Presidential Campaign

Jane O’Meara Sanders, future first lady?

This is the first in a semi-regular series on the spouses of presidential candidates. Other installments profiled Candy CarsonFrank Fiorina and Jeanette Rubio.

I must admit that what prompted me to look into the life of Jane Driscoll O’Meara Sanders, second wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), surging combatant for the Democratic presidential nomination, are the recent profiles, in The New York Times and The Washington Post, of Republican contender Donald Trump’s third wife, Melania Trump, a former model from what is now Slovenia.

As I read the profiles, I thought to myself that I now know a lot about Melania but little about Jane, a former community organizer, college president and top adviser to her husband.

{mosads}Like Bernie, 74, Jane, nine years younger, grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, some 15 blocks from Bernie, whose family lived in a cramped three-and-a-half room apartment. He was raised Jewish, she Catholic. They did not know each other in Brooklyn.

They both landed in Burlington, Vt., he in the mid-1960s; she in 1975, where they met during his first campaign for mayor. (Melania met Donald at the Kit Kat Club in Manhattan). In an interview with Vermont Business Magazine, Jane recalled: “I went with the Neighborhood Organization folks to a meeting with the then Mayor and they asked questions. I didn’t feel we were getting direct answers, so I started asking questions. They said, ‘You sound like Bernie Sanders now!’ I sat down and said, ‘Who’s Bernie Sanders?’ They said, ‘He’s running for mayor.’ I said, ‘Let’s organize a debate.’ So we did. … [W]hen I heard him speak, well, that was it. … We met at the victory party, and that was the beginning of forever.” (Sanders went on to win that election by 10 votes.)

Bernie and Jane were together for seven years before they married in 1988 as he reached the end of his tenure as mayor. (Sanders was mayor from 1981 to 1989 before winning Vermont’s only U.S. House seat in 1990, and, in 2006, a seat in the U.S. Senate.) They married in a civil ceremony and “honeymooned” in the Soviet Union, as perhaps befits a man who calls himself a Democratic socialist. The trip was mostly business, putting the finishing touches on a sister-city tie between Burlington and Yaroslavl, Russia. (Jane and Bernie traveled with 10 others from Burlington to seal the tie to Yaroslavl, leaving the day after their wedding. In his memoir, Bernie, who also forged sister ties with Bethlehem in the West Bank and Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, described the trip as “a very strange honeymoon.”) 

He brought a son from an earlier relationship into the marriage; she brought three children from her first marriage.

Like Jill Biden, whose title “Dr.” (a Ph.D.) almost always proceeds her name, Jane Sanders has a doctorate (from the Union Institute), but, unlike Biden, mostly skips the honorific. She has been provost and interim president of Vermont’s Goddard College (from 1996 to 1997), from which she had graduated with a degree in social work. In 2004, she became president of the tiny, private, progressive (no grades) Burlington College. The school, overlooking Lake Champlain, prides itself on educating transfer and nontraditional students; the median age when Jane was president was 24. During her tenure, the school had 275 students and an endowment of about $150,000.

Jane’s politics match her husband’s. In the particularly revealing interview with Vermont Business Magazine, she describes with excitement her back-and-forth trips to Cuba to launch a program with the University of Havana that sends up to 15 Burlington College students to Cuba.

By 2008, disenchantment with her presidency at Burlington College was growing. The weekly paper Seven Days reported that “representatives of the Student Government Association (SGA) began meeting with students, faculty and staff about what they described as a ‘toxic and disruptive environment’ on campus, which they blame on Burlington College President Jane O’Meara Sanders.” Students, faculty and staff described a “crisis in leadership” at the school. A professor whose abrupt dismissal spurred the unrest “complained of an ‘atmosphere of fear and censorship’ on campus.” Sanders resigned in September 2011, the same day that a trustees’ meeting included the agenda item “Removal of the President.” By then, her salary was about $160,000, and she pocketed a $200,000 severance package.

During her earlier years in Burlington, she organized and became the director of Burlington’s youth office and, with others, started a teen center, a daycare center and after-school programs. She described herself as a “community organizer.” Her paying job in the 1980s, she told Vermont Business Magazine, was with the Burlington Police Department Juvenile Division, “working with the detectives and the juvenile officers for a time.”

She has worked for her husband as an administrative assistant, spokeswoman, policy adviser, chief of staff and media buyer. (She has been, her husband says, one of his key advisers, drafting, according to a 1996 piece by The Washington Post‘s Colman McCarthy, “more than 50 pieces of legislation” and helping him to launch, with three of his colleagues, the Congressional Progressive Caucus in 1991, of which he became chairman.) In 1995, she was quoted in The American Spectator as saying: “If I didn’t work for him I’d never see him.”

While she was mostly a volunteer, she and her daughter — Bernie’s stepdaughter — received thousands of dollars for various jobs working for Sanders. The practice is not illegal but certainly smacks of nepotism.

Her strong identification with her husband and his causes emerges in the Vermont Business Magazine interview, when she was asked to describe the differences between Bernie being in the House and the Senate: “When we were in the House, we were focused always on the issues. We created a Progressive [C]aucus, and we had about 54 people in that.” In the Senate, she said, the first week Bernie was there, “he called in everybody that had to deal with childcare and early education. I got there, because that was my background, and sat down and talked with them about what the country should do, to the 15 people who are names we all know. … It’s a wonderful learning opportunity.”

In his Burlington campaign office, Jane shares his corner office and jokes that she is a volunteer known among staff as “wife-everythinger.”

Were she to become first lady, her issues would surely be highly political: no White House redecoration, wildflowers, addiction enlightenment, school lunch menus or White House gardens. A first lady of the recent past whose path Jane Sanders might resemble? No one comes immediately to mind, although Eleanor Roosevelt comes closest.

This piece has been slightly revised.

Felsenthal is a political blogger and contributing editor for Chicago magazine. She has written biographies of Katharine Graham and President Clinton and profiles on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Roger Ebert, among others. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @cfelsenthal.

Tags 2016 Democratic primary 2016 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders Burlington Jane O'Meara Sanders Jane Sanders Vermont

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