Four years ago, Bernie Sanders formally announced his candidacy for the White House on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont, with a 35-minute, lectern-pounding preview of nearly every stump speech he would deliver.
That consistency became a part of his appeal, as progressives discovered that much like his Brooklyn accent, the senator’s policy-dense screeds against inequality had not changed after nearly 40 years in politics.
On Saturday, the 77-year-old democratic socialist returned to his native Brooklyn to formally announce a second run, aiming to unseat the Queens-born billionaire who captured the presidency in 2016. A short distance from the rent-controlled apartment in which he was raised, Sanders struck a more personal tone. It was one of several signs this campaign will be different – not least because he’s running to win.
In his address, Sanders drew a sharp contrast his lower-middle class upbringing and silver-spooned childhood of Donald Trump.
“Unlike Donald Trump,” Sanders said, after taking the stage to Brooklyn Go Hard by Jay-Z . “I know what it’s like to be in a family that lives paycheck to paycheck.”
“I did not have a mom and dad who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers and casinos and country clubs. But I had something more valuable: I had the role model of a father who had unbelievable courage in journeying across an ocean, with no money in his pocket and not knowing a word of English.
“I know where I came from,” Sanders roared, diverging from his prepared remarks and drawing wild applause. “And that is something I will never forget.”
Sanders spoke at Brooklyn College, where he attended for a year before transferring to the University of Chicago, where he joined civil rights protests. He was scheduled to fly to Illinois to speak again at the Navy Pier in Chicago on Sunday night. In between, he was to address a unity breakfast in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 1965 Bloody Sunday march.
“We’re going to win this election because we will put together the strongest grassroots coalition in the history of American politics,” Sanders said. “Donald Trump wants to divide us up by the color of our skin, where we born, our gender, our religion and our sexual orientation. We are going to do exactly the opposite.
“We are going to bring our people together – black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, gay and straight, young and old, men and women. We are going to bring our people together for an unprecedented grassroots effort, which, I am happy to tell you, already has one million people signed up to work.”
Despite the wintry weather, thousands of supporters wearing vintage Bernie 2016 T-shirts – and some in newly purchased “still feeling the Bern” fashion – crammed into the college’ campus’s snow-blanketed quad to hear the senator rattle through a familiar list of policy prescription. Even a snowman built ahead of the rally was outfitted accordingly.
Several attendees said they were pleased to see so many high-profile Democrats and 2020 contenders embrace Sanders’ platform. But for them, he remained the true progressive.
“I always say – if you want to know where someone really stands, look at their record over the last 10 years not just when they run for president,” said George Shannon, a retired police officer from the Bronx. “Bernie is the only one who has been doing this for 40 years.”
Eludina Reyes, a teacher from Manhattan, said Sanders had a better chance this time because he energizes young people. Many of her students who will be able to vote in 2020 like his ideas, she said.
After 2016, Sanders’ name recognition is indeed sky-high. But his personal story remains relatively unknown. He is now attempting to reintroduce himself to the country, in an effort to show that he has evolved as a candidate.
Introducing the senator on Saturday, the activist and blogger Shaun King recounted Sanders’ activism in the 1960s, his endorsement of Jesse Jackson for president in 1988, his opposition to apartheid in South Africa and his support for Erica Garner, the late daughter of Eric Garner, who died after a New York police officer put him in a chokehold.
King stressed repeatedly that Sanders was uncomfortable speaking about his past, wary that it might come across as political opportunism. But he said voters should know what he called “the origin story of a political revolutionary”.
“It’s his journey to this moment that makes me trust this man with our future,” King said.
Sanders was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and raised in a three-and-a-half room apartment in a Jewish neighborhood of Flatbush. An image seared in his memory, he has said, is the sight of Holocaust survivors, identifiable by the serial numbers tattooed on their arms, shopping along Kings Highway. In his remarks on Saturday, he said voters “deserve to know where I come from”.
“My father was a paint salesman who worked hard his entire life, but never made much money. My mother raised my brother and me …
“Coming from a lower-middle-class family I will never forget how money – or really lack of money – was always a point of stress in our home. My mother’s dream was that someday we would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own. That dream was never fulfilled. She died young while we were still living in that apartment.
“My father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket,” Sanders said. “He came to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread antisemitism. Needless to say I would not be with you today if he had not made that trip from Poland because virtually his entire family there was wiped out by the Nazis.”
Sanders attended James Madison high school, whose alumni include supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and five Nobel Prize winners. He was captain of the track team and ran cross-country, though to his ever-lasting dismay he did not make the school’s championship basketball team. It was also there that he made his first foray into politics, running for student body president and losing, a distant third.
Beyond the rhetorical shift, Sanders’ Washington-based campaign is more professional, more deliberate and more diverse. Acknowledging that his 2016 campaign was “too white” and “too male”, Sanders has filled five senior positions with women and people of color. The team will be led by Faiz Shakir, the first Muslim campaign manager of a major US presidential candidate.
The campaign has also sought to address a wave of allegations about sexual harassment and pay inequity in 2016, saying it will institute mandatory training and a fixed pay scale.
“Make no mistake about it,” Sanders said at the end of his roughly 35-minute speech. “This struggle is not just about defeating Donald Trump. This struggle is about taking on the incredibly powerful institutions that control the economic and political life of this country.”
As he spoke, Trump was delivering a two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, near Washington. The president attacked Democrats for embracing what he described far-left proposals, such as universal healthcare and the Green New Deal.
“America will never be a socialist country,” Trump said, to fervent applause.
In Brooklyn, Sanders answered back.
“We have something that they do not have,” he said. “We have the people.”