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Bernie Sanders Hits Populist Themes In Louisville Speech

Just hours before he was declared the winner of the Indiana primary, Bernie Sanders rallied with some 7,000 supporters at the Big Four Lawn on Louisville's waterfront Tuesday evening.

The Vermont senator and Democratic presidential hopeful spoke for nearly an hour. He spent the time hitting on his major themes, like the need for reforms to health care, Social Security, immigration and the U.S. criminal justice system.

Some of the evening's biggest cheers came after Sanders called for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“It is not a radical idea,” he said.

Sanders also drew strong support by calling for gender pay equity.

“We are going to end the embarrassment of women making 79 cents on the dollar compared to men,” he said.

Sanders said the country must move away from fossil fuels without specifically mentioning Kentucky’s flagging coal industry. He did, however, note that the transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources like wind and solar power could displace some residents who depend on jobs tied to the fossil fuel industry.

“There will be innocent people, people who want nothing more than to provide for their families, will be hurt in that transition,” he said.

He quickly followed that with a brief detail of legislation he supports that would provide up to $41 billion to “help workers who might be dislocated.”

Sanders also reiterated his call for free tuition for public colleges and universities. He said in today’s job market, high school degrees are not enough. To make free tuition a reality, Sanders proposed a tax on “Wall Street speculation.”

“We need the best-educated workforce in the world,” he said.

Striking a familiar campaign theme, Sanders said heavy debt can cripple students and serve as punishment for seeking higher education. He said he would work to create a system to allow people to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates to ease the burden of paying loans back.

"Now is the time for Wall Street to help the middle class of this country," he said.

As Sanders spoke, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump cruised to victory in the Indiana primary. His former rival, Sen. Ted Cruz, soon announced he was leaving the race, clearing a path for Trump to claim the nomination.

During his speech, Sanders kept his message familiar. Homing in on an issue that has affected Kentucky and Indiana in recent years, Sanders said drug addiction needs to be treated like a health issue, not a crime.

“That means, in this country, we need a revolution in mental health treatment,” he said.

Sanders also called for the creation of a single-payer health care system, which he said would enable more people to get medical treatment when they need it. Such a system could also invigorate the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit, he said, by allowing many people to leave jobs they don’t like -- but stick with -- because they have health benefits.

He also called for the demilitarization of local police departments and said police should reflect the communities they serve.

Just as he finished the speech, the sun began to appear from behind the clouds.

And shortly after that news broke that Sanders won the Indiana primary election over his challenger for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, also spoke in Louisville on Tuesday.

A loss in the Indiana primary would have been seen as a decisive blow to the Sanders campaign.

Sanders shied away from mentioning the primary election during his speech. But some of his supporters recognized they may soon have to decide if they’ll support Clinton if it becomes inevitable Sanders won’t gain the Democratic nomination.

Jude Gallagher said she’ll support Sanders until Sanders himself says not to.

“I ride the Bernie train until Bernie says it’s time now for everyone to get behind Hillary,” she said.

Estefani Sanchez said she supports Sanders because she feels he supports her.

“He’s going to help a lot of undocumented people, and that would help my family a lot,” she said. “We live day by day scared, thinking they will take a family member from you.”

Curtis Owens said Sanders' stance on health care and Social Security earned his support.

"He has a concept that a lot of politicians are missing," Owens said.

And Jesse Walker said even if Sanders fails to gain the Democratic nomination, he’ll continue to support the senator “philosophically.”

“He's contributing something to the public discourse and making the conversation about things we should be talking about," Walker said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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