As clumps of snow fell on a crowd clad in parkas and wrapped in scarves, Sen. Bernie Sanders officially announced his presidential run on the quad of Brooklyn College, the school he attended for a year that's only a few miles from where he grew up.
The youthful, and youthfully enthusiastic, assembled supporters held Bernie signs and chanted "Bernie!" and "U.S.A.!" There was a sea of beanies and beards along with a snowman that someone dressed in a Bernie T-shirt and sunglasses. Jay-Z's "Brooklyn We Go Hard" blared as Sanders came out to the podium in a parka of his own.
While Sanders is currently a front-runner in the 2020 race according to early polls, it remains to be seen how questions of identity and representation will affect his candidacy. After Hillary Clinton's loss in 2016, thousands of women who decided they have had enough of sexism in politics took matters into their own hands, running for office — and winning — in record numbers. Now, the crowded Democratic primary field includes a historic number of women and people of color, the most popular among them Senate colleagues of Sanders who share many of his causes, including Medicare for All.
The Sanders campaign says it's working to make changes by, for starters, hiring a team that is far more diverse than its mostly male and white staff of 2016. Sanders also said he would incorporate a stronger sexual harassment protocol after reports from 2016 that both staffers and volunteers encountered harassment, and after some called his initial response dismissive. At the same time, the campaign is making efforts to reach out to groups of voters with whom the Vermont senator didn't win in 2016, including the Black population.
"Certainly we learned a lot in 2016, and what people will see in 2020 is a reflection of this campaign's goal to make sure that everybody sees themselves in this campaign," Nina Turner, campaign co-chair and president of Sanders' Our Revolution group, told Refinery29. "People will see themselves reflected in this campaign on every level, and that's important."
Turner pointed to the diverse new group of campaign co-chairs, including herself and Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sanders' new campaign manager Faiz Shakir, the former national political director of the ACLU, is the first Muslim to run a major presidential campaign.
In his announcement, Sanders stuck to his lifelong message of combating economic inequality, achieved by policies such as a Medicare for All single-payer program, raising the federal minimum wage, and access to affordable child care. He also alluded to rooting out institutional racism, and made a mention of reproductive rights, saying, "When we are in the White House, we are going to protect a woman's right to control her own body. That is her decision, not the government's."
Sanders told more of his personal story than he has in any previous speech, as his aides reportedly persuaded him to. His mother Dorothy, who raised his brother and himself while their dad worked long hours, became ill when he was in high school and died at age 46 while he was at Brooklyn College. But even when discussing his family history, he connected it to economic justice.
"My mother's dream was that someday our family would move out of that rent-controlled apartment to a home of our own," Sanders said. "That dream was never fulfilled. She died young while we still lived in that rent-controlled apartment." Growing up in a family that struggled economically greatly influenced his life, he said, making sure to draw the contrast between himself and Donald Trump.
This message resonates with his millennial supporters, many of whom were affected by the 2008 financial crash. Women under 35 supported Sanders by an almost 20-point margin in 2016, and while the majority of them say they do, of course, want the country to be led by a woman one day, their identification with his Democratic socialist ideology and willingness to take on the establishment wins over.
"I believe in Medicare for All, healthcare as a human right, and tuition-free college; and that a more just and equitable world can be where we live," Kat Brezler, a teacher, activist, and founding member of The People for Bernie Sanders, told Refinery29. "And I'm going to fight for it with him."
Other young women, including some who backed him in 2016, are disappointed by what they believe are tone-deaf statements by Sanders on gender and race.
Rebecca Brubaker, a 22-year-old living in L.A. who thinks she will vote for either Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand or Sen. Kamala Harris in the primary, said she aligns with Sanders on most issues but was disenchanted after being harassed by his supporters, both in person and online, when she publicly backed Hillary Clinton. "If Sen. Sanders were serious about a revolution, about supporting minorities, he would support the women. He would step back and empower the next generation, similar to what Hillary is doing," she told Refinery29.
Turner, on the other hand, believes that Sanders will fight for women. "People are looking for a champion, whether it's a man or woman. But certainly, any candidate has to be able to articulate and show through their policies and what they've stood for whether or not their agenda is the agenda of women."
She added that on issues like Medicare for All, Sanders took a progressive stance before the other presidential candidates got on board. "It's a beautiful thing to have so many people running, and so many people running on the platform that Sen. Bernie Sanders championed in 2016. But he is the real thing...everybody's following his lead."