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A maverick who denounces the political and economic establishment, Bernie Sanders is longest-serving independent in congressional history. Amazingly he came from the far Left and an urban background to win elections in one of the most rural states in the country. Serving as United States Senator from Vermont since 2007, Sanders has finished second twice in his bids to win the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. An icon of the American left, Sanders’ attacks on the rich and support for the struggles of working people have shaken the Democratic Party establishment and also earned him the adoration of tens of millions of Americans.
Born in Brooklyn to Polish Jewish parents who could not go to a college, Bernie Sanders grew up in on East 26th Street. His father, Eli, worked most of his life as a struggling paint salesman. His mother, Dorothy Sanders, was a stay-at-home mother who died young — she was 46 — the year after Bernie Sanders graduated from high school. The family barely made ends meet and arguments about money were a regular feature of the Sanders’ Home. His brother Larry Sanders recalledT that they didn’t really know whether they’d have the rent the following month. They probably would, but it wasn’t sure.:
“We had what we needed in general, but it was the fact that our parents were arguing that was the problem. And I think what Bernard and I took from that is that financial problems are never just financial problems. They enter into people’s lives in very deep and personal levels.“
Educated in public schools and Hebrew schools, Sanders was taught that all people are equal and that they are entitled to be treated with dignity. Sanders grew up in an immigrant Jewish culture that stressed the importance of getting an education and doing something worthwhile in life. Sanders graduated from James Madison High School, where in addition to being a good student, Sanderswas also an excellent middle-distance runner.
Sanders spent a year at Brooklyn College before transferring to the University of Chicago, which had a smart, precocious student body that was passionate about fighting racism and achieving social justice. At the university, Sanders spent a lot of time in the library reading about politics and social issues. In 1963, Sanders traveled to Washington for the famous march where Dr. Martin Luther King made his iconic “I have a dream speech.” He became active in protesting against segregation in Chicago and did his first public speaking in rallies denouncing segregation.
While Sanders was at Chicago, he discovered the life and writings of Eugene Debs, the founder of the American Socialist Party and a five-time presidential candidate. Sanders would echo Debs’ conviction that there was something fundamentally wrong in America where so few had so much and so many had so little. Debs’ campaign focus on wealth equality and social justice would later become the central issues of Sanders’ presidential campaigns.
MOVING TO VERMONT
As a child Sanders had read brochures about the bucolic beauty of Vermont. After graduating from college, Sanders his then-wife and brother pooled their money and bought a piece of land in Middlesex, about six miles north of the state capital of Montpelier. “We had never been to Vermont in our lives; we just drove up,” Sanders told NPR. “We bought 85 acres or $2,500. How’s that? But it was woodland.”
Rural Vermont was vastly different than the intellectual, activist scene that Bernie Sanders experienced seven at the University of Chicago, but Sanders enjoyed life in Vermont. Sanders became an activist in Vermont’s tiny, radical, Liberty Union Party, which opposed the Vietnam War and was trying to become a viable third party in Vermont. The state was seeing an influx of young people, a demographic shift that later became known as the “hippie invasion.” Sanders ran for United States Senator on the Liberty Party line in 1971, as well as a 1974 race for Senate and a 1976 race for governor, never breaking more than 6%. In 1979, he broke with the Liberty Union. In his book, Outsider in the House, Sanders said it was a painful decision, but that the small third party wasn’t attracting members, energy or leadership.
Though Sanders had lost four elections in Vermont, undeterred Sanders ran in 1980 as an independent for mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest college town. Burlington was economically depressed and the city’s Democratic mayor did little to address the housing affordability crisis that the city was grappling with. During the campaign, Sanders turned his attention to local concerns including unplowed streets and a City Hall that listened to business and developers more than ordinary people. The mayor dismissed Sanders as a fringe candidate and did not campaign vigorously against him. Sanders shocked not only Burlington, but also America when he won election as mayor by a ten-vote majority. Sanders became the only mayor in the entire country who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and one of the few self-described socialists to gain public office. Burlington’s political establishment was aghast, but Sanders proved himself to be a competent mayor who could fashion bipartisan coalitions to achieve results. Sanders was re-elected mayor three times, laying the foundations for his later campaigns for statewide office.
In 1986, Sanders ran as an independent for governor, losing to the Democratic incumbent as well as the Republican, Peter Smith. In 1988, Sanders faced Smith again, this time in a race for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Smith won, but Sanders surprisingly received more votes than the Democratic candidate Paul Poirier.
THE LONE INDEPENDENT IN CONGRESS
In 1990, Sanders again challenged Smith, who made some costly political miscalculations, including support for a ban on assault rifles. Sanders then won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and the election, shocking the national political establishment.
Sanders was the lone independent in Congress. He had never been a legislator previously, and also had no party affiliation. At first, the Democrats refused to let him caucus with them but, after they lost control to the Republicans in 1995, they decided they needed Sanders’ vote. Ever since, Sanders has caucused with the Democrats and earned seniority in the congressional system, even though he was not a member of either party. Sanders took extremely controversial positions by opposing the War in Iraq and supporting normalization of trade with China.
In 2006, when Sanders ran for an open U.S. Senate seat, he garnered more than twice as many votes as his opponent. In 2012, he was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote. On December 10, 2010, Sanders rose to speak against President Obama’s extension of tax cuts for the rich. Speaking for more than eight hours, so many people tuned in to Sanders’ filibuster that the Senate’s web servers crashed.
In 2015, Sanders announced he was seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. His run for the White House was described as quixotic, and pundits have labeled his goals as unrealistic and unachievable. Sanders and his policies however attracted millions of voters and amazingly he won 23 primaries and caucuses and around 46% of pledged delegates before losing the nomination to Hillary Clinton. A feature of his campaign was his supporters’ enthusiasm. He also stood out from other candidates for rejecting large donations from corporations, the financial industry, and associated political action committees.
Though he lost again four years later to Joe Biden, Sanders continued to articulate his social and economic justice platform. Sanders showed that he has had more influence on American politics than almost any other failed presidential candidate in the country’s history. Many of his ideas, which were once considered fringe concepts, became part of the party’s platform, including Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and the Green New Deal.