Sen. Bernie Sanders working the crowd at his presidential campaign rally in Brooklyn
Bernie 2.0 turns out to be a lot like the old operating system.
Confounding media speculation that his current campaign for president would introduce revealing personal elements, the Vermont senator's speech at a Brooklyn College presidential campaign kickoff rally on Saturday consisted largely of themes he's been sounding for the past 40 years.
Sanders did pause 20 minutes into his 35-minute oration to offer “a few personal words.”
He spoke of his Polish immigrant father, a paint salesman “who worked hard his entire life but never made much money.” Most of Eli Sanders' family, the candidate noted, had been “wiped out by Nazi barbarism.”
Sanders also described growing up in a three-and-a-half-room apartment not far from the snow-covered college quadrangle where he was addressing an adoring crowd of about 10,000.
“My mother’s dream was that someday we would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own," Sanders recounted. "That dream was never fulfilled. She died young while we were still living in that apartment."
His father also died an early death. Sanders and his older brother, Larry, were thus without parents by their college years. Bernie spent one year at Brooklyn College before transferring to the University of Chicago, where he earned a bachelor's degree. Larry, he pointed out to the homies on Saturday, actually graduated from Brooklyn College.
Sanders prefaced his autobiographical aside by acknowledging that “you deserve to know where I come from, because family history heavily influences the values we adopt as adults.” And nearing the end of his five-minute personal account, Sanders shouted, “I know where I come from!”
Sanders quickly returned for the balance of his speech to a recitation of the issues that had propelled him to prominence in the 2016 campaign.
He had managed earlier to touch on “a broken criminal justice system,” the need for a minimum wage of “at least 15 bucks an hour,” the closing of tax loopholes for “the 1 percent” and a halt to “the demonizing of undocumented immigrants.” He also reiterated his support for tuition-free public colleges and universities, expansion of Social Security benefits, investment in sustainable energy to combat climate change, and a Medicare for all single-payer health insurance system. There was even a call for “common-sense gun-safety legislation” from a senator who was not always on the National Rifle Association's enemies list.
Sanders did not neglect to attack Donald Trump, calling him “the most dangerous president in modern American history,” who seeks to “divide us up by the color of our skin, our country of origin, our gender, our religion and our sexual orientation.” Sanders vowed to do “exactly the opposite” by bringing together “black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, gay and straight, young and old, men and women, native born and immigrant.”
It had been left to warm-up speakers to go deeper into what one of them called “Bernie Sanders' origin story.” Jane O'Meara Sanders, the senator's wife, expressed hope that Americans “get to know the man our children look up to and our grandchildren adore.” Activist and writer Shaun King offered a 10-minute exposition on Sanders' background, focusing on his campaigning for civil rights in Chicago in the early 1960s.
With the first Democratic primary and caucus votes still 11 months away, it's too early to say whether Sanders' increased emphasis on racial justice will enable him to generate more support from Americans of color than he received in 2016.
A significant number of black and brown faces were visible in the audience in the New York City borough of 2.4 million residents, only a third of whom are white.
“I'm for Bernie because he came really hard after Hillary [Clinton] in 2016,” said Oscar Montenegro, a Latino Brooklynite who stood stamping his feet awaiting the start of the rally. “It was punch after punch. He'd do the same against Trump.”
The other candidates in the Democratic field lack Sanders' campaign-combat experience, Montenegro added.
But what about the contention from some that Sanders, a 77-year-old white man, should stand aside for a woman, a person of color or someone who is both?
“There's some basis to that,” Montenegro said. “But Bernie relates to a lot of people of color because of what he stands for.”
Bruelle Guzman, standing alongside Montenegro, added, “The fact that Bernie's an old white man doesn't bother me. Going back to Chicago in the '60s, he's been fighting all along for civil rights.”
Yousef Elzalabany, a 20-year-old Princeton University student who traveled to the rally from New Jersey, said Sanders stands out in a Democratic pack whose members “are mostly bought and paid for.” While it's true that Sanders has been flogging the same issues for decades, Elzalabany added, “He's shown he's willing to listen to minority communities when they push him.”
Sanders should be able to retain or even expand the broad support he garnered from young people in 2016, suggested Arianne Gans, a 29-year-old white woman from Jersey City. “That's pretty obvious,” she said. “Just look around at who's here.”