Bernie Sanders' Big Bro, Larry, Serves Up Some New Insight on His Kid Brother


Oxford, England — In the late 1950s, a few years after the Korean War, a 17-year-old young man ran for president of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, New York. While other high school candidates campaigned on the promises of rule changes, this young man's platform was based on a proposal to offer scholarships to Korean orphans affected by the war, who couldn't otherwise afford to go to school. That young man was Bernie Sanders. 

"He didn't win. He came third out of three," Larry Sanders, the presidential candidate's big brother and only sibling said with a chuckle. "And, in fact, the guy who won adopted [Bernie's scholarship program]."

Larry, himself a politician on the local level, spoke with Mic at his home in Oxford, England, where he immigrated as a young man. Despite the move, Larry has maintained the same Brooklyn accent for which his brother is famous.

Bernie and Larry's parents died when they were young, making Larry one of the few people left who's known "Bernard" intimately throughout his life. 

Larry, 80, sat back in his armchair by the window, surrounded by Christmas cards and decorations. Sipping from a mug of coffee, he regaled Mic with stories of their youth and explained why he believes his brother is the key to restoring equality in America.  

Mic: What do you think it was that turned both of you into politicians? Something about growing up in Brooklyn in the '40s and '50s?

Larry Sanders: Well, we had a high school, which was a bog standard comprehensive high school, and I was glad to look up that we had more Nobel Prize winners than Eton. They had more Prime Ministers, but we had more Nobel Prize winners. 

And we also had Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg, who was just a year before me and several other senators and so on. So, there is a little bit to that — that there is something about that generation of Brooklyn. 

Something big was the intensity of immigrants, the fact we didn't have money and it was an important issue. You don't have time to identify yourself as being in an inferior position, which happens in a more established class system. Because your family history restarts when you've migrated, so you don't think, "I'm poor because I'm in a lower stratum." You think, "I'm poor because I'm a new immigrant."

Courtesy of Larry Sanders

Both your parents were immigrants, right?

My mother was born in New York, but her parents came from Poland. And my father came direct from Poland when he was 17. He came alone — his brother was already there — but he came without any money or a word of English. 

There were five siblings. Two of them came to New York, including my father, of course, and three remained behind and they all disappeared in the war. 

Were your parents particularly political?

They were not political in the sense of being active in any way beyond being voters. But they were, like the whole neighborhood, intensely supportive of Roosevelt and the New Deal.

So, I've often said we had two major political figures in our childhood. One was Hitler, and that taught us that politics is very serious, it's not a plaything. And the other was Roosevelt, and the lesson there was that government can do good things.

I've often said we had two major political figures in our childhood. One was Hitler, and that taught us that politics is very serious. And the other was Roosevelt, and the lesson there was that government can do good things.

Were your parents surprised when you both showed interest in politics?

Well, they died young. They missed the fun, which is one reason I kind of cry when I get to this subject.

What do you think they would have made of Bernie's campaign?

Oh... well... flabbergasted. 

And you only call him "Bernard"?

The truth is, probably as a kid, I called him, "Hey, you!" [Laughs] So, I probably had no name in mind then. But "Bernie" has always sounded foreign to my tongue when I try and say it. 

What was he like when he was little?

He was quiet, but he was very athletic, a very good athlete from an early age. And we had a very strong street life, not in any aggressive kind of sense, but in the simple sense that after school, we were out on the street for hours and each of us had a group of friends and we played all kinds of sports. And being a good athlete was a very important social status factor amongst the boys. 

So, how did he go from being a shy, young kid to commanding stadiums?

Well, I have wondered about that. [Laughs] He did a surprising thing, which probably meant I misunderstood him, in a way. In his last year in high school, he ran for school president. 

Courtesy of Larry Sanders

Of course. 

It wasn't an "of course," it was a very big surprise. [Laughs] He was not the sort of person... I didn't expect it. I'm not sure why he did run. I never asked him why he suddenly did that. 

Did he win?

He didn't win. He finished third out of three. [Laughs] The other two were much more plausible politicians, with much better smiles and so on. They were really prototypes of the politicians who were to come. 

So, anyhow, what did happen was he was the only one who had a policy or program that went beyond fairly trivial school things, it went beyond rules or something about the prom or whatever.

[I]n the aftermath of the Korean War there was a lot in the papers, there'd been huge devastation, deaths of millions of Koreans and it was ... a very damaged and destroyed country. And he read about a lot of orphans who couldn't go to school because it was not publicly provided, and so they couldn't go to school unless they had money and those poor orphans had no money. So, they had a hard time now and little prospects for their future. 

I don't know where Bernard got the idea. He thought it would be a very good idea for the better off kids in Brooklyn — although we weren't rich, we were certainly massively better off than the Korean children — to raise money, to provide scholarships so that some of these children could go to school. So that was his program. And, in fact, the guy who won adopted it. So, I don't know how much money they raised, but it was a successful thing. I don't know how many children were affected, but they did send money — a significant amount of money — to Korea. 

And he was 17?

He was 17 or so at that point, yes. So, that was the first political glimmer. In a deeper sense — and [it] probably was significant, something in his character, an interest that I hadn't grasped growing up with him — but the next big thing, of course, was going to [University of] Chicago in the midst of the early stages of the Civil Rights movement. Bernard found that and jumped right in with both feet. Whatever had come before, had prepared him very much for that. 

The next big thing was going to [University of] Chicago in the early stages of the Civil Rights movement. Bernard found that and jumped right in with both feet. 

What he found out quite soon after getting there was the University of Chicago actually owned buildings which it didn't allow black people to rent. So, they were quite directly segregating their own property. And he campaigned against that, he became a leader in that campaign. I think eventually successfully. So that brought him in touch with very serious political people — black and white — and lit the fuse, really. 

How has Bernie transformed "socialism" from a dirty word and ideology into a part of mainstream political discourse?

Time and consistency and passion. Remember he started in politics when he ran for office in Vermont in the early '70s. 

I think he ran four times with the [anti-Vietnam War] Liberty Union, which identified as a socialist party. Then, he dropped out of Liberty Union, he felt it had done as much as it was going to do. And he was not active in politics for a couple years. And then famously a friend of his said, [Laughs] as friends do, "I've been looking at the statistics and while you were not doing well over the whole state, there were places in Burlington in which you did very well: You really should run for mayor."

Courtesy of Larry Sanders

Of course, he did. And he worked furiously. To me, I thought it was another one of these runs and he's very good at it, but he's going to get 6% [of the vote]. So, I hadn't grasped how things were quite different. So, he phones me a few days before the election and said, "I think I can win." And I said, "Oh, that's great." [Laughs] And I wasn't even sure when this election was going to be. I certainly didn't realize it was the next week. 

And he ran, he knocked on thousands of doors. As you can see from the current campaign, when he's 74, he's tireless. And then he was in his late 30s, so he was unstoppable. And he had done the same thing. He'd put together this coalition of middle [and] upper middle class liberal people. 

And did that ultimately convince you he'd make a good president?

He'll be a good president, first, because of the policies. And also for what he would stand for and mean politicly in changing the whole direction of American politics for the last 30 or 40 years. Then there is his capacity to get things done. 

You get elected mayor, the entire political establishment of all political parties is against you, absolutely furious: "This outsider came into our property and thinks he's going to take over? He'll learn." Every ownership, every material interest in the city was appalled by him getting elected.

His first administration was a successful administration. They found out the previous administration — not so much through thievery, but just through incompetence — had lost track of millions of dollars. So they were able to do things without raising taxes.

He worked astonishingly hard. I remember I was visiting, we were staying with relatives. And he decided [Burlington] needed a baseball team. He was on the phone and he was working all the time we were together. Day and night. And I thought, "A baseball team is not central to what you stand for." No, it was something he felt was wanted, was needed and I learned something about his work ethic and his capacity for hard work. And for negotiations, hardline negotiations, which I don't know where he learned that from... I mean, he didn't learn it. He made it up because he knew nobody who did that sort of thing. 

Toby Talbot/AP

So, one thing after another like that was successful. He eventually saved the waterfront, he had a youth program that hadn't existed, he had an arts program, he turned the City Hall into a gallery. It became a new kind of city. A city based on services, on art, on activity and by the time he finished, it had been recognized by various right-wing magazines as one of the leading cities in the country. 

It is a very rare person who single-handedly makes something like that happen. You could easily imagine — I could easily imagine — somebody like him, even like me, getting elected to a legislature and having good analysis and good policies and even presenting them well and being an effective legislature. But to actually take over the running of a city against those types of odds and make things happen at every level, that's a whole different level of capacity. And I think, you know running the United States is not like running a small city, but it's closer to that than a lot of other things. Because a president deals with a few dozen key people and a mayor does the same thing.

Why do you think Bernie's been so successful?

I think that he his resonating with people who have had a certain kind of expectation, a generation or two ago, and that expectation has gone. And it's black and white in the statistics — in terms of the averages, very few people managed to climb class, and many of those people who are in that middle section, in fact over 30 or 40 years, have not seen any increase in their real income, after inflation. In fact, for many of them their income has gone down and they're working longer hours. This is one of Bernard's phrases: "Longer hours for less pay."

Natasha Noman/Mic

To many, Bernie's biggest challenge is living up to his promise for stricter financial regulation. Is it realistic to believe he can achieve this?

None of it is a realistic expectation, in a sense, because the power of the opposition is so immense. I mean, that's the elephant in the room, that there are people running the economy, none of these things are accidents — some free-market freak accident — it happens from the hidden hand. People in power have worked incredibly hard, both in government and out of government, to make it happen. They will not stop, their whole self-identity is tied up in being in control. But the other side of it really is, unless somebody like Bernard can actually break through, the hope of changing that gets smaller and smaller. 

That Bernard can change it on his own? No, he says that himself. It's not completely political hyperbole when says he's calling for a political revolution. He would have to break through to the extent that millions of people say, "This is not just something we do on voting day ... This is something that we're signing up for and we will be — not militarily — but on the streets, in the local elections, we will not just go to vote, but we'll work hard to make sure that things change."

At this period in time, the only hope for a major change in that direction, is Bernard's election. 

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Dec. 31, 2015, 2:12 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.