How Bernie Sanders, the Socialist, Quietly Entered the Top 4% of Earners
Bernie Sanders has charted his own, highly unbeaten path in politics. A self-described Socialist, Sander hasn’t just eschewed the familiar trappings of capitalism – high-paid speaking gigs, investment partnerships, a spouse on Wall Street, the corporate ladder. He runs in direct opposition and hostility to them. “The business model of Wall Street is fraud,” he famously proclaimed in a debate.
And yet, by dint of his success as an anti-capitalist politician, Sanders has managed to make a quite comfortable living. While Sanders wouldn’t describe himself as rich, the scourge of the 1% has income that puts him in the top 3.8% of American households, according to CNBC.
Just as Sanders has managed to accumulate significant assets and pull down a six-figure income while being hostile to business and capitalism, his campaign has done the same. Eschewing PACs and high-dollar fundraisers on Wall Street, Sanders has managed to raise a stunning $95 million, from a virtual army of 3 million small donors.
Here’s how Sanders became America’s six-figure socialist:
The making of an anti-capitalist: Most politicians on the make head for law school or start trying to work their way into establishment. Sanders? Not so much. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1964, it seemed as if he was intentionally trying not to make money.
He volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s, spent a lot of time at protests and in activist movements, worked in New York and wound up in Vermont, where he worked as a carpenter, a writer, and ran for various offices as a third-party candidate. For a period, he ran the American People’s Historical Society, a non-profit that made films about forgotten American heroes like Socialist leader Eugene Debs.
Steady employment begins after the age of 39: In 1981, when Sanders won an election for the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the 39-year-old went on the public payroll — earning about $33,700 per year, according to Politico. And he hasn’t left since. After serving eight years as Mayor, he successfully ran for Vermont’s lone seat in the House of Representatives in 1990 (his salary bumped up to about $96,000).
While other politicians wrote books or engaged in real estate deals to make extra cash, Sanders. . . recorded a folk album in 1987.
After eight terms in the House, ran for –and won—a Senate seat in 2006, where his salary bumped up to $165,000. In the meantime, his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, whom he married in 1988, was a community organizer who worked in education. For seven years, from 2004 to 2011, Jane was president of tiny Burlington College, where her salary was about $160,000. (She’s now retired.)
The six figure Socialist: More than $200,000, mostly from his Senate salary of $174,500 and Social Security and pension payments paid to Sander and his wife, Jane. Sanders’ financial disclosure shows several holdings in mutual funds and retirement accounts that add up to six figures, but no individual holdings of stocks or outside income. Opensecrets.org tabbed his net worth at about $436,000 in 2014.
Virtually all of the couple’s assets are in Jane’s name, and they own a condo in D.C. and a rental property in Vermont.
How his business model works: Eschewing the for-profit private public sector and sticking it out in the public sector has proven to be a brilliant financial move. Popular in his home state and facing election once every six years, Sanders has a great deal of job security. The Senate is one of the few places in the U.S. where people can work at six-figure salaries well past the official retirement age. And with 26 years of Congressional service under his belt, Sanders will be entitled to a Congressional pension in the mid-five figures– whether or not he becomes the next president.
But what are the risks?
Sanders’ modus operandi and avowed lack of experience in the real world of profits, loss, and investment leaves him at something of a loss when it comes to talking about the economy. His plans for everything from reforming health care to boosting economic growth and providing free college tend to have an air of unreality about them. As a result, mainstream economists and business leaders aren’t feeling the Bern.
This article is the final part in a series that examined the presidential candidates’ personal business model, how they’ve pursued power while maintaining a lifestyle that well-educated executives and their children have come to expect.
Read the others in the series:
- The “Wives of Wall Street” model, used by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
- The “Megabucks CEO” model, employed by billionaire developer Donald Trump
- How Florida Senator Marco Rubio uses his money woes as a kind of shield
- How Hillary Clinton accumulated vast wealth while pursuing a career in public service