Championing the perils of income inequality, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has risen from an obscure independent senator into a movement presidential candidate for liberals wary of Hillary Clinton’s record and Wall Street ties.
Sanders narrowly lost to Clinton in the Iowa caucuses and then went on to defeat her with a double-digit victory in New Hampshire.
But Clinton won last weekend’s Nevada caucuses and is pushing toward even friendlier primaries for her in the South, including Saturday’s South Carolina Democratic primary. Here’s a quick look at some things to know about Sanders.
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Sanders has spoken before massive crowds — one rally in Portland, Oregon, last summer filled an arena with 19,000 people while another 9,000 waited outside.
A self-described “democratic socialist,” Sanders has expressed admiration for Scandinavian-style policies. His supporters cite his passion and authenticity and his pitch for tighter Wall Street restrictions, debt-free college and universal health care has touched a nerve with Democrats. But now he faces his biggest hurdle: Can he beat Clinton?
Sanders was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee while attending the University of Chicago in the early 1960s. He joined the 1963 March on Washington and witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He later joined an influx of counterculture, back-to-the-land migrants to Vermont and held various jobs, including as a carpenter and filmmaker.
Running as an independent in 1981, he upset the longtime incumbent mayor of Burlington, Vermont, by 10 votes and ran the city for the rest of the decade. Sanders won Vermont’s lone congressional seat in 1990 and was elected to the Senate in 2006. He remained an independent, but caucuses with Democrats and serves as ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.
Sanders gained attention in December 2010 when he took to the Senate floor and thundered for more than eight hours about a tax-cut package and what he called Congress’ failure to provide enough money for education and social programs. With trademark sarcasm, he mocked the rich, yelling: “How can I get by on one house? I need five houses, 10 houses! I need three jet planes to take me all over the world!” The speech was so popular it crashed the Senate video server and was later published.
Sanders has injected the plight of income inequality and struggling middle-class families into the Democratic campaign. At rallies, he argues big Wall Street banks were responsible for the economic meltdown in 2008 and 2009 and must be broken up because they have grown larger after the federal government bailed out the financial sector. He says the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case allowed millionaires and billionaires to “buy” elections and tells audiences he doesn’t have a super PAC “and doesn’t want one.”
Sanders has championed debt-free college and a “Medicare for all” universal health care system, saying he would pay for his plans by sharply raising taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street transactions. He has vowed not to run a negative campaign, but has drawn sharp contrasts with Clinton on an array of issues, from the Keystone XL pipeline, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and Clinton’s Wall Street ties, including her acceptance of speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.
Sanders gained attention during the first presidential debate when he blew off discussion of Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state. Clinton and the audience cheered and she shook his hand, telling him, “Thank you, Bernie.”
But he has since been more forceful in drawing distinctions.
During their final debate in South Carolina, Sanders and Clinton at times shouted over each other and grappled over gun violence and Clinton’s Wall Street speaking fees. Sanders also was forced to defend his health care plan, which would be funded by higher taxes on the wealthy as well as middle class families. Clinton argued that reopening the health care debate would put President Barack Obama’s signature health care law at risk.
Moment to remember
Sanders’ most memorable moment perhaps came during the first debate, with his cranky one-liner dismissing Clinton’s use of a private email system at the State Department.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” Sanders said, “but I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”
Sanders later said he didn’t regret his decision not to raise the issue, which he said showed that he was trying to run a different kind of campaign. But it helped him in popular culture when Larry David spoofed him on “Saturday Night Live.”
Sanders struggled early on with activists, including protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement.
During a forum in Arizona, he appeared after a large group of protesters took over the stage as ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was addressing the Netroots Nation convention. When he took the stage, Sanders struggled to speak over the protesters: “Black lives of course matter. I spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights and if you don’t want me to be here, that’s OK.”
During an August stop in Seattle, Sanders also had an event disrupted when a pair of Black Lives Matter activists took the stage and refused to allow him to speak.
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