Four years ago, Bernie Sanders formally announced his candidacy 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 Sanders’ appeal, as progressives discovered that much like his Brooklyn accent, his policy-dense screeds against economic inequality had not…
Four years ago, Bernie Sanders formally announced his candidacy 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 Sanders’ appeal, as progressives discovered that much like his Brooklyn accent, his policy-dense screeds against economic inequality had not changed after nearly 40 years in politics.
On Saturday, the 77-year-old democratic socialist will return to his native Brooklyn to formally announce he is running again, to unseat the Queens-born billionaire who captured the White House in 2016. It is one of several signs that this presidential campaign will be far different from his last – not least because this time, he’s running to win.
The Vermont senator will deliver his remarks at Brooklyn College, which he attended for a year before transferring to the University of Chicago, and at the Navy Yard in Chicago on Sunday night. In between the rallies, he will address a unity breakfast in Selma to commemorate the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march.
Sanders’ name recognition is sky-high but his personal story remains relatively unknown. He will attempt to reintroduce himself to the country, in an effort to show that he has evolved as a candidate. He will draw from his childhood, the son of a poor Polish immigrant in Brooklyn, and from his college years, during which he was arrested for protesting against school segregation.
These experiences, he will explain, helped to shape his core beliefs about income inequality, social justice and – an issue he has raised with increasing alarm since Trump’s election – “a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism”.
“Bernie Sanders hates to talk about Bernie Sanders,” Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator who is now a campaign co-chair, said in an earlier interview. She and other advisers believe his personal story will help him connect with voters, especially people of color he struggled to win over in 2016.
“He has to revisit his 20-year-old self, the Bernie Sanders who was fighting at the University of Chicago, who was standing up against segregation – the Bernie Sanders who was there when Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech,” Turner said.
Sanders was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and raised in a three-and-a-half bedroom, rent-controlled apartment in a heavily 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.
He attended James Madison high school, whose distinguished alumni include the supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 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.
“My childhood in Brooklyn was shaped by two profound realities,” Sanders told Brooklyn College’s graduating class in 2017. One was growing up in a family that struggled to get by on the low wages his father earned as a paint salesman. The other was being born into a family that had come to the US fleeing antisemitism in Russia and Poland. Many of his relatives did not escape, and were killed in the Holocaust.
“For them, racism, rightwing extremism and ultra-nationalism were not political issues. They were issues of life and death,” Sanders said then. “From that experience, what was indelibly stamped on my mind was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation.”
Financial pressure caused tension in the Sanders household, and that has informed his economic policy platform that seeks to raise the minimum wage, establish a Medicare for All healthcare system and make public colleges tuition-free.
“Growing up without a lot of money – I have never forgotten that there are millions of people throughout this country who struggle to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, try to save for their kids’ education or for their retirements,” he said. “People who against great odds are fighting today to live in dignity.”
Sanders’ Washington-based campaign operation is more professional, more deliberate and more diverse this time around. Acknowledging recently that his 2016 campaign had been “too white” and “too male”, Sanders has filled five senior staff positions with women and people of color. The team will be led by Faiz Shakir, who last month became the first Muslim campaign manager of a major US presidential candidate.
He has also sought to address a wave of allegations about sexual harassment and pay inequity on his first campaign, saying he will institute mandatory training and a fixed pay scale.
As Sanders hits the campaign trail for the first time as a 2020 contender, he is no longer the longshot alternative to an establishment figure, but a potential frontrunner in a crowded and unpredictable field. Many of his challengers have embraced his progressive policies – and are younger and more diverse.
But he does have an advantage as the only candidate so far who has run before and has a digital donor list. In the first week of his campaign, Sanders raised a stunning $10m, proving that he is still able to tap his grassroots supporters. His unparalleled fundraising will allow his team to scale up far earlier than he was able to in 2016 and gives them the resources to experiment with new approaches.
In a video filmed in Sanders’ old neighborhood ahead of the New York primary in April 2016, the actor Mark Ruffalo asked him if his mother, who died at 46, would have been proud of what her son had accomplished.
Sanders said she would have been “more than proud” – she would have found it unbelievable.
“When you come from a rent-controlled apartment, you don’t talk about kids becoming president of the United States,” he said. “That’s not in the discussion.”