What fires are stoking The Bern?

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Bernie Sanders. Photo by Phil Roeder

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders is nothing if not consistent. From college days in Chicago to Capitol Hill to this year’s campaign, he has pursued a single goal: “to fight for a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all” and “to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class.”

Despite his Socialist leanings, Sanders has worked with Republicans in the Senate. As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was praised for fiscal efficiency. Biographers, old friends and former staffers say he’s out to change the way Americans are thinking. We hear how a very private man has made himself one of this year’s most important public figures.

Close observers of Sanders discuss with host Warren Olney how a very private man has made himself one of this year’s most important public figures.

Harry Jaffe of The Washingtonian, who has written an unauthorized biography of Sanders, describes the senator as someone who doesn’t have to listen to handlers because he is focused on a longstanding belief that income inequality is the biggest problem facing this country.

“I think that he is someone who over the years in his political career just has basically spoken the truth as he sees it. It’s kind of unvarnished. It’s worked for him for 40 years. Certainly it’s built a brand in Vermont,” Jaffe says.

Jaffe says Sanders grew up in a close-knit, Jewish immigrant community in Brooklyn, New York that was “very left-wing, I would say, Marxist communist socialist brew.” His family struggled financially. His mother died before fulfilling her dream of moving out of the tenement and having her own house. Sanders doesn’t share much about his tough beginnings but they marked his life, Jaffe says.

Sanders was not an activist in high school, he was an athlete, a long-distance runner and basketball player, Jaffe says. “But he did have this sense especially from his older brother Larry that there was a larger world.” Sanders arrived at the University of Chicago in 1961 at the dawn of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. He led demonstrations and sit-ins, was confronted with police brutality and admittedly almost flunked out of the university.

Scott MacKay is a political analyst for Rhode Island Public Radio and a former reporter for the Burlington Free Press, in Vermont’s largest city. Sanders moved there and improbably was elected mayor, defeating an incumbent by 10 votes in a three-way race. “What happened was the Democratic machine that had run the town for many years … had grown so rusty that they couldn’t steal a 10-vote election,” MacKay says. “Bernie Sanders went door to door, really worked hard” and galvanized people who had felt unrepresented for years.

Jaffe says Sanders was attracted to Vermont by its cheap land after discovering the agrarian lifestyle during months spent on a commune in Israel.

MacKay says the Burlington political establishment thought Sanders would only last one term, and one city council member called at a meeting for Democrats to fight “this socialist fungus.” “The young Bernie Sanders supporters got up and started to chant, ‘Fungus among us, fungus among us,’ and it became kind of their rallying cry.” MacKay said Sanders was able to run the city by forging good relationships with the Republicans, who in Burlington at the time tended to be moderate, “good-government types,” working together on improving infrastructure and snow plowing.

By his fourth term, Sanders made a U.S. News & World Reports magazine list of the country’s top 20 mayors.

One of the people he hired, Christopher Pearson, is now a Vermont state legislator. Pearson recalls going to Sanders’ home to help the then-congressman host a brunch, and finding Sanders vacuuming the living room floor. “He’s very much a hands-on guy and very down to earth,” Pearson says. He describes his former boss as compassionate but very serious and not given to making small talk.

Michael Cohen, a columnist for The Boston Globe, says Sanders’ policy proposals, such as single-payer health care and free college education, are politically unrealistic. “It’s hard not to look at what he’s proposing and sort of raise some serious questions.” The hard line that Republicans have taken against President Obama filling the Supreme Court vacancy shows they are driven by ideology, not just the influence of big-money donors that Sanders rails against, Cohen says.

Spencer Jackson is a Sanders supporter and currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia. He says the broad excitement for Sanders results from his offering a different vision for the Democratic Party. Jackson says the party went down the wrong path, with deregulation of Wall Street, gutting welfare and maintaining low tax rates, leading to growing economic inequality. “And I think Bernie Sanders is offering the first glimmer of hope that we’ve had in a long time to seriously tackle this issue.”

Cohen says Sanders is creating false expectations for his supporters. Jackson disagrees, saying Sanders is just fighting for ideas he believes in, and “this is the essence of politics.”

Jaffe said Sanders left most of his hard-core socialist beliefs behind when he got elected mayor of Burlington. But MacKay says a Republican opponent would still have material to red-bait Sanders – including pictures of him visiting Nicaragua in 1985 against the wishes of the Reagan administration, which supported a rebellion against the Cuban-backed Sandinista regime. Still, MacKay says, Sanders’ congressional voting record is not much different from that of other liberal Democrats.

Pearson recalls Sanders encountering a working-class voter while campaigning in Vermont who said, “You know Bernie I disagree with you on just about everything. And I vote for you every time.” Sanders asked why. “The guy says, ‘I know just where you stand. These other people, I don’t have a clue.’”


Below is an automatically generated transcript of the conversation. It isn’t 100 percent accurate, but is pretty close. Since it is automatically generated, it may contain errors.