Bernie Sanders is an improbable politician. Independent, occasionally irascible, he came from the far left and an urban background to win elections in one of the most rural states in the country.
Now Sanders’ rhetoric is on the national stage with his surging run for president. He’s made headlines for his staying power in polls and his policy platforms singularly focused on income inequality and curbing corporate power.
His run for the White House has been described as quixotic, and pundits have called his goals unachievable. But Sanders and his policies have struck a nerve in American politics. The candidate who’s been dismissed and underestimated every time he reaches for new political heights has become the leading challenger to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
As American voters get to know the 74-year-old — his wispy white hair, his Brooklyn accent that’s persisted in the decades since he left home, his unyielding focus on economic equality, and his impatience with the gamesmanship of presidential politics — he’s shared little about what made him who he is.
Sanders deflects personal questions and admonishes reporters who stray from the subjects he considers important, but there’s no separating Sanders’ candidacy from Sanders himself.
So who is Bernie Sanders? What molded his politics and his convictions? And what can the chapters of his life tell us about what might come next?
A Brooklyn Youth
Bernie Sanders’ athletic strength in high school was in long distance running, according to his teammate Steve Slavin. As a sophomore at James Madison High School in the late 1950s, Sanders was racing with seniors — and winning.
Slavin also recalls Sanders as someone who didn’t boast about his successes. Years after graduating, Slavin heard a story about one cross-country race in particular in which Sanders let the second-place runner take the lead, ignoring a tradition that the top two runners join hands at the end and cross the finish line together.
“But Bernie knew that this other guy had not ever won a race by himself,” Slavin says. “So when they approached the finish line, the other guy reached out to take Bernie’s hand and Bernie sort of nudged him across the finish line so that the other guy would finish first and Bernie would finish second, and it’s a story that this guy has always remembered.”
James Madison High School itself was a notable place at the time.
“It was like magic,” says Marty Weinstein Alpert, who graduated two years ahead of Sanders. “Everybody said, ‘This is the best school in all of Brooklyn!’”
Alpert is now president of the alumni association. She describes the students in those days as “achievers.” Standing in front of the school’s Wall of Distinction, she reads through some names. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Norm Coleman, singer-songwriter Carole King and Judge Judy.
“We have Nobel Prize winners,” she says. “We have Pulitzer Prize winners, we have historians, we have Hollywood producers and writers and directors.”
It’s a remarkable list of graduates to have come from this one New York City public school. Alpert says many parents here — including Bernie Sanders’ father — were Jewish immigrants from Europe who had not had access to a college education.
“A lot of families came from Europe and they wanted a better life and everything was on education, and they stressed this,” she says. “It was like a mindset: ‘I couldn’t do it in Europe, you’ve got to do it here.’”
Parents emphasized these values, she says.
“Not to be famous, but to make something of your life. To be successful in that way. If you made money and became rich that was wonderful, too, I mean, you know, but more than that — it was getting that education and doing something worthwhile in life.”
Steve Slavin still lives in Brooklyn. He walks past James Madison High and down a street lined with mature Sycamore trees arching over passing traffic.
“All these houses along here, they haven’t changed,” he says, walking past modest, tidy houses with small front lawns. “This is what you saw. You’re coming to school, you walk along here, and you see the same houses. The terra cotta roofs … probably built in the twenties.”
Further down the block, the area feels more urban, with tan brick apartment houses from the 1920s and ’30s.
Bernie Sanders grew up in one such building on East 26th street. Today, a couple of elderly Russian men are sitting out in front of the Sanders’ old apartment house.
“They’re just sitting outside,” Slavin says. “That’s how they socialize. That’s the way they used to do it in the old days too — a lot of adults sitting in front of the apartment houses.”
Slavin says to the men: “There was someone who lived here 60 years ago and he’s running for president.”
Walking into the building’s bare and dimly lit lobby, it’s clear not much has changed. There’s faded paint on the high ceilings, and old ceramic tiles cover the floor.
Bernie Sanders lived in the three-and-a-half room apartment with his parents and brother, Larry, who is seven years older.
Larry says their father, Eli, worked most of his life as a struggling paint salesman. Dorothy Sanders was a stay-at-home mother who died young — she was 46 — the year after Bernie Sanders graduated from high school.
“She played a huge — I may even cry at some point,” Larry Sanders says. He pauses. “She played a huge part in our lives.”
Larry Sanders describes his mother as an “assertive and energetic” woman, and he says he and “Bernard,” as Larry he calls his brother, grew up feeling loved and secure — except in matters of money.
“It was the issue on which our parents had arguments,” he recalls. “That they didn’t really know whether they’d have the rent the following month. They probably would, but it wasn’t sure. We had what we needed in general, but it was the fact that our parents were arguing that was the problem. And I think what Bernard and I took from that is that financial problems are never just financial problems. They enter into people’s lives in very deep and personal levels.”
Education for the Sanders brothers was in Brooklyn’s public schools and in Hebrew school. Larry says he and his brother grew up learning about basic concepts like justice and equality, “that all people are equal, that people are entitled to be treated with dignity. That justice was something that was meant to be for everybody. Yes, we had a very deep sense of that, of the human solidarity.”
Bernie Sanders’ education, unlike his parents’, would continue in college, and it would become an education that wasn’t solely academic.
Sanders spent the year after high school at Brooklyn College, where he rented a room with his old high school teammate, Steve Slavin.
Slavin says Sanders didn’t make much effort to curry favor with his instructors.
“I’m sure that in class, he didn’t say what the professor wanted to hear,” Slavin says. “And the professors were pretty decent — I mean it was, you know, open discussion. But yet there is always the feeling that if you say what the professor wants to hear this is gonna help your grade … And Bernie would have none of that.”
In 1961, Sanders transferred to the University of Chicago, where the bells of the school carillon echoed through Hyde Park on the city’s South Side.
University of Chicago students in the early 1960s were a smart, erudite, precocious bunch.
One of Sanders’ classmates at the time interviewed students about their college experience for a documentary called The College.
Describing a rock concert at the school, one of the students said:
“I see it as sort of a reversion to a primitive, pagan rite, you see the rampant sexuality, and, you know, it’s kind of interesting from a purely sociological standpoint.”
Robin Kaufman laughs when she hears the clip.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “There were a lot of us like this. You know, University of Chicago’s a place for nerds, you know?”
Kaufman was active in the same political groups as Sanders — including the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE. Sanders was also involved in the Young People’s Socialist League.
“I think we were more fun-loving than some of the nerds,” Kaufman says. “But I think Bernie was pretty serious and I think many of us were pretty serious.”
Jim Rader, who was an activist living in Chicago at the time, still introduces himself as one of Sanders’ oldest friends. He says the young Brooklynite spent a lot of time with his nose buried in books.
“He wasn’t a particularly motivated student in terms of classes and that sort of thing,” Rader says. “So he spent a lot of time in the library, and spent a lot of time reading, and read very widely, particularly in politics and social issues.”
In the library, Sanders found readings like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. He wasn’t pursuing a grade, but Sanders was studying.
And he met people like Gavin MacFadyen, an activist who grew up in Hyde Park. Sanders has said MacFadyen, now a journalist living in London, exposed him to political ideas.
MacFadyen recalls a Hyde Park humming with “intellectual gravitas” — philosophy, mathematics and particle physics alongside communists, anarchists and Trotskyists.
“There was a very rich cultural environment. If you were a radical in those days, which I was — and quite proud to have been — as was Bernie and all the rest of them,” he says, “there was a kind of serious excitement, because you knew these ideas had weight and meaning.”
That feeling of meaning made some of the debates ferocious, MacFadyen says. And at that point in Chicago history, there was plenty to debate.
In October of 1963, the de facto segregation of Chicago public schools prompted a mass student walkout — with big protests downtown.
But it wasn’t just schools; much of Chicago life in the early ’60s was racially segregated, including some off-campus apartments that the University of Chicago refused to rent to blacks.
In January 1962, Sanders and other student leaders asked the administration to immediately integrate the housing.
When the university did not, Robin Kaufman says, about 35 students marched up to the university president’s office, sat down, and didn’t leave.
“My mother was in Boston,” Kaufman says, “and a friend of hers called her up and said, ‘I just saw Robin on TV. You know, you’re putting all this money into sending her to college, and she’s out there sitting in!’”
Kaufman reported in the student newspaper that the protestors at the sit-in played bridge and ate salami and cheese sandwiches. One guy read aloud from Winnie the Pooh. Several wore neckties.
One of the leaders of the sit-in was a young Bernard Sanders, shown in one photo sporting a wide-necked dark sweater and horn-rimmed glasses, clutching a book in one hand and gesturing with the other as he speaks to the protesters.
“He was a great speaker,” Kaufman recalls, “and he was able to convince a bunch of other 19-year-olds … that what was going on was something that was wrong … and we had the power and the obligation to try to create change.”
Sanders has said the sit-in was the event that kick-started his political activism.
Not everyone remembers him as eloquent. Gavin MacFadyen says Sanders was no “electrifying speechmaker,” but a soft-spoken, intelligent kid who was still figuring out how to lead.
“If you’d said, ‘Is this guy going to run for president?’ I think we all would have smiled,” MacFadyen says.
Whether or not Sanders found his voice in Chicago, he was learning what it was he wanted to talk about: socialist ideals.
Anthems such as “Hark the Battle Cry is Ringing” set the tune for socialism’s rise in the U.S. in the early 20th Century. So did a man named Eugene V. Debs. He was the founder of the American Socialist Party and a five-time presidential candidate.
At his peak, Debs pulled in more than 900,000 votes — nearing 6 percent of the vote in 1912.
“The working classes must be aroused,” Debs said in a 1904 speech. “They must be made to hear the trumpet call of solidarity.”
If the soaring, populist rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s because Eugene Debs was a huge influence on a young Bernie Sanders.
Sanders even wrote and produced his own audio documentary about Debs — with Sanders himself voicing the part of his socialist icon.
“Why should working people support the Socialist Party?” Sanders, playing Debs, says in the documentary. “Because it is the only party unequivocally committed to their economic interests, to the abolition of the wage system and the freedom of the worker from exploitation and every other species of servitude.”
In the liner notes from the 1979 soundtrack, Sanders hits some now-familiar themes: how the nation is controlled by big banks and corporations, how it’s hard for Americans to learn the truth about their government.
Sanders now says he made the documentary because few people seemed eager to tell the story of Eugene Debs.
“What I wanted to do at that point — that was before I became mayor — was to say, is — is to say, ‘OK, there are a lot of men and women in American history who did really important things that nobody knows anything about,” Sanders said in a recent interview in his Senate office.
The half-hour documentary touches on the formation of the American Railway Union, Debs’ presidential campaigns, and how he was sent to prison for opposing World War I.
“He was way ahead of his time, was a brilliant orator, was apparently, you know, from all the reports, almost a Christ-like figure, a man who would give people the shirt off his back,” Sanders says of Debs. “But he had a huge influence on the debate. His views on the rights of workers had a huge impact in terms of Social Security and health care and so forth.”
For Sanders, Debs’ ideology — “the understanding that there’s something fundamentally wrong when so few have so much and so many have so little” — became a driving force.
In his presidential campaign, wealth equality and social justice remain central issues, which begs the question: How does Sanders define his own ideology?
“If you ask me, am I a Democratic socialist, the answer is yes,” Sanders says.
But his socialist credentials have come under attack from both the right and the left.
In June, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill — widely seen as a proxy for Sanders rival Hillary Clinton — used the “S-word” when she questioned whether the media have done enough to expose Sanders’ true political leanings.
“I think the media is giving Bernie a pass right now. I very rarely read in any coverage of Bernie that he is a socialist,” McCaskill said. “I think he would like to see Medicare for all.”
Joel Geier, associate editor of the International Socialist Review, says that definition of “socialist” is a far cry from what Eugene Debs was.
“Well, it depends what you mean by a ‘real’ socialist,” he says. “Bernie Sanders is, as he says, a social Democrat. Similar to the social democratic parties that have introduced welfare states in places like Sweden or Denmark or Norway or even in France and Britain.”
In the U.S., Sanders’ politics are well to the left of most other candidates, but Geier says the European systems Sanders envies aren’t exactly socialism.
“It is a system not very much different from the United States — that is, the corporations, the banks, the factories, the hospitals, are privately owned,” he says. “What is different is that there is a much stronger welfare state than exists in the United States.”
For Sanders, it’s not about the label.
“What I am trying to do in this campaign is to tell Americans what many of them don’t know: that the benefits for working people are a lot, lot stronger in many other countries around the world,” he says.
Geier says Sanders’ idol, Eugene Debs, would have have had a more sweeping view of socialism.
“What socialism, as Debs was for, was the working people taking power and running society in their interests and making sure that everyone has free health care and a decent standard of living and so on,” he says. “This sort of extraordinary inequality, which is taking place under neoliberalism, is what people are objecting to, which is really the base that is creating the Sanders campaign.”
Sanders points out that in many races for mayor and Congress he ran and won as an independent, not as a member of any socialist party.
Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, has observed Sanders throughout his political career. Back in 1981 when Sanders was first elected mayor of Burlington, Nelson said reporters from Europe called him because what they viewed as normal in politics was considered an aberration in the States.
“It’s a relatively mild, I would say a vanilla socialism,” Nelson said he told them. “It’s basically focused on big businesses, and capitalist inequalities.”
As a kid growing up in New York City, Sanders developed a fascination with Vermont by way of real estate brochures and a small storefront the state had set up in the city to boost tourism.
Sanders recalled in a June, 2015 interview with NPR that he and his brother would pick up the brochures and look at the farms for sale.
After college, in the mid-1960s, Sanders, his then-wife and brother pooled together money and bought a piece of land in Middlesex, about six miles north of the state capital of Montpelier.
“We had never been to Vermont in our lives; we just drove up,” Sanders told NPR. “We bought 85 acres for $2,500. How’s that? But it was woodland.”
In the Northeast Kingdom
Sanders stayed occasionally in a converted maple sugar house on the Middlesex property. But it was far to the north, in the town of Stannard, that Sanders put down more permanent Vermont roots.
Stannard is deep within the state’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, home to just over 200 people. It’s hardscrabble country, with more dirt roads than paved. Abandoned farm fields are returning to brush and thick forests line the ridges.
Bernie Sanders lived here for just a few years when he was in his late twenties, in an old farmhouse just a stone’s throw from Stannard Brook. It was the late 1960s — the heyday of the back-to-the-land movement, and Stannard offered the kind of rural landscape that some were looking for.
“We were welcomed so warmly by the traditional Vermont farmers who were here when we came,” says Regina Troiano, who came to Stannard in 1972, by the time Sanders had already moved to Burlington.
Troiano says Sanders came back to Stannard often, though.
On those visits, Troiano remembers how Sanders would offer ideas on ways that Stannard could deal with small-town fiscal challenges.
“He was just trying to help out,” she says, “as he always did. And he always came back when he was campaigning, and sometimes when he wasn’t campaigning, to have a town meeting with the folks from town.”
Larry Sanders says that even though his brother’s time in Stannard was brief, it had a big influence.
“They were local farm people,” he says. “Their experience was quite different.”
Life in the rural town wasn’t the conspicuously intellectual, activist scene that Bernie Sanders experienced seven years earlier at the University of Chicago. And yet, Larry Sanders says his brother found himself comfortable in the community.
“They were poor people. They worked very hard, they worked on the land,” he says. “I think that experience of finding he liked and respected people who had these much more conservative views in most areas of life than his — and that they were people he could talk to and who would talk to him … That meant a lot to him personally. I think it came across that he liked and respected people and he didn’t condemn them for their views — he disagreed. And he didn’t expect them to condemn him for having different views. And it looks like they didn’t.”
A Liberty Union candidate
In late 1971, Sanders was invited by his old friend Jim Rader to a convention of the Liberty Union Party at Goddard College.
Liberty Union opposed the Vietnam War and was trying to become a viable third party in Vermont. The state was seeing an influx of young people, a demographic shift that later became known as the “hippie invasion.”
Sanders wasn’t a hippie. But he was anti-war and had an intense interest in politics, so he went along.
Rader says the Liberty Union convention had already selected a candidate for U.S. House, “and then the question was: ‘Well, we don’t have a candidate for Senate; is there anybody who is willing to run for Senate?’”
There was a pause, Rader says, and then Bernie Sanders held up his hand.
“Bernie certainly surprised me, and I have the sense, maybe even surprised himself, by volunteering,” Rader recalls.
Nearly 45 years later, Sanders holds that first office he sought. It didn’t come quickly.
Leaving the party
Sanders lost that first race for Senate, as well as a 1974 race for Senate and a 1976 race for governor, never breaking more than 6 percent. In 1979, he broke with the Liberty Union.
In his book, Outsider in the House, he explains why. He says it was a painful decision, but that the small third party wasn’t attracting members, energy or leadership.
Though he’s shirked party status since, Sanders’ friends say some of the political themes he stressed in his Liberty Union campaigns are elements of his presidential bid.
“I think what motivates Bernie is a passionate desire for justice, and especially economic justice,” says Huck Gutman, an English professor at the University of Vermont and one of Sanders’ closest friends and advisers.
“[It’s] not so different from his Liberty Union days, saying the country is not fair, we’ve got to try and do something through the ballot box.”
But there is one key difference between Sanders the fringe third-party candidate and the political independent who later won races for mayor and Congress.
Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, says the Liberty Union Party, like many in the counter-culture left of the 1960s and ’70s, was never about winning elections.
“They don’t want to win, because if you win you’re gonna have to govern,” Nelson says. “And they don’t want to govern. They don’t want to be responsible for anything. It’s much more fun to make the speeches and sit down and have coffee with your buddies.”
Richard Sugarman, a professor of religion at the University of Vermont, became friends with Sanders during his Liberty Union days. He says that by the end of the 1970s, Sanders believed the Liberty Union party had run its course.
“I think he realized that … Liberty Union had exhausted their primary purpose, which was anti-Vietnam War. And it was over!” Sugarman says. “And Bernie, unlike many people on the left … was never one to be disappointed by a good outcome.”
After Sanders left Liberty Union, in the cold winter of 1980 and ’81, snow piled on in Burlington.
Burlington in 1981 was a stratified city, geographically and economically. The wealthy neighborhoods sat atop a large hill, with views of the sun setting across Lake Champlain, behind New York’s Adirondack mountains.
In 1981, when Sanders was elected, the poorer of the city’s almost 38,000 lived in wood-frame houses clustered at the foot of the hill, near the lake. This, Richard Sugarman remembers, is what led to the plowing problems at the end of the winter in 1981.
“At that time, the plowing always went from the top of the hill to the bottom,” Sugarman said. “And it would seem to be income based, frankly, at least to some extent.”
Sugarman had noticed that as a third party candidate running for governor, Sanders had done pretty well in the working class sections of Burlington.
“I always thought he could win it,” he said. “But I was the only one, including him, I believe.”
A changing city
Burlington at the time was a community in transition. A small town by national standards, it is Vermont’s largest city. Major industry – including textile plants – had left the area. Its downtown shopping district was struggling to compete with a ring of suburban malls.
The city is now a cosmopolitan, gentrified enclave, home to a thriving high-tech industry. Some native Vermonters like to joke that the best thing about Burlington is that it’s so close to Vermont.
But one part of the city that hasn’t changed much in 35 years is City Hall Park, a small green space with a lawn scuffed bare and seagulls circling overhead.
Sitting on a park bench, former newspaper reporter Scott MacKay recalls a sleepy college town with a Democratic Party losing its near-total control over city government.
“A couple of things happened,” MacKay recalls. “You had a mayor named Gordon Paquette, who wanted a last term. Now there were a lot of younger people in the Democratic Party who said he’s over the hill; he’s over. But they decided not to challenge him.”
Paquette dismissed Sanders as the fringe candidate he had been when he ran those Quixotic campaigns under the Liberty Union banner.
“They took Sanders for granted,” MacKay says. “There was one quote, I’ll never forget, that Mayor Paquette said, ‘Oh, he’s nothing, he just talks about the Rockefellers all the time.’”
A natural base
Gene Bergman at the time was a former UVM student who had stayed in town to become a neighborhood activist with a group called People Acting for Change.
Standing in front of city hall – where he still works as an assistant city attorney, Bergman recalls the political environment of the time, and the unrest that Sanders tapped into.
“They were just terrible on housing. We started pushing them for years to get the city to step up to do the right thing on housing,” he said, “be it affordability, be it on habitability across the board. So in 1977 we were bringing hundreds of people here to advocate for rent control.”
These tenants and housing advocates formed a natural base for Sanders. His coalition included students and professors from the University of Vermont, as well as disaffected Democrats. One of those Democrats ran against Paquette in 1981 and siphoned support that would have gone to the incumbent — a spoiler.
Sanders, the lefty candidate who had made wealth inequality the focus of his political message – those Rockerfellers again – turned his attention to local concerns: The unplowed streets, housing, a City Hall that listened to business and developers more than ordinary people.
“That’s where life was lived for most people,” Sugarman says. “They were not thinking about the great issues of world affairs, for the most part. They wanted a city that worked for them.”
Without money to buy campaign ads, Sanders hustled door to door, and hammered two key themes: “Time for a change” and “The city is not for sale.”
He tapped into the community and tenants’ rights organizations. And then the candidate got a huge boost from the police union.
“Now when the policemen endorsed Bernie, this sent a major message to the city,” says UVM political scientist Garrison Nelson. The message: “‘This is not a dangerous person.’ If the policemen are willing to endorse this guy, he’s not going to communize the city.”
Nelson was on a local radio show on election night in 1981. He initially called the race for incumbent Gordon Paquette. Then Nelson started to see returns from some of the traditional Democratic strongholds.
“And he now starts to surge ahead,” recalls Nelson. “And it now becomes clear that Bernie is going to win. I declare on the radio that Bernie Sanders is going to win this election and the city of Burlington will never be the same. That was a good call.”
The election was perilously close in part because Paquette also had competition from a disaffected Democrat. Results see-sawed through the night between Paquette and Sanders.
Sanders’ friend Richard Sugarman was with John Franco, a young lawyer and Sanders ally, counting votes in Ward 5. It was typically a conservative section of the city, and Sugarman recalls the moment when victory seemed possible.
“John had a better sense of the city certainly than I did on that level,” Sugarman remembers. “And he said ‘Look, we’ve only lost by a handful of votes here; we’re going to win.”
But there was reason to be concerned. While Sanders won by more than 500 votes on voting machines throughout the city, his lead was slipping as absentee ballots were tabulated.
These ballots showed a disproportionate amount of support for Democrat Paquette.
“There was funky chicken stuff going on with the absent ballots, no doubt about that,” Franco says now. “They were not following election law in terms of how they were supposed to be counted.”
Sanders supporters worried about the possibility that the Democrats would steal the election.
“I remember at one point,” Franco says, “Joe Crepeau, who was head of the Patrolman’s Association, was at Lawrence Barnes School [a polling place]. And those votes were being counted in a back room. And he told the poll managers: ‘If you don’t open that goddamn door right now, I’m going to bust it down.’ And then they came out.”
As other Sanders supporters watched the polling places around town, Franco woke up a judge and got him to impound the ballots.
Finally, late that night, a tired Sanders declared a tentative victory.
“We are still concerned about the closeness of the race, the possibility of voter irregularities, the certainty that there is going to be a recount, the fact that City Hall is controlled completely by the people that we are trying to throw out,” Sanders said in his speech. The returns showed Sanders winning by 12 votes.
“It’s not exactly a landslide victory,” Sanders said. “However, it appears that we’ve won. It appears that there’s going to be fundamental changes in this city for the low income and working people.”
Ultimately, a recount gave Sanders a 10-vote victory. He had won, and the Democratic establishment was stunned by the upset.
Idealism & pragmatism
The governing that came next was filled with obstacles and unusual coalitions. Yet Sanders’ early days as Burlington mayor showed that the young politician could turn potential adversaries into allies, a lesson that helped shape his later career.
Debbie Bookchin was a reporter who covered Sanders’ first few terms in office.
“He was successful in forging relationships with certain key business leaders like Antonio Pomerleau,” she says.
She recalls that Sanders supported Pomerleau, a prominent real estate developer, to head the city police commission. The two were close throughout Sanders’ tenure as mayor, but the relationship did not start out that way.
“In fact in his campaign, Sanders had railed against Pomerleau’s development plan,” Bookchin says. “But once Sanders was in office they developed a much more cooperative relationship.”
In a 1981 interview with Bookchin, Sanders said he consulted Pomerleau frequently.
“I find Pomerleau as police commissioner to be a very non-fascistic type of person,” Sanders told her. “And the truth of the matter is that today … the relationship between the rank and file cop and the city of Burlington and management is better than it’s been in God knows how many years.”
But Pat Robins, another prominent Burlington business owner, says Sanders at first was openly hostile to most of the local business community.
“He didn’t want to deal with any of the businessmen back in 1981,” Robins says.
Robins recalls that Sanders slowly started to see beyond his rhetoric and began to govern with a more pragmatic touch.
“He’d come out of this whole Chicago thing, all of his friends came out of this progressive, socialist, maybe Marxist background. And that’s what they came into City Hall with,” Robins says. “But I think he came to a realization, sometime in that mid-80s era, I think he came to see that he needed the tax revenue that came from jobs in downtown, new buildings in downtown, the vitality of downtown, I think he came to see that some of us were okay.”
But inside City Hall and on the board of aldermen, Sanders had few allies. For months, Democrats on the board blocked his appointments, refusing to even let him hire a secretary. So again, the new mayor began to build alliances across a political divide.
“Bernie Sanders ran the city in a coalition with the Republicans,” Franco says. “You know, I tell that to people from out of state and they think I’m crazy.”
Sanders worked during his first year without key staff to run the city.
“We had to do two city budgets with volunteers sitting around a kitchen table in a rented apartment,” Franco says.
Those budgets got the attention of Republicans, who could appreciate the discipline Sanders brought to the city budget.
“Bernie’s fiscal management and updating of city management and government had real attraction to the Republicans,” Franco says. “The Democrats wouldn’t deal with us at all. They were just so mad that we had beaten Gordon Paquette they wouldn’t speak to us.”
In Burlington, Sanders also learned the value of well-plowed streets and filling potholes. Businessman Pat Robins says Sanders brought a staff of professionals to city hall.
“And they did a great job in fixing the city’s finances, which were pretty shoddy at the time, quite frankly,” Robins adds.
More terms, and national bids
When the next election came around in 1983, Sanders’ victory was decisive.
Sanders’ inaugural address that year underscored themes he would raise in every campaign from then on.
“Maybe, just maybe this one small city in this one small state can be a beacon of light in the dark winter of national and international crisis,” he said.
His four terms as mayor of Burlington gave Sanders the name recognition needed for another statewide run.
In 1986, Sanders ran for governor and lost to the Democratic incumbent as well as the Republican, Peter Smith.
In 1988, Sanders faced Smith again, this time in a race for Vermont’s one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Smith won, but the results this time were surprising; Sanders got more votes than the Democrat in the race, Paul Poirier.
In 1990 Sanders challenged Smith again. This time, the Democrats put up only token opposition, and Smith made some costly mistakes, including support for a ban on assault rifles.
Sanders then won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.
“The N.R.A., the only time I think they ever endorsed him, said we’d rather have somebody who tells us the truth than somebody who lies to us,” remembers Sanders’ friend Huck Gutman.
Bernie Sanders goes to Washington
Smith also launched a series of negative ads late in the campaign including one accusing Sanders of favoring the communist Castro regime in Cuba. The strategy backfired.
In November 1990 a gleeful Sanders announced the results.
“We won a smashing victory in Rutland,” Sanders said to a cheering crowd. “And if you can believe this, our friends in Windham County are giving us Brattleboro two-to-one.”
Sanders — who came of age in the era of the New Deal, overhearing worried parents fighting over money, who’d spent almost a decade in office pushing an agenda of social and economic justice and human rights — was going to Washington.
Once in Congress, Sanders again had to do some on-the-job training. He had never been a legislator, and in D.C., he had no party affiliation. At first Democrats refused to let him into their caucus. Later, after they lost control to the Republicans in 1995 under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, they decided they needed Sanders’ vote.
Ever since, Sanders has caucused with the Democrats and earned seniority in the congressional system, even though he was not a member of either party.
In 2006, when Sanders ran for an open U.S. Senate seat, he pulled in more than twice as many votes as his opponent. In 2012, he was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote.
An Independent In Congress
It’s a hot summer afternoon as Sanders jumps on the underground train that connects the Dirksen Senate Office Building with the Capitol.
He’s headed to the Senate chamber to cast a vote on one of the many bills he has considered during his career.
In Congress, Sanders has been known for, and worked hardest on, issues that have been close to him since his days in Brooklyn, Chicago and Burlington.
Often, he has urged his colleagues to address the issue of income inequality.
In a 2006 Senate campaign debate, Sanders insisted that his plan to raise taxes on wealthy people was not an effort to penalize the rich.
“It’s a question of creating a society in which all of us are in together, in which we take responsibility to make sure that all of our people have at least a minimal standard of living,” he said. “Frankly, from both a moral and an economic perspective, giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires when so many people in our society are hurting is wrong.”
On December 10, 2010, Sanders’ message of income inequality finally reached a national audience.
At 10:25 a.m. that morning, he rose to speak on the Senate floor. The target: President Obama’s plan to extend the Bush-era income tax cuts on everyone, including the wealthy. So many people tuned in to Sanders’ filibuster that the Senate’s web servers crashed.
He didn’t sit down until 7 p.m. that night.
“We should be embarrassed that we are not investing in our infrastructure, that we’re not breaking up these large financial institutions, that we’re not putting a cap on interest rates,” he said during the day-long speech. ”That we are the only country in the world that does not have health care for all of their people in major countries. We should be embarrassed!”
Despite Sanders’ lengthy oration, the tax package was overwhelmingly adopted and signed into law by President Obama.
During his tenure in the House, Sanders developed a reputation for being impatient with government officials. At a hearing of the House Financial Services committee, he erupted when Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan suggested that the U.S. economy will shift away from manufacturing to service and Internet-related jobs.
“Does any of this matter to you?” Bernie demanded after presenting a series of forecasts about American jobs moving overseas. “Do you give one whit of concern to the middle class and working families of this country? That’s my question!”
“Congressman,” Greenspan said, “we have the highest standard of living in the world.”
To Sanders, this was not the right answer.
“No we do not! You go to Scandinavia and you will find that people have a much higher standard of living in terms of education, health care and decent paying jobs. Wrong, Mr. Greenspan!”
Throughout his career in Washington, Sanders has pushed for a single-payer, government-financed health care system giving universal coverage to all Americans.
With this as his goal, Sanders’ support wasn’t a sure thing in 2010 as Congress debated President Obama’s Affordable Care Act; the senator wasn’t enthusiastic about the bill because it relied on private health insurance companies.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats were in a bind because they needed 60 votes to preempt a Republican filibuster.
As one of the Senate’s two Independent members, Sanders had a lot of leverage. He used it to ask for more than $10 billion to expand community health centers in all 50 states. He got it.
Sanders says he hoped the money would increase access to health care, which he says is a problem in the U.S.
“And that means there are millions of people — including folks who do have health insurance — who can’t get access to a doctor, can’t get dental care, which is a huge issue that we don’t talk about enough, mental health counseling, just an enormous issue, low cost prescription drugs.”
While he’s voted against the use of military force many times, Sanders insists the country has a moral obligation to stand by the soldiers sent to combat.
In 2014, Sanders was serving as the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee when the Department of Veterans Affairs became the focus of a national scandal.
Veterans were waiting months to get doctors appointments at VA Health Centers. Some centers deliberately covered up their long waiting periods.
Sanders helped draft a reform bill that allocated an additional $16 billion to hire more medical staff and expand access to health care for all veterans.
“If a nation goes to war,” he said, “it’s very highest priority has got be to take care of the men and women who come home from that war injured in body, injured in soul, injured in spirit.”
Speaking on the Senate floor in June 2014, Arizona Republican John McCain praised Sanders’ work.
“I respect his commitment and his leadership of the Veterans Affairs committee. I respect the fact that Bernie Sanders is known as a fighter, and it’s been a pleasure to do combat with him!” McCain said.
To win support for the bill, Sanders had to make a big compromise: allowing veterans, in certain circumstances, to seek medical care from private doctors outside of the VA system.
Democratic New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who is supporting Hillary Clinton for president, said these changes will have a huge impact in many rural states.
“That has saved our veterans hours and hours of wait time, traveling long distances. It’s been a real benefit and thanks to Bernie we were able to get that done,” she said.
As he did in Vermont, Sanders has earned a reputation in Washington for being a tenacious fighter.
Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who describes himself as the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate, has a disdain for most liberal Democrats.
Inhofe says that although he and Sanders disagree on almost every issue, he has great respect for Sanders. Inhofe says Sanders consistently fights for his priorities and doesn’t waver in the face of criticism.
The two diametrically opposed politicians first met when both were mayors, Sanders of Burlington and Inhofe of Tulsa. Later they both served in the House together.
Inhofe considers Sanders to be a close friend.
“It’s his sincerity,” Inhofe said in his Senate office. “You know where he is on every issue. He’ll fight to the bitter end for something he believes in even if it’s politically unpopular. That doesn’t bother Bernie … It’s kind of a saying, you know: ‘If Bernie and Inhofe both agree on something, it’s going to pass.’”
Former NPR Political Director Ken Rudin now runs the Political Junkie Podcast. Rudin has reported on Congress for several decades.
“The years in the House, from ’91 to 2006, he was seen as a gadfly,” Rudin says of Sanders’ early years in Washington. “Uncompromising, you know, played to his own tune. He seems to have done some kind of change since he came to the Senate.”
As a senator, Rudin says Sanders takes a serious approach to dealing with issues — unlike some former members of the chamber.
“They called Hubert Humphrey practicing ‘the politics of joy.’ There’s no happy, there’s no joy with Bernie Sanders,” Rudin says. “The issues he cares about — he deeply cares about — are serious issues and he’s not somebody who just takes the time to just schmooze … he doesn’t know how long he has to accomplish what he wants to accomplish, and he’s not about to waste any time.”
Former Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot gave Sanders a gift more than a decade ago. It’s a replica of the Excalibur sword, which myth says King Arthur pulled from a boulder and used to defeat his enemies.
Perot told Sanders to use its magical powers if the going ever gets really tough in his political career.
To this day, Sanders keeps the sword hanging on the wall of his Senate office.
While Bernie Sanders has a well-founded reputation for political consistency, there have been times when a pragmatic choice angers his supporters.
In Vermont, one recent flashpoint was Sanders’ unwavering support for basing the military’s next-generation fighter jet, the F-35, at Burlington International Airport just outside the state’s largest city.
A controversial aircraft
Rosanne Greco, a retired Air Force colonel, lives in South Burlington, where the airport is.
“I became involved in this when I was on the City Council in South Burlington,” she says of the F-35 issue. “And the only reason I became involved with it is that the people came to talk to us about their concerns and their fears for the F-35 coming here.”
The F-35 will eventually replace the F-16 jets now flown by the Vermont Air National Guard. Greco says she initially supported the new weapons system.
But after reading a federal environmental impact statement about the plane, she concluded that the F-35 posed an unacceptable threat to her community – particularly for the lower income people living around the airport.
Sen. Sanders, who was first elected in Burlington after campaigning for better plowing for the poor residents at the bottom of the hill, refused to change his stance: He supported basing the jet in South Burlington.
“For him not to think of his people, the people of Vermont, that doesn’t make any sense,” says Greco. “From a man who has throughout his career talked about social justice. That is the biggest disappointment that I have, and I think many people have, in Bernie Sanders.”
Sanders has a complicated record on military issues. He applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, and later opposed the first Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet Sanders is a strong advocate for military veterans.
“It shows his pragmatic side,” says Garrison Nelson, the UVM political scientist. “This is a guy who knows that you can’t do anything unless you win. And the fact that he has been able to win 14 elections is testament to that.”
Nelson says Sanders’ support for the F-35 basing really shows his support for the Vermont Air National Guard.
“The guard plays a very important role in the state, and … it’s a state that has a disproportionate number of guardsmen. And I think Bernie, once again, is supporting what he considers to be a key constituent group.”
The full three-person Vermont Congressional delegation supports the F-35. Nelson says there’s a reason for that support: Military contractors such as F-35 developer Lockheed Martin strategically scatter their work across many congressional districts.
“I did work for years on a roll call analysis system, and … one of my key clients was Lockheed Aircraft,” he recalls. “And Lockheed Aircraft made sure that every single plane that they built had a component part in every single congressional district of the United States. That’s basically how they operated, that’s how they are able to get congressional support, and this is another example of that.”
While Greco says Sanders’ support for the plane is not consistent with his principles, the senator is the same politician who established power in Burlington by forging alliances with the Republicans who respected his tight budgets.
As the F-35 debate shows, Sanders and his base aren’t in agreement on every issue. Nor is their dialogue always civil. Sanders can get touchy with critics – even on the campaign trail.
In Phoenix this summer, when members of the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted his speech, Sanders was visibly irritated, and tried to talk through their chanting.
In 2014, after the Israeli government sent troops into Gaza, things got heated at a town hall meeting in rural Cabot, Vermont. Some members of the audience repeatedly interrupted Sanders, shouting at him about his stance on Israel.
The Burlington-based newspaper Seven Days reported that the meeting became so tense that Sanders’ Senate staff called the state police. State troopers responded and stayed for the rest of the meeting, but their presence didn’t put a stop to the interruptions.
Sanders didn’t evade questions about the conflict, though. When one activist pressed him to be harder on Israel for civilian casualties and because “Israel blockades, besieges and bombs a stateless people who are cut off from the world,” Sanders began to describe the way he sees the situation.
As he delivered his answer, someone in the crowd cut him off, arguing with his characterization of the situation.
“OK, one second – now I don’t want to be interrupted,” Sanders said calmly. “The question was asked, it’s a fair question, I’m trying to—” Sanders said before again being cut off by shouts from the audience. He tried to respond a few more times, but one man continued yelling.
Finally, Sanders snapped.
“Excuse me, shut up!” Sanders fired back. “You don’t have the microphone.”
Regina Troiano, who’s known Sanders since his visits to Stannard, was at the meeting. She says she had never seen anything like that happen before.
“It was very upsetting,” she says, “and in that situation the people were extremely rude. Mr. Sanders always takes questions and always answers people and he was speaking and they would not allow him to speak. It was rude.”
Sanders’ outburst was uncharacteristic – even for a senator with a reputation for being brusque. But friends and staff know Sanders isn’t always patient.
“Well, I think he is impatient,” says Huck Gutman, Sanders’ close friend.
Gutman says he learned long ago that with Sanders, he never has to say anything twice. That’s because “he’s a good listener,” Gutman says, “and he gets impatient if I repeat it again.”
Gutman says he thinks Sanders’ impatience comes with his work ethic.
“He wants to move forward and get things done and he really doesn’t want to hear people say the same thing over again,” Gutman says. “That’s because he hears it the first time. That’s my sense.”
And Sanders’ isn’t known to staff as an easy-going person.
“He is not the easiest person to work for,” Gutman says, “but then, I’ve been in Washington for a long time. There are a lot of people who just want to, you know, be placeholders, keep things in place and satisfy some constituents. And that has not been what Bernie wants to do.”
Gutman says Sanders takes constituents seriously, and expects his staff to do the same.
“He wants to go out and talk to Vermonters all the time, he wants to help Vermonters in trouble all the time with casework, he wants to have a strong legislative role, he wants to be at the forefront of issues,” Gutman says.
Sanders’ wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, has long been one of his closest political advisers. Now, working in his campaign headquarters in the heart of downtown Burlington, she’s fully involved with her husband’s run for president. When she’s not on the road with him, she’s helping out at headquarters.
Asked whether Bernie Sanders’ reputation for being impatient could become a campaign challenge, she says she doesn’t see it. The real challenge, she says, is that Sanders is always working.
“The challenge is to find time to stop. And not work all the time. That’s always been his challenge,” O’Meara Sanders says.
She says there is one way, though, to get her husband to take some time off from work. The politically determined populist who hopes to become the most powerful person in the United States has seven grandchildren.
“The grandchildren have actually helped that a lot, because they get in and say, ‘Grandpa, come! Come on, let’s play baseball, let’s do this!’ And he does. He comes in, he’s exhausted after being on the road for two weeks, and he’s, ‘Oh let me just sit down for a minute,’ and they give him one minute,” she says, laughing, “and then he’s out there having fun.”
A presidential candidate
Thirty four years after he was elected mayor at the end of a snowy Burlington winter, Sen. Bernie Sanders stood under the beating sun on a May afternoon at the edge of Lake Champlain.
“Today,” he said to thousands of supporters, “here in our small state – a state that has led the nation in so many ways – I am proud to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.”
The words of the speech were characteristically energized, and they had that ring of radicalism; he addressed “brothers and sisters” in the crowd and invoked “a political revolution.”
The lessons of social justice learned during childhood have stuck for a lifetime. The oratory of Eugene Debs seems to ring in Sanders’ ears.
There have been compromises; the long-time independent chose to run as a Democrat. Hillary Clinton would use that, saying she is the “true” Democrat.
Sanders has not lost an election in more than a quarter-century, but the 74-year-old still isn’t satisfied; the sense of social and economic justice he’s held for so long has pushed him to try to win the biggest race of his life.
Becoming Bernie is a production of Vermont Public Radio.
News Director︱John Dillon
Senior Reporter︱Bob Kinzel
Host & Reporter︱Alex Keefe
Technical Director︱Chris Albertine
Digital Producer︱Taylor Dobbs
Digital Editor︱Angela Evancie
Digital Director︱Jonathan Butler
Executive Producer︱John Van Hoesen
WPTZ News Channel 5
The Vincent Voice Library
Selections from “Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary” by Bernard Sanders were courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and used by permission.
Original music by Peter Engisch.
“Hark the Battle Cry Is Ringing” by Henry Salt was performed by James Stewart.
This project was funded in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.