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The controversy over Levi Sanders, Bernie’s son who’s now running for Congress, explained

He just announced he’s running, but he’s already making enemies.

Bernie and Levi Sanders
Bernie and Levi Sanders visiting an art exhibit in New York on  April 16, 2016.
Mireya Acierto/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Two years ago, Bernie Sanders wasn’t heading a political dynasty. Indeed, his presidential primary campaign against Hillary Clinton picked up steam in large part out of a fear of dynastic politics, of a Clinton or Bush returning to the White House once more.

That was 2016; this is 2018. Now, two separate Sanders relations are running for office, using that tie as a central part of their messaging. First, Carina Driscoll, Bernie’s stepdaughter from his wife Jane’s first marriage, jumped into the race for Burlington mayor, a position Bernie himself held from 1981 to 1989. Running as a member of the Progressive Party (a left-wing Vermont third party formed by Bernie Sanders’s supporters in the 1990s), she faces incumbent Democrat Miro Weinberger and independent candidate Infinite Culcleasure on March 6.

Now Levi Sanders, Bernie’s son by his ex-girlfriend Susan Campbell Mott, has entered the congressional race for New Hampshire’s First District. The seat, which is being vacated by incumbent Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and is rated as a “toss-up” by most House election observers, was already attracting high-profile candidates, with both parties facing contested primaries. Now Levi Sanders (pronounced LEH-vee, not LEE-vie) is set to offer a populist alternative to the leading Democratic contender, Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, in what is sure to be cast as a smaller-scale echo of the 2016 presidential primary.

Almost as soon as he announced his campaign, though, critics began digging up old tweets of Levi’s that are likely to complicate if not entirely derail his run. The younger Sanders is not a fan of “identity politics” (at least as practiced by MSNBC host Joy Reid), thinks that criticisms of “white privilege” are ill-advised and turn off “working-class” voters, says he doubts the working class would care if Donald Trump were caught on camera calling people “niggers,” worries that eliminating Confederate flag license plates “hurts people’s rights,” and (you saw this one coming a mile away) has expressed exhaustion over Chelsea Clinton’s continued public presence:

Plus, Levi Sanders doesn’t live in his district. Claremont, the small city on the state’s western border with Vermont where he resides, is in the Second District, which also includes the state capital, Concord, and the second-largest city, Nashua; he’s running for the First District, which covers New Hampshire’s largest city, Manchester, as well as the state’s Atlantic Ocean coast and the tourist-heavy Lakes Region.

The younger Sanders remains a long shot for election; his father has not endorsed him, though his statement on the campaign can also be read as a warning that national Democrats should not try to sink Levi’s bid (with the proviso, “The decision as to who to vote for will be determined by the people of New Hampshire’s first district, and nobody else”):

But even if he doesn’t win, an especially contentious primary in a swing district could have implications for the Democratic effort to retake the House, and for the ongoing national battle over what role the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party will have going forward.

Who is Levi Sanders?

While Sanders, 48, doesn’t live in the First District, he has lived in New Hampshire for the past 15 years. Under the US Constitution, members of the House are only required to live in the state they represent, not the specific district.

Per his LinkedIn page (where his profile photo shows him with his arm around Barack Obama), he graduated with a degree in history from the University of Oregon in 1992, worked for a Burlington-based food pantry from 1994 to 2000, and since 2000 has worked as a senior paralegal at Cambridge & Somerville Legal Services in Massachusetts, where he represents and advocates for applicants and recipients of the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs.

That’s underpaid, underprovided, but critically important work. While private attorneys will happily represent disability insurance applicants in exchange for a share of their initial benefits, recipients already on the program faced with benefit reductions or loss of benefits often lack legal representation, and legal aid groups like the one Levi works for play an essential role in filling that gap.

Sanders also served as a senior policy analyst for his father’s presidential campaign, in addition to taking time off for Bernie’s first Senate run in 2006. Levi has said that he doesn’t call his father “Bernie,” or even “Dad.” “When I was a little kid, I started with B. Then it was Ber and then Bern and now it’s Bernard. Or the Bernster. I’ve never called him Bernie. And I never have called him Dad,” Levi told People magazine. “Even when I was six years old, I thought it was childish. He was a friend, not an authoritarian.”

The younger Sanders’s platform, as laid out in his statement announcing his candidacy, mirrors that of his father:

The majority of voters in New Hampshire, and around this country, agree that we need a Medicare For All healthcare system which guarantees healthcare to every man, women, and child without out of pocket expenses. We need an educational system which says that whether you are rich or poor, you have the ability to go to a public college and/or university tuition free. We need to demand that we have a minimum wage which allows people to work forty hours a week without being in poverty. It is urgent that we address the opioid problem which is at a crisis level in New Hampshire. We must demand that women finally earn the same pay as men. It is unacceptable that we haven’t found the political courage to pass sensible gun legislation.

For 15 years, New Hampshire has been my family’s home. For over 17 years, I have represented the working class who have been beaten up by the system. It is time to demand that we have a system which represents the 99% and not the 1% who have never had it so good.

Tuition-free college, Medicare-for-all, a higher minimum wage, equal pay for equal work — these are all populist economic policy staples of Bernie Sanders’s campaigns, and with the possible exception of the last one, they all steer clear from “identity politics” questions around immigration, racial justice, mass incarceration, and the like that Levi Sanders has argued on Twitter are distractions.

On guns, he seems to go a bit further (at least rhetorically) in supporting new regulations than his father, who famously voted against the Brady Bill requiring background checks and for lawsuit immunity for gun companies while in the House.

Levi’s tweets criticizing “identity politics,” resenting the invocation of the phrase “white privilege,” and downplaying the importance of nominating a woman as the 2020 Democratic nominee are an awkward fit in a Democratic primary. But they represent a broader tendency with the broader Bernie movement that Bernie himself has tried to downplay or pivot away from.

Early in his run, in the summer of 2015, Bernie Sanders faced criticism from Black Lives Matter activists for seeming to privilege discussions of class and economic justice ahead of tackling race-specific issues and the particular injustices visited upon Americans of color. He responded by issuing a detailed plan to fight mass incarceration, police violence, and voter suppression.

He spoke of his environmental policies, like his carbon tax plan, in terms of racial justice and pledged some of the proceeds from that tax to poor minority communities that have been hardest hit by pollution. And he, naturally, pitched Medicare-for-all and tuition-free college as race-neutral policies that will disproportionately benefit black and Latino communities.

He, in other words, argued that a focus on class politics can coexist with a platform that takes racial injustice (and gender injustice as well) incredibly seriously. That wasn’t always successful, as when he dismissed slavery reparations as a “divisive” policy, but he very consciously avoided attacking racial justice movements and sought to enlist them as partners.

Not all his supporters did the same, and the overwhelming support that black voters and civil rights institutions, as well as women’s and reproductive rights groups, gave to Hillary Clinton in that primary helped fuel resentment among a segment of Bernie’s most die-hard fans. How many Bernie fans feel that resentment is, of course, a highly contested question, with Bernie fans usually insisting that the trope of the racially “unwoke” Bernie supporter is a media invention meant to discredit Sanders’s political project.

But however widespread the tendency is, Levi Sanders very clearly exemplifies it. He speaks up for Virginians who want Confederate flag license plates. He thinks liberals should not talk about white privilege for fear of annoying white working-class voters. He decries the invocation of “identity politics,” seeing it as a distraction from economic issues.

It’s not clear how big a problem this will be for him. Bernie needed to attract a diverse national electorate to his presidential bid; Levi needs to win over voters in a very white district of a very white state.

Explaining his past statements, Levi Sanders told the Washington Post’s David Weigel he “sent out a lot of tweets,” and urged voters to look at his broader message:

The bottom line, as you know, is that different people have different opinions, and when you send out a lot of tweets, people are going to have a lot of opinions about them. But in 2016, I hung out in rural Pennsylvania and rural Ohio. I can tell you, very clearly, that in 2016, there were going to be some real problems with electing Hillary Clinton. I talked to union folks who were die-hard Democrats and said they would never, ever, ever vote for Hillary Clinton.

He also stuck by his rejection of “identity politics”: “Simply put, if you’re a man or you’re a woman, that shouldn’t be a reason that somebody votes for you. You have to earn every vote. We need to reach out for working-class folks.”

That kind of attitude has already provoked a backlash from other segments of the Democratic Party, perhaps most notably Hillary Clinton’s current communications director, Nick Merrill, who spoke up in defense of Chelsea Clinton after Levi’s tweet attacking her surfaced:

What is the NH-1 congressional race?

New Hampshire’s First District is the more conservative of the two districts in the state; it narrowly went for Trump even as Clinton won the state as a whole. While the Second District has been in Democratic hands for 10 of the past 12 years, the First District has been ping-ponging back and forth:

  • First, Carol Shea-Porter, in a shocking upset win, defeated two-term incumbent Jeb Bradley in 2006 as part of the national Democratic anti-Bush wave.
  • Then in 2010, Republican and former Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta defeated Shea-Porter amid the Republican wave that year.
  • Then in 2012, Shea-Porter defeated Guinta and took back the seat as President Obama carried the state.
  • Then in 2014, Guinta defeated Shea-Porter again and took the seat back amid national Republican gains.
  • Finally, in 2016, Shea-Porter defeated Guinta again, in no small part because of some campaign finance issues embroiling Guinta.

Shea-Porter has apparently decided that she’s sick of ping-ponging in and out of the seat, a decision helped along by the fact that national Democrats have never really liked her and recruited Chris Pappas to run for the seat instead. Documents leaked by Guccifer 2.0, the same Russian hacker/hacking collective that released internal Democratic National Committee emails from WikiLeaks, showed that some staffers in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wanted her to step aside in 2016 in favor of Pappas. For the 2018 cycle, those staffers got their wish.

Pappas is a member of the Executive Council, a peculiar New Hampshire institution consisting of five elected members, each representing a district of one-fifth the state’s population, who can veto pardons, nominations, and contracts approved by the governor. Because the districts are vastly larger than those for the state House or state Senate, the Executive Council is a prime recruiting ground for higher office; both candidates in the 2016 gubernatorial race served on the council at the time.

A young (only 38), openly gay Harvard grad and fourth-generation New Hampshirite who works at his family’s restaurant business in Manchester, Pappas has been a sought-after national recruit for years, and goes into the race as a heavy favorite against not only Sanders but the other Democrats in the race, including state Rep. and ex-state AFL-CIO president Mark MacKenzie, state Rep. Mindi Messmer, and Rochester City Attorney and Iraq vet Terence O’Rourke.

The winner of the primary will face the Republican nominee, likely either state Sen. Andy Sanborn (who brags of his friendship with Rand Paul on his campaign site) or Eddie Edwards, a law enforcement veteran who served as chief of the state Division of Liquor Enforcement.

Democrats have had a great run of special elections in New Hampshire since Trump took office. According to a database compiled by Daily Kos, five state House seats have flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2017 and 2018, with none flipping the opposite way. Then again, the state House is enormous (it has 400 members, making it the fourth-largest English-speaking legislative body in the world after the US House of Representatives and the UK Houses of Commons and Lords) and its districts are tiny, so those wins might not be too indicative of Democratic success to come.

So questions of electability are sure to arise in the NH-1 Democratic primary, with Levi Sanders making the case that his brand of economic populism can win over Trump voters, and Pappas tacking more to the center.