Sen. Bernie Sanders’ formal kickoff was a classic underdog pitch to draw greater attention to his chief issues: economic inequality and a political system increasingly tilted to the well-off.

Share story

WASHINGTON —

Sen. Bernie Sanders, avowed socialist and self-proclaimed champion of the underpaid, overworked American worker, formally jumped into the presidential campaign Thursday as a liberal alternative to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The senator from Vermont enters the race as a longshot, but his candidacy for the Democratic nomination suggests a sharp, perhaps divisive, debate among Democrats from now until at least early next year over government’s role in American life and the influence of money in politics.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS

Born: Sept. 8, 1941, Brooklyn, N.Y.

College: B.S., University of Chicago, 1964.

Political career: Unsuccessful independent candidate for U.S. Senate, 1972, 1974; unsuccessful independent candidate for governor of Vermont, 1972, 1976, 1986; Unsuccessful candidate for Congress, 1988; mayor of Burlington, Vt., 1981-89; Member, U.S. House, independent from Vermont, 1991-2007; U.S. senator, independent from Vermont, 2007-present.

Senate committees: Budget (ranking member); Environment and Public Works; Energy and Natural Resources; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Veterans’ Affairs; Joint Economic.

McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

In an era in which running for the nation’s highest office has become a vehicle for self-promotion for some, his kickoff was a classic underdog pitch to draw greater attention to his chief issues: economic inequality and a political system increasingly tilted to the well-off.

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders,” he said at a news conference outside the Capitol. “It is about a grass-roots movement of Americans standing up and saying: ‘Enough is enough. This country and our government belong to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.’ ”

“The major issue is, how do we create an economy that works for all of our people rather than a small number of billionaires?” he added.

Sanders, 73, the longest-serving independent in congressional history, has long been a strong, often lonely voice fighting against income inequality and for tougher corporate regulation. He caucuses with Democrats in the Senate.

He’s spent years building a loyal following of liberals who believe strongly that mainstream Democrats — notably the Clintons — are too cozy with Wall Street interests and too insensitive to the concerns of ordinary Americans.

He avoided criticizing Hillary Clinton directly Thursday, saying he wants a “serious debate about serious issues.”

He was asked whether the Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of money from foreign interests was fair game for a political debate. “I think what is more fair game … is the role of money in politics,” he said, and criticized the Koch brothers, big donors to conservative causes.

Sanders did offer some contrasts with Clinton. He recalled his 2002 opposition to the Iraq war, which Clinton at the time supported. She’s since said she got that vote wrong as a U.S. senator from New York.

Sanders also cited his battle against the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would make it easier for U.S. corporations to do business in 11 other nations. Liberals oppose the agreement, warning that it will encourage U.S. corporations to rely more on inexpensive overseas labor. Aides to Clinton have indicated she could support the deal if it were shown to help American workers and national security.

In Congress, Sanders also has advocated for higher taxes on the wealthy and increasing the minimum wage. In 2010, he controlled the Senate floor for more than eight hours in opposition to an extension of lower tax rates.

Already, the influence of Sanders and other prominent liberals such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has appeared to influence the early days of Clinton’s campaign. She has vowed to be a champion for the working class, and her kickoff video noted that while Americans “have fought their way back” from the Great Recession, “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”

“I agree with Bernie,” Clinton said in a tweet welcoming him to the race. “Focus must be on helping America’s middle class. GOP would hold them back.”

The party’s liberal wing has been longing for a candidate such as Sanders, but he’s not their favorite. They still hope Warren will enter the race, though she has said she’s not interested.

Sanders faces daunting challenges, and not just from Clinton. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, praised by liberals for his state agenda, is expected to make a bid for the Democratic nomination, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee is considering running. Should Clinton appear vulnerable, Vice President Joe Biden, among others, might jump in.

The allure for Sanders and others is that Clinton consistently gets only about 60 percent Democratic support in most polls. That suggests there’s a big chunk of voters who are willing to consider someone else.

Sanders’ chief asset is his tenacity. He’s been an underdog in nearly every race he’s run. He lost two U.S. Senate races and two governor’s races in the 1970s, breaking through with his barely successful campaign for mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1981. He won by 10 votes.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native was elected to Congress in 1990 and then to the Senate in 2006, with aides telling anyone who asked that he wasn’t a socialist with a capital S, he was an independent.

He’s relentless in pushing his agenda. “How does it happen that the top 1 percent own about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent?” he asked Thursday. “My conclusion is that type of economics is not only immoral, not only wrong, it’s unsustainable.”

Sanders said he would run a “vigorous” campaign that would rely on small donors to sustain it.

“We’re in this race to win,” he said. “If you raise the issues that are on the hearts and minds of the American people, if you try to put together a movement … that’s not raising an issue, that’s winning elections.”