MONTPELIER, Vt. -- On a sunny day on the Burlington, Vermont, lakeshore in 2015, an independent U.S. senator with a relatively low national profile shocked the political establishment by turning out a boisterous crowd of thousands as he kicked-off his unlikely presidential campaign.
Now, almost exactly four years later and 40 miles down the road, in the shadow of the statehouse, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. – today a political powerhouse with millions of ardent followers who has become the preeminent driving force of the Democratic Party's recent progressive transformation – returned home on Saturday for the first Vermont rally of his 2020 campaign.
In an animated, barnstorming speech, Sanders came out swinging, calling President Donald Trump a "pathological liar" who was driving the nation towards authoritarian rule.
In a sweeping broadside against the current administration, Sanders said he was launching his campaign “with confidence, optimism and love” and said that he refused to allow for the nation to be led by "greed, hatred and lies.”
“The underlying principles of our government will not be racism, will not be sexism, will not be xenophobia and will not be religious bigotry – and all the other mean-spirited beliefs of the Trump administration," the senator said, adding, "The principles of our government will be based on justice: economic justice, racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice.”
"Sadly, we have a president who is a pathological liar and that he says whatever he wants without regard to the truth," Sanders continued. "You know that we have a president who has no understanding or respect for the Constitution of the United States, and the separation of powers, and his attempting to move -- every single day -- this country into an authoritarian form of government.
The veteran Vermont politician was met with rousing applause when he spoke forcefully of protecting abortion rights, an issue on which all of the Democratic candidates have been united in recent weeks after several red states, including Alabama and Georgia, passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in U.S. history.
“In Vermont, we understand that women have a constitutional right to control their own bodies,” Sanders insisted. “It is not politicians in the U.S. Congress or the state or the local governments that will control a women’s body,” he continued, his voice rising. “It is the women of this country themselves that control their bodies."
'He is who he says he is'
Sanders' journey from his isolated perch in Congress' upper chamber to his current position as a Democratic presidential primary frontrunner is a long story of backlash against the Washington, D.C. political establishment and an ideological shift that has moved the party closer-than-ever toward his long-held Democratic socialist beliefs. But also one that is less of a surprise to his constituents, some of whom who have supported the senator and his impassioned, independent streak for nearly four decades, ranging back to his eight years as Burlington's mayor.
To that point, a crowd of thousands, similar to his 2015 launch event, flooded this town – America's smallest state capital by population – to welcome Sanders home Saturday, three months into a second presidential campaign that has found him consistently occupying a top-tier position in polls, as he runs on issues remarkably unchanged from four years ago. Such consistency was a point of emphasis for attendees Saturday in explaining their support.
"He's been doing this his whole life... he hasn't changed his platform," said Danielle Bradtmiller, a law student from nearby Killington. "I think that because he's been saying the same thing consistently for years, it adds a lot of weight to his platform now, and it shows he is who he says he is."
Joann Vana, a retired educator from northern Vermont who has lived in the region for 42 years and watched Sanders' rise into national prominence, echoed the feeling.
"Bernie has always supported the people of Vermont," she said. "And having been in the education system for 35 years, we're proud that he was, and is, supportive of students, and education, and teachers and values that we hold."
On May 26, 2015, Sanders' home state rally was something of a national introduction, despite a tenure, to that point, of 16 years in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate. Though the senator announced his run that year at a non-descript Capitol Hill news conference a month prior, in Vermont, before a much wider audience, he would touch on the key issues that have come to define both of his presidential campaigns. He recounted many of those points Saturday, noting with satisfaction that they are no longer considered controversial within the Democratic Party.
"Raising the minimum wage to a living wage: not so radical today. Guaranteeing health care at all as a human right: not so radical today. Creating up to 15 million jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure: not so radical today. Legalizing marijuana: a radical idea four years ago; not so radical today," Sanders listed, as his supporters joined him in a call-and-response. "And by the way, those ideas that we talked about four years ago, that seemed so extreme at the time. Well today, virtually all of those ideas are supported by a majority of the American people, and have overwhelming support from Democrats and independents. And they are ideas that Democratic candidates from school board to president on our supporting."
While the senator also discussed economic inequality on Saturday -- at one point railing against Walmart and its founding Walton family, one of the nation's richest families, ahead of a trip next week to speak on behalf of its workers at its annual shareholders meeting -- and touched on other major issues of recent focus, like education and health care, he was also forceful in his defense of his foreign affairs record, ranging back to his days protesting against the Vietnam War, up to his current stance on the U.S.'s tensions with Iran.
"Right now, this minute, I am doing everything that I can -- working, by the way, with some honest conservatives in the Senate -- to prevent Donald Trump and John Bolton from taking us into a war in Iran," he said. A war which would be, in my view, much more destructive, if you can believe it, than the war in Iraq, and could lead us, literally, to perpetual warfare in that region."
On Friday, Sanders' campaign released a video highlighting his years leading Burlington, including his razor-thin margin of victory in his first mayoral race in 1981 (Sanders won by 10 votes), and the efforts he undertook in transforming Vermont's largest city, including rehabilitating the Lake Champlain waterfront, increasing access to affordable housing and supporting the local business community.
Saturday's event in Montpelier was the start of a busy holiday weekend in New England for Sanders who heads to neighboring New Hampshire for events through Tuesday. On Memorial Day Monday, he'll host ice cream socials with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenberg of Ben & Jerry's in Warner, Laconia and Rollinsford, before attending two town halls, in Concord and Londonderry, and a rally in Manchester on Tuesday.