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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Left-leaning Bernie Sanders' Brooklyn roots recalled

Sen. Bernie Sanders announced on April 29, 2015

Sen. Bernie Sanders announced on April 29, 2015 that he will run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Photo Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

Long before moving to Vermont, Bernie Sanders -- a self-described democratic socialist who declared yesterday for president -- grew up in Brooklyn, as the sound of his voice suggests.

Long before his election to the Senate -- and before cable-news audiences grew accustomed to seeing his mad-professor mess of thinning white hair -- Sanders attended the borough's James Madison High School (class of 1959) and, for a year, Brooklyn College.

Walter E. Block knew Sanders back in the day. "We were both on the Madison track team; he was one of the best runners in the city," Block recalls, "and I was a mediocre runner. So the view of his butt moving away from me in a distance run was far from a rarity."

Like Sanders, Block is now 73. Much unlike Sanders, Block went on to become an author of provocative books advocating free-enterprise economics. His website calls him an anarcho-libertarian philosopher. In terms of 2016, Block's presidential preferences run more toward another senator -- Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Block, who has an endowed chair in business at Loyola University in New Orleans, projects personal good wishes to his onetime classmate. For sure, Block opposes any brand of socialism, citing events in North Korea, East Germany and Cuba (events Sanders would deem irrelevant to his run). That said, Block believes Sanders' entry "will make politics more interesting. Seeing Hillary Clinton without opposition [in the Democratic primary] would be boring. Bernie will shake things up."

The tricky question of the moment is how that shaking-up plays out. The mainstream narrative for the Democratic primaries centers on how pressure from Clinton's left could shape her platform in advance of the general election. In a similar vein, ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would face heat from his right if and when he announces for the Republican nomination.

As for leftism, Sanders said more than 25 years ago, while first running for Congress as the Cold War waned: "I am a socialist and everyone knows that . . . They also understand that my kind of democratic socialism has nothing to do with authoritarian communism." In the Senate, he is elected as an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Some Sanders supporters began emphasizing Thursday that his drive to close loopholes and force big corporations and billionaires to pay more in taxes is intended in part to assist, not hurt, smaller businesses.

At a news conference outside the Capitol Thursday, Sanders declared: "This country has more serious crises than at any time since the Great Depression in the 1930s . . . The wealthiest people in this country and the largest corporations have got to join the United States of America. They gotta come back to this country."

NYU professor Mitchell Moss calls Sanders at this point "the only real New Yorker in the race." As outfunded Democratic primary underdogs go, he could be compared to Zephyr Teachout, who was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's long-shot, left-of-center opponent last year. She was a Vermont resident who found her way to New York; Sanders, the opposite.

Borders and accents don't seem to deter the family. Sanders' politically like-minded brother Larry, who moved to England in 1968 and supports the Green movement, is running for a seat in the Parliament.

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