When Bernie Sanders was mayor of Burlington three decades ago, the city’s waterfront was an unsightly rail yard. He worked to remake it into a showcase public park, he said Tuesday as he kicked off his presidential run in that park. Help him get elected president, he said, and he’ll transform the country.
“The lesson to be learned is that when people stand together, and are prepared to fight back, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished,” Sanders told several thousand supporters who waved newly printed “Bernie for president” placards.
“I am proud to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America,” Sanders said, to loud applause.
With a wide array of national and local media on hand, Sanders spoke from a stage with Lake Champlain gleaming behind him. He had a stunningly perfect, if a tad warm, day for showing off the city he once ran.
The message he delivered to that national audience would not surprise anybody who’s heard Sanders speak for the last four decades. “Enough is enough,” he bellowed. “This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires.”
He added, "This campaign is going to send a message to the billionaire class. And that is: You can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. That is why we need a tax system which is fair and progressive, which makes wealthy individuals and profitable corporations begin to pay their fair share of taxes."
The candidate, who has long lambasted the “corporate media,” called for an election that focuses on the issues, not political theater.
Making a point
“This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is not about Jeb Bush or anyone else. This campaign is about the needs of the American people,” he said. “Politics in a democratic society should not be treated like a baseball game, a game show or a soap opera.”
An independent who has served 16 years in the U.S. House and nine in the U.S. Senate, Sanders is widely considered an underdog for the Democratic presidential nomination, with Hillary Clinton leading in the polls. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is expected to announce his campaign Saturday.
The Agenda for America that Sanders laid out was familiar territory for Congress’ longest-serving independent. He called for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick and vacation time, overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to corporate campaign spending, fighting climate change, making public colleges free to attend, and forcing corporations to pay “their fair share” of taxes.
They are the same issues he supports as a U.S. senator, which makes his presidential run a low-risk affair. If he loses, he’ll have brought more attention to issues he would continue to push in the Senate.
Supporters in the crowd
Sanders got a little help from many of his old hometown friends as he launched his national bid. “This guy’s been saying and doing the same stuff for the last 30 years,” said Ben Cohen, who took the stage to introduce Sanders with fellow Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Jerry Greenfield. “If he wasn’t so inspiring he’d be boring.”
Cohen and Greenfield, whose quirky company burst onto the Burlington scene in the same era when Sanders was launching his political career, also brought free ice cream for the crowd.
Cohen took on the notion that voting for an underdog like Sanders is wasting a vote. “I say voting for anyone else is flushing our country down the drain,” he said. “Let this be the start of the Bernie rebellion.”
Activist Bill McKibben of Ripton championed Sanders’ record on fighting climate change as the candidate waited backstage in the passenger seat of an idling Jeep sport-utility vehicle. Sanders, in his speech that followed, vowed that taking on climate change would be a priority in his presidential administration.
“Millions of homes and buildings need to be weatherized, our transportation system needs to be energy efficient and we need a tax on carbon to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel,” he said.
As Sanders wrapped up, he called on the crowd to help him. “I ask you to join me in this campaign to build a future that works for all of us, and not just the few on top,” he said.
He left the stage to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” wafting from the speakers.
A few minutes later, an email from Sanders' wife Jane arrived in the inboxes of Sanders supporters. “I'll never forget what I just saw in Burlington,” she said. “Bernie rocked it.” She asked for a campaign contribution.
Sanders plans to travel Wednesday to New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first presidential primary, then to Iowa, site of the first caucus, on Thursday.