Sanders Institute has little to show for first year and $500K

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Last summer, Jane Sanders launched The Sanders Institute, a Progressive think tank backed by star power and big money. It's goal: "revitalize democracy." The initiative represented the second stage in what was originally envisioned by Jane and her husband, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as a three-pronged progressive political machine.

Sen. Sanders announced this vision shortly after bowing out of the last presidential race, in a July 2016 interview with USA Today. He explained that the first organization, Our Revolution, would train, support and recruit candidates, while the Sanders Institute would spread awareness of the country's "enormous crises." Sanders also imagined a third organization, described broadly as a political ad agency, that has not materialized.

These first two Sanders-affiliated organizations have seen rocky launches. A recent Politico piece - entitled "Bernie's army in disarray" - detailed the myriad issues plaguing Our Revolution, from waning fundraising numbers to managerial problems.

Less attention has been paid to The Sanders Institute, a 501(c)(3) non-profit without disclosure

requirements whose mission must be chiefly non-partisan. A VTDigger analysis of organization's maiden year found little original work from the think tank, which took in nearly half-a-million dollars in contributions and grants last year.

The Sanders Institute website launched on June 7, 2017, with 29,000 unique page views, according to IRS documents obtained by VTDigger. In the first two months of its existence, the site saw 126,000 visitors. With irregular updates and limited original content, traffic has taken a dive. The Sanders Institute saw roughly 12,300 unique page views in June 2018, according to Semrush, a website analytics company.

Some involved with Sanders' political movement privately question the efficacy of the institute, but they declined to have their name attached to those comments for this article.

Jane Sanders wears many hats at the institute: founder, fellow, fundraiser and a non-voting member of the board of directors. The institute is being run by her son, David Driscoll, a political neophyte who previously worked at Burton Snowboards. His estimated salary for the job is $100,000.

The Sanders family has faced charges of nepotism in the past, including when Jane Sanders, as president of the now-defunct Burlington College, brokered a favorable partnership with a woodworking program run by her daughter, Carina Driscoll. Carina was also a paid campaign staffer for her step-father in his 2000 and 2004 House campaigns. In January, Our Revolution endorsed her unsuccessful bid to be Burlington Mayor, and sent out a national fundraising email on her behalf.

Jane Sanders did not return a call seeking comment for this article. David Driscoll declined requests from VTDigger for a phone interview, but responded to many of the detailed questions submitted by VTDigger in an email, mostly about the organization's policy initiatives and operating strategy, taking issue with the premise of the inquiry.

"Unfortunately, after reading through your questions, it is clear that you and Vermont Digger are not interested in the work that The Sanders Institute is doing but rather looking to cast aspersions with no basis in fact," Driscoll wrote in an email. "It is disappointing that VTDigger seems to be only interested in playing politics with a non-partisan organization that is only just getting started."

In a June 2017 interview with USA Today, Jane Sanders said the institute would be producing and distributing "original content," yet the organization's website is largely filled with recycled work. In its first year, the group has released just four press releases, three of which were released in its first month of existence.

Under the organization's "Research and Reports" section of its website, there are 18 posts, 16 of which are reposted from other sources, including from federal agencies and institute fellows. The remaining two posts are authored by Sanders Institute staffers. One is a breakdown of how citizens can contact their elected representatives; the text of the other — entitled A Freedom Budget For All Americans — is attributed to Wikipedia.

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Driscoll defended the institution's output.

"We have chosen our fellows to amplify their work, whether it is created by us, for us or done in their own professional capacities," Driscoll said in an email. "We believe the content that we have produced on voting rights, budget parity, student loan debt, the federal jobs guarantee and the climate crisis, to name a few, have been significant in creating awareness and shifting the debate, therefore moving towards change."

Driscoll declined to respond to further questions about what content he was referring to. He said the institute had also established partnerships with organizations and conference around the world, though he again declined to provide further details. He added that his mother was recently a participant in a conference at the Vatican as part of the United Nations' Sustainable Goals initiative.

Jane Sanders also told USA Today that one area of focus would be the lack of proper funding and management of healthcare on native American reservations. She told the publication that she planned to personally visit Alaska to highlight the work of the Southcentral Foundation's work to improve rural and native health conditions. That hasn't happened, though Driscoll said the trip is "still on our agenda."

IRS documents lay out another bold goal of Jane's: writing a report on "eradicating poverty for the United Nations' sustainable development goals stories initiative." Driscoll said in an email that the UN report had been completed, but did not respond to VTDigger's request for a copy of it. The report was not found in online searches, and a UN spokesperson didn't respond to a request for the report.

The most significant original report The Sanders Institute has been involved with advocated for Medicare For All, and was completed in conjunction with the National Nurses United (NNU), a labor union that threw its support behind Sanders' presidential bid. Sanders Institute fellow Michael Lighty, as well as Jane Sanders and Driscoll, helped draft the report, which was funded by NNU.

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The institute has also produced a number of fact-sheets and video interviews, two of which feature Jane Sanders interviewing Institute fellow Stephanie Kelton, a progressive economist.

Star-studded start

Jane convened a meeting in 2016 to discuss the creation of the institute. Those gathered included top advisers to Sen. Sanders, including Huck Gutman and Jeff Weaver, as well as Our Revolution Executive Director Shannon Jackson. David Driscoll was also in attendance at the meeting, but had not been named as its director yet.

Driscoll, a former team manager at Burton Snowboards, worked with his mother to set up the organization's structure, according to IRS documents. The organization got off the ground thanks, in part, to at least $25,000 of personal funds from Jane and Bernie Sanders, who have pledged to be frequent contributors.

The Sanders Institute also received roughly $190,000 in seed money from Our Revolution to be applied to salaries, technology series and professional support. (The Institute pledged to begin paying Our Revolution back, starting last September, in $15,000 installments; Driscoll said the Institute has "made good on the repayment of the start-up loan from Our Revolution.")

The organization has also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from donations, including two large donations listed in tax documents — for $15,000 and $30,000 respectively. The Sanders Institute declined to detail these contributions, though Driscoll said in an email that "Bernie and Jane Sanders are the Institute's top donors."

As the work to launch the Sanders Institute kicked into gear, Jane Sanders selected and recruited the first round of institute fellows, many of whom were Sanders' surrogates during the 2016 campaign. They include author Bill McKibben, actor Danny Glover, and philosopher Cornel West.

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Neither Jane nor any of the founding fellows are paid. There are just three paid staffers: Driscoll (whose estimated salary is $100,000), Ellyn Heald, who directs the fellows program, and Colleen Lineweaver, the director of research. (Tax documents estimate Heald and Lineweaver's annual salaries at around $75,000 each.)

Lineweaver is married to Our Revolution's director, Shannon Jackson. On Lineweaver's LinkedIn, it stated that she worked as a researcher at The Glover Park Group, a political consulting firm, in addition to her work at The Sanders Institute. After VTDigger asked Driscoll about Lineweaver's work at Glover Park, he responded that she "works full-time for us exclusively. She has corrected her LinkedIn."

Heald, who directs the fellows program, appears to have earned her first political experience as a special advisor on Sanders' presidential campaign. Before that, according to LinkedIn, she was an actor.

Growing pains

While Our Revolution shared some of the Sanders Institute's growing pains in its first year, it has quickly become a force in progressive politics.

According to tax documents obtained by VTDigger, Our Revolution has swelled into an organization with 25 paid staffers. The organization brought in nearly 3.5 million in 2016, the most recent year with publicly available data.

Because Our Revolution is 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the group doesn't have to disclose its donors, which has led to frustration from progressive activists who, like Sanders, want to stop political groups from pouring untraceable money into influencing elections. Our Revolution voluntarily discloses its donors on its website, though it doesn't detail the size of gifts and some donors are listed only as "anonymous."

Shortly after Our Revolution launched, five staffers quit over frustrations that the group would focus too much on media work instead of prioritizing grass-roots organizing. In 2016, the group's largest expense was digital messaging ($609,693), compared to $242,924 doled out for grassroots advocacy.

The organization has had mixed political success, with roughly 50 percent of its endorsed candidates winning their elections. It recently scored significant primary wins in late June when Ben Jealous, a former Sanders campaign surrogate running for Maryland governor, and Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, a former Sanders organizer running for Congress in New York City, both won their primary elections.

Our Revolution launched a Political Action Committee, or PAC, in April. While Sen. Sanders has decried PACs in the past, Politico reported that it was formed so that Sanders could raise money directly through the structure, and that Our Revolution staffers could coordinate directly with campaigns.

Huck Gutman, a longtime Sanders adviser and Our Revolution board member, acknowledged that fundraising was lagging some from its early months, but said the Politico piece was "an unjustified attack on Our Revolution."

"Our Revolution has had its mistakes and its growing pains," Gutman said. "But it has done a lot of good work, and is far stronger than the Politico article portrayed."


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