ROMULUS, MI — When Jane Sanders saw an early cut of the “America” ad for her husband’s presidential campaign, she felt something wasn’t quite right. The problem? Her husband was talking in it.
The uplifting spot for Bernie Sanders features sunny images of his packed rallies over a soundtrack of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” Jane Sanders found herself being carried away by the mood and the music, not by the clip of him speaking.
“So I just asked to cut Bernie out,” she said. “He’s talking all the time in other places.”
Nine months into his insurgent presidential campaign, that ad stands out as a symbol of Bernie Sanders’ effort to spark a grassroots political movement competing with the more traditional campaign of Hillary Clinton. And Jane Sanders’ hand in the final product shows her influence in the campaign — one that may increase as she headlines more events on her own.
She’s a former community organizer who has worked alongside her husband for more than 30 years — as a city department head when he was Burlington, Vermont, mayor, a volunteer congressional aide, and a campaign adviser.
“She is not afraid to be constructively critical,” Bernie Sanders said. “She lets me have it if she thinks I make a mistake.” And he joked that happens “every day, including 10 minutes ago.”
Momentum is on Bernie Sanders’ side after his 22-point win in the New Hampshire primary and a close finish in Iowa. His campaign, propelled by promises of “political revolution” and small-dollar donations, has proven a surprisingly robust challenge to Clinton
Along the way, Jane Sanders has done everything from buying the office furniture to helping prep for debates. She has tried to lighten up her policy-wonk husband, urging him to offer a “little less doom and gloom and a little more hope” in his speeches. She has also encouraged him to talk more about his congressional record, noting that “his opponent is trying to say that she’s more effective than he is, so he needs to let people know how effective he’s been.”
Sanders has been deeply involved in her husband’s political career practically from the moment they met, when he was running for mayor of Burlington, in 1981. She was working as a community organizer for a youth center. They quickly began working together and dating. They married in 1988 and promptly took off on a diplomatic trip to Burlington’s sister city in Russia.
“She’s one of his most trusted advisers, if not the most trusted adviser,” said Sanders’ senior adviser Tad Devine.
Over the years, Jane Sanders has served as director of youth services for the city of Burlington, helped set up his congressional office and advised his congressional and Senate campaigns. She also did stints outside of government, as provost of Goddard College and president of Burlington College. She resigned that job in 2011 amid apparent tension with the board of trustees.
“She is tough and has a very quiet sense of confidence,” Sanders said, recalling some criticism when he made his then-girlfriend youth director in Burlington. “When she was attacked, she didn’t blink an eye. She’d go on the radio and defend herself extraordinarily well.”
Today the couple jets around the country on a 737 aircraft, accompanied by Secret Service protection and a robust political staff. Jane Sanders, 65, recently hugged nurses at an organizing event in Minneapolis. In Detroit, she joined her 74-year-old husband as he met families grappling with the Flint water crisis.
She frequently takes videos of the senator’s rallies on her iPhone and is with him for rare moments of downtime — like taking a brief waterfront walk in Charleston, South Carolina, or stopping for lunch — tuna fish and grilled cheese sandwiches — at a St. Paul, Minnesota, cafe.
After some solo appearances in Iowa, Jane Sanders is expected to hold more events of her own soon. But Sanders said she won’t be like her rival Democratic political spouse, Bill Clinton, who has at times gone negative on his wife’s opponent.
“I’m not going to put down Bill or Hillary,” Jane Sanders said. “I’m going to talk about what Bernie is proposing for the country, who he is as a person.”
Brooklyn-born like her husband, Jane Sanders favors black attire and sensible shoes and wears her red hair long and loose. She said she first became aware of injustices as a child, when her father, who suffered health problems for years after breaking his hip, couldn’t get good medical care until her brother started earning enough money as an equestrian to pay for it.
“It seemed really unfair that somebody could be in and out of the hospital for most of my childhood,” Sanders said. “It seems very unfair that people cannot have adequate health care.”
While Bernie Sanders is loath to share personal details, his wife offers a window into life behind the scenes. They love the movies, most recently, “The Big Short.” He bought her treats from Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, for Valentine’s Day.
But they miss their kids and grandkids — she has three children from her first marriage and he has one from a past relationship and they have seven grandchildren. She also said it is harder for them to do simple things they enjoy.
“In Wisconsin, we said we have a break in the schedule, we’re going to go for a walk,” she recalled. “It was frigid, but it was great to walk for an hour.”
They’ve come a long way from Burlington, but as she watches the rallies packed with thousands shouting “Feel the Bern,” Jane Sanders thinks maybe they could end up in the White House.
“I think that people are actually hearing him unvarnished,” Sanders said. “He’s being able to speak to the people directly, just as he did to me that first night I met him.”
Thomas reported from Washington.