A thin, black folding wall cut U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Durham rally in half.
On one side was the Durham Convention Center’s main ballroom, filled wall to wall — and to capacity — with ardent supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate front-runner. On the other: a smaller, darker overflow room for latecomers to the Valentine’s Day rally.
Fresh off winning the New Hampshire primary, Sanders spent part of the week campaigning around North Carolina, a key Super Tuesday state. A reported 3,100 people showed up in Durham.
Fifteen minutes before it started, Greg West hovered near the barrier. “I’m waiting for my wife, we got separated,” said West, who showed up to the event two hours early.
But no one, besides the brave few slipping past security, was getting in. It looked like his wife would have to miss this one.
“Nobody else can come into this ballroom at the time,” announced the assistant fire marshal, who said the temporary wall held back some 300 people — a diverse, young crowd united in their desire to make it into the main hall and their frustration with the capacity limit.
As West explained why he planned to vote for Sanders — a track record of consistency, a strong vision of change — his phone screen lit up and a poppy, marimba-snare ringtone started playing. His wife was calling. She had made it back to the main room, where dozens of cameras were trained on a wide stage set for Sanders. He went to join her.
Dozens of others ended up in the overflow room, where audio of the speeches played over loudspeakers. By 11:30 a.m., local progressive politicians like Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, Durham County Commissioner candidate Nida Allam and State Senate candidate Pierce Freelon, warmed up the mic. Each echoed Sanders’s calls for radical change and reminding people to support down ballot candidates. The packed crowd in the main ballroom hung to their words, tossing up “Bernie” signs, clapping on queue and quieting down to listen.
Those scattered in the overflow room chatted among themselves, biding time as they waited to hear Sanders’s voice. For a few minutes, former Ohio state senator and Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner stopped by the small corner stage with locally beloved “Bull Durham” star Susan Sarandon, briefly firing up the crowd by telling them they had the power to change America.
Diana Lynn, a self-identified member of the “Yang Gang” — fans of technology entrepreneur and former candidate Andrew Yang — said she was looking for “a new ship to jump on” after he recently dropped out of the race. Lynn hadn’t been able to arrive on time because of work, she said, and wore her green Harris Teeter uniform shirt inside out. Still, she was happy to have a chance to hear Sanders.
“People want a revolution,” Lynn said. “They’re beyond fed up. That’s how we got Trump.”
Fernando Bretos, who said he will vote for Sanders, also ended up in the overflow room after coming from work.
“It’s kind of nice that there is an overflow room, but of course I want to be in there with them,” said Bretos, a marine biologist concerned about climate change. “I kind of regret not going with Bernie the first time. I’m just going with passion and ingenuity. He speaks to me.”
Then, Sanders really did speak to Bretos. To shock and excitement, the Democratic hopeful surprised supporters and took the overflow room stage.
“The good news is we have a standing room crowd over there,” Sanders said, pointing to the wall separating them from the ballroom. “The bad news is you could not get in.”
He touted his victory in New Hampshire and promised wins to come. He listed a string of policies to cheers and the names of enemies — “the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the whole damn one percent” — to boo’s. He summarized his platform into “two basic things”: beating Donald Trump, and transforming the government and economy “so it represents all of us.”
After six minutes, Sanders left to go give a longer version of his stump speech to the main room. Most of the overflow crowd left, too.
On the way out, Lynn said she appreciated Sanders’s appearance, but was still undecided between him and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
As he headed back to work, Bretos said Sanders’s quick stop gave him goosebumps.
“It felt like a community. Like I’m not alone,” Bretos said. “Since I’ve gone to Bernie world, a lot of friends and Democrats have kind of been jabbing me, questioning me, so it’s nice to feel like I’m part of a community, to feel like I belong.”
At top: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders visits with supporters before his rally in Durham on Feb. 14. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan.