Jane Sanders talks Bernie, politics and the possibility of winning – USA TODAY
Jane O’Meara Sanders traveled across the country with her husband, Bernie Sanders, as he launched his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
She stood calmly beside Vermont’s independent senator when Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted recent campaign events, even preventing him from speaking at a Seattle rally.
She was with the candidate in Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota, Louisiana, Washington and California, as the self-described democratic socialist surprised pundits by drawing the largest crowds any 2016 hopeful.
“I think that people are not saying that it’s not possible that he can win as president, which is surprising that it’s coming so early,” she said. “We’ve always known that. If you are standing up to what the majority of people believe and you intend to follow through why can’t you. If not him, who? If not now, when?”
While she’s watched her husband of 27 years repeatedly exceed expectation, her first lesson in dogged determination happened long before they met and he eked out a 10-vote win to become Burlington’s mayor in 1981.
As a young girl, she watched her brother Ben O’Meara work his way from grooming horses at the stables near their home in Brooklyn to becoming a world-class horse trainer and jumper.
“Why it matters is that first of all he went after his dream and it became much bigger than he ever anticipated,” the 64-year-old said during a recent interview at campaign headquarters, steps from Burlington City Hall where the Sanders’ political journey began.
Ben O’Meara, the oldest of five children, quit high school to support his family. A lifelong horse enthusiast, he eventually bought a horse that was described by the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted in 1989, as a “police department failure.”
“He rode it and taught it how to jump and he won awards,” Sanders said.
Through his success, Ben O’Meara was able to improve the family’s lot.
When Sanders was young, her father spent many years in and out of the hospital. She said her father’s health improved only after her older brother demanded their father receive better care and paid for it.
“So that was my political awakening of how much difference money makes,” Sanders said. “And my inclination there was to change that and to make sure that other people who didn’t have money didn’t go through the same things.”
Inside the political arena
Sanders shares an office with her husband at campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vt., their desks side by side. Her role seems to merge the personal and the political.
“Right now it’s being with Bernie. Traveling with him. Supporting him. And thinking through policy and strategy with him,” she said. “So basically really supporting Bernie both in the way I always have both as a life partner in a loving couple, but also as a political adviser.”
Sanders’ proximity to politics has exposed her to public criticism. In particular, she has faced questions about her presidency at Burlington College, a private liberal arts school that has been plagued by financial troubles and sagging enrollment.
She served as president of the college from 2004 until 2011, when she resigned under pressure from the board of trustees. She walked away with a payment of $200,000.
In September 2014, Vermont business owner Skip Vallee, who has recently been tapped to serve as the state’s campaign chairman for Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, launched an attack ad against the Sanders that characterized the payment as a “golden parachute.”
At the time, Bernie Sanders’ spokesman stated that Vallee had “crawled into the gutter” and defended the payment as “standard practice in academia.”
The latter assertion squares with a survey reported in June by Inside Higher Ed that 67% of college and university presidents have severance agreements in place.
“I understand people make a big deal of it,” she said. “In terms of the college not doing as well as I had expected them to do.”
When asked what she learned from the experience, she responded, “I need to work with people who share the same ideals, the same principals.”
She noted that working on her husband’s campaign fulfills that need.
If they win
Sanders said it’s too soon to plan what she would do if her husband did win, but she would have a bridge-building approach to the first ladyship.
“I’d be more likely to build the bridges to the people we don’t see eye to eye with,” she said. “I’m a thinker. I think with empathy … It’s more looking out at the people. And that includes the Republicans, you know the people that might be opposed to us. Trying to understand why is it that they want what they want. And then how do we find common ground.”
But there are limits to her empathy.
“I mean sometimes there is no common ground to be had if it’s only about profit,” she added.
Sanders traces her interest in helping others back to her brother, her parents and her Catholic upbringing.
Her relationship with Catholicism was tested when Ben O’Meara, the brother who had such a profound influence on her life, died in a 1966 plane crash at age 27.
“I think that as many Catholics, you have a complicated relationship with the church,” she said. “When my brother died, I felt like there couldn’t be a God. I just felt that way and for a couple of years, I just felt turned away from the church.”
She credits Pope John XXIII’s message of unity and cooperation as bringing her back to the church. Though she doesn’t go to church on Sundays, she said that if she has a problem she heads to St. Ann’s Shrine, a pilgrimage site in the Champlain Islands.
She added that she also admires Pope Francis.
“Whether it’s a church or politics or a corporation or a college or anywhere, leadership matters,” she said.
Add to the list of people she admires: her husband.
“I have seen Bernie deliver for the people that need him, no matter who the people were,” she said. “And always, he does what is right.”