Despite my insulated boots, my toes are freezing. It’s 35 degrees outside and about 2-3 inches of snow blankets Brooklyn College’s east quad. The press area is a particularly dismal mix of brown slush, packed-in ice, and muddy patches of grass. After hours on my feet, the uneven terrain is starting to get to me. My back hurts, and I’m not the only one. All around me, people are shifting uncomfortably. Many have been here for hours—since the early morning—and it shows. An air of growing anticipation hangs over a diverse crowd, still shuffling in 20 minutes past the time Sen. Bernie Sanders and company were expected to take center stage. From the risers behind the podium, chants cut through the cold in an effort to keep people energized—“No More War!” “Green New Deal!”
Then, an eruption of cheers. No longer lethargic and shifting, the crowd alive, and I catch a glimpse of Nina Turner and Jane Sanders walking out of a side entrance of Boylan Hall—the backdrop of today’s event—toward the stage. Behind me, camera operators hiss and huff, and reporters prep their opening remarks. The campaign with no lesser ambition than the fundamental transformation of America has begun.
In many ways, Sanders 2020 is a continuation of Sanders 2016. That’s how the Vermont Senator and his team frame it: as another phase of an ongoing revolution against the entrenched political establishment in the name of working people. Sanders himself seemed to engage in perpetual campaign after Donald Trump’s election. Emerging from 2016 as the Democrats’ ‘what could have been’ candidate, the Vermont Senator leveraged his newfound national prominence to score a series of victories for progressive causes—shepherding a war powers resolution through the Senate to end US involvement in Yemen and pressuring Amazon and Disneyland into paying their workers a $15 an hour minimum wage.
Despite widespread speculation in the press that his support would drop off in the face of a diverse, progressive Democratic field, he managed to raise $10 million in the first week of his candidacy and recruit a million volunteers.
“I’m here with my family—my wife, my three children,” a man holding a baby had told me that morning. “My daughter just registered to vote today so one of the many reasons we’re out here…was really for them—to bring them out to an atmosphere like this. I want them to feel it…I want them to come out and feel the spirit of what it is to be out here…find something you believe in and be a part of something bigger.”
The day Sanders announced his second presidential bid, he set the bar with his fundraising numbers, raking in a whopping $6 million in the first 24 hours from nearly a quarter of a million people giving an average donation of $27. Walking around earlier, asking rally goers why they were braving the weather for Sanders, the energy and dedication that delivered those numbers is on full display and I’m met with familiar passionate responses: Bernie isn’t bought; Bernie genuinely cares about day to day struggles Americans face; Bernie is a fighter who stands for real change to America’s political system; Bernie is the real deal.
“He represents what America needs—like, most Americans are struggling right now,” one woman told me. “When it comes to other Democratic candidates, a lot of them are kinda parroting what Bernie already said when they were all laughing at him years ago.”
But for all the similarities to 2016, there are significant differences this time around. While he started out in May 2015 a relative unknown, and his announcement was met with little fanfare, Sanders today is a front-runner, and the eyes of the press are laser focused on him. His pitch is adapting to reflect these new realities. In the days leading up to the rally, the Sanders camp had teased a more personal approach than the average Bernie stump speech, which becomes apparent immediately in Jane Sanders’ heartfelt opening where she explains—slightly awkwardly—how she and her husband cut their teeth right here in Brooklyn as youngsters. “Those early years formed the values and principles that we still live by today,” she says.
Sanders, who has been notoriously private about his personal story—preferring instead to focus on policy—has always needed ambassadors to help sell his image to an electorate and media obsessed with personalities. No better team exists for that job than former Ohio State senator and Our Revolution chief Nina Turner, and journalist and criminal justice reformer Shaun King.
Turner takes the stage first, delivering a powerful sermon-like speech touting Sanders’ progressive bona fides. Using Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” Turner drives home the point that Sanders has stood out front on issues when it mattered—from civil rights to health care, minimum wage, and climate change.
“When you are willing, in the 1980’s, to be one of two white elected officials to stand by the side of the Reverend Jesse Jackson when he’s running for president, that’s the measure of a man,” she bellows. “When you are willing, at the age of 19, to know that in Chicago, housing discrimination against African American folks is rotten to the core and you are willing to be chained to a black woman on the front line, that’s the measure of a man!”
King steps up to the microphone next. Where Turner aimed for the gut, King goes straight for the heart strings, offering an emotionally charged retelling of Sanders’ personal story. King explains how Sanders came of age at the time of the Holocaust as the son of Polish immigrants who made it out when their family members didn’t, and who lived paycheck-to-paycheck; how he’d lost his parents as a young man and found himself alone in college in Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement, where he became a student activist and leader in that fight; how he’d helped organize the first known sit-in at the University of Chicago to protest housing segregation on campus; how he’d put up flyers about police brutality even as officers followed him, taking them down; how he’d chained himself to two black women during a protest against the installation of segregated facilities for black students known as “Willis Wagons,” refusing to move even when the Chicago police threatened him with force and arrest; how he’d marched with Dr. King in Washington.
“I need you to understand that we must reject this idea that who Bernie was in the 1960’s is irrelevant,” King charges. “I reject it 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. Listen, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 40 years from now, when people step up and run for office, what they did and where they were during the Black Lives Matter Movement, it will mean something. Where they were during the Muslim ban; where they were when immigrant children were being ripped away from their families—it’s all going to matter.”
King explains that Sanders doesn’t like telling these stories out of reverence for those activists who he feels are more deserving of recognition, but as he notes, they’re not mythology. “This is the origin story of a political revolutionary.”
Finally, it is time to hear from the man himself. Sanders ascends the steps to the podium and, true to form, launches into an issue-based stump speech. It’s a jarring transition from the emotional chord King struck, but the crowd chants his name.
“No,” he responds gruffly, with a smile. “It is not Bernie. It is you!”
At his core, Sanders is a product of working class roots, and always will be. The vision he articulates, rooted deeply in the leftist traditions of secular Judaism, of a broad political movement built on solidarity among all working people against the entrenched economic and political elites who rely on division to remain powerful, may seem utopian—even frustratingly so—to some, but he believes in it deeply and has fought for it his entire life.
“Today, I want to welcome you to a campaign which says, loudly and clearly, that the underlying principles of our government will not be greed, hatred and lies,” he begins. “It will not be racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious bigotry. That is going to end. The principles of our government will be based on justice: economic justice, social justice, racial justice and environmental justice.”
Then the change—Sanders pivots to the personal, describing the dream of his deceased mother to move out of her rent-controlled apartment into a house; touting the role model his hard-working immigrant father was; recounting the lessons of growing up lower middle class.
“My experience as a kid, living in a family that struggled economically, powerfully influenced my life and my values. Unlike Donald Trump, who shut down the government and left 800,000 federal employees without income to pay the bills, I know what it’s like to be in a family that lives paycheck to paycheck,” he said, pain visible on his face.
“I know where I came from!” Sanders cries out firmly—but his voice cracks.
Then, without missing a beat, it’s right back to policy, laying out what can only be described as a progressive wishlist:
— Federal jobs guarantee
— Curbing urban gentrification and building affordable housing
— Reopening rural hospitals and investing in rural communities to ensure young people have jobs and can live in them
— Tackling the gun violence epidemic with “common sense gun laws”
— Tackling wealth inequality—including racial wealth and income disparities
— Rooting out institutional racism
— Making it easier to vote
— Enshrining a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion
— Passing a war powers resolution to end US involvement in Yemen
— Ending the Drug War, legalizing cannabis and expunging the records of nonviolent offenders
— Passing a living wage of at least $15 an hour
This agenda elicits thunderous applause. As he concludes and the crowd filters out, I begin to notice how cold my feet really are. I think back on the litany of policy proposals, and consider that some, if only in limited form, have already come to pass. A lot can happen in the next two years, but win or lose, Sanders has already changed American politics for at least a generation.