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Sanders speaks on the shore of Lake Champlain. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)
BURLINGTON, Vt. — There were dogs and children playing, people singing, and bikes and beach balls rolling. There was plenty of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream eating, and melting, down by the lake. Kayaks and sailboats floated by.
In other words, it was a pretty typical late-spring day in Burlington, Vt., the largest city in the state with the second-smallest population — but an unusual setting for the first formal rally of a presidential campaign. Even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean rallied his supporters in the picturesque center of Burlington when he declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 2003.
Then again, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is an unusual presidential candidate.
The free Ben & Jerry’s at Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign kickoff was flowing. And melting. (Photo: Dylan Stableford)
The 73-year-old former Burlington mayor and independent senator is beloved here by Vermonters who have adopted his bluntness, Brooklyn accent and stubbornly progressive views as their own.
“What you see is what you get,” said Bill McKibben, an author and environmentalist who helped introduce Sanders. “He always means what he says, and he always says what he believes.”
“He’s been saying the same stuff and doing the same stuff for the last 30 years,” said Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, one of Sanders’ childhood friends. “If he wasn’t so inspiring, he’d be boring.”
Sanders was joined onstage by his wife, Jane, and their four children and seven grandchildren.
“This is an emotional day for me,” Sanders told an estimated crowd of 7,000 (not including dogs) on a sun-kissed late afternoon at Waterfront Park on the shore of Lake Champlain. “Today, here in our small state — a state that has led the nation in so many ways — I am proud to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.”
A big crowd listens to Sanders as he outlines his campaign platform. (Photo: Dylan Stableford)
The Vermont senator called for a “political revolution” to tackle income inequality, the decline of the middle class, education reform and climate change. And Sanders took aim at one of his favorite targets: billionaires.
“Let me be very clear,” he added. “There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent and when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent. There is something profoundly wrong when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time as millions of Americans work longer hours for lower wages, and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. There is something profoundly wrong when one family owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans.
“This grotesque level of inequality is immoral,” he continued. “It is bad economics. It is unsustainable. This type of rigged economy is not what America is supposed to be about. This has got to change, and as your president, together we will change it.”
An overflow crowd listens to Sanders on the shore of Lake Champlain. (Photo: Dylan Stableford)
Sanders, a longtime proponent of campaign finance reform, railed against the Koch brothers.
“American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections,” he said. “The Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy! This is oligarchy!” (This will likely be the only 2016 campaign speech where “oligarchy” gets the loudest applause.)
During his speech, Sanders mentioned his opponent, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, just once.
“This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders,” he said. “It is not about Hillary Clinton; it is not about Jeb Bush or anyone else. This campaign is about the needs of the American people, and the ideas and proposals that effectively address those needs. As someone who has never run a negative political ad in his life, my campaign will be driven by issues and serious debate — not political gossip, not reckless personal attacks or character assassination. This is what I believe the American people want and deserve.
"Politics in a democratic society should not be treated like a baseball game, game show or soap opera,” Sanders added. “The times are too serious for that.”
That promise, like many others, was met with chants of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie! Ber-nie!”
Unofficial Sanders campaign swag. (Photo: Dylan Stableford)
But while Bernie-mania was palpable in Burlington, the question is whether Sanders can transfer that excitement to the national stage.
“We’re going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back,” Sanders said. “We’re going to take this campaign directly to the people — in town meetings, door-to-door conversations, on street corners and in social media. This week, we will be in New Hampshire, Iowa and Minnesota — and that’s just the start.”
It’s a long shot, but Vermonters like long shots.
Twelve years ago, Dean’s insurgent presidential campaign assailed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and won grassroots support and unprecedented online fundraising. Dean finished third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses and second in the New Hampshire primary, losing the Democratic nomination to John Kerry.
But Dean made enough of an impression as a long-shot candidate to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009, and he helped reorient the conversation in the Democratic Party around the Iraq War and the power of online organizing and fundraising, paving the way for the rise of Barack Obama.
“Sometimes the underdog wins,” Ben Cohen said. “Let this be the start of the Bernie rebellion.”
“We’re going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back,” Sanders said. (Photo: Dylan Stableford)
To Sanders, the rebellion started years ago, right here by the lake.
“To those who say we cannot restore the dream, I say, ‘Just look where we are standing,’” Sanders said. “This beautiful place was once an unsightly rail yard that served no public purpose and was an eyesore. As mayor, I worked with the people of Burlington to help turn this waterfront into the beautiful people-oriented public space it is today. We took the fight to the courts, to the legislature and to the people. And we won.”