On January 3, 1991, when Bernie Sanders was sworn in as Vermont's at-large member in the House of Representatives, history was made. Sanders became the first Independent elected to Congress in 40 years. He has since been re-elected seven times. He is the longest-serving Independent in the history of the House of Representatives.
Sanders is married to Dr. Jane O'Meara Sanders, who shares many of the Congressman's political interests and has worked with him in a variety of capacities for twenty-five years. Now in her third year as President of Burlington College, her previous work included providing educational and political consulting as a partner in Leadership Strategies and serving as the Director of Youth Services for the City of Burlington. Bernie and Jane are the very proud parents of four children. Levi Sanders, married to Dr. Raine Riggs, a Neuropsychologist, is currently a Senior Legal Advocate in the areas of employment, Social Security, and housing. Levi and Raine have one three-year-old .daughter, Sunnee. Heather Driscoll is an artist and a photographer who and is currently working in the film and video industry in Vermont. Carina Driscoll Ewoldson is a consultant in the field of public relations and marketing and has been elected to the Burlington School Board, the Burlington City Council, and the Vermont State Legislature. Carina is married to Blake Ewoldson, a businessman, and they have one two-year-old son, Cole. David J.B. Driscoll is the Team and Promotions Manager for Burton Snowboards, a position requiring extensive international travel with a home base in Vermont. Dave is married to Liza (Havey), Sales and Marketing Manager for Gravis, a Burton company.
Bernie was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941, the son of a paint salesman who immigrated to this country as a young man. His mother raised her two sons in a small apartment while his father earned a steady but limited income. Sanders' family circumstances, in which money was often tight, heavily influenced his understanding about the financial difficulties that face many working class families. His older brother, Larry, lives in England where he recently retired as a social worker.
Sanders graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn, and spent one year at Brooklyn College. He then transferred to the University of Chicago, where he graduated in 1964. That same year, Sanders and his first wife purchased land in Middlesex, Vermont.
In 1971 his interest in progressive politics took him to a meeting of the newly-formed Liberty Union Party, a third-party alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. He left that meeting as the Party's candidate for the U.S. Senate, and ended up with 2 percent of the vote. He ran three more races as a Liberty Union candidate - once more for the U.S. Senate, and twice for Governor. His highest statewide vote as a Liberty Union candidate was six percent. During all of his campaigns, Bernie focused on issues of importance to working people and the class nature of American society. In 1977, Sanders resigned from the Liberty Union party and worked as a writer and the director of the non-profit American People's Historical Society.
In 1981, Bernie's good friend, Richard Sugarman, a University of Vermont philosophy professor, convinced him that if he ran for Mayor of Burlington, the largest city in the state and where Sanders had resided for a number of years -- he could do more than just raise issues: he could win the election. And to the shock of all the pundits, and the consternation of the downtown business community, that's exactly what happened. With overwhelming support from the working class wards, Bernie pulled off one of the biggest political upsets in Vermont's history. Running as an Independent, he defeated the six term Democratic incumbent - by 12 votes! He would go on to win three more terms as Mayor of Burlington, defeating Democratic and Republican candidates. In 1987, he defeated the mayoral candidate that both parties supported.
In 1982, in order to defend the initiatives that Sanders was trying to implement against the fierce opposition of the Democrats and Republicans on the City Council, the local business community and the largest newspaper in the state, hundreds of people came together in Burlington to form the Progressive Coalition -- the City's third political party. While the Progressive Coalition never gained a majority in the City Council during his tenure as Mayor, the five and six seats (out of thirteen) it controlled over the years provided Sanders with veto power, and it gave the Progressives enough political clout to bring about sweeping reforms in the City.
In his years as Mayor, Sanders and the Progressives established a Youth Office that developed a city-run day-care center, a teen center, after-school programs and many other activities for kids. They started a Women's Council that became one of the leading organizations in the state in the fight for women's rights. The City also established an Arts Council that greatly expanded the community's cultural activities with free concerts, a Jazz festival, First Night, poetry readings and many other cultural events.
The Sanders administration expanded low- and moderate-income housing and the rights of tenants. Burlington became the first city in the nation to fund community land-trust housing. Despite fierce opposition from the state legislature and segments of the business community, he also succeeded in making Burlington the first community in Vermont to broaden its tax structure beyond almost total dependence on the regressive property tax. His initiatives included hotel and restaurant taxes, and charging franchise fees to utilities. He also took on the local cable TV company and succeeded in winning lower rates for consumers, as well as a substantial cash settlement for the City.
Like many other waterfront communities, Burlington had debated for years what kind of activities it wanted on its shores - the beautiful Lake Champlain. With an enormous amount of public input, and with a major legal battle against a railroad that owned substantial waterfront property, the City finally moved forward in developing one of the most beautiful people-oriented waterfronts in the country - including a community- owned boat house and a nine-mile bike path.
The Sanders administration also made some very significant environmental improvements. With state and federal funding, the City developed a new sewage disposal system that significantly reduced the pollution in Lake Champlain, and built one of the first bio-mass electrical generating plants in the country.
Sanders and the Progressives strongly believed in the adage, "think globally, act locally." In order to help create a more peaceful world, the City of Burlington started successful sister-cities programs with Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua, and Yaroslavl in Russia.
Sanders stepped down as Mayor of Burlington after four terms, and eight years. He was followed in office by fellow Progressive Peter Clavelle, who has served as Mayor of Burlington for 12 out of the last 14 years. One of the mayoral accomplishments that Bernie is most proud of is that, during his tenure, the City almost doubled its voter turnout and greatly increased citizen participation in local affairs.
In 1986, Bernie ran for Governor of Vermont and came in third with 14 percent of the vote. In 1988, he ran for Vermont's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and lost. The winner, former Republican Lieutenant Governor Peter Smith, received 41 percent of the vote while Sanders, an Independent received 38% and the Democratic candidate Paul Poirier received 18 percent. In 1990, after spending a year teaching at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University and at Hamilton College in upstate New York, Sanders ran for Congress again. This time he won, defeating Smith by 16 percentage points. The Democratic candidate came in a distant third.
During his years in Congress, Sanders has approached his responsibilities from several important perspectives. First, as Vermont's only representative in Congress, he and his very capable staff have worked hard to protect the interests of the people of his state. Secondly, in a Congress heavily dominated by corporate interests, he has attempted to force discussion on issues that the monied interests would prefer to ignore. Thirdly, he has worked successfully to pass legislation that is improving the lives of millions of Americans and people throughout the world.
As Vermont's Congressman Sanders, along with Vermont Senators Leahy and Jeffords, was successful - against very strong and ongoing opposition - in passing the Northeast Dairy Compact - of great importance to the state's family farmers and rural economy. He has also brought money into the state to allow Vermont farmers to expand their incomes through agri-tourism. The preservation of family-based agriculture, in Vermont and throughout the country, remains a major concern for him.
Sanders also passed legislation that expanded the Commodity Supplemental Food Program into Vermont, which is now providing free nutritious food to over 7,000 lower income Vermont senior citizens. He has also brought funding into the state that will provide a dental clinic in Burlington, expanded health opportunities and lower cost prescription drugs in the Northeast Kingdom, affordable housing, improved rural transportation and economic development.
Sanders received national recognition by helping to lead the fight to keep lower-income Vermonters and Americans warm in the wintertime, through successful efforts to increase funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP). He has also brought funding into the state for the student-based development of a curriculum on child-labor.
Congressman Sanders is a very strong defender of veterans' rights. He believes that Congress must keep faith with the men and women who put their lives on the line defending this country. As a result of his efforts, the Veterans Administration established a national clinical trial for Persian Gulf War veterans suffering from Persian Gulf Syndrone. Vermont veterans are participating in that study at the VA hospital in White River Junction, Vermont. Along with Senators Leahy and Jeffords, Sanders has also helped bring in over $20 million for that VA facility in a 3-year period. Bernie has been concerned that many Vermont veterans are not fully aware of the benefits to which they are entitled. As a result, he has held many veterans' town meetings around the state. The result is that hundreds of Vermont veterans are now utilizing VA programs such as the prescription drug benefit that they had not known about.
In recent years, Bernie has been extremely active on two initiatives that started in Vermont but have had major national implications. In 1999, in order to fight against the outrageously high prescription drug prices that Vermonters and all Americans are forced to pay, he led a nationally publicized bus trip across the Canadian border with Vermonters to buy prescription drugs. As a result, the nation learned that the pharmaceutical industry sells the exact same medicine in Canada, and every other country, at far lower prices than they are sold in the United States. This trip greatly accelerated efforts in Vermont in which Vermonters are now going across the border in large numbers for medicine and, in the process, are saving significant sums of money.
Even more important, after Sanders' trip a number of other Congresspersons and Senators made (and are making) similar trips. The fact that Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for medicine has now become one of the most talked about issues in the country, and one of major political issues facing Congress and the White House. Sanders remains one of the leaders in Congress in the fight to lower prescription drug costs and provide a prescription drug benefit under Medicare for all seniors. Several major prescription drug initiatives introduced by Sanders have passed the House.
In another Vermont issue that reached across the country, Sanders played an active role in working with Vermont IBM employees who experienced a massive cut-back in the pensions they had been promised by that company. The IBM decision affected thousands of Vermont workers and some 35,000 IBM employees nationally. After a Town Meeting called by Sanders attracted some 700 IBM employees, the largest congressional town meeting in Vermont memory, and after a very effective organizing effort by Vermont IBM employees, the company decided to reverse its position on the cut-backs for older workers. As a result, the pensions of many thousands of workers were saved. Sanders is continuing to work on legislation that will prevent corporate America from slashing the workers' pensions.
When Bernie took office in 1991, he was concerned that there was no organized group in the House of Representatives to represent the economic interests of the average American. Along with four other members of the House, he founded the House Progressive Caucus that has now grown to 56 members. Sanders chaired the caucus for its first eight years. In the last three years he has been ably followed in that position by Representatives Peter DeFazio (D/OR) and Dennis Kucinich (D/OH). The Progressive Caucus, on a wide variety of matters, has helped lead the effort in Congress to protect the interests of the ordinary citizens of this country who cannot afford to contribute large sums of money to buy political influence.
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