The Candidates: Bernie Sanders

President Bernie Sanders?

We spoke with the Vermont senator about his journey from the fringes of American politics to the forefront — and the ideas that shaped him along the way.

Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

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In Part 2 of our series on pivotal moments in the lives of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders, we spoke with Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and democratic socialist. Mr. Sanders reflected on his education in politics and how he galvanized grass-roots support to evolve from outraged outsider to mainstream candidate with little shift in his message.

Listen to ‘The Daily’: The Candidates: Bernie SandersWe spoke with the Vermont senator about his journey from the fringes of American politics to the forefront — and the ideas that shaped him along the way.
Mr. Sanders, second from left, with his parents, Dorothy and Eli, and brother, Larry.
Mr. Sanders, second from left, with his parents, Dorothy and Eli, and brother, Larry.Credit…Bernie Sanders campaign, via Associated Press

Although Mr. Sanders is best-known for his association with Vermont, the schoolhouse for his early career in politics, he spent his childhood in a rent-controlled apartment in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. “Sensitivity to class was embedded in me then quite deeply,” Mr. Sanders has said of this time.

The factors that took him from Brooklyn to Vermont reflect an insistence on revolution that has colored his career.

Born to Polish immigrants and raised in precarious financial circumstances, Mr. Sanders had early inclinations toward socialism that were cemented with the death of his mother. Caring for her during his college years exposed him intimately to gaps in the American health care system.

Mr. Sanders went in search of a place that could nurture his nascent political ideology, visiting a socialist kibbutz in Israel and ultimately landing with the peaceniks of rural Vermont.

“I was doing some writing. I was banging nails, doing a little bit of carpentry work,” Mr. Sanders said of this time. He freelanced for an alternative newspaper, The Vermont Freeman, writing articles like “The Revolution Is Life Versus Death” while making film strips about a socialist he admired: Eugene Debs. Mr. Debs was the “Socialist Party candidate for president six times,” Mr. Sanders noted. “You know, somebody I admired a whole lot.”

Mr. Sanders and Mr. Debs have something in common: resilience in the face of political failure. In Vermont, Mr. Sanders became involved with a fringe political party, the Liberty Union, that sought to champion industrial nationalization and opposition to the Vietnam War. Mr. Sanders ran as a Liberty Union candidate in four state elections, receiving less than 5 percent of the vote each time.

His promise to address wealth inequality and his condemnation of billionaires began to resonate with working-class people upstate. Soon, he had his eyes fixed on the 1981 race for mayor of Burlington, the state’s largest city.

Mr. Sanders was called a “fluke” when he was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981. 
Mr. Sanders was called a “fluke” when he was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981. Credit…Donna Light/Associated Press

“You would literally not believe if I told you how little we knew about politics,” Mr. Sanders said of his first race for mayor.

“I mean real politics,” he said. “It’s one thing to run for statewide office knowing you’re not going to win and get on a radio show and talk about issues, which I could do. But the nitty-gritty of politics, you know.”

Mr. Sanders’s strategy was to mobilize grass-roots support in the working-class districts of Burlington — specifically people in “low-income housing projects where people were getting a raw deal from the city,” he said.

In doing so, Mr. Sanders generated a higher turnout than most mayoral races commanded. After a recount, Mr. Sanders won by 10 votes, beating a 10-year incumbent and roiling establishment politicians in the city.

“Lessons of this moment is that winning politics is grass-roots politics.” Mr. Sanders said “that winning politics is developing coalitions of working people, of low-income people, of women, of environmentalists.”

Mr. Sanders taking the oath of office to become Burlington’s mayor.
Mr. Sanders taking the oath of office to become Burlington’s mayor.Credit…Donna Light/Associated Press

Mr. Sanders faced the limits of his political outrage during his first term as mayor, which became an education in coalition building. He was viewed by the Board of Aldermen, Burlington’s version of a city council, as “an accident that should never have happened,” he said.

“Bernie Sanders is a fluke,” he said. “That was the word they used.”

Mr. Sanders had to figure out how to accomplish his agenda despite opposition from Democrats and Republicans. After the board fired his secretary, Mr. Sanders got the message that his appointees would not be welcome in the city government. “It was a brutal year,” he said. “So what we had to do was literally form a parallel city government.”

He gathered volunteers to staff his informal team of unpaid appointees. They started “neighborhood planning associations,” allocating city funds to neighborhood councils to spend at their discretion. In doing so, they cultivated a widespread sense of antagonism toward the board.

By knocking doors in a freezing Burlington winter, Mr. Sanders nearly doubled voter turnout in the board election the coming year. Turnout “was just off the charts,” he said.

Unseating board members in working-class districts gave him the support his agenda needed, enabling his rise as a major political figure in the state.

Mr. Sanders speaking to a voter during a 1986 campaign stop when he was running for governor.
Mr. Sanders speaking to a voter during a 1986 campaign stop when he was running for governor.Credit…Toby Talbot/Associated Press

Mr. Sanders began to connect his structural grievances with national politics to his constituency — working to convince local voters that the actions of far-off politicians in far-off places should matter to them.

In doing so, he managed to fix Burlington’s pot holes and plow the streets while also establishing relations with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. His rejection of American intervention in Latin America resulted in his controversial support for the Nicaraguan leftist leader Daniel Ortega.

Asked about this stance, Mr. Sanders said he believed at the time that the United States should not be involved with “overthrowing small governments.”

“We were aware that this was a very controversial moment,” he added. “We were also aware that the United States at that time was supporting many governments in Latin America who were much more brutal than Ortega was.”

Mr. Sanders says that his campaign against intervention was relevant to Burlington. “If we were spending a whole lot of money in Washington under Reagan — investing in military spending or we’re giving tax breaks to the rich — that impacted the city of Burlington,” he said.

Today, his insistence that the global affects the local still forms the bedrock of his presidential platform — one that is built on overhauling health care, tax policy and the national budget. He says that if Washington is “spending this money on the military or they’re busy invading another country or whatever they’re doing, we should be speaking up on those issues.”

“All of this,” he said, “has to do with empowering people to understand that in a democracy, they can determine the future.”INSIDE ‘THE DAILY’For an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on the podcast come together, subscribe to our newsletter. Read the latest edition here.

On today’s episode:

  • Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
  • Alexander Burns, who covers national politics for The New York Times.

VideoTRANSCRIPT0:00/2:20

Bernie Sanders Set the Agenda. But Can He Win on It?

Senator Bernie Sanders is embarking on a second run for president. This time the field will be bigger, more diverse and filled with candidates who have adopted his progressive populist mantle.

An independent senator known for his Brooklyn accent. “Real change never, ever takes place from the top on down.” Populist message. “The level of wealth inequality in America is grotesque.” And anti-establishment appeal. “Establishment Democrats don’t generate excitement.” Bernie Sanders is jumping into the race for president, again. “Hi, I’m Bernie Sanders. I’m running for president.” In the 2016 primaries he pushed a democratic socialist message, and he found a big audience for it. He ultimately came up short. “I accept your nomination.” But many of his ideas have lived on. “In a modern moral and wealthy society, no American should be too poor to live.” In 2016, he was the only challenger to the Democratic establishment, but this time around he’ll be up against a crowded and diverse group of opponents. Some have adopted ideas he made popular in 2016. “How do you feel about Medicare for all?” “Medicare for all.” “Medicare for all.” So what are the issues he made pillars of the progressive agenda? A $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public college and Medicare for all. “… health care is a right, not a privilege.” But Sanders’s liberal credentials may have taken a hit over his perceived failure to address claims of sexism during his 2016 campaign. He has since apologized. “What they experienced was absolutely unacceptable.” So how has Sanders taken on President Trump? He’s been one of his most outspoken critics. “The most dangerous president in modern American history.” “Most people who observed him would agree he’s a pathological liar.” Trump has returned the insults. “Crazy Bernie.” “You know he’s always like complaining, complaining, he’s jumping around, the hair’s going crazy … lunatic.” So what are his chances? He’s near the top of the early polls. He’s got some big advantages over his opponents, including a small-donor fund-raising list, a 50-state organization and fervent supporters. He has major name recognition and knows how to electrify a crowd. “We are going to take on the drug companies and their greed and lower the cost of prescription drugs.” But he could be up against a base who are looking for a fresh face to take on Trump, even if it’s on a platform that Bernie built.00:002:202:20Bernie Sanders Set the Agenda. But Can He Win on It?Senator Bernie Sanders is embarking on a second run for president. This time the field will be bigger, more diverse and filled with candidates who have adopted his progressive populist mantle.CreditCredit…Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Background reading:

  • Mr. Sanders has staked his presidential campaign, and much of his political legacy, on transforming health care in America. His mother’s illness and a trip he made to study the Canadian system help explain why.
  • We asked 21 candidates the same 18 questions. Hear Mr. Sanders’s answers.

Tune in, and tell us what you think. Email us at thedaily@nytimes.com. Follow Michael Barbaro on Twitter: @mikiebarb. And if you’re interested in advertising with “The Daily,” write to us at thedaily-ads@nytimes.com.Subscribe to a Newsletter From ‘The Daily’Jan. 14, 2019How do I listen to ‘The Daily’?July 16, 2018

Alexander Burns contributed reporting.

“The Daily” is made by Theo Balcomb, Andy Mills, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Annie Brown, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Alexandra Leigh Young, Jonathan Wolfe, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, Adizah Eghan, Kelly Prime, Julia Longoria, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Jazmín Aguilera, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Austin Mitchell, Sayre Quevedo, Monika Evstatieva and Neena Pathak. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Mikayla Bouchard, Stella Tan, Julia Simon and Lauren Jackson.

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