Vermonters call him “Bernie” — and have from the moment Brooklyn-born Bernard Sanders entered public life more than four decades ago. In that time, the wild-haired pol has evolved from an also-ran candidate on the fringes of Green Mountain politics to a virtually unbeatable, two-term U.S. senator. Along his unlikely journey, Sanders lost six races for statewide office, but won four as mayor of Burlington and eight as Vermont’s sole representative to the U.S. House.
A founder of the anti-war Liberty-Union Party, Sanders inspired the rise of the Vermont Progressive Party and caucuses with Senate Democrats. But the self-described Democratic Socialist remains a man without a party and has become the longest-serving independent in congressional history.
Sanders has devoted his political career to fighting what he sees as the rise of economic inequality in the U.S. and the growing power of corporations and the wealthy. A proponent of universal health care and measures to combat climate change, Sanders has become an advocate for veterans in Congress and was named chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in 2013.
Later that year, Sanders began hinting that he would consider running for president in 2016, perhaps as a Democrat. He told Seven Days he likes presumed frontrunner Hillary Clinton, but her policies are “not what this country needs ideologically.” He has since campaigned in the early presidential primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The Early Years
Born in 1941 to Polish immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sanders graduated from James Madison High School in 1959 and from the University of Chicago in 1964 with a degree in political science. After a stint on an Israeli kibbutz, the future senator moved to Vermont, where he worked as a carpenter, filmmaker and director of the American People’s Historical Society.
Sanders’ political career began in January 1972, when he won just 2 percent of the vote in a special election to replace the late U.S. senator Winston Prouty. Throughout the 1970s, the Liberty Union Party candidate would lose several more races for the Senate and for governor, never reaching double-digit vote totals.
Mayor of Burlington
(1981-1989, 4 terms)
In 1981, Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington as an independent. He shocked the city’s political establishment when he defeated the six-term Democratic incumbent, Gordon Paquette, and three other candidates by a mere 10 votes.
During his four terms leading Vermont’s biggest burg, Sanders reinvigorated city government, in part by creating an activist arm — the Community and Economic Development Office — that attracted progressive thinkers from around the country. He also brought minor league baseball to town: the appropriately named Vermont Reds.
While mayor, Sanders never lost sight of statewide office. He lost a third race for governor in 1986, winning just 14.5 percent of the vote in a three-way race against incumbent Democrat Madeleine Kunin and Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Smith. Two years later, he won 38 percent of the vote in a race for the U.S. House, beating Democrat Paul Poirier, but losing to Smith.
The tide turned in 1990 after Smith backed the Semiautomatic Assault Weapons Act, and the National Rifle Association targeted him for defeat. That fall, Sanders would finally win statewide office, defeating Smith 56 to 40 percent.
(1991-2006, 8 terms)
In the U.S. House, Sanders founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which now stands at 69 members. He was one of just six members of the House to vote against the first Iraq war in 1991 and opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. A frequent critic of then-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Sanders once accused him at a hearing of being “way out of touch with the needs of the middle class and working families of our country.”
Sanders supported the September 2001 global war on terror, but opposed the 2002 authorization of the use of force in Iraq.
In April 2005, on the day three-term senator Jim Jeffords announced he would not seek reelection, Sanders announced that he would run for the seat. His subsequent 2006 race against Republican Rich Tarrant, who founded IDX Systems Corporation, was the most expensive in the history of Vermont. Tarrant spent more than $7.3 million, most of which was his own money. Sanders raised and spent more than $5.5 million.
Sanders, who received the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, never dropped below 55 percent in public polling and defeated Tarrant 65 to 32 percent.
Vermont’s junior senator was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. In 2009, he voted for Obama’s $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Despite reservations over the lack of a so-called public option, Sanders also backed the 2010 Affordable Care Act; he highlighted its inclusion of $12.5 billion in support of Federally Qualified Health Centers.
Sanders became an occasional critic of Obama’s economic policies, opposing Senate confirmation of several members of the president’s economic team, including treasury secretaries Timothy Geithner and Jack Lew. In December 2010, he delivered an 8.5-hour speech on the Senate floor opposing the extension of Bush-era tax rates for wealthy Americans. His remarks were subsequently published as a book, called, The Speech.
Sanders faced only token opposition in the 2012 election, defeating Republican Jack MacGovern 71 to 25 percent. In 2013, he was named chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in which position he negotiated a $16.3 billion veterans’ health care reform package.
- Matthew Thorsen
- Jane and Bernie Sanders campaigning in 2005
Sanders is married to Jane O’Meara Sanders, a former president of Burlington College who launched and ran the city’s youth office when Bernie Sanders was mayor. He has one son, Levi Sanders, and three stepchildren. He lives in Burlington.