- Katie Jickling
- Carina Driscoll
When Burlington mayoral candidate Carina Driscoll made her pitch to city Progressives for their endorsement December 6, she conspicuously avoided any mention of her connection with the Queen City's most famous resident.
That was intentional, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) stepdaughter later explained to Seven Days. "It's important to me that I enter this campaign on my own," she said.
Driscoll, 43, said she wants to win on her own merits.
Yet she moved into a campaign office on Church Street that happens to be just two doors down from the office of the Sanders Institute, the think tank established by her stepfather and run by her brother, David Driscoll, and mother, Jane O'Meara Sanders.
The campaign office, a sparsely furnished room with two plastic folding tables, a computer and a printer, is temporary and has nothing to do with the institute, she explained quickly. The optics aren't good, she acknowledged, but a friend helped her find it in a pinch. Driscoll said she signed a one-month lease and is seeking a more suitable space.
The proximity to her famous family highlights the fine line Driscoll is trying to walk: establishing the legitimacy of her own candidacy while remaining in the glow of Sanders' success. After his failed 2016 presidential bid, her 76-year-old stepfather has become the nation's most popular politician, espousing much the same credo as he did during his eight years as Burlington mayor in the 1980s.
Driscoll's association with the Sanders political machine can be a double-edged sword.
She and her mother, who remains Sanders' top political confidant, have been accused of nepotism. Once president of Burlington College, O'Meara Sanders is inextricably linked to its demise. And Driscoll's business ties to the college as founder of the Vermont Woodworking School drew national media scrutiny this year.
She's tried to create an appearance of distance. Driscoll said that she hadn't spoken to Sanders since her December 4 announcement. Vermont's junior senator refused to talk to reporters about her candidacy, though he released a brief statement the day she announced, acknowledging his pride. "Today is Carina's day, and her words and her ideas should be the focus, not anyone else's," he said.
O'Meara Sanders, on the other hand, tweeted Driscoll's campaign announcement to her 76,600 followers and congratulated her daughter for winning the Progressive Party's endorsement.
The senator, O'Meara Sanders and David Driscoll did not reply to comment requests for this story.
Carina Driscoll downplayed her relationship with her stepfather.
"People are always like, 'You're going to do the picture with Bernie, right?' 'You're going to do the endorsement?'" Driscoll said. "I'm like, 'We're going to run a campaign for mayor.'"
As Driscoll's phone lit up last week with interview requests, she refused to take calls from national reporters interested in her quest to follow in Sanders' footsteps. Headlines, including ones in Seven Days, identified her as "Bernie Sanders' stepdaughter."
Clearly frustrated, Driscoll said, "I will never, ever get credit for fully completing anything on my own."
Last week's Progressive caucus proved just how large her family looms over this Queen City race.
When state Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington) nominated Driscoll for the party's endorsement, she described meeting her 30 years ago — at a youth civic engagement program established by Sanders and run by O'Meara Sanders.
With a studied poise, Driscoll stuck to prepared remarks at the caucus, reading a lengthy speech about her own accomplishments and vision for Burlington. She isn't particularly expressive while speaking and doesn't share her stepfather's Brooklyn accent, unkempt hair or reputation as a principled curmudgeon.
The parallels to Sanders, though, were unmistakable.
Driscoll spoke of returning power to the people instead of catering to the interests of developers, echoing her stepfather's fight against the "oligarchy." Like Sanders, she discussed a need to increase citizen engagement.
And she quoted a slogan from Sanders' first mayoral campaign when she declared that the city's public assets, including the Moran Plant, Memorial Auditorium and waterfront, should remain in the hands of the citizenry — and not be forked over to the highest bidder. "The message of this campaign is clear: Burlington is not for sale," she declared.
Such homage to Sanders should come as no surprise; Driscoll has been exposed to Sanderista politics since childhood.
She first encountered her soon-to-be stepfather at — where else? — Burlington City Hall, when he addressed supporters shortly after he was elected mayor in 1981. Even though Driscoll was 6 years old, Sanders drew her in.
"I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this human being commands everyone's attention,'" Driscoll recalled.
The mayor lived a few blocks away and stopped by her family's house often, Driscoll said. He and O'Meara Sanders married in 1988, when Driscoll was 14.
The couple hosted political meetings at home, and the kids attended election-night victory parties, recalled Jeff Weaver, a longtime Sanders staffer.
Driscoll, the second of O'Meara Sanders' three children, "clearly has her mother's strength," Weaver said, calling O'Meara Sanders a "forceful player in politics generally and in [her husband's] inner circle."
Driscoll got her appreciation for "people-centered" politics and grassroots organizing from her stepfather, Weaver said.
She earned her BA in political science and sociology at the University of Montana, returned to Burlington and promptly won a seat on the school board in 1998. In 2000 — at age 27 —Driscoll was elected to the state legislature.
Two years later, Seven Days named the rising pol as one of six women likely to become mayor of Burlington someday.
Redistricting eliminated her seat. She ran for the Burlington City Council, serving as a Progressive from 2003 to 2004 before stepping down in advance of the birth of the first of her two children.
She founded the Vermont Woodworking School in 2007 with her husband, Blake Ewoldsen, as a tribute to her biological father, Dave. She and her father worked on building projects when she was young, and she picked up woodworking shortly before he died in 2006. The Fairfax-based operation now has 40 students.
While she's made her own mark politically and professionally, Driscoll has repeatedly worked with her mother and Sanders during hiatuses in her career. Those ties have dogged her for nearly two decades.
Driscoll worked on Sanders' 2000 and 2004 bids for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and received a total of $65,002 for her work as a campaign manager, fundraiser and database manager over the two cycles, according to a 2005 story in the Brattleboro Reformer.
The arrangement was legal, though Republican Rich Tarrant attacked the family for nepotism when he ran against Sanders for U.S. Senate in 2006.
In the early 2000s, O'Meara Sanders registered three media-buying LLCs — listing Carina and her brother, David, as principals — with the Vermont Secretary of State's Office: Sanders & Driscoll, Leadership Strategies and Progressive Media Strategies.
Her mother's intent, Driscoll said, was to create a "family business" that would purchase ads for candidates and others. In the end, Driscoll decided not to get involved in her mother's operation, she said, though she remembered buying a single ad through Leadership Strategies.
Mother and daughter, though, stayed connected professionally.
In 2009, Driscoll and O'Meara Sanders, then the president of Burlington College, formed a partnership that would allow students to attend the woodworking school in exchange for a fee. That year, Driscoll's school received $55,000 from Burlington College, according to Internal Revenue Service records.
Driscoll addressed the arrangement head-on — without prompting — just five minutes into a school tour she gave Seven Days recently. During a walk through the red barn that holds classrooms and workshops, Driscoll called students by name and showed off their projects, pointing out dovetailed drawers and elegant designs.
"The whole thing was very transparent. It never occurred to me that anyone would ever take issue with it until much, much later," she said.
When the college fell into financial insolvency and closed in 2016, former president Carol Moore said the Vermont Woodworking School gouged its finances, according to VTDigger.org. Reached by Seven Days, Moore refused to comment and abruptly hung up the phone.
As recently as this spring, a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe was under way to determine whether O'Meara Sanders lied to a bank about the amount of pledged funds she had when she sought a loan for Burlington College. Fox News reported last week that the investigation remains active. Driscoll said the FBI has not contacted her.
Could the investigation cloud Driscoll's campaign? She said no and promised that her mother would be cleared. "I know her integrity," she said.
Jonathan Leopold, a former Burlington College board member who also served as city treasurer under Sanders, called any assertion of wrongdoing by O'Meara Sanders "such a slander." Leopold, who now lives in Atlanta, predicted the naysayers wouldn't affect Driscoll's chances.
"Carina's had a wonderful career of service in Burlington. People aren't going to forget that," he said.
Driscoll will need a compelling campaign to dislodge the incumbent. Weinberger raised more than $90,000 during his 2015 campaign and won easily.
Driscoll has a complicated relationship with the incumbent. She campaigned for Weinberger before he was first elected in 2012, and Sanders, who rarely gives endorsements in local races, backed Weinberger. Driscoll later worked in Weinberger's office as assistant to the mayor for open government, innovation and mayoral initiatives, a position that no longer exists.
She stepped down after a year over what she called "philosophical differences."
"I tried very hard to change the direction of the city with current leadership, and it didn't work," Driscoll said.
It's unclear whether Sanders will throw his weight behind his stepdaughter. Driscoll said she won't ask him to do so.
His endorsement can inspire quite the response. Sanders sent out an email last year on behalf of Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive running for a Vermont Senate seat. The plea generated $60,000 in campaign contributions in just a week. Pearson won.
For most, accepting such help would be a no-brainer. For Driscoll, it's more complicated.
"I can never shake them," she said of her parents and their respective reputations. They're "with me wherever I go."