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As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders surges in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, his long record in politics and activism — even as far back as 46-year-old op-eds in local Vermont newspapers — is coming under increasing scrutiny.
A clear example is a graphic we received from a reader who saw it circulating on the Internet. The creator is not listed, but it seems to have been put together by a supporter of Sanders’ rival, Hillary Clinton, since it highlights some of Sanders’ past positions that break with Democratic (and even mainstream) orthodoxy.
We gave the full fact-check treatment to one of the 12 claims listed, but we decided to briefly address the other 11, classifying them into four broad categories -- largely accurate, some truth but missing context, mostly incorrect, and inaccurate.
We sought input from both the Sanders and Clinton camps, but neither provided us with any information, so we found our own. Here’s what we discovered.
• Voted for NRA-backed laws to give gun manufacturers legal immunity
Sanders, whose state includes rural areas where guns are a way of life, has a more mixed record on guns than many Democratic elected officials do, especially those with a national profile. (We’ve looked at this issue before in this article.)
The 2003 measure was never voted on in the Senate, but when it came up in the Senate in 2005, Clinton voted against it.
• Voted to allow guns on Amtrak
Clinton, by then serving as secretary of state, did not vote on the amendment.
• Voted against comprehensive immigration reform in 2007
Sanders’ presidential campaign website says he would "sign comprehensive immigration reform into law to bring over 11 million undocumented workers out of the shadows."
However, he wasn’t always on that side of the issue. In 2007, when George W. Bush was president, Sanders joined with some conservative Republicans in opposing a comprehensive immigration bill. The bipartisan bill, sponsored by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went down in defeat.
At the time, Sanders worried that an influx of legal immigrants would lower wages for workers. "Sanders was basically one of our only allies … especially for low-skilled workers" in 2007, Ana Avendano, a former top immigration official at the AFL-CIO, told Politico earlier this year. "He adamantly put his foot down and said these kinds of programs (allow) employers to bring in more and more vulnerable workers."
"I wasn’t happy when he voted against the bill and I wasn’t happy we lost. It hurt," immigration-reform advocate Frank Sharry told Politico.
Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Tom Harkin of Iowa joined Sanders in voting against the measure. Clinton, by contrast, voted for the immigration bill, as did then-Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
• Opposes plans to raise visa caps to let more immigrants move to America legally
Sanders has been outspoken about his stance on H-1B visas, which are commonly used in the high-tech sector. (Contrary to the graphic's text, H-1B visas are for temporary guestworkers, not for permanent immigrants.) Sanders argues that the program allows corporations to give American jobs to foreign workers. In April, Sanders was one of 10 senators to seek an investigation into H-1B visas, citing concerns that the visas were being used to displace American workers.
The I-Squared Act of 2015 brought the issue of H-1B visas back into the spotlight. The legislation would raise the cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to up to 195,000, depending on market conditions and demand.
In 2008, Clinton said she supported raising the H-1B visa cap, according to InfoWorld. "Foreign skilled workers contribute greatly to our technological development," she said. "That is well understood in Silicon Valley."
• Opposes the Export-Import Bank
The Export-Import Bank of the United States, an agency that helps overseas companies finance American exports, was deauthorized on July 1 when its charter expired. Sanders voted against reauthorizing the bank’s charter in June.
"At a time when almost every major corporation in this country has shut down plants and outsourced millions of American jobs, we should not be providing corporate welfare to multi-national corporations through the Export-Import Bank," Sanders said in a statement. "If the Export-Import Bank cannot be reformed to become a vehicle for real job creation in the United States, it should be eliminated."
In May, Clinton slammed the Republican presidential candidates for opposing reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
"It’s wrong that candidates for president, who really should know better, are jumping on this bandwagon," she said in New Hampshire. "It’s wrong, it’s embarrassing. … The idea that we would remove this relatively small but vital source of funding for our businesses to compete is absolutely backwards."
• Voted to dump Vermont’s nuclear waste in a majority Latino community in Sierra Blanca, Texas
In 1998, the House of Representatives approved a compact struck between Texas, Vermont and Maine that would allow Vermont and Maine to dump low-level nuclear waste at a designated site in Sierra Blanca, Texas. Sanders, at the time representing Vermont in the House, cosponsored the bill and actively ushered it through Congress.
Located about 16 miles from the Mexican border, Sierra Blanca’s population is predominantly of Mexican ancestry. At the time, the community was about two-thirds Latino, and its residents had an average income of $8,000, according to the an article in the Bangor Daily News.
The low-level nuclear waste would include "items such as scrap metal and worker’s gloves… as well as medical gloves used in radiation treatments at hospitals," according to the Bangor Daily News. Clinton, then the First Lady, did not have a vote on the matter.
SOME TRUTH, BUT MISSING CONTEXT
• Voted to let income tax relief expire for ‘middle and working class families’
Sanders not only voted against final passage of a bill to temporarily extend the tax cuts first passed under George W. Bush, but his rhetoric against the measure brought him something approaching cult status within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 passed the Senate 81-19 on its way to becoming law. Sanders was one of 13 Democrats to vote against the bill -- and against the wishes of President Barack Obama.
As the bill was being debated, Sanders spoke on the floor for an eight-and-a-half-hour stretch, generating significant media attention. The speech was so popular that he turned it into a book in 2011.
There is no indication that Sanders actually wanted tax relief for "middle and working class" families to expire. Sanders argued that by extending the tax cuts for all income levels, the measure gave away too much to the richest Americans. Indeed, the graphic’s phrasing is a bit misleading; the bill passed despite Sanders’ "no" vote, so tax relief never did expire for "middle and working class families."
Clinton was secretary of state at the time and did not vote on the measure.
• Said African-American voters support Obama because of racial pride in an NPR interview in 2014
Asked about African-American support for Democrats in an NPR interview, Sanders said, "What you got is an African-American president, and the African-American community is very, very proud that this country has overcome racism and voted for him for president. And that's kind of natural. You've got a situation where the Republican Party has been strongly anti-immigration, and you've got a Hispanic community which is looking to the Democrats for help."
Sanders went on to say that voters "should not be basing your politics based on your color. What you should be basing your politics on is, how is your family doing?"
• Said "America has overcome racism by electing a black president" in a 2014 NPR interview
This came from the same NPR interview as the previous claim. The graphic gets Sanders’ words right, but mangles the context.
Reading the full quote, it’s clear that Sanders is not saying that Obama’s election means that racism has ceased to exist in America. Rather, he said that on the specific issue of electing a president, the electorate has moved past any inherent racism and voted (twice) to elect an African-American candidate as president.
• Wrote an article supporting legalizing all drugs, including heroin and cocaine
The liberal magazine Mother Jones recently published a few articles reviewing Sanders’ early history in politics and activism. In one, journalist Tim Murphy wrote that during the early 1970s, "Sanders floated hippie-friendly proposals, such as legalizing all drugs."
However, there’s no evidence that he supports such a position today. In fact, while Sanders supports legalization of medical marijuana and the decriminalization of small amounts of recreational marijuana, he is undecided on full-bore legalization of recreational marijuana -- let alone urging legalization of recreational heroin or cocaine.
Last May, Sanders said during an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, "the state of Vermont voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I support that. I have supported the use of medical marijuana. And when I was mayor of Burlington, in a city with a large population, I can tell you very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana. Our police had more important things to do. Colorado has led the effort toward legalizing marijuana and I'm going to watch very closely to see the pluses and minuses of what they have done. I will have more to say about this issue within the coming months."
In addition, Sanders in 2014 called heroin addiction a "very, very serious problem" in Vermont. "Heroin is a killer. Once you're into heroin, it's either jail or death," Sanders said. He has focused on increasing treatment resources as opposed to treating addiction as a criminal problem; he has spoken out more generally against a "war on drugs approach."
• Wrote an article arguing fluoridated tap water is a plot by government to control citizens’ lives
For those who may have forgotten about what fluoridated water does, it aims to prevent tooth decay. (We have previously discussed the topic here.)
In August 1969, in a column titled "Reflections on a Dying Society," Sanders wrote, "The fluoridation of water and the giving of medicants to children in schools are portents, perhaps, of many worse things to come."
However, this was just one line in a much longer article, and it’s debatable whether the sentence even supports the graphic’s claim that Sanders thought fluoridation was, or is, a government plot. (Not to mention, once again, that he wrote the article 46 years ago.)
More importantly, Sanders today is on record supporting the medical benefits of fluoridated water.
In his capacity as a congressional subcommittee chairman, Sanders released a report on dental care in 2012. It included this passage: "We must ensure that all people get the preventive services and education they need to maintain oral health, especially those who do not have the resources to be immediately seen by a dentist when a problem develops. For example, drinking fluoridated water can have important oral health benefits for everyone, especially for those who are unable to access or afford dental care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized community water fluoridation as one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 21st century."
• Opposes requiring all children to have a K-12 education
The graphic doesn’t just claim that Sanders doesn’t support a K-12 education. By using the present tense, it argues that Sanders still believes it.
Like some of the claims above, the claim is based on writings and campaigns from more than 40 years ago — sufficiently long ago to be of questionable value. More recent legislative evidence indicates that Sanders supports a traditional view of K-12 education. Since there is no evidence that Sanders currently opposes compulsory education through 12th grade, we rated the claim False.
CLARIFICATION, Sept. 22, 2015: This article has been updated to reflect that the language of the viral graphic incorrectly equated H1B visas (which are for temporary guestworkers) and permanent immigration.
Viral chart, received by PolitiFact, Sept. 8, 2015
Mother Jones, "How Bernie Sanders Learned to Be a Real Politician: A portrait of the candidate as a young radical," Tue May 26, 2015
Mother Jones, " 'You Might Very Well Be the Cause of Cancer: Read Bernie Sanders' 1970s-Era Essays," July 6, 2015
Seven Days, "Sanders on Sanders: Meet the Mayor," March 13, 1981
Bernard Sanders, "Reflections on a Dying Society" (in the Vermont Freeman), Aug. 1-3, 1969
Congress.gov, DIPLOMA Act, accessed Sept. 10, 2015
Congress.gov, Supporting Community Schools Act of 2013, accessed Sept. 10, 2015
NPR, "Sen. Bernie Sanders On How Democrats Lost White Voters," Nov. 19, 2014
Los Angeles Times, "Sen. Bernie Sanders ends filibuster," Dec. 10, 2010
Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, "Dental Crisis in America: The Need to Expand Access," Feb. 29, 2012
Politico, "Sanders and immigration? It's complicated," June 19, 2015
Feelthebern.org, "Bernie Sanders on Drug Policy," accessed Sept. 21, 2015
Joe Nocera, "Republican Job Killers and the Export-Import Bank," Sept. 18, 2015
Bernie Sanders presidential campaign website, "A Fair and Humane Immigration Policy," accessed Sept. 21, 2015
Bernie Sanders, Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, May 2015
Huffington Post, "Bernie Sanders On Philip Seymour Hoffman And Vermont's Heroin Epidemic," Feb. 7, 2014
U.S. News & World Report, "Sanders: Wall Street Wants Immigration Reform To Depress Wages," July 30, 2015
ComputerWorld, "10 U.S. senators seek investigation into H-1B-driven layoffs," Apr. 9, 2015
The Hill, "Senate votes to revive Ex-Im," July 26, 2015
InfoWorld, "Clinton, McCain and Obama on H-1B visas," Feb. 26, 2008
Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, "Sanders Votes Against Ex-Im Bank," June 10, 2015
National Review, "The Largest Loan in Ex-Im History Is Covered in the Clintons’ Fingerprints," July 13, 2015
Bangor Daily News, "Maine-Vermont nuclear waste compact approved by House," July 30, 1998
Office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, "Congressional Record Transcript of Sanders Filibuster," Dec. 10, 2010
PolitiFact, "Did Bernie Sanders vote against background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases?" July 10, 2015