Addressing cheering crowds on a frigid winter’s day, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivered a campaign message familiar to his supporters, pledging to lead the charge for a $15 minimum wage and to fight for access to health care, among other causes he has championed over the years.
What was different at his official campaign launch on Saturday was the backdrop: a sea of black and brown faces made up a good number of the thousands of supporters who had turned out in the bitter cold on a college campus in Brooklyn, New York.
Sanders remains every bit the champion of the working man and woman that he was when he ran for the White House four years ago, losing to Hillary Clinton, the eventual 2016 presidential nominee, in an unexpectedly close race.
His by-now familiar platform includes a “federal jobs guarantee” for all Americans who wish to work, “comprehensive” immigration reform, tuition free higher education, and universal health care coverage.
But the 77-year-old independent senator from Vermont is also signaling something new: a plan to make a more concerted outreach to the black and brown voters he knows will be indispensable to winning the Democratic nomination.
Sanders vowed in his speech that — unlike the incumbent President Donald Trump — his presidency will “bring people together.”
“Donald Trump wants to divide us up based on the color of our skin, based on where we were born, based on our gender, our religion and our sexual orientation,” Sanders said.
His first official rally of the 2020 presidential race was held at Brooklyn College, a public institution where he was enrolled in 1960, and where three-quarters of the students today are are Asian American, African American and Hispanic.
Saturday’s inaugural campaign event featured three African American speakers who preceded Sanders before he took the dais, each of whom painted Sanders as a lifelong fighter not just for the working class and underprivileged, but for people of color: Democratic Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, social justice activist Shaun King, and Democratic State Rep. Terry Alexander of South Carolina.
It was in South Carolina four years ago, where Bernie’s insurgent campaign first stalled and it is again South Carolina — an early primary state where black voters are a hugely important voting bloc — that again poses a challenge for the senator, who represents in Vermont a state that is 94.5 percent white, according to U.S. Census data.
Sanders, in a break with tradition, emphasized personal narrative in Saturday’s address, recounting his childhood in a rent-controlled apartment not far from Brooklyn College. He made common cause with working class immigrants, recalling his own immigrant roots as a child in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.
He told the crowd that his working class, Polish immigrant father sold paint for a living and that his family struggled to make ends meet. “I did not have a father who gave me millions of dollars to build luxury skyscrapers, casinos, and country clubs,” he said, in a dig at Trump.
“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.”
He added, to exuberant applause from the crowd: “I know where I came from. And that is something I will never forget … I know what it’s like to live in a family that lives paycheck to paycheck.”
The Vermont senator says he has long promised to fight not just for economic justice, but for racial justice as well. But that part of his message, muted until now, is being expressed for the first time in a full-throated way, as he tries to reach out to black voters who rejected him four years ago in favor of Clinton.
“One of the proudest days of my life was attending the March on Washington for jobs and freedom led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he told the crowd on Saturday, reminding the audience of his early activism in civil rights for African Americans. In the 1960s and 1970s, Sanders took part in anti-war and civil rights protests, including the 1963 March on Washington.
In a speech before Sanders took the stage, Shaun King recounted the senator’s experiences as a college student in Chicago, fighting housing and school discrimination against African Americans. And he recalled how Sanders was arrested in 1963 as part of a group of young activists who blocked the installation of outdoor wagons that were used as classes in overcrowded black schools.
“Because we never heard those stories, for most of us in our minds, Bernie has always been a disheveled, grey-haired, spectacled politician,” said King, a prominent activist on matters of equity for African Americans in the criminal justice system.
He said Sanders’ civil rights background is a vital part of his personal narrative and part of what qualifies him to occupy the White House.
“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,” King told the crowd.
And with two declared African Americans in the race, U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, Sanders knows he is going to have to scrap for every black vote, including in South Carolina, an all-important election crucible, and one of the early primary states that could see winnow down the field.
King told the crowd that Sanders has not emphasized his civil rights past before because does not want to seem as if he is using those experiences for “personal gain.” But he said, Sanders is a true warrior for civil rights.
“Long before we used the phrase ‘white privilege,’ Bernie had the notion that he needed to use his own white privilege to fight back against racism and bigotry and inequality.”
The message clearly resonated with some in the crowd. Among the campaign buttons worn by some supporters was one that read, “I support Bernie because black lives matter.”
But he still failed to resonate with some African Americans, who seemed to find the change in tack by Sanders somewhat contrived.
“He did not mention race or gender until 23 minutes into the speech,” said Zerlina Maxell, an African American who is a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“As somebody who is a black woman knowing that black women are going to be a core constituency for any Democrat who hopes to win the nomination, I was looking to hear messaging specifically for my community and not … 23 minutes into the speech,” Maxwell told MSNBC after listening to Sanders’ address.
She said based on his campaign rollout on Saturday, she was unimpressed. “A lot of what Bernie Sanders has said today we’ve heard before. His economic messaging — I could probably quote it to you,” she said.
What’s missing, said Maxwell, is a platform that “intersect(s) with other policy problems that people of color and women have to deal with. So until he comes up with specifics, in terms of policy to address those issues, I think that he’s still going to have a problem in this crowded field and a Democratic primary that’s going to rely on those constituencies.”
Sanders travels Sunday to Selma, Alabama to take part in commemorations for the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a peaceful demonstration in 1965 when civil rights activists were beaten by Alabama state troopers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Other Democratic hopefuls, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), were also scheduled to take part.
At a second campaign rally later on Sunday that continues his outreach to black voters, Sanders is to give a speech in Chicago, where as a student activist he took part in civil rights protests.