling: More than 100 members of Congress have already endorsed Clinton.
In the nomination process, such party elites are more than just cheerleaders. Roughly one-fifth of the delegates who will pick the Democratic nominee are super delegates — elected officials and other party leaders who are not bound by voting in their states. And to this point, they’ve broken overwhelmingly in Clinton’s direction.