STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Trouble at the Department of Veterans Affairs has thrown a spotlight on a man demanding change. That man is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
He serves as an independent. Though, in practical terms, he's one of the Senate Democrats. He describes himself as a socialist.
INSKEEP: And this socialist barely got two percent of the vote when he first ran for office in the 1970s. Now he's thinking of running for president. NPR's Ailsa Chang traveled to his home state.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When Bernie Sanders opens his mouth, you don't hear New England. You hear Brooklyn.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: The cost of war is huge.
CHANG: And you'll notice, sitting next to him at lunch, idle chitchat isn't his thing.
SANDERS: It's not just tanks and guns and planes. It's what happens to people's lives.
CHANG: Even the most casual conversation inevitably returns to the central idea that animates him - the wide gulf between rich and poor in this country.
SANDERS: What is part of my DNA - something that, you know, I never will forget. It's just the stress in the family over money. My mother, you know, feeling that we just never had enough money to do what she wanted to do. When I was a kid, you know, you buy sneakers. Well, some kids get certain types of speakers, and some kids get other types of speakers. Well, I got the other type of sneakers.
CHANG: We're at Henry's Diner in Burlington, Vermont, where he was an immensely popular mayor in the '80s. His frizzy hair may have gotten whiter since, but it could still use a comb. Sanders created more affordable housing here and stopped development on the waterfront to make it more accessible.
SANDERS: And that's what democratic socialism is. It is, essentially - bottom line - making government work for all of the people.
CHANG: Now, if you're wondering how a democratic socialist differs from a Democrat, he'll point to the time he took to the Senate floor for eight and a half hours in 2010, railing against President Obama for supporting Bush era tax cuts. That's drawn him few fans in corporate America. But to understand how Bernie Sanders has, perhaps, become the most popular politician in Vermont, go to the most conservative part of the state. It's called the Northeast Kingdom. Sanders does really well here.
(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)
CHANG: The region is lush and green and dotted with dairy farms.
RANDY MEADE: Our motto is you take care of the cows and the cows will take care of you.
CHANG: Randy Meade and his family are milking their cows right now. Meade owns guns, thinks gay marriage is immoral, and says the government should spend a lot less. But he's always voted for Sanders because he says Sanders protects small farmers like him against the larger dairy farms. When milk prices dropped a few years ago, the senator led the push for more government assistance so family farms wouldn't go out of business.
MEADE: He's not intimidated by large money. He's not intimidated by well-dressed people with two, three thousand dollar suits. That's not Bernie. And that's not us either.
CHANG: This is the poorest part of Vermont, where Sander's ability to bring in federal help resonates more loudly than any dig that he's a liberal. He brought more federally funded health centers here and more outreach clinics for veterans.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Budweiser, buddy?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Please.
CHANG: A few of these vets were having beers at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Clubroom in Newport. Everyone had a gripe about the VA's health care system, but none of it was aimed at Sanders. Instead, people like Steve Brochu pointed to the bill Sanders crafted that would fund more facilities and more doctors.
STEVE BROCHU: I really believe that he cares a lot about us, even though he's never experienced what we've been through. He cares, and he listens.
CHANG: Vermont's population is smaller than most congressional districts. Still, it's striking how many people have actually met Sanders in person. His former chief of staff, Huck Gutman, gives credit to the Senator's hundreds of town hall meetings.
HUCK GUTMAN: It's almost amazing to me to go to a town meeting after two. After two and a half hours, I think, it's enough already, Bernie. He wants everybody to speak who wants to speak.
CHANG: This meticulous tending to constituents began during Sanders days as mayor of Burlington, when he road snowplows to make sure streets were cleared after storms and when he took calls from constituents in the middle of the night. It's how he's built a personal connection to so many voters. After a parade got canceled in Montpelier, Sanders decided to walk the streets anyway.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Bernie for president.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: I'm voting for you. You better run for president, bud. I've been waiting for you for 10 years. OK?
CHANG: Now, there are critics out here. Some say the senator shouldn't call himself an independent since he votes with the Democrats so often. Sanders says that's confusing what it means to be independent.
SANDERS: The issue for me about being an independent is not to be somewhere in the middle of an extreme right-wing Republican Party and a, you know, middle of the road Democratic Party.
CHANG: Sanders remains coy about whether he'll actually run for president. But if he does, he says it'll be for those voters who aren't being well represented by either party. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
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