On a campaign swing through New Hampshire in late June, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders mounted the podium at Nashua Community College and looked out over a sea of expectant followers—students and seniors, professionals and tradesmen—and seemed, well, shocked. Just a month earlier he’d kicked off his campaign for the White House. Now, hundreds, even thousands, were coming to lap up his diatribes against the rich: “This campaign is bringing about a political revolution which transforms politics in America,” he shouted in his trademark Brooklyn deli-counter lingo. “Bruthuhs and sistuhs, now is not the time to be thinking small.”
He paused. His lips pursed into a thin, straight line. His eyes narrowed behind his thick, rectangular glasses. His shoulders drew closer to his ears. He pointed to the audience and raised his voice: “In New Hampshire and Vermont, we have people who are not working one job, they’re working two jobs, they’re working three jobs trying to cobble together an income and some healthcare.
“Bottom line is, that type of economy is immoral, it’s unsustainable, and it’s -un-American, and together we’re going to change it!”
As the crowd shot to its feet and cheered, Fred Teeboom, a Republican and former Nashua alderman, turned to me and said, “This guy speaks to me.”
When Sanders announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination in late May, political pros yawned. How could an avowed socialist hope to draw more than a smattering of votes? Sure, in Vermont Sanders had managed to ascend from mayor to congressman to U.S. senator. But could a relative unknown from a small, rural, largely white New England state really challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton’s formidable political machine on the national stage?
Five months later, the political chattering classes here in New Hampshire have snapped to attention. On his first whistle-stop tours, supporters mobbed Sanders. Thousands showed up to cheer him in Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada. By late summer the 74-year-old firebrand was attracting crowds approaching 30,000 in L.A. and Portland, 15,000 in Seattle, 11,000 in Phoenix, and 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin, spurring the Washington Post to wonder, “How does he do it?”
So how does he? For starters, he can thank Elizabeth Warren, who took herself out of the race. Her exit left Sanders as the loudest Democrat tapping into a populist fury over the growing gap between the super wealthy and the rest of the country. And he picked the perfect moment. In a cycle in which voters seem to be recoiling from slick, coiffed, poll-driven candidates, Bernie Sanders comes across as he is: a gaunt, frazzled, Brooklyn-born Jew whose rage is authentic, genuine, and delivered with Socratic give-and-take.
In Nashua, Sanders arrived the same way he would in Rochester and Henniker, Durham and Laconia: in the back seat of a Ford Fusion piloted by Phil Fiermonte, his longtime aide and campaign field director. Michael Briggs, his press guy, rode shotgun. His son, Levi, who lives in Claremont, was waiting for them. Sanders had no entourage, no police escort, no advance team, no rope line. Other candidates carry dozens of advisers and advance men, but this ragtag bunch made up the bulk of Sanders’s top staff.
As usual, Sanders was short with the media after his speech. In response to questions from a CNN correspondent, Sanders said, “We want to bring people together. Nothing fancy. Seeya.” Then he ducked into the Ford Fusion and drove off.
Sanders, it turns out, has little patience for reporters—or, for that matter, anyone who disagrees with him. Among his faults, this could be the one that most weakens his presidential bid. Former aides have called him strident and never satisfied, to the point of being abusive, especially during his first years in Congress. “Bernie is a very demanding guy,” Fiermonte tells me. “He has very high expectations, and he expects people to meet them. But he’s a good boss. I wouldn’t be with him otherwise.” Or, as more than one Vermont politician told me, “Bernie’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.”
That belief, shared by his supporters and by a Democratic electorate that’s loath to give Clinton a cakewalk to the nomination, has served Sanders well up to this point. But how will he react when the press inevitably pounces, as it did when fellow Vermonter Howard Dean ran for president in 2004? The permanent scowl lines etched onto his brow may show him to be the same humorless curmudgeon that he reveals to colleagues, reporters, and allies. “Bernie has no social skills, no sense of humor, and he’s quick to boil over,” says Chris Graff, who covered Sanders for 25 years as Vermont bureau chief for the Associated Press. “He’s the most unpolitical person in politics I’ve ever
That much was clear in July, as Sanders began a speech to an audience of die-hard progressives at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Some people chanted, “Black lives matter” and “Say her name!” urging Sanders to speak about police killings and beatings of unarmed black men and women.
Sanders paused briefly. He seemed at once both annoyed and perplexed. “Let me talk about what I’m going to talk about for a second,” he growled. The chants came louder.
“SAY HER NAME! SAY HER NAME!”
Sanders tried to continue on script, but as activists interrupted, he threatened to walk off.
“Exasperating and classic Bernie,” columnist Judith Levine wrote in Seven Days, Vermont’s alternative newspaper. “Man of the people treating the people like tiresome children, telling them what the issue is, instead of listening to what their issue, our issue, America’s issue is right now.”
Many of his colleagues in Congress would recognize the stubbornness. “I admired him for his willingness to take stands for what he believed,” former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, a man not immune to professing unpopular opinions, tells me. “He went for the ideal, but he was not part of the legislative process. He chose to be an outsider.”
On Capitol Hill, Sanders has a reputation for being a pain in the ass. “Bernie believes that he’s right, and that what he wants is for the greater good,” says Houston consultant Susan Boardman Russ, formerly the longtime chief of staff for the late Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. “Bernie is so certain that what he represents politically is unquestionably correct, therefore everyone should agree. Not much room for compromise…it was, ‘Play in my sandbox, or get out.’”
After Sanders’s 16 years in the House and almost nine in the Senate, there are not many legislators in his sandbox. Not a single major congressman, senator, or governor has endorsed him for president.
His monomania certainly hasn’t stopped him from rising in the polls. After Labor Day, Sanders held a 22-point lead over Clinton in New Hampshire and a 10-point edge over her in Iowa, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll. Which takes us to Sanders’s essential contradiction: He can reach crowds with soaring oratory, but, as Judith Levine points out, the business of being Bernie can make him seem disconnected and insensitive. Aides know he would rather bury himself in a budget than bounce a toddler on his lap. On the trail, Sanders has rarely seen a baby he wants to kiss, a hand he needs to shake, a back that would welcome a slap. With reporters or anyone who dares to ask, he stiff-arms questions about the source of his populist rage, his personal life, his influences, how he became a socialist, and his hopes and dreams beyond fomenting a political revolution. “Bernie has always been on a mission,” says Linda Niedweske, a former confidante who managed his first mayoral campaign. “He has no time for much else.”
Sanders had plenty of time on his hands when he first crossed the border into Vermont. In the late 1960s, the Green Mountains were a refuge for thousands of back-to-the-land hippies, spiritual searchers, and political progressives. Some came to work the land, others to fulfill their dreams. Sanders came to change the world. Even among the idealists and misfits, though, Sanders didn’t quite fit in. “He wasn’t freaky like the rest of us,” says Sanders’s friend at the time, Sylvia Manning, who had journeyed to Vermont from Texas. “He was straight, even then. No pot. He wasn’t a hippie. He was serious already.”
In 1972, Sanders began running for state-wide office for the Liberty Union Party, a radical group of antiwar activists. He crisscrossed Vermont in a Volkswagen bug, preaching from a playbook straight out of the Communist Manifesto: Oppressed workers of the world should unite and wrest power from the wealthy elites. Traveling from newsrooms to firehouses to town halls, he espoused leftist bromides about workers’ rights, income inequality, greedy bankers, and rapacious power companies. At first, “He ran so he could get air time. Not to win but to educate people,” Manning recalls. “He thought of himself as the educational candidate.”
He lost, again and again, but Vermonters got used to seeing Sanders’s mug. The wired New Yorker might have been a quirky character running on a radical slate, but in losing races for governor and the U.S. Senate, he gained a crucial ingredient for political success: name recognition.
During the 1976 gubernatorial race, he finished a distant third, but his friend and adviser, University of Vermont religion professor Richard Sugarman, pointed out that he had won 16 percent of the vote in Burlington’s poorest wards, most of those votes coming from the city’s Old North End. “You have a natural base there,” Sugarman argued.
Sanders decided to focus his efforts on an office he could win: Burlington mayor. Political operatives shocked by Sanders’s prospects in the 2016 presidential run might want to examine his tactics in that 1981 campaign. He ran against Democratic incumbent Gordon “Gordy” Paquette. “Nobody gave [Sanders] even a slight chance of winning,” recalls UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson.
Sanders and his progressive allies worked their base in the Old North End. But he also shrewdly departed from liberal dogma by promising not to raise property taxes. The Burlington police also backed Sanders—which inoculated him against being cast as a revolutionary. Sanders won by 10 votes: 4,030 to 4,020.
“It was the birthing of what we now see as the presidential candidate,” says Sam Hemingway, who chronicled Sanders’s political trajectory for the Burlington Free Press. John Franco, a longtime friend who has remained close with Sanders, adds, “He ran an asymmetric, insurgent campaign and surprised everyone. Including himself.”
The night of the election victory, Sanders almost came undone. He’d never had to govern anything more than himself. Mayor-elect Sanders, Franco says, “was in shock.”
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.
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