Bernie's wife discusses her proudest and most difficult campaign moments, the DNC email leak and the future of his revolution
By Tessa Stuart
Jul 28, 2016
On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders formally nominated Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee for president, officially drawing to a close a hard-fought, 14-month campaign that brought him within spitting distance of the White House. It was a bittersweet moment — not just because he came so close and fell short, and not just because his brother, Larry, was there to say publicly how proud their parents would be, but because it came just a few days after evidence surfaced that the Democratic National Committee had, as Sanders claimed months earlier, favored the Clinton campaign while claiming to remain neutral during the primary.
Inside the DNC convention hall Tuesday, many of Sanders' delegates walked out in protest. Outside, supporters from all over the country marched and chanted. But sitting in his box inside the Wells Fargo Arena, Sanders never betrayed his frustration.
Neither did his fiercest defender, staunchest ally and closest adviser: his wife, Jane, who was by his side all week, and throughout the campaign.
After the dust settled Wednesday, Rolling Stone sat down with Jane O'Meara Sanders to discuss this roller coaster of a week — and year — and to find out where she and Bernie will go from here.
Last night during the nomination roll call, Bernie's brother, Larry, had the chance to cast his vote for Bernie on behalf of the delegation of Democrats living abroad. What was that moment like?
That was emotional. It was a surprise. I knew he was going to be with the Democrats Abroad. I didn't know that they were going to ask him to cast his vote separately. Bernie and Larry lost their parents when they were young — Bernie was 19 when his mom died, and 21 when his dad died. So, you know, to be thinking how his parents would feel to see Bernie over this last year and then Larry, as a delegate, to vote for his brother for president — that was an unbelievable moment.
Bernie got a little choked up.
Yeah! And that's not like him — he tends to be very serious and rational. But, I mean, you talk about your parents at a time like this, and your brother is there with you, and your whole family is with you — four kids and all the grandkids. It was pretty amazing.
That was the last real obligation Bernie had this week. How are you feeling now that most of the work is done?
Relieved, a bit? Though all the work is not done. We're moving to a new chapter.
There was a period of time where we were working with the Clinton campaign to have her agree, and the Clinton delegates agree, to the most progressive platform in a number of areas, and to hammer out a health care bill that provides a public option and doubles funding for health centers, and a higher education bill that allows people making under $120,000 a year — that's 83 percent of our population — to be able to send their kids to college tuition-free at public colleges and universities.
He could have conceded long before, and people — the media — were asking every time we saw them, "When are you going to concede? When are you going to endorse?" That was difficult, because we stayed in as long as we could to use as much leverage as we could to get everything we possibly could get, including the rules committee, where we rethink how we run these elections.
He's not going to win the presidency, we've known that since June 7th [the day of the last big primaries, in California and New Jersey], but we had to do as much as we possibly could on the issues to honor all of the work that so many people have done, and that we did. So that's why I say it's a bit of a relief now — now we can move to the next chapter.
How granular did those discussions with the Clinton campaign get?
Very, very, very. This is not conceptual at all. It's policy. Where is the money coming from? How are we going to do it? All of it is in stone. It's good.
What kind of assurances did you get to ensure they'll follow through on these agreements?
It's funny. My daughter was speaking to somebody with a spiritual background, and he said, "Bernie lit the flame — now we'll hold their feet to the fire." And that is exactly what we need, from all the people. Bernie can do some of it, but, just like the campaign, it's not about him — it's about all of us.
Can you tell me about some of the hardest moments for you on the campaign trail?
Learning what I didn't know was hard. To see people suffering unnecessarily was just unfathomable. Why? Why is this being allowed? Going to the Native American reservations: Pine Ridge, Oak Flat, where they sold the copper mine deposits to a Russian company and it was on sacred ground. Why? Hearing all of the stories of people being treated unfairly by people in power, no matter what way, whether it's in their state governments, in their local government, in the federal government. Looking at Native Americans and looking at how they don't have education equity there, they don't have good health care, they don't have economic development, they don't have housing. I'm married to someone who is all about the people. He hears about a problem, and he wants to fix it; he does everything humanly possible to do that. It's just so foreign to me. So that was the hardest part.
When were you most proud of Bernie this past year, if you can pinpoint one moment?
There were so many moments where I was proud of Bernie. I probably sound silly, but that debate where he said, "I'm sick of hearing about your damn emails," he didn't think of that [ahead of time]. It wasn't a plan. He's not a politician who thinks of things and plans it all out. He just answers the questions, truthfully. I was very proud of him there because it was an easy hit, and yet all we were hearing was speculation, speculation, speculation every single day, and nobody was talking about the real issues that are affecting people's lives. He said it, and he meant it: We'll wait and see the process. I remember thinking, People are going to say that's a political mistake, but it's a principled point of view. And I don't think it was a political mistake, because people understood: This man is for real. He's a principled person.
What about you? You're one of his closest advisers — what are you, personally, the most proud of this campaign?
I can't claim credit for this: My daughter told me about Oak Flat, and then we had a meeting in Arizona — a rally— and a 14-year-old girl stood up and talked about the sacred site. I went to Flagstaff around the same time, and met with the Navajo Nation, met with the Apache-Stronghold, and came back and talked to Bernie about all this and said, "We have to do something, we have to do something." And he said, "OK." And since then, we met [with Native Americans] every single time we could. We have the strongest Native American platform. It is something that Deborah [Parker, a former vice chairman of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington State, named to the platform committee by the Sanders campaign] fought for beforehand, and could get nowhere. At the main [Democratic Party platform] meeting she said, "They want me to water it down." We said, "No. You don't start at a compromise. Go in there for what you want." She went in, she wrote this magnificent piece, and started to cry in the middle of [reading it to the platform committee]. Jim Zogby, another member of our people on platform committee, read the rest of it. It passed unanimously, when they were refusing before, because people understood how heartfelt it was.
A year and a half ago, what would you have never expected?
I would never have expected that he would have won the vast majority of people who voted in the Democratic primary under age 45. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites, it didn't matter: he won the vast majority of people under 45. I was surprised at how fast they knew him on a gut level. Vermonters know him that way. They know they can trust him implicitly. They know what he says is what he means, and that is what he does, and he come from a core of strong values. I was surprised at how quickly the nation got to know that. The last two years he's been voted the most trusted United States senator — number one. So people have been watching him, but I was surprised by that. I was surprised to see stadiums of 28,000 people. That was kind of shocking, and it's also been gratifying to watch.
What was that like for you? He turned into kind of a rockstar.
It was funny. When I started to see that, I thought, Oh, god, I'm going to have to keep his feet on the ground. What was surprising was he became more humble. He's not a humble man, really [laughs]. But he became more humble because he felt such a sense of responsibility. It was exactly the opposite of what I was afraid was going to happen. So I really just am filled with pride. I'm the luckiest woman on the planet I think.
"I'm married to someone who is all about the people. He hears about a problem, and he wants to fix it."
Was there a moment, early on in your relationship, when you realized he was capable of something like this?
We never thought about this. In the Senate, the joke is: Every senator looks in the mirror every morning and sees the next president. But Bernie never thought about that. He's just a public servant. But I knew he was an unbelievable public servant. When I met him, I was a community organizer and he was running for mayor [of Burlington]. I brought all our small community groups to meet with the five-term incumbent and ask some questions, and they started to evade the questions that the community was asking. So I stood up and I followed up and followed up, and [the mayor] said, "Now you sound like Bernie Sanders." And I sat down and said, "Who's Bernie Sanders?" And they said, "I think he's running for mayor." So I organized a debate, and I listened to him, and I thought he embodied everything I ever believed in. I had turned away from politics. After Nixon got reelected I was like, I can't do this. I can't be a part of this. And he inspired me right there. I immediately said, I have to work for him, and that's how our relationship began. All we were looking at was [him becoming] mayor. I would have been happy ending there. Then he ran for [the House], and the Senate — and I never expected this.
It seems like he's inspired similar feelings in a lot of his supporters this year.
I really like our supporters. The joke was always at the end of [every event], "Where's Jane? Where's Jane?" Because I'm always staying [behind, chatting with supporters]: "OK, I'll take a selfie! Tell me about yourself."
[It's gratifying] how committed they are to the issues they believe in, and to bettering this country, and how a lot of them, really, are very pure at heart. And that's what's hard for them right now. To recognize that, yeah, you know, we didn't get the presidency, but we made a lot of progress, and we're going to keep fighting, and the world doesn't change overnight.
We didn't change the world overnight, but that's never happened. And the amount that we have changed already — we have changed the trajectory of this country and the Democratic Party. So, good work everybody!
I'm curious what it's been like for you watching those supporters inside the arena this week.
I've had a lot of reactions to it. We met with the delegates the first day, and there were 2,000 people there, and it was really heart-wrenching. I couldn't not let tears come down. I tried not to, but all I could think was, We let them down.
How do you mean?
[Tearing up] We did everything we could, but we didn't win. And they were so sad about it. People have been making it sound like they're mad, and they should just get over it. No they shouldn't! They shouldn't just get over it! What do you expect? How do you turn on a dime? We understand that. We understand that we earned their support and their trust. Now Hillary Clinton has to earn their support and their trust. And we will hold [the Clinton campaign] accountable because we are endorsing her. We are that much more committed to making sure [she follows through on her promises], instead of saying, Oh, it's politics as usual, people change. We're not going to let that happen. Not without a big fight, if anything. If the Democratic Party starts backing away from the platform, ever, we will fight like crazy to support the work that all of these millions of people did.
It's been hard in that respect. That's the only time it's been hard for me and Bernie. We've come to peace. You know, he won his first election by ten votes. He lost this election by more votes than can be explained by the things that people are concerned about — the voting irregularities, or the DNC. If it was closer, we might have done something differently, but there is no choice. It's not like we're stopping because we want to. We're stopping because those are the rules of the game. That's democracy. There is a winner and a loser in every election.
We are focused on the issues, and we're winning momentum. And I think some people might not understand that. He had no choice but to step down. His feeling was that Donald Trump is too dangerous to not defeat. So his choice was to endorse — but, at the same time, fight like hell to keep the revolution alive, and keep alive the issues that we all stand behind. So we need [our supporters]. We need them engaged, and we need them to participate. And whatever they decide, it's their conscience, and they should decide whatever they want. Our job is to defeat Donald Trump; our conscience says we can't have that.
Speaking of the DNC, I want to know what it felt like to learn about these internal emails just as you were preparing to come to Philadelphia.
That was hard. It was a roller coaster ride because of that. As I said, I'm more emotional than him, so I was like [shakes head in disbelief], Wait a minute. Wait a minute. But the difficulty is — and he was right, reading [the emails], he said, "Nothing's changed." We said six months ago the DNC is favoring Clinton. The media didn't pay any attention — most of the media. It's nothing new. There is nothing new here for us. But for other people, there is. And now there is proof, and so there will be change. The chairwoman is stepping down. I believe there will be other changes, and there have to be other changes, in the DNC. We can't just say, "What are you going to do?" We have to say, "How are you going to make this better going forward." That's the point. It's not about him.
And the thing is, you know what? If he was president, he'd have to be dealing with everything that came at him. I'm a great rationalizer. We can focus completely on the issues that we fought for and keep moving forward.
"We didn't change the world overnight, but that's never happened."
What about what's next for you? Are there things you're excited to do now that you'll have the time?
Oh yes, [I'm excited] to have some time — extended time — with our family. Even though we haven't been together, [the campaign] has brought us closer because they all supported us in whatever way they could. Not just politically, but cleaning the house, getting the groceries when we came in at one in the morning; there was fresh milk and bread for the morning. That type of thing. So that's one thing that I'm looking forward to.
And more broadly, what are your plans?
Starting yesterday, we have two new organizations: the Sanders Institute, which will convey the lessons we've learned as we've traveled this country and met with so many people. [And Our Revolution, which will help craft policies and elect new leadership.]
I was in Birmingham, Alabama, and Bernie and I had a closed-door meeting. We had a lot of those before rallies, where we had just people in the community and listened to them, not in front of the press because we wanted them to talk about things that affect their lives. And in Birmingham, a police officer can go up and give them a fine if one shade was high and one shade was low on the building.Oh, you're not taking care of your [property] — $75 fine. And these things would build up, and people would be arrested because they didn't have money to pay the fines, and they'd have a record. "Have you ever been arrested?" [on job applications]. All of these things — the new Jim Crow laws.
I walked out of that meeting, and I just said to Bernie, "Can we go in this other room next door for a second?" He said "OK, what, do you want to write something down?" I said, "Yeah," and I went in, and I just cried. I just said, "How did we not know this? Where is the leadership?" I said, if our [congressional] delegation — Peter Welch and Bernie and [Patrick] Leahy — were there, and this was happening, it would not be happening. They would be banging on every door and changing it, so we need to do that.
McDowell County, West Virginia: seeing that they had a life expectancy in the area 18 years lower than people two hours away in Fairfax, Virginia, because there are no jobs, there's a lot of stress. And these people are smart and interested in controlling their own lives, and nobody is doing anything. They knew 20 years ago that the coal would be depleted in 2017, and they didn't understand that the country would move away from coal [even sooner]. Where was the leadership? How is it that — forgetting the environmental insanity — they knew that coal was going to be depleted, and no one bothered to invest in a new economy in the area?
Those are the things we're going to tackle. We don't have all the answers, but we have the perspective right now. And we're not going to lose it. We're going to put it to good work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
© 2016 Rolling Stone