Bernie Sanders takes on the ‘billionaire class’ at rally near Seattle, home to Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in Tacoma, Wash. on Feb. 17. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Inside an arena 30 miles south of Seattle — and in the backyard of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates — Sen. Bernie Sanders told supporters what he thinks of the mega-billionaires that call the region home.

“We will not accept an economy in which three people own more wealth than the bottom half of our society, where the top 1 percent own more wealth than the bottom 92 percent, where 500,000 Americans will be homeless tonight at the same time that massive tax breaks have been given to billionaires,” he said Monday evening in front of more than 17,000 people at the Tacoma, Wash. rally.

Two out of those three people are a product of the Seattle area’s technology industry: Gates, who co-founded Microsoft, and Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.

Bezos is a frequent target of Sanders, who is campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination on the promise to restructure the U.S. economy and address income inequality. But Sanders did not name-check Bezos or Amazon during his rally at the Tacoma Dome, where supporters waited in long lines outside and packed the arena in support of the candidate.

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, an outspoken critic of Amazon, was one of the opening speakers. Unlike Sanders, she was specific in her criticisms of the Seattle-based tech giant.

“Big business tried to buy the election last year but they failed and the people won again,” Sawant said, referring to Amazon’s record spending on her opponent in November. “Now our Tax Amazon movement has tremendous momentum to tax big business to fund social housing.”

Activist John Mannella collects signatures for the ‘Tax Amazon’ campaign. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Last week, Sawant proposed a Seattle tax on businesses with the highest payroll in the city to raise money for affordable public housing. Sawant is dueling with state and city officials over a separate proposal that would empower the region to tax large businesses at a lower threshold, with the same goal.

Several members of Sawant’s “Tax Amazon” campaign collected signatures outside of the rally.

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda also spoke ahead of Sanders, along with U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Actor Tim Robbins took the stage as well; Portland, Ore.-based band Portugal. The Man performed.

Sanders did mention one member of the “billionaire class” by name: Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who happens to be running against the Vermont senator. The two candidates traded insults earlier Monday, with Sanders accusing Bloomberg of trying to buy the election.

“You’re not going to win an election when you oppose raising the minimum wage,” Sanders said on Monday. “People who have billions of dollars should not be opposed to raising the minimum wage.”

Sanders visited Washington a few days before ballots are mailed to voters. Washington’s primary is March 10, a historic change that makes the stakes higher for a state that was not always such a focus during the early stages of an election year. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another presidential hopeful, will visit the Seattle area this weekend.

Warren previously held a rally in Seattle this past August. Despite the location — just a few blocks from Amazon’s headquarters and large engineering centers for Facebook and Google — she didn’t explicitly discuss her headline-grabbing proposal to break up and more closely regulate Amazon and other big tech companies. Warren, who has a wealth tax plan, also did not cite Bezos or Gates during her speech.

Sanders closed the rally on Monday by promising attendees that a vote for him was a vote against the ultra-wealthy — a group he says has seized control of the U.S. economy and democratic system.

“They have endless — and I mean endless — amounts of money,” he said. “They own, to a large degree, the media. They have tremendous control over our economy. They are very, very powerful.

“But at the end of the day, we are the 99 percent. And the last that I heard — I don’t have a PhD in math — but the last that I heard, 99 percent is a hell of a larger number than 1 percent.”

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