For Bernie Sanders, His Most Trusted Adviser Is Married to Him

BURLINGTON, Vt. — When it comes time to make critical decisions regarding his presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders often relies on a committee of two: himself and his wife, Jane Sanders.

It was Ms. Sanders who provided a medical update after her husband was hospitalized in Las Vegas last week and had two stents inserted into an artery — issuing a statement and speaking to reporters outside the hospital. When doctors confirmed to her on Thursday that Mr. Sanders had suffered a heart attack, she said, it was her decision to wait until he was discharged the next day to release that information.

And when it was time to say publicly that Mr. Sanders would be easing the pace of his campaigning after his heart attack, Ms. Sanders — who has effectively been running the campaign’s external communications in Vermont this week — stood beside him to explain the reason: His closest advisers, “especially me,” had told him to slow down.

Ms. Sanders has played a central role in her husband’s political life for decades, acting as his confidante and his closest adviser. Yet as Mr. Sanders weighs the future of his candidacy, never has it been clearer that the two of them are primarily making the calls for his campaign.

“He’ll often say, ‘Let’s talk to Jane,’” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, one of Mr. Sanders’s national campaign co-chairs.

“She’s the one person Senator Sanders listens to above everybody else — by an order of magnitude,” Mr. Khanna said. “There’s no one whose political judgment he trusts more.”

In a rare interview on Wednesday at their home in Burlington, Ms. Sanders said it would be “egotistical” to call herself Mr. Sanders’s top adviser but allowed that she was “very much a close adviser.” Above all, she said, she was “his wife.”

“We share a life, and his life is of public service,” she said. “So I need to be part of that in order to have a wonderful marriage. It’s necessary for us to work together because he works a lot.”

Mr. Sanders said in an interview with NBC News Wednesday that he learned he had suffered a heart attack on the night he entered the hospital last week with chest pains. Ms. Sanders, in the interview with The New York Times shortly afterward, said she only learned of it two days later, last Thursday.

Ms. Sanders said the decision not to reveal her husband’s heart attack until the next day was motivated by another crisis in her family occurring at the same time: the sudden cancer diagnosis of her daughter-in-law, Rainè Riggs, the wife of Mr. Sanders’s son, Levi Sanders. Ms. Riggs died this weekend, at age 46.

“I heard it on Thursday,” Ms. Sanders said, referring to her husband’s heart attack. “But frankly, I wasn’t thinking about the campaign.”

Ms. Sanders’s significant role in her husband’s presidential run recalls the close involvement of other political spouses, including Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Nancy Reagan. They had other trusted aides, and Ms. Sanders said her husband does too, listing Jeff Weaver, his 2016 campaign manager who has been by his side for decades; Faiz Shakir, his 2020 campaign manager; and Ari Rabin-Havt, a deputy campaign manager.

But if most politicians typically rely on their spouses as part of a larger group of consultants and close friends, Mr. Sanders maintains only a small inner circle and has long leaned primarily on his wife, who operates as something of a co-strategist for the Sanders brand.

“Where Jane goes, Bernie goes,” said Michael Ceraso, a high-ranking aide on Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign in New Hampshire and California. “She is his engine.”

She is also fiercely protective of her husband’s image.

When Mr. Sanders had elective hernia surgery in 2015, for example, her preference was not to tell the media, according to a Democrat familiar with the conversations at the time. But other advisers convinced her and Mr. Sanders that if they did not disclose the operation and it was later revealed, their secrecy would create a firestorm in the press. Much like with his heart attack last month, the campaign initially only released a statement with spare details.

The Sanders partnership formed soon after the two met at a political event during his first campaign for mayor in 1981. When he was in City Hall, she ran his youth office. They married in 1988.

When Mr. Sanders was elected to Congress in 1990, Jane Sanders served as his unpaid chief of staff, vetting potential staff members and writing dozens of pieces of legislation. She helped him form the Congressional Progressive Caucus in 1991, worked on his re-election ads and liaised with reporters.

Those who have worked with Mr. Sanders say his wife has extraordinary influence over his decisions. If they want him to sign off on something, one way to ensure it happens is to get her buy-in first.

That level of trust has made her one of Mr. Sanders’s most important assets. During the 2016 campaign, she was credited with helping to humanize her husband, who can come across as gruff and impersonal, offering a tour of their Burlington home and even showing reporters pictures of their wedding day from a photo album.

But she has also complicated his presidential bid: A federal investigation into her role in a 2010 land deal as president of a Vermont college threatened to undercut his populist appeal. (Ms. Sanders’s lawyer said last year that he had been told the investigation had been closed.)

She also started a public policy group, the Sanders Institute, that attracted scrutiny because her son served as executive director and drew a salary of $100,000 last year. She suspended its operations in March soon after Mr. Sanders announced his run.

And at times, her influence has also frustrated advisers.

Some people familiar with the campaign said she would get annoyed when it appeared that decisions were being made without her input, often prompting her to try to reassert control.

When Mr. Sanders’s aides were finalizing plans for the campaign announcement earlier this year, for instance, Ms. Sanders questioned whether it was wise to start the race in Brooklyn: Some observers, she warned, might note that Hillary Clinton had located her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn in 2016.

Her concern perplexed some Sanders advisers who wondered why that was relevant, according to one Democratic official familiar with the discussion, making the case that it was important to set the announcement in the city where Mr. Sanders and President Trump both grew up, to draw a contrast between their values. (Mr. Sanders ultimately did kick off his candidacy in Brooklyn, with a big rally that drew thousands of supporters.)

Mr. Shakir, the campaign manager, said he never heard Ms. Sanders express any concern about the announcement decision.

In another instance, Ms. Sanders was unhappy with one of the commercials Mr. Sanders’s consulting team devised for his campaign kickoff earlier this year, people familiar with the matter said. Without discussing their plans with the consultants, the Sanders’ decided that he would record a different, more unadorned advertisement from a Burlington studio — and he ultimately shared that version widely with supporters. But the move prompted the advisers, who played a central role in his 2016 bid, to abruptly quit the campaign.

People who know her say Ms. Sanders’s intense involvement stems both from her commitment to changing the world with progressive ideas and from her deep love for her husband.

“It’s a critical relationship for both of them,” said Jim Rader, a Sanders confidant who officiated their wedding. “I think she’s just been a very crucial part of obviously his personal life, but also his professional life.”

In the interview, Ms. Sanders said she was most concerned now about getting Mr. Sanders back in good health, including changing his diet to incorporate more vegetables, especially while on the campaign trail. And though she admitted to being worried after his heart scare, she said it had not prompted them to consider dropping out of the race.

“That’s been his entire life — fighting for the average working people in this country, and this is not the time to stop when it feels like things can really change,” she said.

“If it was more serious,” she added, “I’m sure we would have thought about it.”