BROOKLYN, N.Y. ― Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) kicked off his second presidential campaign in the New York City borough where he grew up on Saturday, sharing with a roaring crowd of thousands assembled on the snow-covered East Quad of Brooklyn College how his humble upbringing shaped his commitment to economic equality.
His speech, on the college campus where he spent the first year of his undergraduate education, aimed to reveal a more personal side of the Vermont senator that Sanders has traditionally avoided in favor of discussing his progressive politics.
But he also did so while positioning the story of his own modest childhood in New York City in stark contrast with President Donald Trump’s privileged life as a child a few miles away in Queens.
In his remarks, Sanders recalled growing up in a small, rent-controlled apartment a few miles from the Brooklyn College campus with his parents and brother. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, worked as a paint salesman, and the family’s finances fluctuated greatly.
“Coming from a lower middle-class family I will never forget about how money – or really lack of money – was always a point of stress in our family,” Sanders said as a sea of supporters waved blue-and-white “Bernie” placards behind him. “My mother’s dream was that someday our family would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own.
“That dream was never fulfilled,” he continued. “She died young while we still lived in that rent-controlled apartment.”
Sanders’ mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, died at age 46 from heart problems while Sanders was in college.
In addition, Sanders emphasized that his father’s journey as a 17-year-old to seek a better life in the United States had made him committed to immigrant rights.
“He came to the United States to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism,” Sanders said. “And it was a good thing that he came to this country when he did because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism.”
Perhaps previewing a message that could extend into the general election, Sanders also repeatedly used his own story to take shots at Trump, who started to earn $200,000 in today’s dollars at age 3 and became a millionaire at age 8.
“I did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers, casinos and country clubs. I did not come from a family that gave me a $200,000 allowance every year beginning at the age of 3. As I recall, my allowance was 25 cents a week.” Sanders said. “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, to start a new and better life.”
Instead, Sanders’ modest roots, he said, gave him an intuitive understanding of the importance of government and public services, having benefited from rent control laws and New York City public schools, including Brooklyn College, which was nearly tuition-free at the time.
“I did not come from a family that taught me to build a corporate empire through housing discrimination,” he said. “I protested housing discrimination, was arrested for protesting school segregation, and one of the proudest days of my life was attending the March on Washington for jobs and freedom led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
In other ways, the Sanders rally was a familiar affair replete with sermonic denunciations of concentrated wealth, mass incarceration and the fossil fuel industry, and calls for single-payer health care, lower drug prices, tuition-free public college, and a green transformation of the country’s energy system. He promised to unite Americans of all races behind a vision of shared economic security, as well as racial and environmental justice.
According to a Sanders aide, around 13,000 people attended his kickoff event, which featured the zany, do-it-yourself enthusiasm typical of Sanders’ 2016 rallies with many activists swathed in blue-and-white Sanders campaign regalia. One fan made a snowman on the lawn and dressed it in a Sanders T-shirt; an event volunteer wearing a banana costume held a sign, “Going bananas 4 Bernie.”
This campaign start could not have been more different from his last, when he was a fringe candidate who announced his intention to run to just a handful of reporters outside the Capitol. This time around, he enters as perhaps the frontrunner and at a minimum a fundraising force. Less than a week after he announced he would run again, Sanders had raised $10 million, much more than any other candidate over that span thus far.
Many of the other Democrats running for president in 2020 have embraced a Sanders-style progressive platform, as proposals like “Medicare For All” and free public college gaining mainstream acceptance within the Democratic Party.
But Patrick Zhen, 27, who owns a dog-walking company in Queens, said Saturday he is unsure whether some of the other candidates are genuine in their campaign promises.
“Every politician you see now, they flip on the issues because it’s convenient for them or for their political career,” said Zhen, who added that he trusts Sanders more because he’s been “consistent” his entire career.
New School undergraduate Audriana Bassis, 19, said she felt similarly as she waited to get into the rally Saturday morning.
“Any candidate can make claims to get votes,” she said. “But Bernie has the history to back it up. He’s been walking the talk for a long time.”
At one point Saturday, toward the beginning of Sanders’ remarks, he interjected as supporters drowned him out with chants of “Bernie, Bernie.”
“No, no it is not ‘Bernie’ ― it is you,” he said, prompting loud cheers.
Some of Sanders campaign literature, including the rally press passes, featured a new slogan hammering home that theme: “Not me. Us.”
Although Sanders’ Brooklyn origins are evident in his famously thick accent, he is typically more comfortable discussing his plans to curb inequality than the challenges of his Brooklyn childhood. His campaign sees his 2020 run as an opportunity to make his biography a more prominent part his populist message than it was in 2016. He is due to hold a second kickoff rally on Sunday evening in Chicago, the city where he completed his college studies and became involved in the early-1960s civil rights movement.
The details of Sanders’ life are not exactly a mystery. He began referencing them on the campaign trail as his 2016 campaign progressed.
But humanizing features of his biography often emerged without the benefit of campaign planning. A 1963 photo of Sanders, then a University of Chicago student, getting arrested protesting school segregation came out in February 2016 when the Chicago Tribune discovered it in its archives.
Sanders’ decision to hold his first major campaign events in Brooklyn and Chicago, rather than Burlington, Vermont, the adopted home-city where he kicked off his 2016 bid, is part of an effort to showcase broader and more diverse national appeal.
Sanders’ 2016 candidacy struggled from the perception that he had limited appeal among voters of color, particularly black voters. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s dominance among older black voters helped secure her landslide wins in Southern primary states.
Sanders has already taken major steps to show that his 2020 bid will shine a brighter light on his commitment to racial justice in the hopes of winning support from a broader coalition of voters. He has tapped a diverse group of campaign co-chairs and senior advisers, including campaign manager Faiz Shakir, who is likely the country’s first-ever Muslim campaign chief.
The Brooklyn rally also gave Sanders an opportunity to showcase his closest political confidantes. Following remarks by his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders, Pennsylvania-based union leader Scott Slawson, South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander (D), former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner (D) and black civil rights activist Shaun King introduced Sanders. (Notably, however, no New York elected officials spoke on Sanders’ behalf.)
King discussed Sanders’ history as the son of a Jewish immigrant, the candidate’s loss of relatives in the Holocaust and Sanders’ subsequent use of his “white privilege” to advance to cause of racial equality as a student at the University of Chicago.
“We must reject this idea that who Bernie was in the 1960s is irrelevant. I reject it,” King said. “Because who you are and what you do, what you fight for, who you fight for and who you fight against ― it’s always relevant.”
The massive crowd at the Brooklyn College rally skewed younger and reflected the racial diversity of the city in which it took place.
Michelle St. John, 42, a hospital lab technician who immigrated from Grenada, said she was attracted to Sanders’ support for Medicare for All and tuition-free public college.
“It resonates with me coming from the Caribbean and knowing that capitalism ― I don’t think it works well for the average person and I think he recognizes that,” she said.
Maira Tahir, a 20-year-old Brooklyn College student wearing a hijab, touted Sanders’ support for immigrants as well.
“He understands that we’re a country of immigrants and he understands that we’re diverse but that’s something that shouldn’t divide us but rather unite us and he’s also offering a state that takes care of its people,” Tahir said.
Standing in line Saturday morning, Bassis, the 19-year-old undergraduate student, said she felt confident the 77-year-old could best represent her generation.
“I’m going to outlive a lot of people in this line,” she added, “and I feel like the best chance by far of having a future in this country, a future for this planet, a future where people have their rights is Bernie Sanders.”