The longest-serving Independent senator in U.S. history, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, kicked-off his presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination today with a colorful and lively event in Burlington.
With blue-grass music, tie-dye and free ice cream, the afternoon event felt half like a summer festival and half like a political rally.
A self-identified "Democratic Socialist," Sanders is known on Capitol Hill for speaking about income inequality and higher tax rates for corporations and the nation’s top earners. Sanders wasted little time getting to his favorite issues.
“Today, we say clearly enough is enough,” he said. “This great nation and its government belong to all of the people and not just a handful of billionaires.”
“There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much as wealth as the bottom 90 percent. This has got to change and, as your president, together we will change it," Sanders said.
When asked why they like him, many of the more than 5,000 Sanders fans gathered were quick to point to trustworthiness. Some said they feel like they know him. One of the senator’s first -- and most fun -- endorsements came from Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s, the popular Vermont-based ice cream company.
Speaking at the event, Cohen reiterated this idea of authenticity.
“Unlike some other Johnny-come-latelys, Bernie is the real thing. He has been saying the same thing and doing the same thing for 30 years,” Cohen said.
Kathy Granai, who works in Burlington, where Sanders was mayor for four terms, agreed. “He is speaking the truth,” she said. “He is the only one willing to say what’s what and what matters.”
Another Burlington local, Jacob Albee, said the question of trustworthiness was the reason he preferred Sanders to Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state.
“He is willing to speak the truth when others are unwilling,” Albee said. “I don’t think she speaks the truth."
During the rally, Sanders said his campaign was not about him, “Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush,” but “the needs of the American people.”
“As someone who has never ran a never negative political ad in my life. My campaign will not be run by political gossip. These are serious times, we need serious debates," he said.
While Sanders might be the best known politician here, he is relatively unknown in other parts of the country. He is polling in single digits nationwide. The Sanders team said its strategy for breaking through will focus on small, town hall-style events.
For supporters of Sanders, it’s about the rest of the country meeting the Bernie they know and love.
“For those of us that have been sitting on the sidelines, finally a candidate worth voting for,” Cohen said. “Sometimes the underdog wins.”