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Jane O'Meara Sanders, Bernie Sanders's wife, is one of the most involved political spouses.
The community organizer and former university president has been married to the Vermont senator for over 30 years.
Brush up on the full list of 2020 presidential candidates here—and scroll for facts about the (possible) future First Lady.
With the 2020 election coming closer every single day, it's time to get to know the candidates and the people who support them a little better. For Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, one person has been deeply involved in his political career nearly since day one: his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders.
O’Meara Sanders has been with her husband for over 30 years and supported him through more than a dozen campaigns for office, while also maintaining an established career in education administration. She has been called Sanders’s “closest adviser,” due to her contributions to policy, media strategy, and fundraising, and even the Associated Press described her as “perhaps the most influential woman in the 2020 campaign who isn’t a candidate.” Curious to know more? We’ve gathered all kinds of information on the badass.
Jane O’Meara Sanders and Bernie Sanders both grew up in Brooklyn.
O’Meara Sanders was born Mary Jane O’Meara (yes, her family still calls her Mary) in Flatbush, Brooklyn in 1950, about 15 blocks away from her future husband, though they never crossed paths. She attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville before dropping out, and moved back to Brooklyn with her first husband and high school sweetheart, David Driscoll, who is the father of O’Meara Sanders’s three children: Heather Titus, Carina Driscoll, and David Driscoll.
O’Meara Sanders, her then-husband, and their two children moved to Vermont in 1975. David Jr. was born after the move—and O’Meara Sanders finished her degree at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. During this time, she and her husband divorced. According to her, “We were childhood sweethearts. We grew apart.”
O’Meara Sanders first encountered Sanders during his first campaign for mayor in 1981. She told Vermont Business Magazine, "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.”
Seeing him speak at that debate, in fact, was a special moment. She told People in 2016, “I sat in the second row and I fell in love with Bernie’s ideas. We met eyes—a few times, which I thought was interesting.” Sanders asked O’Meara Sanders to dance with him at a victory party for his election, and the pair wed in 1988, two years before Sanders won his election to Congress.
O’Meara Sanders and Sanders have successfully blended their families.
The couple never had biological children of their own together, and instead chose to blend their two families together. As mentioned before, O’Meara Sanders has three children from her previous marriage—co-founder and CEO of the Sedona Yoga Festival Heather Titus, woodworker and former politician Carina Driscoll, and Executive Director of the Sanders Institute David Driscoll—and Sanders has one son, Levi, from a previous relationship.
After their divorce, O’Meara Sanders’s ex-husband welcomed another child, Nicole, and O’Meara Sanders has embraced her as a part of the family as well. She told Yahoo that all five children, as well as their seven grandchildren, are “family,” with “no halves or steps” necessary.
Her family's health issues informed her politics.
After her father broke his hip when she was only two years old, she witnessed his struggles with health, which started with a severe blood infection. Her father couldn't afford full medical help until her older brother made enough money, which made her have "an awakening." She told Yahoo, “It was my first realization that money can buy health, and that this fact was deeply unjust.”
O'Meara Sanders is very well educated.
Dr. Jill Biden isn’t the only candidate’s partner with a doctorate. O’Meara Sanders earned a doctorate in Leadership and Policy Studies from Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1996, but forgoes the title. From 1981 to 1991, O’Meara Sanders worked as the Director of the Mayor's Youth Office and Department Head in the City of Burlington, Vermont, where she created programs geared towards youth.
When Sanders won his Congressional seat in 1991 and became Vermont’s only congressman, O’Meara Sanders left her job at the youth office to join him on Capitol Hill, where she (somehow) completed her PhD program while volunteering as Chief of Staff and Policy and Press Advisor, and holding various other titles, for her husband.
Today, she is one of his closest advisers, with her desk literally being the closest to him in the campaign office. According to a 1996 Washington Post report, she drafted “more than 50 pieces of legislation” during her husband’s time in Congress, and launched the Progressive Congressional Caucus in 1991. According to The Hill, O’Meara Sanders is known as the "wife-everythinger."
“Bernie’s top adviser always has been and will continue to be Jane,” Sanders's adviser Jeff Weaver told the Associated Press earlier this year. “At every level,” Weaver said, “Jane is intimately involved.”
In 1997, O’Meara Sanders was appointed Provost and Interim President of her alma mater, Goddard College, after the president’s abrupt resignation. She is credited with helping the school through a difficult time, both financially and reputation-wise. "When Bernie was elected, he said, 'Bet you never thought you'd be married to a congressman,'" O’Meara Sanders said to The Washington Post at the time. "The other day, I said, Bet you never thought you'd be married to a provost.'"
After holding that job for 18 months, she stepped down, but it wasn’t until six years later that she re-established herself in the higher education realm when she became president of Burlington College. After facing controversy involving money, purchase of land for a new campus, and changes in work culture, O’Meara Sanders resigned in 2011. Burlington would go on to close permanently in 2016, releasing a statement that the $10 million deal for the land for the new campus, of which O’Meara Sanders was the champion, left the school with a "crushing weight” of debt it could not get out of.
In 2017, news emerged that the FBI and Department of Justice were investigating the real estate deal that lead to Burlington’s demise and possible allegations of bank fraud. The accusations claimed that O’Meara Sanders “falsified and inflated nearly $2 million that she’d claimed donors had pledged to repay the loans,” according to Politico. In November 2018, the U.S Attorney for Vermont declined to bring charges against O’Meara Sanders and wrapped up the investigation.
O'Meara Sanders is fully involved in Sanders's 2020 campaign.
Despite being initially against the idea of her husband’s run for president, O’Meara Sanders is more involved than ever before. In 2017, she and son David founded The Sanders Institute, a progressive thinktank. In March 2019, the Institute announced that it would cease operations and stop taking donations—at least while Sanders was still running for president—after accusations of hypocrisy from Sanders and concerns the line had been blurred between campaigning and nonprofit work. Though Sanders had no involvement in the Institute, the thinktank reminded some people of his accusations against Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation in 2016, as well as the Trump Foundation.
“I think that was the most important thing to do—to not accept donations, because nobody should think that they’re giving money to an organization and that gains them access or favor to anybody else and anybody running for office,” O’Meara Sanders told the Associated Press, adding “It just seemed the responsible thing to do.”
She also told AP that the Institute’s hiatus will allow her be more involved on the campaign trail. “I will be more active throughout,” she said.
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