SALT LAKE CITY — Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rallied Utah Democrats Friday with the promise the national party will help them overcome Republican dominance in the state.
"We can win here in Utah," the Vermont independent senator told a cheering crowd of more than 3,000 people filling the Rail Event Center for the Democratic National Committee's "Come Together and Fight Back" tour stop in the state.
The Democratic Party "has turned its back" on some states, but "from now on, the Democratic Party will be the party of 50 states, and that certainly includes the beautiful state of Utah," Sanders said to a roar of cheers.
The cheers turned to boos as Sanders noted Utah's entire congressional delegation, governor and legislative majority are all Republicans. "Which puts you in a great position. You have no place to go but up," he said.
Wearing a blue dress shirt and no tie, Sanders spoke from a stage dominated by a giant American flag and filled with Utah Democrats holding "Come Together" and "Fight Back" signs.
"Brothers and sisters, we are in the majority not the minority," Sanders said.
He talked about the same issues that fueled his surprisingly strong 2016 presidential campaign, including the need for universal health care, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, pay equity, free higher education and 12 weeks of paid family leave.
"As the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, we can and we must create an economy that works for all people," not just the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, Sanders said.
Also, he pledged to fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally, and declared climate change not only real but a threat that unchecked will lead to global conflict over dwindling resources.
Sanders and Democratic National Party Chairman Tom Perez are traveling to largely Republican states like Utah, including Arizona on Friday evening, to deliver a message of party unity after last year's divisive primary.
Nearly 80 percent of Utah Democrats backed Sanders in the March 2016 presidential preference votes over the party's eventual nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But Utah, a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, went for the Republican nominee, now-President Donald Trump, last year.
Perez, who came to Utah earlier this year to meet with local Democrats, tried to fire up the crowd before Sanders took the stage by calling Trump the "most dangerous president in American history" and urged them to stand up for Democratic values.
There were a few jeers aimed at Perez, who defeated a more progressive Democrat to win the party's chairmanship earlier this year, but he drew big cheers when he brought up Rep. Jason Chaffetz's surprise decision not to run for re-election.
"We're going to put Democratic House seats right here in Utah," Perez said, calling Chaffetz's raucous town hall meeting last February one of the first indicators of increased energy among Democrats after Trump took office.
"Thank you for fighting back," Perez said, telling the crowd they'd shifted the focus nationally. "They were writing the obituary for the Affordable Care Act. Now, they're writing the obituary for Jason Chaffetz. And they'll continue doing that."
Chaffetz, first elected in 2008 and the chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, announced earlier this week he would not seek re-election in 2018 and later confirmed he may step down before his term ends.
Before the rally kicked off about a half-hour late, Perez told reporters the national party was "infrastructure building" to help states like Utah that he said haven't had enough support in the past.
"We can succeed only to the extent that we have strong parties across this country," Perez said. "I'm here to make sure everybody here in Utah understands that the Democratic Party is here to stay. The Democratic Party is here to win."
But the former labor secretary under President Barack Obama had little to say about how Democrats plan to take advantage of an open congressional seat if Chaffetz steps down before the term ends.
"There's opportunities for Democrats everywhere, not just in his district, but in Congresswoman (Mia) Love's district," Perez said. If there is a special election to fill Chaffetz's seat, Perez said the national party will back the pick of Utah Democrats.
"We're not here to bless one particular candidate," he said.
At least two Democrats are in the race for Chaffetz's 3rd District seat, Cottonwood Heights doctor Kathryn Allen, who has outraised the five-term congressman, and Ben Frank, a student who volunteered for Sanders' campaign.
GOP state and national party leaders were critical of the Salt Lake City rally.
"Utah voters have time and again rejected the far-left policies that Sanders and the Democrat establishment are doubling down on," Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement.
James Evans, Utah GOP chairman, held a news conference during the rally.
"Based on the reactions of Utah Democrats, it appears going forward their strategy is to embrace socialism," Evans said, referring to Sanders' self-described Democratic socialism.
The line to get into the free event stretched from the event center at 235 N. 500 West around the block to 600 West, and people started arriving as early as 5:30 a.m. to ensure they could get inside.
Rebecca Soderquist, of American Fork, waited patiently, pushing her 2-year-old son Owen in a stroller. Owen was also with her when she stood in line for three hours in order to vote for Sanders in Utah's March 2016 Democratic presidential preference caucus.53 comments on this story
"I love Bernie. I feel like times are changing — in a good way," said Soderquist, who recently joined the Democratic Party, although she still believes "conservative values have a place, have importance. But so do Democrats."
She said she was excited to see so many Utahns waiting to see Sanders. "Hopefully, many, many more are not represented here who are supportive of this," Soderquist said.
Jacob Cope, an LDS Business School student who lives in Salt Lake City, said he came to see Sanders speak because he had reshaped his political views.
"He really opened my mind," Cope said. "I'm not as conservative as I thought I was."