Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders began his political career 40 years ago as an also-ran candidate for governor who shifted gears and ran for mayor, moving from the sideline to the front line with his signature “revolutionary” ideas.
Now, nearly three years after losing the Democratic nomination for president, the unconventional revolutionary has done it again.
His ideas on “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage, free public college tuition, aggressively combating climate change and his demand that the “wealthy pay their fair share of taxes” have moved the Democratic Party to the left and the 77-year-old senator to the No. 2 spot in the crowded field seeking the Democratic nomination.
“We were told that all these concepts were ideas that the American people would never accept,’’ Sanders said in his opening campaign video. “Well, three years have come and gone and as a result of millions of Americans standing up and fighting back, all of these policies and more are now supported by a majority of Americans.”
Sanders’ idea of revolution starts with his signature healthcare plan, Medicare for All, that would ban nearly all private health insurance and replace it with a system of universal healthcare for everyone, requiring no co-pays, premiums or deductibles. It includes gun reforms — the expansion of background checks for firearm purchases and an end to the gun show loophole. And it reaches deeply into the workplace — providing pay equity for women and a guarantee that all workers get paid family and medical leave.
Sanders’ proposals would tie America’s foreign policy to economic justice, international cooperation and anti-authoritarianism. He has criticized the government of Nicolás Maduro for its authoritarianism and suppression of democracy in Venezuela, for example, but he has rejected calls for U.S. intervention in the region.
And he calls for an “end to the demonization of undocumented immigration in this country and move toward comprehensive immigration reform.” He supports giving legal status to young people eligible for DACA and wants a new policy for people who seek asylum at the border.
Sanders grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, the son of Russian and Polish immigrants. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964, where he was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League and active in the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization that promoted voting rights and desegregation.
He moved to Vermont, bought 85 acres and a cabin in the woods and lived off the grid for a time. He then ran for governor twice, each time getting less than 6% of the vote.
In 1981, Sanders decided to run for mayor of Burlington, the state’s largest city. He won, ushering in an urban development boom that rejuvenated the waterfront town.
He served eight years as mayor before winning a congressional seat in 1990. He was elected to the first of three terms to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
When Sanders announced his candidacy for president in February, he was the front-runner. He held that status for months until former Vice President Joe Biden entered the race in April. Now Sanders, who at 77 is a year younger than Biden, is running second, according to most national polls.
The often rumpled-looking activist, with a shock of gray hair and a Brooklyn accent, doesn’t look much like a political revolutionary. But from his approach to fundraising, to his eschewing a party label as the longest serving political independent in Congress, he remains an iconoclast.
Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” a description that has varied and broad interpretations for many on the political spectrum. He describes it as carrying on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal tradition by elevating the economic rights of workers over corporations and capitalism.
“The only way we will win this election and create a government and an economy that works for all is with a grass-roots movement the likes of which has never been seen in American history,’’ he said during his campaign launch. “They may have the money and the power. We have the people.”
One of his defining crusades has been against corporate money in politics. He has railed against Citizens United, which allows corporations and wealthy individuals to pour unlimited amounts of money into campaigns and in 2016, he called Hillary Clinton’s big-money fundraising “obscene.”
Until recently, Sanders rejected in-person fundraisers, relying only on an online-only approach that demonstrated the depth of his grass-roots support early. Just over a month after entering the race, he reported raising $18 million from 900,000 small donors. The majority of the money came from donors under age 39, and 99% came in amounts of $100 or less.
By early June, opensecrets.org showed him with $21 million, with 74% coming from small donors. But with so many competitors now in the race, and Biden reportedly exceeding Sanders’ contributions, the Vermont senator has recently started to hold in-person fundraisers and hired a staff to court donors.
After Sanders’ 2016 campaign ended, reports surfaced of sexism and pay disparity within the campaign. In January 2019, Sanders publicly apologized and promised to “do better” if he were to run again.
Sanders routinely ranks among the U.S. Senate’s less wealthy members. But in November 2018, Sanders published “Where We Go From Here: Two Years in the Resistance” and, according to his most recent U.S. Senate personal financial disclosure, filed in May 2019, he earned more than $391,000 in royalties stemming from that and other book deals.
Bernie (Bernard) Sanders
▪ Current or most recent position: U.S. Senate (2007-present)
▪ Other elected offices: U.S. House of Representatives (1991-2007), mayor of Burlington, Vermont (1981-89)
▪ Occupation: carpenter, filmmaker, writer
▪ Education: University of Chicago, 1964, B.S. political science
▪ Age: 77
▪ Residence: Burlington, Vermont
▪ Family: Jane O’Meara, married in 1988; previously married Deborah Shiling in 1964. In 1968 met Susan Mott and they had son, Levi, in 1969 but did not marry. O’Meara has three children from a previous marriage. Together they have seven grandchildren.
▪ Campaign website: https://berniesanders.com/
▪ Small donors: $15.2 million or 74% (through June 3)
▪ Big donors or their affiliates: Alphabet Inc. (Google), $30,981; University of California, $14,990; Microsoft Corp, $11,761; University of Illinois, $11,379; Kaiser Permanente, $9,564.
▪ Fun fact: Bernie Sanders has his own Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after him called “Bernie’s Yearning.” It’s mint chocolate chip with a chocolate disk on top “that represents the 1 percent.”
▪ On the issues: General summaries: https://berniesanders.com/issues/. Plans with details: Medicare for All: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/options-to-finance-medicare-for-all?inline=file; College for All: https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/collegeforallsummary/?inline=file
Sources of biographical information: