Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Bernie Sanders
The Vermont senator’s history of taxing hospitals, getting slapped, and IRA meetings, and his “honorary woman” status
1) Longtime friend and supporter Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont, told The New Yorker in 2015, “Bernie’s the last person you’d want to be stuck on a desert island with. Two weeks of lectures about health care, and you’d look for a shark and dive in.”
2) In 2016, he probably received more write-in votes for president, without running in the general election, than anyone else in American history. Only eight states count write-in votes for candidates who did not file paperwork to run in the general election.
In 2016, 18,218 Vermont voters wrote in his name in the presidential general election, which was 5.8 percent of the total vote. That was more than libertarian Gary Johnson and Green-party nominee Jill Stein — combined. In California, Sanders got 79,341, which was more than Evan McMullin; in Pennsylvania, Sanders had 6,060; in New Hampshire, Sanders won 4,493; and in Rhode Island, 3,497 (again ahead of McMullin). Among the states that counted write-in votes, Sanders had 111,609 votes.
In 1996, Green-party nominee Ralph Nader received 685,297 votes, but he was a write-in candidate in some states and listed on the ballot in others.
3) His first campaign for public office started because he simply showed up and volunteered. In 1971, Vermont Republican senator Winston Prouty died, setting up a special election. A young Bernie Sanders chose to attend the meeting of the newly formed Liberty Union party, which he described in his memoir as “a small peace-oriented third party.” (The party called for “nonviolent revolutionary socialism” and compared the draft to slavery.)
In Sanders’s account, he became the candidate for Senate because at the meeting the party needed a candidate; he raised his hand and volunteered. He won 2 percent statewide. In the subsequent decade, Sanders twice ran as the Liberty Union party’s candidate for Senate and twice for governor, never winning more than 6 percent of the vote. During this time, he declared on the campaign trail that the Central Intelligence Agency was “a dangerous institution that has got to go,” and that “right-wing lunatics use it to prop up fascist dictatorships.”
By the time Sanders was elected to Congress, the Liberty Union party saw him as a sellout, calling him “Bernie the Bomber,” charging “Bernie became an imperialist to get elected in 1990” and declaring, “Bernie’s selling out says clearly to working people and those unable to find work that even leftists become mainstream politicians, when and if they win office.” The group also observed that, at the time, Sanders had “no person of color on his staff.”
The city’s five-term Democratic mayor, Gordon Paquette, proposed raising property taxes by 65 cents per $100 of assessed value and barely bothered to campaign. Sanders contended that the city’s needs could be funded by a 25-cent increase, and the voters preferred the lower hike.
As the New York Times described it, “Mr. Sanders did not campaign as a Socialist and Mr. Paquette did not make an issue of it.” He told the paper, “I’m not going to war with the city’s financial and business community and I know that there is little I can do from City Hall to accomplish my dreams for society.”
Sanders called property taxes regressive because “they are not based on ability to pay” and boasted that he held off any additional residential property tax increases for seven years. But while he was mayor, the city implemented taxes on meals and hotel rooms, raised commercial and industrial property taxes, and taxed cable television.
5) It didn’t take long for Sanders to start pushing policy in unorthodox directions, most notably declaring in 1987 that the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont, now known as the University of Vermont Medical Center, was no longer tax-exempt; he sent the hospital a tax bill for $2.9 million. Sanders declared, “There are a heck of a lot of people up there making a heck of a lot of money.” This led to a court fight; a superior court judge ruled against the city on all counts, declaring that “statutes should not be construed in such a way that will lead to irrational or absurd consequences.” Twelve years later, after Sanders had departed the mayor’s office to become Vermont’s lone representative in the U.S. House, the hospital and Burlington reached an agreement on payments in return for municipal services and higher levels of charitable care.
6) Shortly after being elected as mayor, Sanders kicked off of the 40th annual Chittenden County United Way fundraising drive by announcing to gasps, “I don’t believe in charities.” Sanders went on to argue that government, rather than charity organizations, should take over responsibility for social programs.
A handful of people in this country are making decisions, whipping up Cold War hysteria, making us hate the Russians. We’re spending billions on military. Why can’t we take some of that money to pay for thousands of U.S. children to go to the Soviet Union?
(In the preceding few years, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, and pushed for the institution of martial law in Poland.)
The city of Burlington issued many proclamations about U.S. foreign policy. “I did not want to see taxpayer dollars going to the CIA for an appalling war,” Sanders wrote in his 1998 autobiography, Outsider in the House. “While most of the Democrats and Republicans on the Board of Alderman disagreed, to us this was very much a municipal issue.”
It’s funny, sometimes American journalists talk about how bad a country is, that people are lining up for food. That is a good thing! In other countries people don’t line up for food: The rich get the food, and the poor starve to death.
He said in a 1985 interview that he espoused “traditional socialist goals — public ownership of oil companies, factories, utilities, banks, etc.”
In the mid 1980s, Burlington’s minor-league baseball team was named the “Vermont Reds,” but this was not, as some Internet sites claim, a salute to Communism. The team was affiliated with the major-league Cincinnati Reds. However, Sanders’s softball team was indeed called “the People’s Republic of Burlington.”
9) In 1985, Sanders was invited by the Nicaraguan government to Managua to visit for the celebration of the sixth anniversary of the rebel Sandinista takeover. According to Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, “Republicans also had video of Sanders at a 1985 rally thrown by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua where half a million people chanted, ‘Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die,’ while President Daniel Ortega condemned ‘state terrorism’ by America.” A UPI wire service report described the chant; Sanders has many times discussed attending the rally, calling it “a profoundly emotional experience,” but he has never mentioned the chant.
11) Many profiles of Sanders mention that he and his wife Jane “honeymooned in the Soviet Union,” which is technically accurate but a bit misleading. Burlington had a “sister city” program with Yaroslavl in Russia, and a foreign-exchange trip with the Soviet Union was scheduled in 1988. Sanders later said that he and his wife “set their wedding date to coincide with that trip because they didn’t want to take more time off.”
12) For much of his career, Sanders has theorized that there is a psychological or psychosomatic aspect to cancer: “When the human spirit is broken, when the life force is squashed, cancer becomes a possibility,” the 28-year-old Sanders wrote in the Vermont Freeman, an alternative newspaper, in December 1969. In 1988, discussing the death of Nora Astorga, a Sandinista politician who had died of cervical cancer. Sanders said:
I have my own feelings about what causes cancer and the psychosomatic aspects of cancer. . . . One wonders if the war did not claim another victim of another person who couldn’t deal with her tremendous grief and suffering that’s going on in her own country.
In one of his infamous essays in the Freeman, Sanders wrote, in 1969, “The manner in which you bring up your daughter with regard to sexual attitudes may very well determine whether or not she will develop breast cancer, among other things.”
13) In 1988, Sanders attended a non-binding Vermont Democratic-party caucus in Burlington, supporting Jesse Jackson. In Outsider in the House, he writes, “A number of old-line Dems stood up and turned around as I delivered my speech. And when I returned to my seat, a woman in the audience slapped me across the face.” Sanders said it was the first and last time he ever participated in a formal Democratic-party function. Because Vermont has no formal party registration, he has never formally registered as a Democrat, although by 1994, the Vermont Democratic party stopped running candidates against him. In early 2015, he filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for president as a Democrat.
14) In 1989, Sanders taught at the Institute of Policy Studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and came away somewhat disappointed. “I know that conservatives worry a great deal about Harvard,” Sanders wrote in Outsider in the House. “They see it as a bastion of progressive thought, the brain trust for revolution. Trust me. They can stop worrying. Harvard has many wonderful attributes, but the revolution will not start at Harvard University.”
15) In his 1986 campaign for governor, Sanders declared he would be a better feminist than the incumbent, Democratic governor Madeleine Kunin. He dismissed her in an interview, declaring, “Many people are excited because she’s the first woman governor. But after that, there ain’t much.” Feminist groups didn’t seem to mind; at a 1996 rally for his congressional campaign, feminist Gloria Steinem called him “an honorary woman.”
16) Sanders relationship with another liberal Vermont politician, Howard Dean, is surprisingly complicated. In 1996, then-governor Howard Dean said he had never voted for Sanders, who was then in his third term as a congressman. Dean said he had left his ballot blank. In 1993, when Sanders was pushing for the state to embrace Canadian-style single-payer health care, Dean accused Sanders of being dishonest about the costs:
I don’t think it’s fair for politicians to raise these kinds of expectations and pretend it’s going to cost everybody less because it’s not going to happen. That’s just not fair. People have had that done to them for a long time. Ronald Reagan was a master of that kind of stuff.
Sanders responded, “I have never been attacked for being like Ronald Reagan. I find that very amusing.”
As a superdelegate, Dean voted for Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016. In December 2017, Howard Dean said during an appearance on MSNBC that older members of the Democratic party need “to get the hell out of the way and have somebody who is 50 running the country.”
18) During his 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders said he wanted to end fracking entirely, that there has never been a single U.S. trade agreement with a foreign country that he’s been comfortable with, and declared, “It makes no sense that students and their parents pay higher interest rates for college than they pay for car loans or housing mortgages.” The comparison ignores the concept of collateral and the fact that most homeowners and car buyers put money down at the time of purchase. It is difficult to repossess an education.
19) In 2016 and 2017, Sanders made more than $1 million, mostly from book advances and royalties. He received a half-million-dollar advance for this year’s book, Where We Go from Here. (Ironically, back in 1974, Sanders told the Burlington Free Press, “Nobody should earn more than $1 million.”) When the senator received some grief during the 2016 campaign for not releasing his tax returns, he said his wife does the couple’s taxes. Days later, he released his 2014 returns, showing adjusted gross income of $205,271. Despite Sanders’s 1981 statement that he didn’t believe in charities, he and his wife donated $8,350 to charity, according to the return.
20) The population of Vermont is so heavily white that the NAACP didn’t establish a branch in the state until 2015. Progressives among the roughly 1.2 percent of Vermonters that are African-American have at times accused Sanders of neglecting them.
In December 2018, the Sanders Institute — a think tank founded in 2017 by Sanders’s wife, Jane, and her son from a previous marriage, David Driscoll, who previously worked at a snowboarding company — held a three-day conference on the progressive agenda. Fourteen progressive and African-American community leaders objected to a lack of local representatives invited or speaking. They signed a letter declaring, “This is either a major oversight or just one more example of how institutional oppression looks, even among those who are progressive.”
Some of the criticism was even harsher. Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, told a local newspaper,
This is a well-established pattern that Sanders has illustrated over the decades of marginalizing people of color, of not extending himself to understand our experiences here as they relate to micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations, micro-injustices. He has shown himself incapable or unwilling to do what it takes to engage us, one-to-one or collectively, in terms of understanding what our experiences are in this state and how he might be able to mitigate the negative effects of systemic racism.