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Levi Sanders’s bid for Congress comes with controversy

  • Levi Sanders, son of former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listens during a lecture at the First Corinthians Baptist Church in New York last year. AP file

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., his wife Jane Sanders (center) and his son Levi Sanders (right) arrive at a primary night rally in Essex Junction, Vt., last year. Levi Sanders is joining seven fellow New Hampshire Democrats and three Republicans running for the 1st Congressional District seat in 2018. Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter is stepping down after her term ends. AP file



For the Monitor
Saturday, March 03, 2018

Levi Sanders made national headlines as he announced his bid for the U.S. House in New Hampshire’s First Congressional District.

When you have a famous father – Levi’s the son of U.S. senator and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – it’s only natural.

But here in the Granite State, Sanders’s announcement also grabbed attention – and some derision – because he lives in Claremont, near the Vermont border and far from the First District, which covers the eastern part of the state.

While it’s uncommon for a candidate to live outside the district in which they’re running, it is legal. The U.S. Constitution only mandates that House members reside in the state they serve.

Sanders also made news by becoming the eighth Democratic candidate – including two strong supporters of his father’s 2016 White House bid – to try and succeed retiring four-term Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

“I was surprised to find out that Levi Sanders was going to come over from Claremont and run for Congress for the First CD,” said state Rep. Renny Cushing – a top backer of one of those rival candidates.

The Hampton Democrat and longtime progressive advocate has endorsed Rye state Rep. Mindi Messmer’s bid for Congress. Messmer was a Sanders backer during the 2016 primaries and helped knock on doors and canvass for him. Sanders crushed eventual nominee Hillary Clinton by 22 percentage points in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary.

Another candidate running for the First District’s Democratic nomination is state Rep. Mark MacKenzie of Manchester, who served 25 years as head of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO. He was one of the first Bernie Sanders supporters in the state. He helped set up Sanders steering committee in the Granite State and served as a Sanders delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

“I’m trying to build long-term social change here in the state of New Hampshire and I think you do that from the bottom up,” Cushing emphasized. “That was the promise of his (Levi’s) father’s campaign.”

“So it’s kind of ironic that we’re in a district where we’ve had people who’ve been working for decades for social change here in the First CD who are running for office and it’s interesting that he decides to parachute in on the top and try to organize from the top down. That’s kind of contradictory to what his father’s campaign was,” Cushing added.

Cushing called Levi Sanders a decent man, but he argued that “there’s a wealth of candidates in the First CD who are progressive, who are from the district. And I think that anyone of them would do a better job of serving and being in touch with the people of this district.”

Sanders disagreed.

“Levi is running his own campaign on the issues that matter to the people in NH-1,” Sanders campaign spokesman Ansh Grover told the Monitor. “His 17 years in public service make him uniquely poised to serve.”

And in interviews with WMUR and NHPR this past week, Sanders said that his famous last name and where he lives doesn’t matter. He suggested that voters will care much more about issues such as income inequality, gun safety and the state’s acute opioid epidemic.

Sanders proposed a Medicare for all health care system (currently championed by his father in the Senate), tuition-free college, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, equal pay for women, and what he calls “sensible gun legislation.”

“This campaign is about each and every one of us, who strive each and every day, to make this great state and country a better place in which to live. Over the course of the next few months, I look forward to connecting further with the people of the 1st District and truly representing those values that matter to all of us,” Sanders said in a statement announcing his congressional bid.

He also highlighted that for the past 17 years he’s “represented the working class, who have been beaten up by the system,” by working as a legal services analyst in Massachusetts.

Sanders is a St. Johnsbury, Vermont native and a 1992 graduate of the University of Oregon. He’s never served in elected office, but has often been seen at his father’s side during his political career, including the marathon 2016 primary run.

The elder Sanders said in statement this week that he was “very proud of Levi’s commitment to public service and his years of work on behalf of low-income and working people.”

But the Vermont senator added that “Levi will be running his own campaign, in his own way, with his own ideas. The decision as to who to vote for will be determined by the people of New Hampshire’s first district, and nobody else.”

A top Bernie Sanders supporter in New Hampshire said that Levi Sanders could be formidable and that “everybody has a right to run in this district.”

But he added, “the fact that Levi doesn’t live in this district is going to be a problem for him, along with the fact that he has not been a prominent voice in New Hampshire politics and hasn’t really been involved in New Hampshire politics until he helped his father run for president.”

Sanders has lived in the state for 15 years, but two leading political scientists in New Hampshire used the word carpetbagger to describe his bid in the First District.

“Levi Sanders definitely has left himself open to the charge of carpetbagging,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said.

Scala pointed to the Second District, where three-term Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster faces no primary challenge as she runs for re-election this year.

“After all, he could have presented himself as the progressive challenger to Kuster in the 2nd district,” Scala said. “Instead, he took the easier route of running in an open-seat primary.”

“The fact that he doesn’t live in the district is a sure handicap,” Scala added. “However, most people don’t have Levi Sanders’s access to his father’s email list of supporters.”

Saint Anselm College politics and government professor Chris Galdieri agreed.

“It’s hard to see Sanders as anything other than a carpetbagger, since he doesn’t live in the district he’s seeking to represent,” Galdieri said.

“People can and have run, and sometimes won, in House districts they don’t live in,” Galdieri explained. “But by and large voters are skeptical of anyone who arrives with few ties to their state or district and announces they’re running for office.”

But the Sanders campaign dismisses such criticism, and said it’s generating interest and support in its first days in business.

The campaign had signed up “over 100 volunteers in the past 48 hours to phone bank, knock on doors and volunteer throughout the campaign,” a spokesman said last week.