Early on in his eight years as the mayor of this city, when he typically dressed in a tieless ensemble of work boots and corduroys, Bernie Sanders one day left City Hall and found a ticket on the windshield of his rusty Volkswagen Dasher. The offense: This was the mayor’s spot, and, surely, a cop had thought, this was not the mayor’s car. But it was. It matched perfectly with both Sanders’ image as a scrappy advocate of the little guy and his own shaky financial reality. It was the beginning of the 1980s, and he was approaching 40, a single father of a not-quite-teenage son, renting a sparse second-floor apartment and having a hard time keeping up with his bills. “Not only,” he wrote on his yellow, coffee-splotched legal pads kept in archives at the University of Vermont, “do I not pay bills every month—‘What, every month?’—I am unable to …” His scribbles in barely legible cursive in the margins read like reminders and afterthoughts: “gas,” “light,” “water.”
He was, said Bruce Seifer, a friend of Sanders, an economic aide in his administration and one of many people who know him who told me this, “frugal.” Seifer paused and considered the right way to put it. “That’s a nice way of saying he’s a cheap son of a bitch.”
Today, he might still be cheap, but he’s sure not poor. In the wake of his 2016 presidential run, the most lucrative thing he’s ever done, the 77-year-old self-described democratic socialist is a three-home-owning millionaire with a net worth approaching at least $2 million, taking into account his publicly outlined assets and liabilities along with the real estate he owns outright. In a strict, bottom-line sense, Sanders has become one of those rich people against whom he has so unrelentingly railed. The champion of the underclass and castigator of “the 1 percent” has found himself in the socioeconomic penthouse of his rhetorical boogeymen. This development, seen mostly as the result of big bucks brought in by the slate of books he’s put out in the past few years, predictably has elicited snarky pokes, partisan jabs and charges of hypocrisy. The millionaire socialist!
Sanders has been impatient to the point of churlish when pressed about this. “I wrote a best-selling book,” he told the New York Times after he releasing the last 10 years of his tax returns. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.” Asked on Fox News if this sort of success was “the definition of capitalism,” he bristled. “You know, I have a college degree,” he said.
Based on a deeper examination of his financial disclosures, tax returns, property records in Washington and Vermont, and scarcely leafed-through scraps of his financial papers housed at the University of Vermont, Sanders’ current financial portrait is not only some stroke-of-luck windfall, it’s also the product (with the help of his wife) of decades of planning. The upward trajectory from that jalopy of his to his relative riches now—as off-brand as it is for a man who once said he had “no great desire to be rich”—is the product of years of middle-class striving, replete with credit card debt, real estate upgrades and an array of investment funds and retirement accounts.