Who Is Bernie Sanders?
Born in 1941, politician Bernie Sanders started out his political career as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, serving four terms as the leader of the state's biggest city from 1981 to 1989. He then moved on to the national political arena by winning a seat in the House of Representatives, distinguishing himself as one of the country's few independent legislators. Sanders won election to the U.S. Senate in 2006 and was reelected in 2012. He announced his plans to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2015, ultimately sparking a huge progressive movement, before conceding the nomination to Hillary Clinton. The Vermont senator launched another presidential campaign in 2019, but again came up short in his bid for the Democratic nomination.
Early Life and Education
Independent politician Bernie Sanders was born on September 8, 1941, in New York. He grew up in Brooklyn as the youngest of two sons of Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father worked as a paint salesman. As part of a struggling working-class family, Sanders recognized early on America's economic disparity. As he told the Guardian newspaper, "I saw unfairness. That was the major inspiration in my politics." Sanders also counts American socialist leader Eugene V. Debs as an important influence.
Sanders attended Brooklyn's James Madison High School and then went on to Brooklyn College. After a year there, he transferred to the University of Chicago. Sanders became involved in the Civil Rights Movement during his university days. As a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Sanders participated in a sit-in against the segregation of off-campus housing in 1962. He also served as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1963 he participated in the March on Washington.
"It was a question for me of just basic justice — the fact that it was not acceptable in America at that point that you had large numbers of African-Americans who couldn't vote, who couldn't eat in a restaurant, whose kids were going to segregated schools, who couldn't get hotel accommodations living in segregated housing," he told the Burlington Free Press. "That was clearly a major American injustice and something that had to be dealt with."
After finishing college in 1964 with a degree in political science, Sanders lived on a kibbutz in Israel before settling in Vermont. He worked a number of jobs, including filmmaker, freelance writer, psychiatric aide and teacher for low-income children through Head Start, while his interest in politics grew.
During the Vietnam War, Sanders applied for conscientious objector status. Although his status was eventually rejected, by then he was too old to be drafted.
Burlington Mayor and Congressman
In the 1970s, Sanders made several unsuccessful bids for public office as a member of the anti-war Liberty Union Party, before he left the group in 1979. His first taste of political victory came by the thinnest of margins. In 1981, he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, by only 12 votes. Sanders was able to achieve this win with the support of the Progressive Coalition, a grassroots organization. He was reelected three more times, proving that the self-described "democratic socialist" had staying power.
Known for his rumpled clothes and untamed mane, Sanders made an unlikely candidate for national office, but this political underdog scored a 1990 win for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. As an independent, Sanders found himself facing a dilemma. He had to find political allies to advance his issues and legislation. As Sanders explained to The Progressive, he considered working with the Republicans to be "unthinkable," but he did caucus with the Democrats despite "a lot of opposition among conservative Democrats to my being in that caucus."
Outspoken on the issues, Sanders criticized both parties whenever he felt they were in the wrong. He was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, concerned about the social and financial impact that the conflict could cause. In an address to the House, he said "As a caring Nation, we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering that a war will cause." Sanders also questioned the timing of military action "at a time when this country has a $6 trillion national debt and a growing deficit."
Sanders sought to switch to the Senate in 2006, running against Republican businessman Richard Tarrant. He managed to win despite his opponent's significant advantage in funding: Tarrant spent $7 million of his own personal wealth in this election battle.
In 2010, Sanders made the news with his more than eight-hour-long filibuster against the extension of George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. He felt that this legislation was "a very bad tax agreement" between the president and Republican legislators, he later wrote in the introduction of The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class. Sanders ended his time on the Senate floor with a plea to his legislative colleagues to come up with "a better proposal which better reflects the needs of the middle class and working families of our country and to me, most importantly, the children of our country," according to a Washington Post article.
During his time in the Senate, Sanders has served on several committees on issues important to him. He is a member of the Committee on Budget; the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; the Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Joint Economic Committee. Sanders also champions campaign reform and advocates for an amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United.
Sanders has advocated for expanding voting rights and opposed the Supreme Court decision to disband part of the landmark Voting Rights Act. He is also an advocate for universal single-payer health care system. Driven by his sense of protecting the environment, addressing climate change and interest in renewable energy, Sanders is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works and the Energy & Natural Resources Committee.
In April 2015, Sanders announced that he was seeking the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party. This longtime independent made the party switch largely out of political necessity. "It would require an enormous amount of time, energy and money just to get on the ballot in 50 states" as an independent, he said to USA Today. "It made a lot more sense for me to work within the Democratic primary system where it's much easier to get on the ballot and have a chance to debate the other candidates."
Experts thought it unlikely that Sanders would be able to wrestle the Democratic nomination away from frontrunner Hillary Clinton, but Sanders wasn't worried about being an underdog. "People should not underestimate me," he said, noting his ability to "run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates."
Sanders' platform focused on issues of inequality in the United States. Economically, he favored tax reform to increase rates for the wealthy, greater governmental oversight of Wall Street and balancing the disparity between wages for men and women. He also advocated for a state-administered health care system, more-affordable higher education — including tuition-free public colleges and universities — and an expansion of the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid systems. A social liberal, he supported same-sex marriage and pro-choice policy.
Trademarks of His Campaign
One of the trademarks that defined Sanders' campaign was his call for a "political revolution," which asked for everyday citizens to become active in the political process and be the change they wanted to see on any given issue.
The other trademark was his fight to take corporate money out of politics, specifically, overturning the Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations and the wealthy elite to pour unlimited amounts of money into campaigns. Such money, Sanders vehemently argued, undermines democracy by skewing policies that favor the extremely rich.
Of the ruling, he said: "As a result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, American democracy is being undermined by the ability of the Koch brothers and other billionaire families. These wealthy contributors can literally buy politicians and elections by spending hundreds of millions of dollars in support of the candidates of their choice. We need to overturn Citizens United and move toward public funding of elections so that all candidates can run for office without being beholden to the wealthy and powerful."
Record-Breaking Online Grassroots Fundraising
Staying true to his principles, Sanders relied almost solely on small individual donations rather than Super PACs to run his presidential primary race. To the surprise of many and admittedly, to Sanders himself, he made an unprecedented mark on campaign fundraising in American politics. In December 2015, Time magazine wrote, "Bernie Sanders has broken the fundraising record for most contributions at this point in a presidential campaign," even surpassing President Obama's fundraising record for his 2011 reelection bid.
In February 2016, it was reported that Sanders had "received 3.7 million contributions from some 1.3 million individual contributors," averaging $27 a person. In March, Sanders' campaign reportedly raised over $96 million dollars in total contributions.
Historical Michigan Primary Victory
Sanders' Michigan primary victory in March 2016 is considered to be one of the greatest upsets in modern political history. He won 50 to 48, despite late polls showing he was trailing Clinton at least 20 percentage points.
The only time such an egregious polling error was recorded came during the 1984 Democratic primary, when polls showed Walter Mondale leading Gary Hart by 17 percentage points. Hart actually won Michigan by more than nine points.
Sanders' shocking win was a testament that his liberal populist message could resonate within a diverse state such as Michigan and beyond. It was also a huge psychological blow to Clinton's campaign, which had hoped to seal her nomination with ease.
Democratic Primary Abroad Win, AIPAC Absence
Also in March, Sanders won the Democrats Abroad international primary by 69 percent. Over 34,000 American citizens cast their votes in 38 countries, with 13 delegates for the taking.
Sanders made more headlines as the first presidential candidate — and the only Jewish one — in the 2016 race to abstain from attending the AIPAC conference, an annual pro-Israel lobbying event. Although Sanders cited his busy campaign schedule for preventing him from participating, some considered his absence controversial. Pro-Palestinian groups, to their satisfaction, viewed his move as a defiant political statement.
Despite the different interpretations, Sanders gave a foreign policy speech remotely as a way of expressing what he would have said at the conference. In the speech he stressed the need for mutual respect and a push for eventual direct talks between Israel and Palestine.
Visit to the Vatican
Sanders made history as the only presidential candidate ever to be invited to the Vatican to speak on moral, environmental and economic issues.
Amid a contentious New York primary, Sanders flew out for a brief visit to a conference on social sciences in Rome in April 2016. Sanders and Pope Francis were often cited as carrying similar moral anthems in regard to the economy and the environment.
Sanders had the opportunity to meet the Pope briefly, but the latter stressed the meet-and-greet was purely out of courtesy so as to not politicize the event.
The DNC Platform and Endorsing Clinton
As Sanders' campaign came to a close, along with the reality that the odds were stacked against him, the senator used his political clout to advance the DNC platform before putting his full support behind Clinton. Most of the issues his presidential campaign ran on — universal health care, free college tuition at public colleges and universities, a $15 minimum age, expanding Social Security, financial reforms for Wall St. and tackling climate change — were, by and large, included in the platform, albeit tweaked in some cases. However, he notably lost his fight against his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal (TPP).
Still, Sanders' overwhelming influence on the DNC platform was a huge victory for the senator and his legion of supporters and was touted as the most progressive platform in the Democratic Party's history.
On July 12, 2016, in front of a rally in New Hampshire, Sanders did what many thought he would never do: He endorsed Clinton for president. It was a huge moment for both campaigns, but their resolve to prevent Republican candidate Donald Trump from becoming the next president superseded their differences.
DNC Email Leak
In July 2016, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Wikileaks published over 19,000 DNC emails that revealed how officials seemingly favored Clinton over Sanders and sought to undermine his campaign; in one email exchange, DNC staffers discussed how they could question Sanders' "faith to weaken him in the eyes of Southern voters."
The leak also showed the bitter tension between DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver, the collusion between the DNC and the media and the ways in which officials persuade big money donors.
As a result of the leak, Wasserman Schultz announced she would step down as DNC chair. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies launched investigations to determine whether the information was made available from the work of Russian hackers.
Despite the leak, Sanders urged voters and the nearly 1900 delegates supporting him at the DNC to vote for Clinton over Trump. Many in Sanders' progressive base criticized him for his continued support of Clinton.
2020 Rumblings and Campaign
After Trump's stunning 2016 Election Day win over Clinton, Sanders vowed he would continue to stand up to the new president when necessary.
One year later, news outlets floated the idea that Sanders was positioning himself for another run in 2020. Among the evidence cited, it was noted he was developing a series of foreign policy speeches with Bill Clinton's former defense secretary, and had the position of "outreach chairman" created for him by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a role he was using to establish relationships with entrenched Democratic Party bigwigs.
In December 2017, after Minnesota Senator Al Franken announced he was stepping down due to sexual misconduct allegations, Sanders was among the chorus of voices calling for President Trump to do the same. Referencing the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about groping women, Sanders tweeted, "We have a president who acknowledged on tape that he assaulted women. I would hope that he pays attention to what's going on and think about resigning."
In February 2018, special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russian nationals for interfering in the 2016 presidential election brought the assertion that, along with backing Trump's campaign, the Russians actively favored Sanders over Clinton. Both Sanders and his former campaign manager disputed that finding, and said that the Clinton campaign could have done more to stop Russian interference with the knowledge they had of such activity.
In November 2018, Sanders published Where We Go From Here: Two Years in the Resistance, the sort of platform-boosting book that typically serves as a precursor to a political run. Sure enough, he formally announced his bid for president in February 2019, joining a crowded field that already included Democratic stars Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Sanders fared well in the polls through the first few primary debates, before being hospitalized and treated for artery blockage in early October. Recovering in time to make the stage for the fourth debate, he received a boost with the news he would draw the endorsements of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two fellow members of the House "Squad," Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
When it came time to start counting delegates in early 2020, Sanders finished just behind upstart Pete Buttigieg in the controversial Iowa caucuses, and followed with a win in New Hampshire to emerge as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
However, Joe Biden soon took a commanding lead in the primaries, forcing Sanders to play catch-up as the other candidates dropped out and threw their support behind the former vice president. Unlike in 2016, when he remained in the race even as it became clear that Clinton would claim the nomination, Sanders ended his campaign on April 8, 2020.
In 1964 Sanders married his college sweetheart Deborah Shiling, but the couple divorced two years later. In 1968 he met Susan Mott and the two had a son, Levi, in 1969.
Sanders met his second wife, Jane O'Meara, right before becoming mayor of Burlington in 1981. A long-time educator, O'Meara would eventually become president of Burlington College. The two married in 1988. O'Meara has three children from a previous marriage.
Sanders' older brother, Larry, is a British academic and politician, who is currently the Health Spokesperson for the leftist Green Party of England and Wales.
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