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How Bernie Sanders went from a small-city mayor to a progressive hero

Bryan Metzger   

How Bernie Sanders went from a small-city mayor to a progressive hero
  • Bernie Sanders has become a towering figure in American politics. It wasn't always that way.
  • He got his start in government as a small-town mayor, decades before his 2016 and 2020 campaigns.

Bernie Sanders is known today as perhaps the most important leader on the American left. It wasn't always that way.

Long before his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns helped steer the Democratic Party leftward, the Vermont senator was a lonely voice in American politics — the rare politician willing to call himself a "socialist" in a country defined heavily by its opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Sanders was born on September 8, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York to a working class Jewish family. His father was an immigrant from Poland. He attended James Madison High School, where he was a track star, and graduated in 1959, eight years before his present-day colleague Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

He later attended the University of Chicago, where he was famously arrested for protesting against segregation in Chicago public schools. He graduated in 1964, spent some time on an Israeli kibbutz, and moved to Vermont in 1968.

From mayor of Burlington to the longest-serving independent in congressional history

Sanders's initial foray into politics took place far outside the Democratic party: In the 1970s, he ran for both governor and US Senate multiple times under the banner of the socialist "Liberty Union" party.

His first political victory came in 1981, when he was elected mayor of Burlington — the largest city in Vermont — by a mere 10 votes. He would go on to serve four terms, easily winning reelection each time.

After coming second in a three-way race for Vermont's sole House seat in 1988, he was elected to Congress in 1990 with significant Democratic support. Despite that, he maintained his status as an independent, and would later earn the title of the longest-serving independent in congressional history.

Sanders has been an avowed socialist the entire time, and was forthright in defending that position even when the Soviet Union still existed.

"I am a socialist and everyone knows that," Sanders said in 1990. "They also understand that my kind of democratic socialism has nothing to do with authoritarian communism."

Sanders was elected to the Senate in 2006 and was reelected by overwhelming margins in 2012 and 2018.

The 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns

In April 2015, Sanders took perhaps the most impactful step of his career — announcing that he would run for president, challenging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination under the slogan "A Future To Believe In."

Running on a platform that included Medicare for All, addressing income inequality, and enacting campaign finance reform, Sanders helped awaken a movement on the American left that persists to this day, inspiring the rise of figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Though he lost his bitterly fought primary against Clinton that year, he demonstrated that there was a robust appetite for more left-wing economic proposals than the Democratic Party had long offered. In the years between his 2016 run and 2020 campaign, several other potential Democratic presidential contenders embraced Sanders's proposals, especially Medicare for All.

In 2020, Sanders ran again, ultimately coming in second to now-President Joe Biden in the primary. He dropped out on April 8, 2020, roughly a month after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Who Sanders is today — and what he's fighting for

Since his 2020 campaign, Sanders has assumed a more institutional role in the United States Senate.

During the first two years of Biden's presidency, he served as the chairman of the Budget Committee, a perch that afforded him a key role in shaping Biden's domestic agenda, including the ill-fated "Build Back Better" social spending bill that laid the groundwork for the Inflation Reduction Act.

Since 2023 — a period of divided government — Sanders has been the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, a perch he's used to take on corporations while pushing proposals such as a 32-hour workweek and a $17 federal minimum wage.

He's also been especially outspoken against Israel since the October 7 Hamas attacks, calling for conditions on US aid to the country and voting against bills that don't include those conditions.

Sanders is worth at least $2 million and owns three homes, according to numerous reports. Much of that wealth has come from book sales, a frequent source of outside income for lawmakers with high profiles.

In 2022, for example, Sanders nearly doubled his income via book royalties for his latest book, "It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism."

"I wrote a best-selling book," he told the New York Times in 2019. "If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too."

The 82-year-old Vermont senator, the second-oldest US senator behind the 90-year-old Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, announced in May that he would seek reelection, saying that the 2024 election is "the most consequential election in our lifetimes."

That puts him on a glide path to a fourth term. If he serves a full six year, he will be 89 at the end of his next term in 2031.

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