Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is the first candidate of either party to visit Pittsburgh this election cycle. About 8,500 people filled the Downtown convention center to hear the Vermont senator give his usual stump addressing affordable education and accountability on Wall Street.
But Sanders visit to the Steel City appeared to have one strong focus: “Together we are going to rebuild the trade union movement in this country.”
Pennsylvania has a long history in manufacturing and has been hit hard by a loss of jobs, many shipped overseas. Sanders played up this fact to the thousands who came to see him in Pittsburgh. Hershey, Sony, Allegheny Technologies – Sanders said they’ve all seen a lot of cuts in recent years and blamed deals like North American Free Trade Agreement that he said has hurt working class people.
Campaign button monger Jamie Earl, 54, of the South Side Slopes quit his tech job in December to make buttons full time. Earl said he donates about three-quarters of his sale price back to Sanders' campaign.
“What I like about Bernie, he’s not associated with any wall street crowd. He doesn’t take any Wall Street money or big business money, and that’s important,” he said.
Sanders also highlighted Hillary Clinton's past support of trade deals.
“These trade policies were written by corporate America for one simple purpose. And that purpose was to not have to pay workers in this country a living wage," said Sanders. "The purpose of these trade agreements was to enable them to shut down factories in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and all over this country.”
At Sanders’ rally, members of the electrical and transportation unions introduced him, including Michael Smith, who told the crowd he's been a proud member of the United Steelworkers union for 22 years.
"My Stepfather, his father, were all steel workers," Smith said. "So I’ve known literally for as long as I can remember the benefits and stability that a good, middle class, family-sustaining union job can provide.”
Those union jobs didn't hold out for native Ohioan Anita Cunningham, either.
Cunningham, 24, drove up with friends from West Virginia where she said she works three minimum wage jobs yet still doesn’t feel financially secure.
"There’s so much financial strain on me," Cunningham said. "Like I had to quit going to school because I can’t afford it anymore, and now I can’t afford health care because my father worked a steel mill job his whole life, and we don’t have any of that anymore.”
Sanders reiterated his desire to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour and offer free tuition to public colleges and universities, platforms Cunningham and her friends support but have been criticized for being too lofty and unobtainable. Sanders said in Pittsburgh he’d like to pay for them by taxing Wall Street and the wealthiest in the country.
Muhlenberg College political science professor Chris Borick said that message could take Sanders far with Pennsylvania’s blue collar workers. He said now is a good time for Sanders to pay attention to places he could be competitive.
"He has a chance to start hitting states that he’s targeting, and Pennsylvania is a major target for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton," said Borick. "It’s delegate rich. It has the types of populations that both think it can score well in.”
Long-time organizer Rob Beckwith is one such delegate. He said he loves the spirit and excitement he sees in millennial Sanders supporters, but worries they aren’t always willing to do the grunt work essential to a successful campaign.
“They will go online for five, six hours a day," said Beckwith, 68, of North Oakland. "They will go to debate watch parties, party parties, any place they can gather in a group, drink beer and eat pizza. They’ll go to marches, but that’s it.”
There's something about the one-on-one contact that seems to make them uncomfortable, he said.
Pennsylvania has a large student population, a group Sanders has done well with.
But historically, Hillary Clinton has done well in Pennsylvania.
Borick said it makes sense for Sanders to put in the effort since Pennsylvania hands out its Democratic delegates proportionally. Even if he doesn’t win, the better he does, the more delegates he could land.
Borick said he expects to see more candidates visit Pennsylvania, given the tight races.
"Pennsylvania’s always been an afterthought," he said. "But this year, on both sides, there’s still competition.”
Sanders' Pittsburgh visit comes on the heels of three of his primary victories in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. He asked his Pittsburgh supporters to help him keep up that momentum.
"With your support on April 26th and a large turnout, we’re going to win here in Pennsylvania,” he said.