RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — While Republican presidential hopefuls pled their cases to voters in a nationally televised debate Wednesday night, Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke to a packed house of Virginia voters.
The event held in downtown Richmond drew over 400 spectators. The Virginia native, whose challenging Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, took selfies, signed autographs of his book "The Real Anthony Fauci" and spoke about some of the conspiracy theories that he and many of the government skeptics in the audience believe.
"I feel like I've come home," Kennedy told the crowd. "Thank you for the reception."
The 69-year-old, a scion of one of American politics' most famous families, depicts himself as an outsider whose key campaign promise is to make government more transparent. At the event, he spoke about lowering the price of living, the war in Ukraine and how young Americans have lost their pride in the country.
"The current situation our government is in is not great," 22-year-old William and Mary student Adam Farris, who made the 50-mile trip from Williamsburg with a classmate, said. "There's a lot of information coming out about Covid and government and corporation corruption. I feel like every time I listen to RFK Jr. speak, I learn something new."
Words that came up frequently when speaking with the candidate's supporters were "integrity" and "honesty." Many folks attending said they were lifelong Republicans or had not previously been politically active but that Kennedy's honesty attracted them.
"It's not RFK Jr.'s economic or social policies that turned me on to him," Farris said. "A lot of it is that I feel like he's the most honest."
Homemaker Amy Brink echoed Farris' sentiment.
"He seems to demonstrate a lot of integrity," Brink said. "That's something I've been looking for for years and years."
Despite having an estimated $15 million net worth, the Virginia native labels himself a populist candidate for the working and middle class. After a career in environmental law that includes legal victories over DuPont and Monsanto, Kennedy gained a following amid the Covid-19 pandemic as an anti-vaccine advocate claiming the disease was engineered and criticizing Dr. Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institutes of Health tasked with leading the government's response to the virus.
Kennedy chairs Children's Health Defense, a nonprofit lobbying legislators and Americans to be more vaccine-hesitant.
"My wife especially has been following Robert Kennedy Jr. mainly because he was associated with the children's health vaccine issue," retired public affairs employee Rick Brink said. "We started looking more and more into him and we were excited to hear that he was going to make the run."
Kennedy riled the crowd when speaking about BlackRock. This investment management company owns large or majority stocks for hundreds of companies ranging from Apple and Exxon to Visa and CNN. Kennedy believes that BlackRock manipulates the federal government to its advantage at taxpayers' expense.
The candidate claims on his campaign website that "big pharma," — for example, creators of Covid-19 vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer, which are both majority-owned by BlackRock — controls the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal health agencies. Kennedy's book "The Real Anthony Fauci" accuses Fauci of neglecting to advocate for the use hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria medication unproven to prevent Covid-19 deaths.
The pandemic is not the only subject Kennedy and his supporters have theories about. The crowd roared when Kennedy claimed the Central Intelligence Agency was in cahoots to kill his uncle, former President John F. Kennedy, his father and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for their anti-Vietnam war stances.
A recent video on his campaign's X account claims the CIA has continued "Operation Mockingbird," described as a large-scale program that began in the early years of the Cold War and attempted to manipulate domestic American news media organizations for propaganda purposes. In the video, Kennedy alleges that editors and journalists from some of the nation's most influential publications are "compromised" by the CIA to spread government propaganda.
Kennedy criticized the Biden administration's spending on the war in Ukraine. He said peace was obtainable in the first month of the conflict but that the American government wanted to use Ukraine as a pawn to damage Russia.
Kennedy faced allegations of being antisemitic and racist after he suggested at a press dinner in July that the virus was specifically engineered to target white and Black people while Jewish and Chinese people had more immunity. Kennedy's family, including his brother and sister, have condemned his spreading of misinformation concerning vaccines.
"I strongly condemn my brother's deplorable and untruthful remarks last week about Covid being engineered for ethnic targeting," Kerry Kennedy said in a statement as president of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation. "His statements do not represent what I believe or what Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights stand for, with our 50-year track record of protecting rights and standing against racism and all forms of discrimination."
An analysis by Politico found that Kennedy received donations from donors who also contributed to former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' campaign.
Attendee Rick said he supports Kennedy because he believes he is the best chance of ending the polarizing time Americans find themselves in.
"People aren't talking, people aren't dialoguing and there's a lot of name-calling," Rick said. "I appreciate how he as a Democrat is still standing with his party, but he's pointing the finger at both parties and saying, 'listen, no one is talking to each other.'"
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