National News

Bernie Sanders Steps Out With His Favored Political Partner: His Wife

Posted November 30, 2018 7:55 p.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2018 8:00 p.m. EST

FILE -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his wife, Jane with, at the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, July 26, 2016. As speculation grows about whether Sanders will mount another bid for the White House, he and his wife returned to Vermont for the inaugural Sanders Institute Gathering, a three-day symposium to discuss progressive issues. (Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)

BURLINGTON, Vt. — When Jane Sanders introduced her event’s keynote speaker here Thursday night, she called him “my best friend” but didn’t say his name.

“I won’t tell you who that is because I don’t want to give it away,” she quipped from the stage.

Exactly no one was surprised when her husband, Bernie Sanders, marched to the podium.

As speculation grows about whether Sanders will mount another bid for the White House, the Vermont senator had returned with his wife to his home state for the inaugural Sanders Institute Gathering, a three-day symposium to discuss issues like Medicare for All that he had pushed to popularize.

“The message of this weekend is we’re going to try to break through the silos that exist within the progressive community,” Sanders told a devoted crowd of about 200 people at a small presentation hall on the shores of Lake Champlain.

“Bernie 2020!” someone in the audience shouted later. The senator did not oblige.

Still, if the last days of 2018 are about trying to divine clues from potential presidential candidates — the words in their speeches, the tone of their tweets — Sanders’ appearance here with his wife, a fixture on the 2016 campaign trail and one of his closest advisers, would seem to be a big one.

Jane Sanders has strode beside Bernie Sanders on every step of his political career, a devoted confidante but also a savvy strategist. They met during his campaign for mayor of Burlington in 1981. When he was elected to Congress in 1990, she served as a chief of staff. She helped him get elected to the Senate in 2006.

And in 2016, it was Jane Sanders who helped smooth out her husband’s rough edges — warm where he could be gruff — playing a key role in the kind of humanizing effort that all campaigns undertake for a candidate. Should Bernie Sanders run for president again, it is a part she will almost certainly reprise.

Jane Sanders has also created some political tension for her husband. Federal authorities had been investigating her role in a 2010 land deal for a Vermont college that she ran at the time. His aides recently said prosecutors had dropped the investigation, which could not be independently verified.

Last year, Jane Sanders helped found the Sanders Institute, a progressive think tank with a mission to “revitalize democracy.” It is, organizers insist, separate from the senator’s political campaigns.

But on Thursday night, many key figures in his orbit — including Jeff Weaver, his 2016 campaign manager; Nina Turner, now president of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution; and Phil Fiermonte, a longtime aide — were in attendance, chummily holding court by the stage during the opening cocktail reception.

Actor Danny Glover was there, too, as was Cornel West, the scholar and activist. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, no doubt thrilled to be considered a progressive leader, was expected to make an appearance.

“It’s a gathering of the tribe,” Gunnar Lovelace, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles and a Sanders supporter, said as he eyed the attendees. Many had loaded their plates with Vermont cheeses and charcuterie.

Even with the hard-to-ignore undercurrent of 2020, however, the focus appeared to be more on policy than politicking. Bernie Sanders called again for the United States to end its support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, a foreign policy issue that has increasingly become a pillar of his message. He hit other high points of his stump speech, repeating his favorite lines about economic inequality and a $15 minimum wage.

“People do believe in our ideas,” he said, trumpeting his role in moving the Democratic Party to the left. “So what do we do?”

“We have got to make sure that the Democratic Party is not just a party of the east coast and the west coast,” he said, not quite taking the reins but not dropping them either. “It is a party of every state in this country.”

At the end of the night, he stepped off the stage and mingled with the audience. He did not seem like someone who wanted to leave.