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Political Mercury

Bernie: Inside the campaign of an iconoclast


Bernie Sanders rolled his Navy-suit-covered forearm and extended it.

Photo by Douglas Burns

Photo by Douglas Burns

The Democratic presidential candidate paused, looked at the right arm and summoned a searing childhood memory.

Members of Sanders’ family — on his Polish immigrant father’s side — died in the Holocaust.

“In the neighborhood I grew up in, there were a lot of people who worked in stores, and when they had short shirts on, they had serial numbers on their arms,” Sanders said in an interview with this newspaper.

Prep Iowa

The Nazis inventoried their victims with tattooed numbers.

When he was 6 or 7 years old, Sanders, who is Jewish, recalled the phone ringing in his working-class New York City home. A call came to his parents from “somewhere in Europe” that a cousin was found in a displaced persons camp at the end of World War II.

“The fact that people could be destroyed and killed by the millions, not just Jews, but others who were deemed inferior by Hitler, obviously is something I’ve never forgotten,” Sanders, 74, said. “So when I see young kids, Muslims in this country, who are now living in fear, or when I see Mexicans in this country who have been told that their people are criminals, drug dealers or rapists by Trump, I find that completely unacceptable, and I will do everything that I can to fight that type of racism and xenophobia.”

Sanders said he’s concerned that national Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has loosed back-roomed racism into the public square, green-lighted it to dangerous acceptability at rallies.

“What you’re seeing now, which is not a good thing, is Trump and his friends open the door to this thing,” Sanders said. “You’re seeing a lot of people who are angry and have racist tendencies, but for years they kept it down, you know, now they’re feeling emboldened. And you’re seeing more of this stuff coming up. This is awful.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, laughed heartily at the recollection of a 2003 interview with Howard Dean, a former governor of his home state, who said Iowa is basically a steamrolled Vermont.

“There are a lot of similarities between the people,” Sanders said.

Sanders shot right into policy, saying Iowa would benefit from a raft of his policies aimed at diminishing the power of Goliath banks.

“We have to place more emphasis on both community banks and credit unions, on those financial institutions that know their communities, that are part of their communities, that are prepared to make sensible and affordable loans to businesses and to individuals,” Sanders said. “Wall Street is another world unto itself. It does not care about the productive economy. It does not care about jobs.”

What’s more, Sanders said, he’s advocated for agriculture and understands its value to the economy.

“It goes without saying that I come from a small, rural state where agriculture, primarily dairy, but not exclusively, plays a very, very important role,” Sanders said.

Specifically, Sanders said, he helped secure emergency funding for dairy farmers when prices were low to limit volatility.

On a major issue to Iowa grain producers, Sanders supports the Renewable Fuel Standard. He sees the biofuels-boosting mandate, set to run until 2022, not as leverage for political purposes in the Iowa caucuses, but as a global matter.

“Unlike many of my Republicans colleagues, I happen to believe climate change is real,” Sanders said. “I think it is caused by human activity, and I think it is already causing devastating problems in this country and around the world. I see this as a major, major crisis.”

The United States must make a bold move to sustainable energy, where Iowa leads, Sanders said.

“I believe we’ve got to take on the oil companies and the coal companies and transform our energy system,” Sanders said. “That’s why I’ve been as strong as I have been on this issue.”

The veteran politician has long self-identified as a democratic socialist. What would he say to voters who conflate democratic socialism with the former Soviet Union or other forces aligned against U.S. interests in World War II or the Cold War?

“Democratic socialism has nothing to do with communism, nothing to do with the Soviet Union,” Sanders said. “In fact, through the history and struggle of the Soviet Union, many democratic socialists were killed because they believed in democracy.”

Sanders said his discussion of democratic socialism directly references government programs like Social Security, Medicare and paid family and medical leave.

“What I am talking about is having the government play a significant role in protecting working families, their children, the elderly, the poor, who today in the wealthiest country in the history of the world are not getting a fair shake,” Sanders said.

Further, Sanders said health care is a right of all people, and that the government should create millions of jobs.

Sanders supports increasing the minimum wage over a period of years to $15 hour, from the current $7.25.

The Vermonter supports free tuition at public college and universities. Sanders would fund this with a “Robin Hood” tax on certain Wall Street transactions.

“The world has changed, and I think we have to redefine what we mean by public education,” Sanders said. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

The Bernie Sanders Brief

Bernie Sanders is drawing big crowds as the little guy fighting big things. Big money. Big banks. The democratic socialist senator from Vermont wants to “break up” those banks.

“I’m probably the most progressive member of the Senate,” Sanders said in Carroll last week.

Served as a U.S. congressman from Vermont (1991-2007), and mayor of the state’s largest city, Burlington (1981-1989), before being elected to the Senate in 2006.

Lives in Burlington, Vermont, with his wife, Jane. He has four children and seven grandchildren.

Age 74.

Born in Brooklyn, New York. CV

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