Pontiac, Michigan, US – More than two years after ending his second campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders can still get large crowds to cheer widely and mobilise for his message against income and wealth inequality.
In Pontiac, Michigan – a town north of Detroit – on Friday, Sanders had a new angle to discuss beyond his usual anger about the cost of healthcare and the growing gap between the poor and the ultra-rich.
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As he campaigned for his progressive allies, Congress members Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib, the senator raged against the influence of money in politics, implicitly hitting out against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobbying group which has been spending millions of dollars to defeat progressives.
“This election is particularly important. It’s important because Andy, based on his work, deserves to be reelected; Rashida deserves to be reelected,” Sanders said. “But it’s equally important in saying that the people of Michigan have got to tell these billionaires in their corporate PACs [political action committees], they cannot buy our democracy.”
The rally in Pontiac, where Levin is running, came days before the Michigan Democratic primary on August 2, where pro-Israel groups – spearheaded by AIPAC – have been spending millions on campaign ads to get their favoured candidates elected.
Levin, a former labour organiser who hails from a renowned Jewish-American political family, has been a primary target of AIPAC this cycle.
“One group has spent $4.2m to try to defeat me because I stand for a simple proposition: The only way to have a secure peaceful homeland for the Jewish people – for my people – is to fully achieve the political and human rights of the Palestinian people. I Will. Not. Back. Down,” Levin told the crowd, stopping between the words to emphasise that he is undeterred by AIPAC’s attacks.
The pro-Israel lobby has made it a quest to defeat left-wing candidates in Democratic primaries this year through its super PAC, United Democracy Project — which uses donor funds to run ads against or in support of candidates without coordinating with their campaigns.
And so far, it has succeeded in several contests across the country.
AIPAC has not intervened directly against Tlaib, but another newly formed pro-Israel group has pledged to spend $1m to help defeat the Palestinian-American congresswoman. Still, with the advantage of incumbency, Tlaib is a favourite in the race that includes several opponents.
Levin, however, is at serious risk of losing his seat; he is running against fellow sitting Congress member Haley Stevens, a staunch Israel advocate. Parts of the two lawmakers’ old districts were merged after redistricting following the 2020 Census, and they are running against each other in a newly drawn constituency.
AIPAC and Stevens’ campaign have not returned Al Jazeera’s request for comment this week.
On Friday, Tlaib said negative ads run by “out-of-town millionaires and billionaires” make her want to “work harder” and double down on her progressive advocacy.
“We are not going to let anyone come into our communities and tell us how to vote and try to pit us against each other,” Tlaib said.
For his part, Sanders stressed that AIPAC spending against left-wing candidates is about sinking the priorities of progressives on behalf of its billionaire mega-donors.
“It has nothing to do – in my view – with Israel,” Sanders said. “It is simply trying to defeat candidates and members of Congress who stand for working families and are prepared to demand that the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share of taxes.”
Sanders called Levin’s campaign “historic”.
“The billionaire class is saying, ‘We own this country; we own the political system, and we will not tolerate dissent. Either you work for us, or get out of here.’ And Andy has chosen not to work for them,” he added.
In an audience of a few hundred attendees, dozens came with shirts and signs featuring Sanders’s image and slogans on Friday.
Lorenzo Sollena, a 29-year-old substitute teacher, said the senator from Vermont and a few of his progressive allies are the only ones challenging the political status quo in the United States.
“Bernie is the last person fighting … The country has come to a standstill. People say they care about universal healthcare, and they care about abortion rights, but nobody’s fighting back,” said Sollena, who was wearing a t-shirt featuring photos of Sanders throughout the decades with the caption: “We will never stop fighting for what is right.”