Bernie Sanders Is Cold As Ice
He’s chilly with staff, frosty with fans, and regularly ices out reporters. So how is the socialist firebrand from Vermont suddenly torching Hillary Clinton in the race for president?
Politics in Burlington was very much an insular affair, powered by family connections, grudges, and deals between political and wealthy elites. When Sanders and his fledgling staff stepped into the marble corridors of Burlington’s city hall on the first day of their new administration, the halls were silent, as if the place had been abandoned. It had.
Burlington’s entrenched leaders were hell-bent on obstructing his attempts to govern, and the city council contrived to block the new mayor’s every move. Sanders appointed Niedweske, his campaign manager, to be his executive secretary. The council fired her. He sent up one administrative appointment after another. The council rejected every one. “It was as if we were on Omaha Beach,” Franco recalls, “and they were trying to throw us back into the sea.”
Determined not to let the Democrats beat him, Sanders brokered a deal with two moderate Republicans on the 13-member council, but even with them occasionally on his side, Sanders still had a hard time governing. “No one gives a damn about your ideology or whether you can win over the council,” said Sugarman, whom the mayor dubbed the Commissioner of Reality. “Pick up trash. Fix the playgrounds. Plow the streets.”
During Sanders’s first month in office, Burlington screeched to a halt after a dump of heavy snow. Sanders rode shotgun on one of the plows. At 5 p.m., he noticed that drivers began calling it quits, leaving streets in the poorer sections of town largely ignored compared with the wealthy neighborhoods. In response, he revamped the city’s snow-removal system so that the people who elected him in low-income wards could get to work.
In other seasons, he made sure the basketball hoops on the playgrounds had nets. He was known to pick up trash—himself.
Sanders was learning that governing is about providing services rather than -ramping up rhetoric. He balanced the city’s books, and his auditors found a treasure-trove of millions in unspent cash. He began to get his appointments approved, and he placed capable officials in charge of city departments. He founded a Little League and jockeyed for a minor league baseball franchise, dubbed the Vermont Reds, which he eventually brought to town in 1984. He fixed potholes.
During Sanders’s first term, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau penned a few comics with Sanders governing “The People’s Republic of Burlington.” Rolling Stone called Sanders “the red mayor in the Green Mountains.”
By the time he ran for a second term in 1983, Sanders appealed to progressives with his socialist credentials, and thanks to his fiscal prowess, he had become attractive to conservatives. He won handily.
Over the next six years, Bernie Sanders and his administrations began transforming Burlington into one of the best small towns in the nation, now ranked consistently among the top for quality of life, culture, jobs, and universities. The Bernie Sanders brand had officially broken out of the Green Mountains. The cult of Sanderistas was born.
As a kid, Sanders dreamed of playing basketball, not politics. He grew up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, in the arms of a heavily Jewish community that was still scarred by the Holocaust, prone to progressive politics, and viscerally driven to succeed. Sanders’s father, Eli, immigrated to the United States in 1921 from Slopnice, a rural village in Poland. His father’s family did not survive the Nazi death camps. Sanders’s mother, Dorothy, of Russian decent, was born in New York. The family lived in a small, rent-controlled apartment. Sanders’s father supported his brood by selling paint. “My father was never without work,” Sanders once told the Vermont Vanguard Press. “But money—and the lack of money—was an absolute anxiety in the household. I learned what havoc and pain is caused by the constant worry over money. People who come from money sometimes don’t understand that anxiety.”
In high school, Sanders ran track but mourned his failure to make the varsity basketball team. Both of his parents died before he graduated from the University of Chicago, where Sanders found his true calling: political science. He spent days in the library basement reading Marx, Engels, Debs, and Trotsky. “That was probably the major period of intellectual ferment in my life,” he told the Vanguard.
Sanders rarely dwells on religion. “I’m proud to be Jewish,” he said in June, “but I’m not particularly religious.” Even so, his Jewish upbringing was a major influence. He went to Hebrew school on weekends. He was bar mitzvahed. When he traveled to Israel in 1964, he lived on a kibbutz. Enamored of the egalitarian, agrarian lifestyle, Sanders described it to Sugarman as “a utopian form of existence.” After returning from Israel, Sanders moved to Vermont.
Today, Sanders is not a practicing Jew in any formal sense. “I would call him an uncertain agnostic,” says Sugarman, who has hosted Sanders at Passover Seders. “He’s not even sure he’s agnostic.”
For much of his life, Sanders has been unlucky in love. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he never married the mother of Levi, his only child. Friends said he had given up romance for his twin loves: politics and raising his son. Then Sanders met a Catholic girl named Jane O’Meara.
O’Meara was working as a community organizer in Burlington’s North End when she helped set up a mayoral debate at a Unitarian Church in 1980. Sanders was at the dais with the other candidates. O’Meara sat in the second row. She found herself smiling and nodding. For an instant they locked eyes.
“He won me over immediately,” she says. It didn’t take long for the two to start dating, though they waited seven years to marry in 1988. “I couldn’t ask for a better husband, father, and grandfather,” she says. And Sanders could not ask for a better defender. O’Meara became his chief political adviser and his spokesperson during political campaigns. They never had children together, though he helped raise her three teens from a previous marriage, and they kept their attention on his growing political ambitions.
As mayor, Sanders never shied away from being branded a radical, nor did he abandon his socialist ideals. But if Sanders was going to foment a political and economic revolution, he needed a larger playing field. In 1988 he challenged Republican Peter Smith for Vermont’s lone House seat. He lost but came in with 38 percent of the vote—ahead of the Democrat. Two years later, Sanders challenged Smith again.
The race was neck and neck until the National Rifle Association weighed in. Smith had promised to vote against new gun control laws. But after hearing a recent high school graduate from Washington, DC, testify about her fear of gunfire on the way to school, Smith changed his mind. The NRA saw that as a betrayal and wanted him gone. “Bernie Sanders,” then-NRA official and now-leader Wayne LaPierre personally wrote to his membership, “is a more honorable choice for Vermont sportsmen than Peter Smith.”
Sanders supported an assault weapons ban, but he didn’t complain when the gun group dumped nearly $20,000 into the race against Smith. “Bernie let the NRA do his dirty work on that one to sink Smith,” the University of Vermont’s Garrison Nelson has said. Sanders ultimately beat Smith 56 percent to 40 percent. And so it was that the gun lobby helped Bernie Sanders become the first socialist elected to Congress since the 1950s. Sixteen years later, the people of Vermont elected him to the U.S. Senate.
Fremont Nelson milks 120 holsteins on a hill farm next to his brother’s spread in the town of Ryegate, a crossroads leading into Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Looking east from their hilltops, you can see the mountaintops of New Hampshire across the Connecticut River. The first Nelsons came from Scotland in the early 1700s and started clearing fields. “I guess I’m the seventh generation,” Nelson tells me one early-summer afternoon in his milking parlor.
If Bernie Sanders has a true religion, it’s his worship of the working class. From his earliest days begging for votes in and around Vermont’s hills and valleys, Sanders equated dairy farmers with the downtrodden factory workers and coal miners of the 1930s. The tortured analogy fits: Sanders sees dairy farmers as slaves to the market. “We always have forces working against us,” Nelson tells me. “The grocers want cheap milk, so they try to choke us.”
This is where Bernie Sanders steps in. As congressman and senator, he’s pushed to prop up dairy price supports. “We could always count on him to help keep our prices as high as possible,” Nelson says. “Bernie’s always looking out for the little man. That’s what he does. That’s why he’s so popular up here.”
Sanders’s direct connections with farmers helps explain why, since defeating Smith, he’s never lost an election. His hallmark in Vermont is a lasagna dinner in every small town hall. “There are 600,000 people in Vermont,” says former state Representative Andy Snyder, and “300,000 stood next to him. When Bernie comes to town, he knows how to feed you and fix your problems.”
Professional oddsmakers put Sanders’s chances of winning the White House at 12 to 1. It’s no wonder that the political chattering classes expect him to flame out, just like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, and 1968 antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy.
Don’t bet on it. He keeps hammering home his message of economic justice, attracting larger crowds, and pushing his poll numbers farther past those of Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. “As always,” Garrison Nelson says, “he’s going at this in a very methodical way.” Plus, says longtime aide Fiermonte, “The world has come around to see things like he does, through the same lens.”
Sanders is frugal to a fault. Friends say he’s never owned more than four suits, rarely vacations, and lives to work. He raised about $15 million by July —that’s a rounding error for the Clinton campaign, but it might be enough to sustain Sanders’s DIY operation long enough to take him deep into the primaries. He’s slow to spend money on staff or blow it on advertising, he flies economy, and he’s sure to bank millions more from individual donors. Sanders also signed up Revolution Messaging, the team that built Barack Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 social media campaign. So far it’s paid off with additional Facebook and Twitter followers and a steady stream of small-dollar contributions. Not to mention buzz: “The wild card in the 2016 presidential race is social media,” Nelson says, “and Sanders is winning in that space.”
With less than six months to go until the Democratic primary elections commence, everyone wants to know if Sanders is serious about winning or simply trying to use the national platform to spread his message. Sugarman recalls talking privately with the candidate after a 2013 meeting to discuss Sanders’s presidential aspirations:
“What should I do?” Sanders asked.
“Are you asking me as a citizen or a friend?” Sugarman replied.
“As a friend,” Sanders said. “I don’t have that many friends.”
“I don’t know,” Sugarman said. “But if you do run, you’d better be running to win.”
Is there a chance that history will repeat itself? Does Sanders once again sense a crack in the political edifice through which he can slip? This month in Las Vegas, he’ll go face to face with Clinton in the first of six debates. Recently, Sugarman told me, “We gave up running symbolic campaigns long ago. He’s not in this to give a speech at the convention. He’s in it to win.”
As the 2016 campaign comes into focus, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders looks less and less far-fetched. On the other side of the aisle, the top Republican candidates are losing badly to a brash populist who is campaigning to get money out of politics. The presumptive Democratic nominee is struggling to connect beyond her base, facing self-inflicted wounds over her private email server, and racking up 53 percent unfavorable ratings in a late-summer poll. Sanders may loathe reporters, he may be a curmudgeon to work for, and he may not have many friends, but this populist who doesn’t care for people may turn out to be voters’ best hope for palpable change.
If Sanders has a chance in this race, it’ll be because of people like Judy and Paul Wuerker, who came to Oyster River High School in Durham, New Hampshire, in late June to hear Sanders plead for “millions of people standing up” against the billionaires.
“I’m in,” Judy Wuerker told me. “A political revolution is only common sense.”
The Wuerkers, both in their sixties, live in nearby Nottingham. Judy still works in the school system; her husband, Paul, runs his own electric company. Thanks in part to their children’s heavy college debt, they can’t retire.
I ask Paul, a large, quiet guy with a gap in his smile, for his take on Sanders. “I like what he has to say and how he says it,” he tells me. “Even if you don’t agree, he’s straightforward and believes what he says.”
But how can you support a candidate who calls himself a Democratic socialist?
“I believe that we can have a small government that works for everyone,” Paul says. “Call me a Republican socialist.”
That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but, of course, so is Bernie Sanders.