Bernie Sanders is a different kind of politician. He is the longest-serving independent in the history of the U.S. congress, representing the small northeastern state of Vermont as both a congressman — and now a Senator — since 1991.
He is wildly popular in his home state, winning 71% of the votes in his last election.
Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. His aim is to make the United States more like Scandanavia, you know, the nations with the most generous social policies that have in turn made their societies the happiest, most prosperous, and arguably the most equal, on Earth.
But, who is Bernie Sanders?
Bernard Sanders was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941. His father, Eli, a paint salesman, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland whose family was killed in the Holocaust. Dorothy, his mother, was born in New York City. The Sanders’ were poor, with Bernie and his older brother Larry sleeping in the living room of the family’s one-bedroom apartment. It was Larry who introduced him to political ideas.
In elementary school, Bernie won a state championship in basketball and was captain of the track team in high school.
After a year at Brooklyn College, he transferred to the University of Chicago, the school where President Obama would teach constitutional law years later. While earning his bachelor’s degree there, Sanders became active in the Civil Rights Movement. He was arrested for leading sit-in protests against segregated campus housing and participated in the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream Speech.”
After college, Sanders married his “college sweetheart” Deborah Shiling and moved to Vermont, working as a writer and carpenter. Bernie and Deborah divorced after two years of marriage without any children. His first, and only biological child, a son, was born to Susan Campbell Mott in 1969.
In the early 70’s, he began his political career, losing two races for Governor and two for Senator. He then served as director of the nonprofit American People’s Historical Society, where he made a 30-minute documentary about American Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.
In 1981, Sanders won his first election, becoming the only independent mayor in America, leading the small city of Burlington, Vermont, with a population of around 40,000. The campaign energized thousands of new voters and set a record for voter turnout there. Among the accomplishments of his eight successful years in office was the establishment of the first municipal housing land trust in the country for affordable housing, a project that became a model emulated throughout the world. Sanders allowed citizens to call him up in the middle of the night for any reason, and earned a reputation for being extraordinarily industrious. He balanced the budget, brought a minor league baseball team to the city, and won an important battle with a developer over the city’s waterfront along beautiful Lake Champlain. The plan Sanders supported was implemented and today there are miles of public beaches and bike paths, a boathouse, many parks, and a science center.
Around the end of his time as mayor he married Jane Driscoll, a former President of Burlington College. Bernie considers her three children from a previous marriage as his own. Today, Bernie and Jane have seven grandchildren.
Bernie Goes To Washington
In 1990, Sanders became the first independent elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 40 years, but he was flat broke when he won the seat. In fact, he and Jane had to “borrow some money from a friend” to go on vacation in Mexico for a week after winning.
During his 16-year tenure as Vermont’s one and only congressman, he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is now the largest caucus in the House.
“Without enthusiasm,” he supported Bill Clinton for President in 1992 and, after Clinton won, convinced the President to meet with the leadership of the “Independent Caucus” in Congress — which consisted of only Bernie. He said he found President Clinton to be “intelligent and receptive.”
Not long after Congress passed Sanders’ first signed piece of legislation to create the National Program of Cancer Registries, what some have called the cancer weapon America needed most at the time.
In 1993 Sanders voted against the Brady Bill that mandated federal background checks on gun purchases, although he currently supports a ban on semiautomatic weapons, and wants to close gun show loopholes and create instant background checks for gun purchasers.
After returning from a tour of factories in Mexico, Sanders explained his position against the North American Free Trade Agreement by saying “if NAFTA passes, corporate profits will soar because it will be even easier than now for American companies to flee to Mexico and hire workers there for starvation wages.”
In 1998 Sanders cautioned that investment and commercial banks should be kept separate, and voted against the repeal of parts of the Glass-Steagall Act. So, in a way, Bernie saw the economic trouble on the horizon that arrived a decade later.
Sanders stood up to the major pharmaceutical companies by becoming the first member of Congress to take busloads of his constituents across the border to Canada to buy lower cost prescription drugs, including a group of cancer patients who were able to purchase their medications for just one-tenth the price charged in the States.
The following month, Sanders lead an effort to fight IBM on their plan to cut older workers’ pensions by as much as 50 percent. As a result, IBM agreed to a $320 million legal settlement with some 130,000 IBM workers and retirees.
Sanders voted against the First Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and predicted much of what ended up happening in that conflict.
He also voted against the Patriot Act, the post-9/11 law that greatly expanded the powers of the NSA.
In 2006, Sanders defeated Vermont’s richest man and was elected as an independent to the U.S. Senate, receiving the support of several Democratic leaders, including then-Senator Obama.
Sanders quickly became one of the Senate’s leading progressives.
Ever the hardworking utilitarian, Bernie secured $3.2 billion to fund an energy efficiency and conservation grant program; $12.5 billion to expand federally qualified community health centers which now serve 25 million Americans; $1.5 billion to help doctors and nurses working in underserved communities repay their student loans; he worked across the aisle with Republican congressman Ron Paul to audit the Federal Reserve, revealing how the independent agency gave $16 trillion in near-zero interest loans to big banks and businesses after the 2008 economic collapse; and he helped double funding to help millions of low-income Americans heat their homes in winter.
In 2010 he gave an 8 and ½ hour-long speech against the extension of the Bush tax cuts, which were the key reason — along with the Iraq War — for America’s ballooning budget deficit.
He is among the most outspoken Senators on the issues of income inequality, climate change, and the desperate need for campaign finance reform.
His approval rating in Vermont is 75%, making him one of the most — if not the most — popular elected officials in America.
He currently holds 100% ratings from the following advocacy organizations: the ACLU, AFL-CIO, ARA, HRC, NAACP, NARAL, and the SEIU.
Sanders’ presidential platform prioritizes the same positions he’s fought for for his entire career. He is calling for free tuition at every public college and university in America, a $15 national minimum wage, a single-payer healthcare system, a $1 trillion jobs and infrastructure bill, comprehensive immigration reform, raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, a carbon tax to address climate change, criminal justice reform to focus on rehabilitation, and — perhaps most importantly — restricting money’s influence on politics by making all elections publicly financed. Bernie is relying on small donations from working Americans, instead of the large donations and Super PAC support that will power the campaigns of his rivals.
According to the polls, all of these positions are relatively well-supported by the American people. As Senator Sanders’ populist message continues to spread across the country, we’re about to find out if he can lead a movement strong enough to carry him into the White House.
This video was created by Bryce Plank of The Daily Conversation.