By John Whitesides
(Reuters) – Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders showed a more personal side as he hit the 2020 campaign trail for the first time on Saturday, describing the struggles of his working class youth and how it helped shape his progressive politics.
At a rally in Brooklyn, near the New York City neighborhood where he grew up in a small, rent-controlled apartment, Sanders contrasted his spare upbringing with Republican President Donald Trump’s privileged youth as the son of a New York real estate developer.
“My experience as a kid, living in a family that struggled economically, powerfully influenced my life and my values,” Sanders said at a campaign kickoff rally at Brooklyn College, where he once attended classes.
“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.
The U.S. senator from Vermont rarely talked about his personal history during his first run for the White House in 2016 against eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, focusing almost exclusively on his policy plans to rein in Wall Street and reduce income inequality.
But the new approach for Sanders, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland, was a recognition of the need to find a way to stand out in a crowded and diverse field of 2020 Democratic contenders, including five of his fellow senators.
Sanders also did not highlight his Jewish faith during his 2016 run. But in Brooklyn he described his father’s journey to escape poverty and anti-Semitism, and said his father’s family eventually was “wiped out” by the Nazis.
“As we launch this campaign for president, you deserve to know where I come from — because family history heavily influences the values that we adopt as adults,” Sanders told cheering supporters in Brooklyn.
“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 said.
The first weekend on the campaign trail also signaled Sanders’ emphasis on expanding his support among minority voters, who he struggled to connect with during his 2016 campaign.
On Sunday morning, he will make a quick stop in Selma, Alabama, for events commemorating the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march. Later, he will hold a rally at Navy Pier in Chicago, where he graduated from the University of Chicago at the height of the civil rights movement and helped lead student protests against segregated campus housing and schools.
“I did not come from a family that taught me to build a corporate empire through housing discrimination,” he said. “I protested housing discrimination.”
The twin rallies over the weekend also served as a reminder to Democrats of his ability to generate grassroots enthusiasm. During his 2016 campaign, Sanders frequently held big rallies with thousands of supporters, matching Trump’s ability to capture attention and generate large crowds.
Sanders already has shown his fundraising ability this time around, as the campaign said on Tuesday he had raised about $10 million in the first week. But he also has faced new challenges – three of his top media strategists during the 2016 campaign split with Sanders this week over creative differences.
Over the next few weeks, his campaign said, Sanders will travel to states with early nominating contests, including Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada before returning to his hometown of Burlington, Vermont, for a formal campaign launch.
(Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Diane Craft)