Levi Sanders: Bernie Sanders' son carries his father's passion to fight for the disenfranchised into bid for congress

‘The system is rigged against low-income, working-class people, and we have to radically overturn that’

Maya Oppenheim
Saturday 12 May 2018 13:55 BST
Levi is running on a parallel manifesto of Medicare for all and free college tuition to that of his father’s 2016 presidential run
Levi is running on a parallel manifesto of Medicare for all and free college tuition to that of his father’s 2016 presidential run

Levi Sanders has not always been preoccupied with politics. When his father, Bernie, was first elected to office back in 1981, his only biological son’s primary concern was basketball.

Over the following years, that was to change. The veteran Vermont Senator came to rely on Levi as a steadfast source of support throughout every race in his long and distinguished career – culminating in a role as senior policy strategist during his bid for the Democratic candidacy in 2016.

Now it is Levi’s turn to step up to the front line, with a run for congress in New Hampshire.

While Bernie’s political experience is rooted in the legislature, Levi’s is grounded in his work in frontline public services and his day-to-day interactions with Americans on the breadline.

“It’s not about the fact that I am Bernie Sanders’ son – sure, obviously, that is more interesting – but the real issue is every day I get to see the economic pain that people are under,” he tells The Independent.

“The thing which has inspired me was working in legal services [the US equivalent of legal aid] for almost 18 years and being a union member for 23 years. The work I do means every day I see people getting beaten up by the system. I talk to single mums and they are at their wits’ end, they are not even making $15 an hour, which is so crucial at the most basic level to make ends meet.”

While he is disparaging of Donald Trump – describing him as a “disaster” – he also argues the US president has succeeded in engaging the American public.

In Levi’s view, the Republican Party has managed to engage and invigorate low-income, working-class Americans in a way that has proven beyond the ability of the current iteration of the Democratic Party.

Levi has been a steadfast source of support for his father

“The Democratic Party has done a very poor job of bolstering people’s confidence and self-esteem, and that has significant consequences when it comes to reaching out to low-income and working-class people,” he says.

“When Hillary Clinton used the word ‘deplorable’ that had a significant effect on so many people. They basically said ‘We understand that Donald Trump is not a nice guy, but he is one of us’. He said ‘Yes, I know I’m a billionaire, but I’m like your weird uncle. I’m not politically correct and I’m not judging you and that’s the key’.”

Clinton’s infamous use of the phrase “basket of deplorables” to describe Trump supporters during a 2016 presidential campaign speech was seized upon by the right as evidence she represented a sneering, out-of-touch, metropolitan elite that merely paid lip service to the concerns of a disenfranchised white working-class. The former secretary of state later expressed “regret” for the remarks, but the damage had already been done. In the wake of her defeat, Ms Clinton herself wrote in her book What Happened that it was one of the factors for her loss.

“Trump has done an incredible job in saying, ‘Listen, you don’t really need to make more money. I’m not going to raise your minimum wage but I’m going to make you feel good about yourself – the Democratic Party has taken away your self-esteem and your self-worth’,” Levi reflects. “If you take someone’s self-esteem away you are done, but you can take away someone’s money.”

The 49-year-old aspiring congressman, who is running on a platform that parallels his father’s, remains confident the controversies of the Trump administration will be mean Democrats are able to take back the House in 2018 and pose a real threat to Mr Trump in 2020.

Running on a manifesto of Medicare for all and free college tuition, he is basing his assessment on his experiences of close contact with Trump voters – who include members of his extended family among their number.

“When I go on vacation in rural parts of Pennsylvania and see relatives of mine on my mother’s side, we talk about politics, we go out for dinner, and we hang out at each other’s houses,” he says. “Some of those folks, to whom I’m not related per se, have chosen to vote for Donald Trump.”

Levi, who has three children adopted from China with his wife, neuropsychologist Raine Riggs, is a firm believer in talking face to face with people about how politics shapes their daily lives.

“I go into malls and talk to people for three or four hours about the ‘disconnect’, about the desperate need for Medicare for all, tuition fee-free colleges,” he says, “and pay equity for women – who, on average, get paid 79 cents to the dollar that a man makes. For Hispanic and African American women it’s significantly less – 54 cents.”

His job, which involves driving two hours to represent those on welfare and providing civil legal aid to those who would otherwise be unable to afford it, means he sees deprivation first-hand. It is ultimately this wealth polarisation – which has resulted in the three richest Americans holding more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent of the country – that drives his politics.

“It is painful to watch all these wonderful folks doing the best that they can and then what happens psychologically is the system beats them up but then they beat themselves up. It’s a vicious cycle,” he reflects. “One in three African American males can expect to go to prison at some point or other in their life.

“The system is rigged against low-income, working-class people, and we have to radically overturn that.

“One of the real problems is people have given up on the political system; a high proportion of low-income people don’t vote. We need to get people engaged and excited in the political process and how voting impacts their lives.”

Levi’s politics have of course been greatly influenced by working with his Democratic Socialist father. The longest-serving independent in congressional history’s outsider campaigns for governor and senator, which did not succeed, were often carried out with his son by his side.

“Bernard Sanders has got a movement which even the establishment says makes sense,” he argues. “What was most exciting about helping with the campaign was seeing so many people coming together and being inspired. People would contact me on Facebook and say ‘Levi, your father has changed my life’, they would say, ‘He has awakened us to the profound level of possibility we have in society’.

“So many people were so frustrated and disgusted with status quo politics and economics that they had given up.”

While the pair are very close and speak the whole time, he explains that he does not call either the older Sanders dad or his mother mum.

“I consider them both great friends of mine. I have never called Bernie dad. It was never something that I did, we grew up in an environment where we talked about a lot of ideas and thoughts and beliefs and I never really thought of calling him dad.”

Levi says that while politics was instilled in him from as early as he can remember – when his father first raised his hand to run for office, a two-year-old Levi was sitting on his lap – basketball used to have a good deal more of his attention.

“When my dad was elected in 1981 someone asked me about politics and I said ‘No, I prefer to play basketball’. It wasn’t something I was obsessed with. I’m a good basketball player and I’m very good at sports.”

The politician, who was previously a distribution manager at a food bank for five years, previously ran for city council in Claremont at age 40 but finished seventh out of nine candidates.

Jumping into the race late, Levi is now fighting for New Hampshire 1st District – America’s biggest swing district and one of the nation’s most competitive open-seat races in 2018’s midterms.

Levi, an outspoken vegetarian who cites his dietary choices as a difference between himself and his father, lives in Claremont, New Hampshire, which is outside the 1st District. He has lived in the area for 15 years and his children have attended publicly funded schools there.

“Levi is now the race’s X-factor,” James Pindell, a political reporter for the Boston Globe, told CNN. “You can see how he could totally take off, with his last name – and provided he can raise money. This could also be a total disaster, given that this Democratic primary is a hot mess and Levi is an unproven political entity.”

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