Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders called on Maine Democrats to help “transform” the party through political activism at all levels of government Monday during the first stop of a national tour aimed at unifying a fractured base.

“Our job is to radically transform the Democratic Party . . . into a 50-state party and a party that does not continue to ignore half of the states in our country,” Sanders, whose populist rise caused major heartburn within the Democratic National Committee last year, told the fired-up Portland crowd at the State Theatre. “Our job is to create a democratic party, a grassroots party where decisions are made up from the bottom on up, not from the top on down.”

Sanders – who many in the crowd believe should and perhaps could have been president – took the stage immediately after the man tasked with convincing voters from Maine to Alaska that the Democratic Party still stands for them.

Tom Perez, the newly elected chairman of the DNC, acknowledged that the party will “have to earn your trust” but pledged to lead a new, more inclusive party focused on rebuilding.

“The mission of the new DNC is not simply to elect the president of the United States,” Perez said. “It is to elect Democrats from the school board to the Senate.”

More than 1,500 people gathered at the Portland theater for the event, dubbed the “Come Together and Fight Back” rally. Democrats are attempting to capitalize on opposition to President Trump – as symbolized by ongoing protests – as they gear up for 2018 congressional elections and gubernatorial races in states such as Maine.

DNC Chair Tom Perez answers questions during an interview backstage at the State Theatre before the rally. Staff photo By Carl D. Walsh

Sanders and Perez accused Trump of lying to rural and middle class Americans by seeking to cut education, workforce retraining and social programs that help communities struggling with unemployment or low incomes.

Sanders’ continuing popularity in Maine – a year after he won the state Democratic caucuses – was obvious by hundreds of the Sanders T-shirts, stickers and buttons in the riled-up crowd. And Sanders’ speech sounded, in many ways, like the countless campaign speeches he delivered across the country in 2015 and 2016.

He railed against “the greed of the billionaire class . . . and corporate America,” pledged to work toward single-payer, universal health care and called for tuition-free college, higher wages and a repeal of the Supreme Court’s campaign finance ruling in the Citizens United case. The crowd cheered loudly every time he bashed Trump and said the values of the progressive movement – a clean environment, fair wages and support for low-income children or the elderly – mirror those of most Americans.

“We are the majority,” Sanders said. “It is time we flexed our muscles. It is time we got involved in a way that we have never done before. It is time to make the political revolution.”

Sanders’ populist themes obviously resonated with many in the crowd. Perez, meanwhile, appeared to have a tougher sell for some in the crowd like Pat Frost and Dale Carmel, two Biddeford residents and registered Democrats who are die-hard “Bernie” supporters.

“Go ahead, give it their best shot,” Frost said of the DNC’s attempt to repair what she sees as a clear schism in the party. “But I do blame the DNC for Trump.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd of more than 1,500 at the State Theatre in Portland.  Staff photos by Brianna Soukup

Carmel, meanwhile, was so dismayed by the party leadership’s treatment of Sanders last year and the outcome of the primary campaign that she didn’t vote in the presidential election.

Democrats lost badly in rural areas across the country, as evidenced by the historic split in Maine.

For the first time, Maine divided its Electoral College vote between two candidates last year. Hillary Clinton won three of the state’s four Electoral College votes by winning the 1st District and the statewide popular vote, but Donald Trump picked up one elector by winning Maine’s 2nd District.

During an interview earlier Monday, Perez was asked why the DNC chose to hold its first rally of the nine-state tour in Portland, a heavily Democratic city located in Maine’s 1st District. Perez said it “certainly isn’t going to be the only visit we make in Maine to put our values into action.”

“Believe me, we eventually are going to be everywhere,” said Perez, a former labor secretary under President Obama. “I have been to towns around this state and I will continue to return to those towns. There is a lot of energy here and a lot of people who have traveled here from the 2nd Congressional District and elsewhere to talk about our shared values.”

Earlier Monday, the Maine Republican Party dismissed the Perez and Sanders appearance in Maine.

“After their party suffered historic losses in Maine’s 2nd District and across the country, Sanders and Perez should focus on offering real solutions to work with Republicans instead of doubling down on obstructionist tactics and far-left rhetoric,” Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas said in a statement. “Today’s stop in Portland is nothing more than a dog and pony show that fails to address the deep divisions in the Democrat Party.”

Afterward, Sanders supporters Leif and Richard Johnson and Audrey Silveri said they hope the tour with Perez and Sanders is a sign the DNC will be more open to the progressive wing of the party.

“I think he is the only hope of the Democratic Party and they realize it,” Silveri said.

The “Come Together and Fight Back” tour is scheduled to hold events in Kentucky, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska and Montana in the coming week.