Bernie would have beaten Don­ald Trump.

‘We didn’t win the elec­tion but we won the hearts of young peo­ple,’ says Jane San­ders, wife of for­mer US pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie San­ders

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Suzanne Lynch

In Ver­mont

It’s late Septem­ber in the pic­turesque city of Burling­ton, in Ver­mont, and the fa­mous New Eng­land fall is not yet in its full au­tum­nal glory. Along the shores of Lake Cham­plain the sun is beat­ing down, the leaves are be­gin­ning to turn, and the at­mos­phere in this hip­ster stu­dent town is un­mis­tak­ably laid back.

This is Bernie San­ders ter­ri­tory. The veteran left-wing US se­na­tor and pres­i­den­tial hope­ful moved to Burling­ton, an hour south of the Cana­dian bor­der, in the mid-1960s, part of a wave of east-coast­ers who moved to the ru­ral state in search of some­thing new.

The hippy vibe is still in full swing. Along the main thor­ough­fare – pedes­tri­anised dur­ing San­ders’s time as mayor – clas­si­cal mu­sic plays from speak­ers as peo­ple re­lax out­side cafes and restau­rants, soak­ing up the late-Septem­ber sun­shine.

I’m here to meet Jane O’Meara San­ders, the se­na­tor’s wife and po­lit­i­cal ad­viser, at the head­quar­ters of the San­ders In­sti­tute, a nonprofit set up to pro­mote pro­gres­sive ideas and poli­cies that grew out of his 2016 cam­paign.

Softly spo­ken but qui­etly pas­sion­ate, Jane San­ders is off to Lim­er­ick next week to speak at I.NY, a new fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ire­land and New York.

Like mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, she grew up in an Ir­ish- Amer­i­can house­hold. The youngest of five chil­dren, San­ders was born in Brooklyn, grow­ing up just 10 blocks from the man who was to be­come her fu­ture hus­band, al­though they were not to meet un­til years later. Her pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther em­i­grated to the United States from Tip­per­ary, and three of her great- grand­par­ents came from Ire­land. “It’s funny. None of my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion had been to Ire­land,” she says. “My gen­er­a­tion went to check it out and fell in love with it.”

Re­minders of her Ir­ish her­itage framed her child­hood. A Sa­cred Heart hung on the wall, she went to Catholic schools, and both her fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were mem­bers of the Friendly Sons of St Pa­trick, the old­est Ir­ish-Amer­i­can as­so­ci­a­tion in North Amer­ica.

But it was only when she trav­elled to the old sod for the first time, in 1985, that she ap­pre­ci­ated her her­itage. “Vis­it­ing Ire­land re­minded me of when I first ar­rived in Ver­mont. I thought, This is home.” She and Bernie had been vis­it­ing his brother, Larry, still a Green Party ac­tivist in Eng­land, and took the ferry to Ire­land. “As soon as my feet hit the ground I said, ‘Yes, this is it.’

“I used to make fun of peo­ple who talked about go­ing home and all that,” San­ders says with a smile. “I hadn’t re­ally thought about it at all, but I just teared up when I saw Ire­land. I felt a kin­ship.”

But it was Jane’s meet­ing with Bernie that de­fined much of her life. She moved to Burling­ton in the 1970s with her first hus­band, who had re­lo­cated there for work. She first en­coun­tered Bernie when he was run­ning for mayor and she was work­ing as a com­mu­nity ac­tivist. “I was sit­ting in the sec­ond row, and our eyes met, but we didn’t re­ally talk af­ter­wards.” But she was cap­ti­vated. “I felt it came from the heart, ev­ery­thing he said. He em­bod­ied ev­ery­thing I ever be­lieved in.”

It was not un­til their fourth meet­ing, at a party cel­e­brat­ing his elec­tion as mayor, in 1981, that they got to­gether. They mar­ried in 1988. “He asked me to dance, and we’ve been to­gether ever since,” she says, smil­ing. So be­gan a mar­riage of minds as well as of hearts, as San­ders be­came a con­stant fig­ure by her hus­band’s side as he built his po­lit­i­cal career.

In 1988, when he was ap­proach­ing his eighth year as mayor of Burling­ton, Bernie ran for Congress. He was un­suc­cess­ful. Two years later he con­tested a seat again, this time win­ning by 10 points, and fi­nally mov­ing to Washington, DC, to rep­re­sent the cit­i­zens of Ver­mont as an In­de­pen­dent.

San­ders was cen­trally in­volved with his career from this time, first through her own work as a com­mu­nity ac­tivist and even­tu­ally more for­mally, be­com­ing his head of press in 1990.

In 1995, with her three chil­dren all work­ing or at col­lege, she also went down to Washington, set­ting up the Con­gres­sional Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus and be­com­ing her hus­band’s chief of staff.

‘You have to do it’

In 2006 Bernie was elected to the US Se­nate, a move that San­ders says sig­nif­i­cantly en­hanced his na­tional pro­file. But even then few would have be­lieved the socialist would set his sights on be­com­ing pres­i­dent of the United States.

When did the plan to run in 2016 come about?

“As the elec­tion ap­proached peo­ple started ask­ing him, [ say­ing] you should run, you should run. He dis­missed it, and so did I, but in 2015 we were wait­ing to have a de­bate about the ideas and it be­came very ap­par­ent to us that no­body was go­ing to have a de­bate in the Demo­cratic pri­maries. To us that was crazy,” says San­ders.

“We’ve known Hil­lary Clin­ton. She’s great, she’s won­der­ful, a very smart woman.” Both San­ders and her hus­band re­spect Clin­ton, she says, but “her pol­i­tics are cen­trist”.

De­spite “shak­ing the bushes” to find some­one to run, Bernie be­gan to think about run­ning him­self. The de­ci­sion was fi­nally made one morn­ing, as they were hav­ing break­fast, and were ap­proached by a Vietnam veteran.

“He ex­plained that he had been a vic­tim of Agent Or­ange” – a dan­ger­ous de­fo­liant the US used in the Vietnam War – “and while he had fought for 30 years to get ben­e­fits, he didn’t suc­ceed un­til he worked with Bernie’s of­fice. He said he hoped Bernie would run for pres­i­dent. I just teared up. Bernie stood up and shook his hand, I hugged him, and I said: ‘ You have to do it. It’s not about us. How can we not?’ ”

What fol­lowed was one of the most di­vi­sive pri­mary cam­paigns in re­cent Amer­i­can his­tory, as Bernie San­ders took on Hil­lary Clin­ton for a nom­i­na­tion that many in the party be­lieved was hers for the tak­ing, open­ing up wounds in the Demo­cratic Party that have yet to heal.

‘The wrong can­di­date’

San­ders out­per­formed vir­tu­ally all an­a­lysts’ ex­pec­ta­tions, com­mand­ing huge crowds and in­vig­o­rat­ing young vot­ers through his prom­ise of a left- wing vi­sion for Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, pred­i­cated on the right to health­care, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing.

Ten­sions be­tween the San­ders wing and the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment erupted in May 2016 amid ac­cu­sa­tions that the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, the party’s ex­ec­u­tive, con­spired to put Clin­ton on the ticket over Bernie San­ders, af­ter leaked emails showed DNC staff dis­parag­ing the Ver­mont se­na­tor.

Ugly scenes fol­lowed at the Demo­cratic se­lec­tion con­ven­tion, in Philadel­phia, where Bernie’s sup­port­ers, re­luc­tant to back Clin­ton as the party’s nom­i­nee, shouted, “We want Bernie.”

Clin­ton has crit­i­cised him in the af­ter­math of the elec­tion. In What Hap­pened, her new books, she ac­cuses her pri­mary op­po­nent of lay­ing the ground for Trump’s at­tacks on her.

Did Bernie ul­ti­mately cost Clin­ton and the Demo­cratic Party the elec­tion, de­priv­ing the United States of its first woman pres­i­dent and help­ing to elect Don­ald Trump?

“I dis­agree with that,” Jane San­ders says. “That’s democ­racy. There should al­ways be pri­maries. It wasn’t that she was an in­cum­bent. It’s no­body’s turn un­til it’s some­body’s turn; un­til the peo­ple de­cide it’s some­body’s turn.”

“Bernie never ran a neg­a­tive cam­paign in his life,” she says. The Clin­ton cam­paign might dis­pute this, given his re­lent­less fo­cus on Clin­ton’s ties to Wall Street dur­ing the pri­mary cam­paign. Of Clin­ton’s re­cent crit­i­cisms of her hus­band, Jane pauses, be­fore say­ing: “It’s un­for­tu­nate.”

She is un­equiv­o­cal that Clin­ton was a bad choice of nom­i­nee. “I don’t think Bernie stood in the way, as I think she would have lost to Trump any­way, not be­cause she should have but be­cause she was the wrong can­di­date at the time,” San­ders says.

“There was a sense in the coun­try, that we felt pal­pa­bly from peo­ple, that, yes, we’ve made progress in some ar­eas, but many of us have been left be­hind, and no­body is speaking to us. “Also, [there was a] sense that the Clin­ton cam­paign was a third term for Barack Obama. There is noth­ing wrong with that, but that’s not what they wanted at that time, and that’s not what they want now.

“I think the Amer­i­can peo­ple, through the healthy ex­change of ideas, un­der­stood that they could do bet­ter as a coun­try, in terms of health­care, af­ford­able ed­u­ca­tion, af­ford­able hous­ing. Bernie was the can­di­date for change, Trump was the can­di­date for change, and Sec­re­tary Clin­ton was the can­di­date for keep­ing steady on the path. That was not what the Amer­i­can peo­ple were look­ing for.”

‘He would have won’

Does she be­lieve Bernie would have beaten Trump? “I think he would have won. I have very lit­tle doubt he would have won,” she says, “be­cause Amer­i­can peo­ple wanted change and they weren’t will­ing to vote for the sta­tus quo.”

She notes that, through­out the pri­maries, work­ing- class white vot­ers, who in the end voted for Trump, sup­ported Bernie. Even though her hus­band lacked sup­port among African-Amer­i­can vot­ers, un­der- 40s in ev­ery con­stituency, in­clud­ing black and Latino, voted for him, she says.

Bernie was also crit­i­cised by many in the Demo­cratic Party for not pulling out ear­lier from the cam­paign. San­ders dis­putes that, point­ing out that Clin­ton didn’t pull out dur­ing her pri­mary con­test with Obama, be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 2008, un­til the end.

San­ders re­calls how she and her hus­band met Clin­ton in a ho­tel room in DC to an­nounce he was with­draw­ing, and they had a “very good dis­cus­sion”, fo­cus­ing on health­care and on free tu­ition for public col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

“The one thing that does bother me, con­sid­er­ing how hard he worked in hav­ing her win the elec­tion, are the un­truths – Hil­lary’s claim that she didn’t get the same re­spect from her op­po­nent as she gave to Barack Obama. Dur­ing the con­ven­tion we went to ev­ery event – each state that we won held a break­fast – be­cause Bernie felt so strongly that Don­ald Trump could not be­come pres­i­dent.”

She says that in the fi­nal week of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign her hus­band had more events than Clin­ton, whose team took the re­sult “for granted. They thought they had it won. They had two great par­ties, two nights be­fore the elec­tion: Bon Jovi and Bey­oncé. And Bernie was out in Cal­i­for­nia, try­ing to pass propo­si­tion 61” – a drug- pric­ing mea­sure – “as well as run­ning around the coun­try.”

San­ders is crit­i­cal of Clin­ton’s at­ti­tude since the de­feat. “Most peo­ple who run for pres­i­dent, if they don’t win the pri­mary, or even if they don’t win the elec­tion, they just dis­ap­pear. I mean, Sec­re­tary Clin­ton says in her in­ter­views, ‘I drank a lot of wine, saw a lot of theatre, read a lot of good books.’ The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was go­ing on. Bernie didn’t feel he had the op­por­tu­nity to stop: this is not the time to lay back, re­lax and pay at­ten­tion to our­selves; we have to go out and fight. He’s never stopped from the time he didn’t win the pri­mary.”

Her phone rings. It’s Bernie

San­ders’s com­mit­ment to her hus­band and to the left- wing pol­i­tics he has made his life’s work shines through. At one point her phone rings – it’s Bernie, from Washington, where the night be­fore he took part in a CNN de­bate on health­care. She tells him she’s talk­ing to The Ir­ish Times. “Love you,” she says as she ends the call; he had only rung for a chat, she says.

De­spite their close­ness, San­ders’s role in her hus­band’s po­lit­i­cal life has not been with­out its prob­lems. Her ten­ure at the helm of Burling­ton Col­lege, a small pri­vate col­lege, has come un­der scru­tiny in re­cent months. She re­signed in 2011, and the school closed in 2016, un­der mount­ing debts.

A land deal agreed un­der San­ders’s watch is now un­der fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion. San­ders says that she is en­tirely in­no­cent and that the cam­paign against her is po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated.

She men­tions the cur­rent vice- chair­man of the Repub­li­can Party in Ver­mont, who also headed Trump’s cam­paign in the state. “That’s what he does here, what he has done to the state at­tor­ney sev­eral times, and to pro­gres­sives. He con­stantly makes charges, and then peo­ple have to fol­low through and in­ves­ti­gate, to be able to say there is noth­ing there.” She says she will be ex­on­er­ated by the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which she ex­pects to take a long time.

As we leave her of­fice and walk down to the lake we talk about fam­ily life. Her son David Driscoll, who is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the San­ders In­sti­tute, lives nearby. Bernie, who had a child from a pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ship, and San­ders, who had three chil­dren from her first mar­riage, now have seven grand­chil­dren be­tween them. “Bernie is great with the grand­kids. He teaches them how to play chess, base­ball. They adore him.”

Trump has to be stopped

I ask if Bernie will run again in 2020. “We don’t know,” San­ders says, re­fus­ing to rule out a prospect that many in po­lit­i­cal cir­cles now see as a real pos­si­bil­ity. Both have just re­turned from a trip to Cal­i­for­nia, which some sus­pect was a sign that San­ders is gath­er­ing sup­port for an­other pri­mary bid, al­though he will be 79 at the time of the next elec­tion.

But what she is clear about is her be­lief that Bernie’s cam­paign changed the conversation within the Demo­cratic Party. As it con­tin­ues to soul search in the wake of Trump’s im­prob­a­ble vic­tory, the split be­tween the cen­trist and more socialist wing of the party seems as strong as ever – as shown by the ac­ri­mo­nious bat­tle this year to head the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. (Bernie San­ders sup­ported Keith El­li­son, who lost to Tom Perez.)

Democrats are now mulling over the party’s strat­egy for 2020 and for next year’s midterm elec­tions. The Bernie San­ders wing has grounds to feel con­fi­dent. As San­ders and other com­men­ta­tors have pointed out, Bernie’s re­cently un­veiled pro­posal for a sin­gle-payer health­care sys­tem gained 16 cosig­na­to­ries in the Se­nate last week. Two years ago it got zero.

As the bat­tle for the heart of the Demo­cratic Party in­ten­si­fies, San­ders be­lieves the conversation has changed. “We didn’t win the elec­tion, but I think we won the day – and we won the minds and hearts of a large number of peo­ple, es­pe­cially young peo­ple, the fu­ture of our coun­try.”

She re­calls a mo­ment dur­ing the pri­mary cam­paign when Bernie was just be­gin­ning to get no­ticed na­tion­ally. “I was watch­ing all th­ese peo­ple lis­ten­ing – he was not well known across the coun­try at this point – and you could see them just get it, that they un­der­stood that this was com­ing from deep in­side him, not just some silly stump speech. And im­me­di­ately I thought, I recog­nise that look. They’re feel­ing like I felt that time when I’d never talked to him but was just lis­ten­ing to him.”

As she re­flects on the Trump phe­nom­e­non, she says it is now up to the Demo­cratic Party to lead. “What we need to of­fer is a vi­sion for the fu­ture that ad­dresses the needs of the Amer­i­can peo­ple and the di­rec­tion they want to go in. What Trump is do­ing is a l ot more than just talk­ing, tweets. He is rolling back reg­u­la­tions, stan­dards, de­stroy­ing lives. This has to be stopped. There has to be a sense of ur­gency, a re­ally au­then­tic sense of ur­gency, that we have not just got to fight but to lead.”

Jane O’Meara San­ders will be in conversation with Joseph O’Con­nor at the Univer­sity Concert Hall, Univer­sity of Lim­er­ick, Thurs­day Oc­to­ber 12, 8pm; thi­sisiny.com

o‘ The ne thing that does bother me, con­sid­er­ing how hard he worked in hav­ing her win the elec­tion, are the un­truths

Jane San­ders

Top: Jane and Bernie San­ders in Los An­ge­les in 2015. Left: Jane O’Meara San­ders, wife of Ver­mont Se­na­tor and 2016 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie San­ders. Left: The po­lit­i­cal cou­ple cam­paign in 1992; in Washington in 1990; and at a Peace Links Gala in 1992. PHO­TO­GRAPHS: T.J. KIRK­PATRICK/BLOOMBE RG VIA GETTY IM­AGES; PA­TRICK T FAL­LON/ BLOOMBERG; BERNIE SAN­DERS CAM­PAIGN; : MICHELE MCDON­ALD/ BOS­TON GLOBE AND LAURA PAT­TER­SON/ VIA GETTY IM­AGES)

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