I recently spoke on the phone with the son of Senator Bernie Sanders, Levi Sanders, who is running for Congress in New Hampshire’s first district. We spoke about 2016, his current campaign for Congress, New Hampshire politics, and much more.
Geoff Campbell: What inspired you to run for Congress in NH01?
Levi Sanders: Every day I work with low-income working class folks who are getting cheated and left behind by the system. It is time to fight back. We need a $15 minimum wage here in New Hampshire and across the country. There is also the need for tuition-free college and vocational schools. We should attack student loan debt. With these insane interest rates people have to pay off debt for years and this affects their ability to get good jobs and to get a head start in life. Additionally, pay equity for women is extremely important, and it’s long past time to address it. We need to take decisive action on climate change. The problem is, the people I talk to, they don’t always understand how it affects them at a profound level. The real issue is to show people how it affects their lives on a daily basis, and how we can make things better in a tangible way. And then, of course, income and wealth inequality. When three people own more wealth than half the rest of the country, we have a major problem!
GC: I agree. So, for those of us that are not fully aware of New Hampshire politics, what are some of the most important issues to those in the district you are running in?
LS: Some of the issues we already spoke about, but affordable healthcare is very important. The ACA was a start, but not enough people are covered, and many of those that are still can’t afford care. Some of my opponents use the word “access” when talking about healthcare. What does that mean if you can’t afford the deductibles, premiums, and copays? Affordable college is also a big deal here, and the environment. There are drinking water issues here in the district, and we all know how things are in Flint even today. Voter disenfranchisement is still a major problem. The Government is making it harder for people to vote. The requirements are getting more rigid. A few years ago a Republican in the area said that young people are mostly Democrats, so they want to make it tougher for them to vote. 72.5% voted in the last election, which is high, so the reality is that they are trying to make it much more difficult for all of them, and for people of color and those whose primary language is not English. In many places, you need a license, but some poll workers and those regulating this don’t even understand the rules. Oh and the opioid addiction crisis — we have the highest rates in America here in New Hampshire. How do we deal with it? How do we make sure we correctly use the money sent to the state to fight this issue? We need to look at the pharmaceutical companies. There is also an alcohol addiction problem here. We need to understand the underlying issues, create pathways for people to recover, and address the root causes of addiction in society.
GC: Having never held public office before, can you tell us a little bit about your past experiences that will prepare you for Congress? What makes you the best choice for the district?
LS: I worked in legal services for 17 years and worked at food shelters, so I understand low-income and hard-working people. Also, I have been in a union for the last 23 years, walked the picket lines, and participated in strikes. Through the years, through people I have been around, I learned a lot. With all that experience, I understand how to negotiate power, and I will use this to fight for the people.
GC: I am sure your experiences during the 2016 Primary were helpful.
LS: Oh yes definitely! Being a part of a Presidential campaign and getting to travel across the country and really hear the needs of people, that will certainly help me as a candidate!
GC: Have you dealt with similar attacks in the media that your father has and still does? Or have you faced a media blackout in similar ways? How do you deal with those things and stay on message?
LS: I just make sure to stay on message. It is about discipline. You can not allow reporters to push you. It is something that Bernard is very good at.
GC: He is never rattled.
LS: Almost never. It is all about remembering to stay on message and talk about the issues that matter to people. We need people to know we understand their economic pain and we are really listening. The issues are what really matter.
GC: Would Bernie have won? Had the party not played favorites.
LS: We can’t look backwards. It is a complicated question, not so cut and dry. I think that, well, we don’t know. Put it this way — if low-income and working class people came out to vote, if people had trusted the system, I think there was a very good likelihood. If he could have continued to get his message out. You had a lot of folks that the establishment controlled and kept from speaking up. So, it is hard to say, but I think in the right situation, yes.
GC: What are some differences between you and your father when it comes to policy or platform?
LS: Hmm, differences? Well, I am six foot and two inches and Bernard is six foot. Oh, you said policy?
GC: (laughing) Yes, differences on policy.
LS: I think it’s the wrong the question. It is not about differences. What Bernie is about is what most people are about. $15 minimum wage, healthcare for all, criminal justice reform. These are the issues that win elections, but more importantly, it is really what people want. That is how I look at it. But if I had to mention difference, I’ve been in legal services for 17 years. So, I’ve been really involved in that, which may produce a different way to look at things in government.
GC: What are your hopes for the Democratic Party going forward and do you support candidates running as Independents in certain circumstances where the party does not support grassroots candidates?
LS: My hope for the Democratic Party is that they will be a big tent party, and that they will understand and focus on the issues. Focus on West Virginia, rural areas in New Hampshire, the inner city in Chicago and understand that they need to include all people in this big tent. Another must, we need to get rid of Citizens United. We have to have campaign finance reform; one person, one vote. We need to start talking about class issues at a deep and profound level. We need to talk about what is going on in middle America. Just because we disagree on, let’s say, 23% of the issues, doesn’t mean we can’t agree on ways to create a better life for most people.
GC: Can you tell us about any advice your father or family gave you when you decided to enter your race?
LS: My father indicated that he was proud of the work that I’ve done and told me, “Stay true to who you are. Be you and run a race based on integrity.” We talk on a regular basis and he keeps in touch as much as we can during a hectic campaign. We discuss the need to give people a chance to flourish. And that is something I am dedicated to.
GC: Lastly, what was your favorite moment from the 2016 primary/race for President?
LS: I don’t want to be trite, but the Birdie thing was very cool.
GC: The bird landing on Bernie’s podium? Oh yes, that was beautiful.
LS: It really was. Outside of that one moment, I would say the incredible level of energy and passion around the country. I’ve had people write to me about how my father changed their life. That was very touching. Bernard gave them a voice. That’s the problem, people felt they lost their voice in this country. We need to find a way to make sure they regain their voice.