Needing to distinguish himself within a crowded field of Democrats, Bernie Sanders launched his 2020 presidential campaign Saturday near the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood where he grew up in a quest to add a personal narrative to the liberal economic platform for which he’s known.
Sanders energized his loyal progressive base with a nearly 40-minute speech that leaned on a familiar populist message from his 2016 bid – a call to “no longer tolerate the greed of corporate America and the billionaire class.”
But there was a much heavier dose of biography than three years ago.
With the help of three African-American speakers who introduced Sanders, his campaign sought to chart his modest upbringing in a Jewish New York family, one that escaped Poland before the Holocaust, to his time as an activist fighting racial discrimination in the 1960s.
The U.S. senator from Vermont, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, was speaking outdoors in cold weather before a packed crowd at Brooklyn College, where Sanders attended one year in 1960.
He railed on “the 1 percent,” corporate greed and “powerful special interests” including the pharmaceutical industry. He called for universal health care, free tuition at all public universities and a $15 hourly minimum wage.
He touted plans to end tax breaks for the rich, “rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” shift from fossil fuels to other energy, and guarantee a job to every American. He also slammed President Donald Trump as the “most dangerous president in modern American history.”
The campaign logo was the same as 2016, and so was the core message.
“We’re on the brink of not just winning an election,” Sanders told his followers, “but transforming our country.”
But Sanders’ speech took a clear turn when he dove into his less-discussed past. Sanders talked about the three-and-a-half room rent-controlled apartment he grew up in at 26th Street and Kings Highway in Brooklyn.
He said his father, a paint salesman who arrived in the United States at age 17 “worked his entire life but never made much money.” He said his mother’s dream was to move their family out of that apartment, but she died before it could be realized. His father died a few years later.
“I am not going to tell you that I grew up in a home of desperate poverty,” Sanders said. “That would not be true. But what I will tell you is that 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.”
He said his experience as a child living in a family that struggled economically “powerfully influenced” his life and values. “I know where I came from, and that is something I will never forget,” Sanders noted.
He turned to the president, saying, “unlike Donald Trump, who shut down our government,” he knows what it’s like to be in a family that lives “paycheck to paycheck.”
He continued to draw a sharp contrast between his upbringing and Trump’s childhood.
“I did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers, casinos and country clubs,” he added, another dig at Trump. “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.
“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.”
Sanders’ appeal with the Democratic Party’s liberal base helped him defy expectations by running a close primary race against Hillary Clinton in 2016. But to win the party’s nomination in 2020, Sanders must emerge from perhaps more than a dozen candidates, some whom are staking out a similar lane politically as his.
Multiple contenders, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., have already discussed their backgrounds at length in the campaign.
Sanders was introduced to the stage by his wife, Jane Sanders, Scott Slawson, president of the Erie, Pennsylvania chapter of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of American, and a trio of black leaders: Democratic South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander, Democratic Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, and social justice activist Shaun King. The three each painted Sanders as a lifelong fighter for the working class and underprivileged.
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Sanders, who struggled to attract minority voters in large numbers during his 2016 bid, will need to build upon a mostly white liberal base in order to put states in play that weren’t against Clinton.
King, who backed Sanders in 2016 as well, discussed the senator’s time in Chicago as a 19-year-old fighting housing and school equality discrimination against African-Americans. Sanders was arrested in 1963 when he was among a group of young people who blocked the installation of outdoor wagons that were used as classes in overcrowded black schools.
King said Sanders has shied away from discussing his civil rights past out of fear of looking like he’s using them for “personal gain.”
“Because we never heard those stories, for most of us in our minds, Bernie has always been a disheveled, grey-haired, spectacled politician,” King said.
“His journey to this moment is so much of what makes him special and what makes him different. And it’s his journey here — not just his political views, not just his policy plans and ideas — that makes me trust this man with our future.”
Reach Joey Garrison at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @joeygarrison.