New York City

The New Yorker from Vermont

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is the personal and ideological epitome of the most New York kind of New Yorker, an identity that previously was absent from the ranks of serious presidential contenders, writes City & State’s Ben Adler.

Senator Bernie Sanders began his campaign for a 2020 Presidential nomination with a rally at Brooklyn College in March, 2019.

Senator Bernie Sanders began his campaign for a 2020 Presidential nomination with a rally at Brooklyn College in March, 2019. A katz/Shutterstock

In a development no one could have foreseen even just a few years ago, both national parties and their presidential fields have been New Yorkified. The Republican president is the personification of belligerent New York conservatism, having recast the GOP in that mold. The party that once dismissed the Empire State as foreign territory is now thoroughly dominated by its denizens.

While President Donald Trump is anathema to many New Yorkers, on the other side of the aisle, in a sort of mirror image, one of the front-runners is an equally classic – and much more representative – New York archetype: the junior senator from Vermont.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is the personal and ideological epitome of the most New York kind of New Yorker, an identity that previously was absent from the ranks of serious presidential contenders.

Sure, New York state has produced other prominent presidential candidates, including WASP patricians John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller, and law and order Republicans Thomas Dewey and Rudy Giuliani. But none of these politicians typified the average New Yorker: the middle-class, outer-borough, bleeding-heart, big-city liberal.

Hillary Clinton was a U.S. senator from New York, but she was really from Illinois and she talked and acted like it as she laid out her carefully calibrated talking points in a flat Midwestern accent. With her quietly pious Methodism, the former “Goldwater girl” and first lady of Arkansas remained culturally Middle American. Chappaqua, the wealthy Westchester County town where she lives, has more in common with the leafy northern suburbs of Chicago where she grew up than it does with the working-class polyglot crazy quilt that produced Sanders.

Despite having left New York during college, and having made his political career in a rural New England state, Sanders is proof of the maxim that you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy. For many New Yorkers, hearing Sanders speak in his broad, blue-collar New York accent brings forth a gush of reassuring familiarity. He’s like your grandpa, the unionized garment worker who used to lecture you about social justice over bagels and lox. If you stood next to Sanders on the subway or in an elevator in a Lower East Side co-op, you’d probably assume he’s just another retired social worker on his way to Russ & Daughters. He even participated in the March on Washington and lived on a kibbutz in Israel.

That he went back to the land in Vermont is hardly discrediting: New York lefties have always moved to the Catskills or other rural hippie enclaves. It’s easy to imagine Sanders making a different choice in his 20s and winding up as a public school teacher ranting at a community board meeting about the new luxury housing development that doesn’t contain enough affordable apartments. He may no longer be a New Yorker, but he’s forever a Noo Yawkuh.

Sanders’ New York political persona has two main components: biographical and intellectual. Personally, Sanders has the New York pedigree that so many New York elected officials lack: He’s a product of New York City public schools and he grew up on Kings Highway, deep in the heart of unpretentious, middle-class Brooklyn. His communication style bears the hallmarks of that provenance. He talks excitedly, largely with his hands and without inhibition.

The Democrats from New York who are running for president are nothing like this.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is the epitome of a kind of New Yorker, but a decidedly less authentic one: the bland interloper, who just as easily could have moved to Portland, Oregon. A child of suburban Massachusetts and a Boston Red Sox fan, de Blasio came to New York for college. Although his progressive message and multiracial family have endeared him to many black and Latino New Yorkers, the backbone of his coalition, like the constituency he represented on the City Council, was hipster gentrifiers and brownstone-inhabiting yuppies. He’s just the more liberal counterpart to fellow stiff Bay Stater Michael Bloomberg.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, meanwhile, is undoubtedly an authentic product of upstate. But culturally, economically and politically, upstate has more in common with the rest of the Rust Belt than it does with the heart of New York City.

The other Democratic candidates for president in the last half century have been placid Midwesterners, including Barack Obama, George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey; amiable Southerners like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore; and the occasional reserved Bostonian like John Kerry. Their Republican counterparts, such as the Bushes, were even more culturally alien to New Yorkers.

In the rest of the country, white people have no discernible ethnicity – but they have an abundance of religion. By contrast, like many New Yorkers, Sanders is apparently non-practicing. And yet his affect is more Jewish than Joe Lieberman’s. The late father of one my friends used to say, when asked if he was Jewish, “I never go to temple, but I do go to Katz’s.” Many an Irish and Italian New Yorker, who hasn’t been to church in years but eats Sunday gravy with her nonna or marches on St. Patrick’s Day, can relate to that. The Clintons cannot.

Sanders makes a native New Yorker look at the presidential debate stage and feel represented. New Yorkers who thought people like us would be seen as too foreign by Iowans were shocked when Sanders essentially tied Clinton in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. Suddenly, it was possible to imagine that one of our own might actually some day inhabit the White House.

For many New Yorkers, that representation is about policy and philosophy as much as personality. Sanders is part of a tradition of left-wing New Yorkers from historically marginalized groups: Jews like Bella Abzug and Emanuel Celler; African Americans like Shirley Chisholm and Charlie Rangel; and Italian Americans like Fiorello La Guardia and Mario Cuomo. Sanders isn’t the first of these loud and proud progressives to run for president – Abzug and Chisholm tried – but he’s the first to gain significant traction and threaten to actually win the Democratic nomination.

Sanders comes from a world of unapologetic, immoderate progressivism that found its largest foothold in New York and had previously been thought erased from the national political scene, vanquished by the “Reagan Revolution” and the neoliberal New Democrats’ takeover of the party, led by Bill Clinton in 1992. It’s not a coincidence that the first self-described socialist to mount a serious presidential campaign grew up in the state with one of the highest union densities in the country. This is the universe of publications like The Forward, organizations like the Workmen’s Circle, labor leaders like Sidney Hillman and unions like Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

If Trump is a throwback to the suburban white reactionary New Yorker of the 1970s, then Sanders is his natural opposite: the rumpled intellectual protesting with Woody Guthrie outside “Old Man Trump’s” segregated apartment buildings. If Sanders were the Democratic nominee, he might lose to Trump – but not in New York.