Sen. Bernie Sanders shakes hands during a campaign event for Christine Hallquist in Nov. 2018. Sanders’ embrace of his personal story is the latest sign that he is trying to learn from his mistakes in his first presidential bid. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
The 2020 hopeful is opening up about his upbringing, recognizing that his singular focus on issues wasn’t enough last time.
By HOLLY OTTERBEIN
03/01/2019 08:38 PM EST
When the New Yorker profiled Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign, he sighed when he was asked about his earlier life.
“I understand,” he said. “I really do. For people to elect a president, you’ve got to know that person — you’ve got to trust them.”Story Continued Below
But, the magazine wrote, “he couldn’t resist sermonizing first,” joking, “I know those issues are not quite as important as my personal life.”
More than three years later, Sanders’ advisers acknowledge that approach won’t cut it in 2020, and Sanders and his team are now trying to present a warmer and fuzzier version of Bernie.
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It isn’t a coincidence that Sanders is holding two kickoff rallies this weekend in Brooklyn and Chicago: He spent his childhood in a small apartment in the Flatbush neighborhood, and attended Brooklyn College for one year. The University of Chicago is where he earned his college degree, and joined the Congress of Racial Equality.
“I grew up a few miles away from here in Brooklyn, in a three-and-a-half room rent controlled apartment. My father was a paint salesman who worked hard his entire life, but never made much money,” Sanders is expected to say Saturday, according to his prepared remarks. “Coming from a lower-middle-class family I will never forget how money — or really lack of money — was always a point of stress in our home. My mother’s dream was that someday we would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own.”
The embrace of his personal story is the latest sign that Sanders is trying to learn from his mistakes in his first bid and run a different kind of campaign. After facing criticism over a 2016 senior staff that some deemed too white and male, Sanders also recently announced a diverse slate of top hires and campaign co-chairs for his second bid.
“I don’t think there will be a radical transformation of the way he presents issues to voters,” said Jeff Weaver, a top adviser and longtime friend to Sanders. “But I do think there’s a realization that when folks elect a president, they’re not just electing a stack of policy proposals.”
The opening tour, Weaver added, is “an attempt to draw a connection between Bernie Sanders’ life story and the policy agenda that he is that he is putting forward in the campaign.”
Sanders’ campaign has also been tweeting and issuing press releases that nod to his past, including his time in Chicago when he “helped lead student protests against segregated campus housing, segregated schools and police brutality.”
Sanders’ allies think his personal story —he’s the son of a Polish immigrant whose family members were killed in the Holocaust, grew up lower-middle class, mourned the death of his parents at a young age, and participated in the civil rights movement — could prove powerful in a time when many immigrants feel under siege by President Donald Trump and income inequality is on the rise.
They also think it could help him built trust with key parts of the Democratic Party’s coalition that he struggled to win over in 2016. Though a majority of young voters of color cast a ballot for him, according to an analysis of exit polls in 25 states, Sanders lost by large margins among their older counterparts.
But the strategy comes with risks: It could draw more attention to parts of Sanders’ life that could prove damaging, such as when he said more than 30 years ago that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro “totally transformed the society.” And there’s a chance it will be viewed by some of his fans as phony.
It also remains to be seen whether beyond this weekend Sanders will talk extensively about his biography — or whether his campaign will more often do it for him.
Sanders’ supporters have long urged him to talk more about his background.
This week Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee that recruited Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), posted a video on Twitter suggesting Sanders should spotlight his biography.
“I think voters who feel under attack by Trump deserve to hear his personal story about why Bernie believes he’s the leader for today,” Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats and a former Sanders staffer, told POLITICO. “Bernie is selling himself a little short by only focusing on how his policies can tackle the crises of our time, and not also telling his personal story about why these fights matter to him as the child of an immigrant father whose family was killed by fascists in the Holocaust.
“Bernie has often not talked about his personal biography because he wants it to be about the issues,” Weaver said. “But I also think there’s a realization that it’s important for people to understand your biography and how it informs and motivates those policies.”
Weaver provided some clues about what Sanders might say Saturday and Sunday. The aide said that Brooklyn College was “virtually free” when Sanders was a student there. Free college tuition is a centerpiece of his agenda.
“I think it signifies that this is not a new idea, but an idea that used to be prevalent in America but has since been lost,” Weaver said.
He also said “his family’s immigrant experience was powerful in 2016,” and “growing up in a community in the very recent past that faced the worst kind of oppression, to the point of genocide, also is an important factor in understanding Bernie Sanders the person.”
According to prepared remarks, Sanders is planning to say this weekend that he “learned a great deal about immigration as a child because my father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket. He came to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread anti-Semitism. Needless to say I would not be with you today if he had not made that trip from Poland because virtually his entire family there was wiped out by the Nazis.”
Lawrence Moore, the South Carolina political director for Sanders’ 2016 campaign, said Sanders may be able to connect with more voters if he talks about his past.
“I would think it would work better, as long as they don’t overdo it,” said Moore, who is now the co-chair of the state chapter of the Sanders-founded group Our Revolution. “From what I know of him, I don’t think that he will let that happen.”
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