Before Bernie Sanders took the stage to formally launch his 2020 presidential campaign this month, the candidate’s most influential adviser took the mic. To cheers, Jane Sanders introduced herself to the Brooklyn crowd as “Bernie’s wife,” then conceded that wasn’t the most politically correct label.
To be sure, identifying Jane Sanders as “the wife” hardly captures the scope of her influence on her husband’s political career. Across 30 years and a dozen campaigns for federal office, she has served variously as her husband’s media consultant, surrogate, fundraiser, chief of staff, campaign spokeswoman and top strategist.
His political revolution has become her career. And her political and business activities have, at times, become his headache. As the Vermont senator undertakes his second presidential run and scrambles his inner circle, Jane Sanders remains his closest adviser, making her perhaps the most influential woman in the 2020 campaign who isn’t a candidate.
“Bernie’s top adviser always has been and will continue to be Jane,” said Jeff Weaver, a Sanders adviser. She has a voice in almost every major political decision her husband makes, travels with him for major events and is deeply involved in formulating policies, issues and campaign infrastructure. “At every level,” Weaver said, “Jane is intimately involved.”
That involvement has drawn questions sometimes about her political judgment, family opportunism and flawed ethics — from political foes, good government advocates and longtime Sanders-watchers in Vermont and in the progressive movement. Most recently, critics questioned the role played by the Sanders Institute, a nonprofit co-founded by Jane Sanders and her son, for blending elements of fundraising, family and campaign policy development.
Her dual roles at the institute and in her husband’s campaign carried echoes of the Clinton Foundation, which Bernie Sanders criticized in 2016 as a possible ethics conflict and back door for foreign donors seeking to influence his then-rival Hillary Clinton.
“Bernie Sanders ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016 criticizing her for the vast sums of money she raised and he seems to be following in some of her footsteps,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Now he’s raising vast sums of money and it’s being controlled and shaped by his family.”
Jane Sanders acted this past week to remove the think tank as a possible campaign ethics target, telling The Associated Press that the institute’s operations and fundraising would be suspended for the balance of her husband’s 2020 presidential campaign. Since its creation in 2017, the group raised more than $700,000 but has not disclosed most of its donors. She said the decision to put the Sanders Institute on hiatus was “a forward-looking way to deal with potential concerns.”
Sanders may prove an important surrogate for her husband, particularly in a race crowded with female candidates and potentially hinging on how women vote. She publicly defended her husband when he faced criticism for the way his 2016 campaign handled accusations of sexual harassment.
She’s become an essential liaison to the progressive activists at the heart of the Sanders’ base, using the institute to host meetings of policymakers and activists. An affable, if low-key public speaker, she was the star of the December “Gathering” in Burlington, Vermont, a three-day policy gathering that featured progressive speakers including environmentalist Bill McKibben, actor Danny Glover and her husband.
Steeped in years of involvement in progressive causes, Sanders comfortably slipped into the role as the event’s emcee. Before a crowd of more than 250 progressive activists, she stoked applause lines for favored organizations and lavished compliments on institute fellows.
Similarly, in videos posted on the institute’s website, she has led numerous policy conversations with experts in a Brooklyn accent fainter than her husband’s.
Jane Sanders is not compensated for her role at the institute. Her son, David Driscoll, has been paid $100,000 a year as a co-founder and executive director, she confirmed. Driscoll previously worked for a Vermont snowboarding company and had no previous nonprofit experience, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Like her husband, Jane Sanders “has learned not to trust a lot of people. Family is a lot more dependable than outsiders,” said University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson, an acquaintance and veteran Sanders-watcher.
Jane Sanders expressed frustration about concerns that she and some of her children have at times benefited from their activities affiliated with Sanders’ expanding political apparatus.
“How can we say nepotism here? It just doesn’t fit,” she said. She added that the Sanders Institute has “developed policy and the content that we get completely separate” from her husband’s campaign.
Politics has long been a family project for the couple.
Jane Sanders first worked with her future husband as director of the mayor’s youth office in Burlington. They were both displaced New Yorkers, Jane noted at the launch rally, stamped by childhood days on Brooklyn’s city streets. “We had very similar experiences,” she said. “We spent a lot of time playing stickball, running races and just hanging out on the streets with the kids in our neighborhoods.”
They wed in 1988 — a second marriage for both — two years before Sanders won his first election to Congress. Jane Sanders went to Capitol Hill as his volunteer deputy — gaining experience in policy, legislation and as chief of staff.
In the early 2000s, she took on a new role along with her daughter, Carina. Two women set up a consulting firm, paid more than $90,000 in consulting fees by Bernie Sanders’ House campaigns.
In 2004, the year before Bernie Sanders’ launched his winning Senate campaign, his wife was named president of Burlington College, a local small liberal arts college. In 2010, she worked out a $10 million deal for the college to buy 32 acres of waterfront land on Lake Champlain and a 77,000-square-foot former orphanage and administrative offices of Vermont’s Roman Catholic Church, which needed the money to settle a series of priest sex abuse cases.
She promised at the time the deal would be paid for with increases in enrollment and about $2.7 million in donations. But her plans never took wing and under fire, she resigned from the college in 2011. The school closed in 2016, citing debt from the land deal as a major reason for its failure. Prompted by complaints filed by a Republican lawyer about her involvement in the land deal, federal investigators looked into Jane Sanders’ stewardship but informed her last November that she would not be charged.
“We’ve learned we’re going to be attacked,” she said during an interview, adding “that’s the fact of today’s politics.”
But she said she was confident that the decision to put the think tank on hiatus was “best for the institute to not have the possibility of misinterpretation.”
The move, she said, will allow her to expand her campaign work freely for the Sanders campaign, including more solo stops on her husband’s behalf.
“I will be more active throughout,” she said.