Biography of Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent Socialist From Vermont

Bernie Sanders
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Getty Images

Bernie Sanders (born September 8, 1941) is an American politician, who since 2007, has served in the United States Senate as the junior Senator from Vermont. First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, Sanders is the longest-serving Independent in the history of the U.S. Congress. A self-described democratic socialist, Sanders mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination for President of the United States, losing the bid to Hillary Clinton. On February 19, 2019, Sanders announced he would again seek the Democratic Party's nomination for the 2020 presidential election.

Bernie Sanders Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Bernard “Bernie” Sanders
  • Known For: Twice sought nomination as U.S. presidential candidate
  • Born: September 8, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York
  • Parents: Elias Ben Yehuda Sanders and Dorothy "Dora" Sanders
  • Education: University of Chicago (Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, 1964)
  • Published Works: Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution (2017)
  • Spouses: Deborah Shiling (m. 1964-1966), Jane O'Meara (m. 1988)
  • Children: Levi Sanders
  • Notable Quote: “Democratic socialism means that we must reform a political system that is corrupt, that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.”

Early Life and Education

Sanders was born on September 8, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York City, to Elias Ben Yehuda Sanders and Dorothy "Dora" Sanders. Along with his older brother, Larry, Sanders lived in Brooklyn, where he attended James Madison High School and Hebrew school in the afternoons. After studying at Brooklyn College from 1959 to 1960, he transferred to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1964 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.

Political Career and Timeline

Having lost several of his relatives in the Holocaust, Sanders’ interest in the importance of politics and government began early in his life. While a student at Brooklyn College, he was an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement. After moving to Vermont in 1968, Sanders, running as an Independent, won his first of four terms as Mayor of Burlington in 1981.

In 1990, Sanders was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives representing Vermont’s at-large congressional district. He would later co-found the Congressional Progressive Caucus and go on to serve 16 years in the House. In 2006, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and was reelected in 2012 and 2018.

In 2015, Sanders campaigned unsuccessfully for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Though given little chance, he won primaries or caucuses in 23 states, garnering 43% of pledged delegates to the Democratic Convention, to Hillary Clinton's 55%. Sanders went on to endorse Clinton in her campaign against Republican Donald Trump.

In announcing his candidacy for the Democratic Party's Nomination for president in the 2020 presidential election, Sanders joined a crowded field of other candidates and potential candidates, including incumbent President Donald Trump and senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker

The official government biography for Sanders lists his previous nonpolitical occupations as carpenter and journalist. A 2015 profile of Sanders by Politico reporter Michael Kruse quoted a political ally as saying his work as a carpenter was rudimentary and not good enough to support his family. It also detailed Sanders' freelance work for the Vermont Freeman, a small alternative newspaper in Burlington called the Vanguard Press and a magazine called Vermont Life. However, none of his freelance work paid much.

Here's a summary of Sanders' political career:

  • 1972: Unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate as an independent
  • 1972: Unsuccessfully ran for governor of Vermont as an independent
  • 1974: Unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate as an independent
  • 1976: Unsuccessfully ran for governor of Vermont as an independent
  • 1981: Won election to mayor of Burlington, Vermont, by 10 votes
  • 1986: Unsuccessfully ran for governor of Vermont as an independent
  • 1988: Unsuccessfully ran for Congress as an independent
  • 1989: Left office as mayor of Burlington, Vermont
  • 1990: Won election to the U.S. House of Representatives
  • 2006: Won election to the U.S. Senate for the first time
  • 2007: Left the U.S. House of Representatives after eight two-year terms
  • 2012: Won re-election to the U.S. Senate
  • 2016: Campaigned unsuccessfully for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination
  • 2018: Won re-election to the U.S. Senate.
  • 2019: Launched a campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination

Personal Life

Sanders married his first wife, Deborah Shiling Messing in 1964. The couple had no children and divorced in 1966. In 1969, Sanders’ natural son, Levi Sanders was born to his companion Susan Campbell Mott. In 1988, Sanders married Jane O'Meara Driscoll, who later became president of Burlington College, in Burlington, Vermont. At the time they married, Driscoll had three children—Dave Driscoll, Carina Driscoll, and Heather Titus. Sanders also has seven grandchildren.

Though he has described his religious heritage as American Jew, Sanders only occasionally attends synagogue, stating in 2016 that he had “very strong religious and spiritual feelings” and explained, “My spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.”

Key Issues

Sanders is most passionate about income inequality in the United States. But he is also outspoken about racial justice, universal healthcare, women's rights, climate change, reforming how Wall Street works, and getting big money out of American politics. But he has identified the disruption of the American middle class as the issue of our time.

"The American people must make a fundamental decision. Do we continue the 40-year decline of our middle class and the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else, or do we fight for a progressive economic agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, protects the environment and provides health care for all? Are we prepared to take on the enormous economic and political power of the billionaire class, or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy? These are the most important questions of our time, and how we answer them will determine the future of our country."

On Socialism

Sanders is not shy about his identification as a socialist. “I've run outside of the two-party system, defeating Democrats and Republicans, taking on big-money candidates and, you know, I think the message that has resonated in Vermont is a message that can resonate all over this country," he has said.

Net Worth

Compared to the likes of Donald Trump, who claimed he was worth $10 billion, and millionaires Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, Sanders was poor. His net worth in 2013 was estimated at $330,000 by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. His 2014 tax returns showed he and his wife earned $205,000 that year, including his $174,000 salary as a U.S. senator.

Updated by Robert Longley 

Sources and Further Reference

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Murse, Tom. "Biography of Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent Socialist From Vermont." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). Biography of Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent Socialist From Vermont. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "Biography of Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent Socialist From Vermont." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).