Mayor of Burlington
U.S. Representative from
Vermont’s at-large district
U.S. Senator from Vermont
Bernard Sanders (born September 8, 1941) is an American politician who has served as the junior United States senator from Vermont since 2007 and as U.S. Representative for the state’s at-large congressional district from 1991 to 2007. He is the longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history, although he has a close relationship with the Democratic Party, having caucused with House and Senate Democrats for most of his congressional career. Sanders unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party nomination for president of the United States in 2016 and 2020, finishing in second place in both campaigns. Before his election to Congress, he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont.
An advocate of democratic socialist, social democratic and progressive policies, Sanders is known for his opposition to economic inequality and neoliberalism. On domestic policy, he supports labor rights, universal and single-payer healthcare, paid parental leave, tuition-free tertiary education, and an ambitious Green New Deal to create jobs addressing climate change. On foreign policy, he supports reducing military spending, pursuing more diplomacy and international cooperation, and putting greater emphasis on labor rights and environmental concerns when negotiating international trade agreements. Sanders supports workplace democracy, and has praised elements of the Nordic model. Some commentators have described his politics as aligned with the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and left-wing populism. Sanders has been credited with influencing a leftward shift in the Democratic Party since his 2016 presidential campaign.
Sanders was born into a working-class Jewish family and raised in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. He attended Brooklyn College before graduating from the University of Chicago in 1964. While a student, he was an active protest organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality as well as for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the civil rights movement. After settling in Vermont in 1968, he ran unsuccessful third-party political campaigns in the early to mid-1970s. He was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 as an independent and was reelected three times. He won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, representing Vermont’s at-large congressional district, later co-founding the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He served as a U.S. Representative for 16 years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. Sanders was reelected to the Senate in 2012 and 2018. In January 2021, Sanders became chair of the Senate Budget Committee.
Sanders was a major candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020. Despite initially low expectations, his 2016 campaign generated significant grassroots enthusiasm and funding from small-dollar donors, carrying Sanders to victory against eventual nominee Hillary Clinton in 23 primaries and caucuses before he conceded in July. In 2020, Sanders’s strong showing in early primaries and caucuses briefly made him the front-runner in a historically large field of Democratic candidates. In April 2020, he conceded the nomination to Joe Biden, who had won a series of decisive victories as the field narrowed. Sanders endorsed Clinton and Biden in their general election campaigns against Donald Trump while continuing his efforts to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.
Bernard Sanders was born on September 8, 1941, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. His father, Elias Ben Yehuda Sanders, was born in Słopnice, Galicia, in Austria-Hungary (now part of Poland), to a Jewish working-class family. In 1921, Elias immigrated to the United States, where he became a paint salesman. Bernard’s mother, Dorothy Sanders (née Glassberg), was born in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents from Radzyń Podlaski, in modern-day eastern Poland, and with roots in Russia.
Sanders became interested in politics at an early age. He said, “A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including six million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.” In the 1940s, many of his relatives in German-occupied Poland were murdered in the Holocaust.
Sanders lived in Midwood, Brooklyn. He attended elementary school at P.S. 197, where he won a borough championship on the basketball team. He attended Hebrew school in the afternoons, and celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1954. His older brother, Larry, said that during their childhood, the family never lacked for food or clothing, but major purchases, “like curtains or a rug,” were not affordable.
Sanders attended James Madison High School, where he was captain of the track team and took third place in the New York City indoor one-mile race. In high school, he lost his first election, finishing last out of three candidates for the student body presidency with a campaign that focused on aiding Korean War orphans. Despite the loss he became active in his school’s fundraising activities for Korean orphans, including organizing a charity basketball game. Not long after his high school graduation, his mother died at the age of 46. His father died a few years later in 1962, at the age of 57.
Sanders studied at Brooklyn College for a year in 1959–1960 before transferring to the University of Chicago and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1964. He has described himself as a mediocre college student because the classroom was “boring and irrelevant,” while the community was more important to his education.
Sanders later described his time in Chicago as “the major period of intellectual ferment in my life.” While there, he joined the Young People’s Socialist League (the youth affiliate of the Socialist Party of America) and was active in the civil rights movement as a student for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Under his chairmanship, the university chapter of CORE merged with the university chapter of the SNCC. In January 1962, he went to a rally at the University of Chicago administration building to protest university president George Wells Beadle’s segregated campus housing policy. At the protest, Sanders said, “We feel it is an intolerable situation when Negro and white students of the university cannot live together in university-owned apartments”. He and 32 other students then entered the building and camped outside the president’s office. After weeks of sit-ins, Beadle and the university formed a commission to investigate discrimination. After further protests, the University of Chicago ended racial segregation in private university housing in the summer of 1963.
Joan Mahoney, a member of the University of Chicago CORE chapter at the time and a fellow participant in the sit-ins, described Sanders in a 2016 interview as “a swell guy, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, but he wasn’t terribly charismatic. One of his strengths, though, was his ability to work with a wide group of people, even those he didn’t agree with.” He once spent a day putting up fliers protesting police brutality, only to notice later that Chicago police had shadowed him and taken them all down. He attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. That summer, Sanders was fined $25 (equivalent to $209 in 2019) for resisting arrest during a demonstration in Englewood against segregation in Chicago’s public schools.
In addition to his civil rights activism during the 1960s and 1970s, Sanders was active in several peace and antiwar movements while attending the University of Chicago, becoming a member of the Student Peace Union. He applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War; his application was eventually turned down, by which point he was too old to be drafted. Although he opposed the war, Sanders never criticized those who fought in it, and he has long been a strong supporter of veterans’ benefits. He also was briefly an organizer with the United Packinghouse Workers of America while in Chicago. He also worked on the reelection campaign of Leon Despres, a prominent Chicago alderman who was opposed to mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic Party machine. Throughout his student years, Sanders read the works of many political authors, from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John Dewey to Karl Marx and Erich Fromm.
Professional history and early years in Vermont
After graduating from college, Sanders returned to New York City, where he worked various jobs, including Head Start teacher, psychiatric aide, and carpenter. In 1968, he moved to Stannard, Vermont, a town small in both area and population (88 residents at the 1970 census) within Vermont’s rural Northeast Kingdom region, because he had been “captivated by rural life.” While there, he worked as a carpenter, filmmaker, and writer who created and sold “radical film strips” and other educational materials to schools. He also wrote several articles for the alternative publication The Vermont Freeman. He lived in the area for several years before moving to the more populous Chittenden County in the mid-1970s. During his 2018 reelection campaign, he returned to the town to hold an event with voters and other candidates.
Liberty Union campaigns
Sanders began his electoral political career in 1971 as a member of the Liberty Union Party, which originated in the anti-war movement and the People’s Party. He ran as the Liberty Union candidate for governor of Vermont in 1972 and 1976 and as a candidate for U.S. senator in 1972 and 1974. In the 1974 senatorial race, he finished third (5,901 votes; 4%), behind 33-year-old Chittenden County state’s attorney Patrick Leahy (D; 70,629 votes; 49%) and two-term incumbent U.S. Representative Dick Mallary (R; 66,223 votes; 46%).
The 1976 campaign was the zenith of the Liberty Union’s influence, with Sanders collecting 11,317 votes for governor and the party. His strong performance forced the down-ballot races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state to be decided by the state legislature when its vote total prevented either the Republican or Democratic candidate for those offices from garnering a majority of votes. The campaign drained the finances and energy of the Liberty Union, however, and in October 1977, less than a year after the 1976 campaign concluded, he and the Liberty Union candidate for attorney general, Nancy Kaufman, announced their retirement from the party. During the 1980 presidential election Sanders served as one of three electors for the Socialist Workers Party in Vermont.
After his resignation from the Liberty Union Party in 1977, Sanders worked as a writer and as the director of the nonprofit American People’s Historical Society (APHS). While with the APHS, he produced a 30-minute documentary about American labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president five times as the Socialist Party candidate.
Mayor of Burlington, Vermont (1981–1989)
On November 8, 1980, Sanders announced his candidacy for mayor. He formally announced his campaign on December 16 at a City Hall press conference. Sanders selected Linda Niedweske as his campaign manager. The Citizens Party attempted to nominate Greg Guma for mayor, but Guma declined, saying it would be “difficult to run against another progressive candidate”. Sanders had been convinced to run for the mayoralty by Richard Sugarman, an Orthodox Jewish scholar at the University of Vermont, who had shown him a ward-by-ward breakdown of the 1976 Vermont gubernatorial election, in which Sanders had run, that showed him receiving 12% of the vote in Burlington despite only getting 6% statewide.
Sanders initially won the mayoral election by 22 votes against Paquette, Bove, and McGrath, but the margin was later reduced to 10 votes. Paquette did not contest the results of the recount.
Paquette’s loss was attributed to his own shortcomings, as he did not campaign or promote his candidacy since both Sanders and Independent candidate Richard Bove were not seen as a serious challengers, as Sanders had not previously won an election. Paquette was also considered to have lost because he proposed an unpopular $0.65 per $100 raise in taxes that Sanders opposed. Sanders spent around $4,000 on his campaign.
Sanders castigated the pro-development incumbent as an ally of prominent shopping center developer Antonio Pomerleau, while Paquette warned of ruin for Burlington if Sanders were elected. The Sanders campaign was bolstered by a wave of optimistic volunteers as well as a series of endorsements from university professors, social welfare agencies, and the police union. The result shocked the local political establishment.
Sanders formed a coalition between independents and the Citizens Party. On December 3, 1982, he announced that he would seek reelection. On January 22, 1983, the Citizens Party voted unanimously to endorse Sanders, although Sanders ran as an independent. He was reelected, defeating Judith Stephany and James Gilson.
Sanders initially considered not seeking a third term, but announced on December 5, 1984, that he would run. He formally launched his campaign on December 7, and was reelected. On December 1, 1986, Sanders, who had finished third in the 1986 Vermont gubernatorial election, announced that he would seek reelection to a fourth term as mayor of Burlington, despite close associates stating that he was tired of being mayor. Sanders defeated Democratic nominee Paul Lafayette in the election. He said he would not seek another mayoral term after the 1987 election: “eight years is enough and I think it is time for new leadership, which does exist within the coalition, to come up”.
Sanders did not run for a fifth term as mayor. He went on to lecture in political science at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government that year and at Hamilton College in 1991.
During his mayoralty, Sanders called himself a socialist and was so described in the press. During his first term, his supporters, including the first Citizens Party city councilor Terry Bouricius, formed the Progressive Coalition, the forerunner of the Vermont Progressive Party. The Progressives never held more than six seats on the 13-member city council, but they had enough to keep the council from overriding Sanders’s vetoes. Under his leadership, Burlington balanced its city budget; attracted a minor league baseball team, the Vermont Reds, then the Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds; became the first U.S. city to fund community-trust housing; and successfully sued the local cable television franchise, thereby winning reduced rates for customers.
As mayor, Sanders also led extensive downtown revitalization projects. One of his primary achievements was improving Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront. In 1981, he campaigned against the unpopular plans by Burlington developer Tony Pomerleau to convert the then-industrial waterfront property owned by the Central Vermont Railway into expensive condominiums, hotels, and offices. He ran under the slogan “Burlington is not for sale” and successfully supported a plan that redeveloped the waterfront area into a mixed-use district featuring housing, parks, and public spaces.
Sanders was a consistent critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America throughout the 1980s. In 1985, Burlington City Hall hosted a foreign policy speech by Noam Chomsky. In his introduction, he praised Chomsky as “a very vocal and important voice in the wilderness of intellectual life in America” and said that he was “delighted to welcome a person who I think we’re all very proud of.”
Sanders hosted and produced a public-access television program, Bernie Speaks with the Community, from 1986 to 1988. He collaborated with 30 Vermont musicians to record a folk album, We Shall Overcome, in 1987. That same year, U.S. News & World Report ranked Sanders one of America’s best mayors. As of 2013[update], Burlington was regarded as one of the most livable cities in the United States.
When Sanders left office in 1989, Bouricius, a member of the Burlington city council, said that Sanders had “changed the entire nature of politics in Burlington and also in the state of Vermont”.
U.S. House of Representatives (1991–2007)
In 1988, incumbent Republican congressman Jim Jeffords decided to run for the U.S. Senate, vacating the House seat representing Vermont’s at-large congressional district. Former Lieutenant Governor Peter P. Smith (R) won the House election with a plurality, securing 41% of the vote. Sanders, who ran as an independent, placed second with 38% of the vote, while Democratic State Representative Paul N. Poirier placed third with 19%. Two years later, he ran for the seat again and defeated Smith by a margin of 56% to 39%.
Sanders was the first independent elected to the U.S. House of Representatives since Frazier Reams of Ohio, as well as the first socialist elected to the House in decades. He served as a representative from 1991 until he became a senator in 2007, winning reelection by large margins except during the 1994 Republican Revolution, when he won by 3%, with 50% of the vote.
During his first year in the House, Sanders often alienated allies and colleagues with his criticism of both political parties as working primarily on behalf of the wealthy. In 1991, he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of mostly liberal Democrats that he chaired for its first eight years, while still refusing to join the Democratic Party or caucus.
In 2005, Rolling Stone called Sanders the “amendment king” for his ability to get more roll call amendments passed than any other congressman during the period since 1995, when Congress was entirely under Republican control. Being an independent allowed him to form coalitions across party lines.
In 1999, Sanders voted and advocated against rolling back the Glass–Steagall legislation provisions that kept investment banks and commercial banks separate entities. He was a vocal critic of Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan; in June 2003, during a question-and-answer discussion, Sanders told him he was concerned that Greenspan was “way out of touch” and “that you see your major function in your position as the need to represent the wealthy and large corporations.”
Concerned by high breast cancer rates in Vermont, on February 7, 1992, Sanders sponsored the Cancer Registries Amendment Act to establish cancer registries to collect data on cancer. Senator Patrick Leahy introduced a companion bill in the Senate on October 2, 1992. The Senate bill was passed by the House on October 6 and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on October 24, 1992.
Firearms and criminal justice
In 1993, Sanders voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated federal background checks when buying guns and imposed a waiting period on firearm purchasers in the United States; the bill passed by a vote of 238–187. He voted against the bill four more times in the 1990s, explaining his Vermont constituents saw waiting-period mandates as more appropriately a state than federal matter.
Sanders did vote for other gun-control measures. For example, in 1994, he voted for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act “because it included the Violence Against Women Act and the ban on certain assault weapons.” He was nevertheless critical of the other parts of the bill. Although he acknowledged that “clearly, there are some people in our society who are horribly violent, who are deeply sick and sociopathic, and clearly these people must be put behind bars in order to protect society from them,” he maintained that governmental policies played a large part in “dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime, and violence” and argued that the repressive policies introduced by the bill were not addressing the causes of violence, saying, “we can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails.”
Sanders has at times favored stronger law enforcement and sentencing. In 1996, he voted against a bill that would have prohibited police from purchasing tanks and armored carriers. In 1998, he voted for a bill that would have increased minimum sentencing for possessing a gun while committing a federal crime to ten years in prison, including nonviolent crimes such as marijuana possession.
In 2005, Sanders voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The purpose of the act was to prevent firearms manufacturers and dealers from being held liable for negligence when crimes have been committed with their products. As of 2016[update], he said that he has since changed his position and would vote for legislation to defeat this bill.
Opposition to the Patriot Act
Sanders was a consistent critic of the Patriot Act. As a member of Congress, he voted against the original Patriot Act legislation. After its 357–66 passage in the House, he sponsored and voted for several subsequent amendments and acts attempting to curtail its effects and voted against each reauthorization. In June 2005, he proposed an amendment to limit Patriot Act provisions that allow the government to obtain individuals’ library and book-buying records. The amendment passed the House by a bipartisan majority, but was removed on November 4 of that year in House–Senate negotiations and never became law.
Opposition to the War in Iraq
Sanders voted against the resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq in 1991 and 2002, and he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He voted for the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists that has been cited as the legal justification for controversial military actions since the September 11 attacks. He voted for a non-binding resolution expressing support for troops at the outset of the invasion of Iraq, but gave a floor speech criticizing the partisan nature of the vote and the Bush administration’s actions in the run-up to the war. Regarding the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity by a State Department official, he stated: “The revelation that the President authorized the release of classified information in order to discredit an Iraq war critic should tell every member of Congress that the time is now for a serious investigation of how we got into the war in Iraq and why Congress can no longer act as a rubber stamp for the President.”
In February 2005, Sanders introduced a bill that would have withdrawn the permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status that had been extended to China in October 2000. He said to the House, “Anyone who takes an objective look at our trade policy with China must conclude that it is an absolute failure and needs to be fundamentally overhauled”, citing the American jobs being lost to overseas competitors. His bill received 71 co-sponsors but was not sent to the floor for a vote.
U.S. Senate (2007–present)
Sanders entered the race for the U.S. Senate on April 21, 2005, after Senator Jim Jeffords announced that he would not seek a fourth term. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, endorsed Sanders, a critical move as it meant that no Democrat running against him could expect to receive financial help from the party. He was also endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic National Committee chairman and former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Dean said in May 2005 that he considered Sanders an ally who “votes with the Democrats 98% of the time.” Then-Senator Barack Obama also campaigned for him in Vermont in March 2006. Sanders entered into an agreement with the Democratic Party, much as he had as a congressman, to be listed in their primary but to decline the nomination should he win, which he did.
In the most expensive political campaign in Vermont’s history, Sanders defeated businessman Rich Tarrant by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Many national media outlets projected him as the winner just after the polls closed, before any returns came in. He was reelected in 2012 with 71% of the vote, and in 2018 with 67% of the vote.
While a member of Congress, Sanders sponsored 15 concurrent resolutions and 15 Senate resolutions. Of those he co-sponsored, 218 became law. While he has consistently advocated for progressive causes, Politico wrote that he has “rarely forged actual legislation or left a significant imprint on it.” According to The New York Times, “Big legislation largely eludes Mr. Sanders because his ideas are usually far to the left of the majority of the Senate… Mr. Sanders has largely found ways to press his agenda through appending small provisions to the larger bills of others.” During his time in the Senate, he had lower legislative effectiveness than the average senator, as measured by the number of sponsored bills that passed and successful amendments made. Nevertheless, he has sponsored over 500 amendments to bills, many of which became law. The results of these amendments include a ban on imported goods made by child labor; $100 million in funding for community health centers; $10 million for an outreach program for servicemembers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression, panic attacks, and other mental disorders; a public database of senior Department of Defense officials seeking employment with defense contractors; and including autism treatment in the military healthcare program.
Finance and monetary policy
In 2008 and 2009, Sanders voted against the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), a program to purchase toxic banking assets and provide loans to banks that were in free-fall. On February 4, 2009, he sponsored an amendment to ensure that TARP funds would not displace U.S. workers. The amendment passed and was added to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Among his proposed financial reforms is auditing the Federal Reserve, which would reduce its independence in monetary policy deliberations; Federal Reserve officials say that “Audit the Fed” legislation would expose the Federal Reserve to undue political pressure from lawmakers who do not like its decisions.
Outsider in the White House. London: Verso Books. 2015 . ISBN 978-1-78478-418-8. OCLC 918986570.
- American Left
- History of the socialist movement in the United States
- List of elected socialist mayors in the United States
- List of Jewish members of the United States Congress
- List of people who received an electoral vote in the United States Electoral College
- Spintharus berniesandersi
- Third-party members of the United States House of Representatives
- Rall, Ted (2016). Bernie. New York: Hollowbrook Publishing. ISBN 978-1609806989.
- Rice, Tom W. (1985). “Who Votes for a Socialist Mayor?: The Case of Burlington, Vermont”. Polity. 17 (4): 795–806. doi:10.2307/3234575. ISSN 0032-3497. JSTOR 3234575. OCLC 5546248357. S2CID 153889856.
- Rosenfeld, Steven (1992). Making History in Vermont: The Election of a Socialist to Congress. Wakefield, NH: Hollowbrook Publishing. ISBN 978-0-89341-698-0. LCCN 91034055. OCLC 24468446. OL 1553980M.
- Soifer, Steven (1991). The Socialist Mayor: Bernard Sanders in Burlington, Vermont. Westport, CN: Praeger. ISBN 978-0-89789-219-3. LCCN 90048954. OCLC 22491683. OL 1887682M.
- U.S. Senate website
- Campaign website
- Biography at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
- Financial information (federal office) at the Federal Election Commission
- Legislation sponsored at the Library of Congress
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Bernie Sanders at Curlie
- Column archive at The Huffington Post
- Issue positions and quotes at On the Issues
- Fact-checking at PolitiFact.com
- Profile at Vote Smart