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Bill Boyarsky

In the Fight to Rein In Drug Prices, Bernie Sanders Shows He’s Still Got It

Bill Boyarsky
Political Correspondent
Bill Boyarsky is a political correspondent for Truthdig. He is a former lecturer in journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Southern California. Boyarsky was city editor of…
Bill Boyarsky

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks in Los Angeles on Friday as AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein looks on. They were at a rally urging Californians to vote yes on Proposition 61, a ballot measure to lower drug prices in the state. (Dan Sternberg / AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Though the 400 to 500 women and men awaiting Bernie Sanders in the parking lot of the American Federation of Musicians in Hollywood represented a fraction of the numbers greeting him during the primary election, the turnout still was impressive—evidence of his continued popularity and support for the cause he was advocating.

For me, listening to him and talking to activists in the audience before he spoke was like stepping into a clear, clean lake after wading through the putrid muck of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton. I wondered where all these decent people come from, these folks I never see on television? Was I dreaming?

Sanders was in Hollywood Friday afternoon to speak on behalf of California Proposition 61, which seeks to reduce the exorbitant prices that drug companies are charging for pharmaceuticals. “The pharmacy industry is one of the most powerful forces in Washington,” he said. “They are getting nervous. And you are making them very nervous.”

His oratorical style was as compelling as it was the last time I heard him. That was in May before a crowd that covered much of the football field at Santa Monica High School.

Those in the audience in the Hollywood parking lot were enthused. Sanders seemed to make them feel as though they were part of an inspiring cause bigger than themselves, just as he did during the campaign. Unfortunately for Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t have that skill. She is workmanlike, too cautious to dig into her inner self for the words and emotions that would send people away from her appearances ready to crusade.

What Sanders didn’t do was mention Clinton — a notable oversight, whether accidental or deliberate. That doesn’t matter much in California, a solid Clinton state. But hopefully he urges a vote for his former rival when he’s speaking in battleground states, where Trump wants to suppress the Democratic vote. There, Clinton needs a big turnout.

I heard a yearning for Bernie as I walked through the crowd talking to people before his speech. I also found a new willingness to vote for Clinton as a way of voting against Trump.

Mike Wong, a server with day and night jobs at two restaurants, said Sanders’ loss was hard for him to take.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Wong, a Sanders volunteer during the primary. “But it’s heartening to see Bernie endorsing causes and candidates. That’s why I’m here. The primary was painful. You invest so much into something you feel so deeply about.”

Wong, now for Clinton, had not decided what to do until a month after the Democratic National Convention. “I weighed whether to sit it out,” he said. He didn’t think Green candidate Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson was viable, “and I don’t want Trump to be president.” In the end, he said he hopes he and the other Bernie backers “will hold [Clinton] accountable for Bernie’s platform.”

I encountered John Cromshaw, who hosts a program, “Politics or Pedagogy,” on progressive radio station KPFK. “I’ve never been a fan of Hillary,” he said. ”She has corporate sponsors. … I’m concerned about her militarism.” But on the plus side, he said, “she’s a typical politician who can be swayed with people who influence her. Bernie Sanders shows he is someone who can influence the course of politics.”

Not a ringing endorsement, but Cromshaw will be pitching for Clinton and against Trump on his program at the end of October, to be built around the theme “eight days, eight years — eight days to elect Hillary, eight years to keep her responsible.”Wendi Blankenship and her son Jacob were awaiting Sanders’ arrival. “I was pretty disappointed after the primary,” Jacob said. “A few days after the Democratic convention, after Bernie’s speech [backing Clinton] I decided what he said made sense.”

“I think more people will look into Hillary—I hope,” said his mother. “We’re supporting Hillary now,” said Jacob. “She’s obviously the better candidate.”

Sanders supporter Stanley Chatman, who is African-American, told me, “Trump should not be let near the White House. We cannot have a sexual predator in the White House.”

The main item on the agenda, the drug-price control measure Proposition 61, brought Chatman to the rally. “This is something that will touch everyone you know,” he said. The drug companies “will make a little less, but they still would be profitable.”

The measure would require the state to pay the same prices for prescription drugs as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, known as the federal government’s hardest bargainer when it comes to buying drugs for its patients.

California state agencies spend an estimated $4.2 billion a year for prescription drugs for the state’s Medi-Cal (Medicaid) patients, retirees and current employees through benefit programs and for prisoners. That’s a small part of the $298 billion spent nationally on prescription drugs, but as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote that “it’s enough to give the state potentially massive influence on drug pricing.” Proposition 61 campaigners say they expect Big Pharma to spend at least $100 million to defeat the measure.

“They can spend all the money they want, but they are a bunch of crooks and we are going to beat them,” Sanders told the crowd. “It is an industry that is extraordinarily greedy and one we must stand up to … enough is enough.” He called 61 the “most significant proposition in the country today. … Brothers and sisters, work hard on this issue. The entire country is looking at California.”

This is part of the revolution he talked about during the campaign, centered on electing progressives around the country and promoting citizen action. Speaking in the musician’s union parking lot, with no national media or presidential campaign-sized crowds, is unglamorous work, spreading a message to a few hundred voters at a time. Hopefully in California, those voters will spend the next three weeks campaigning hard against the drug companies.

It was good to see the old warrior, fiery as ever, spurring them on.

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