Notoriously standoffish when outlanders from big cities show up eager for the simple life, Vermonters are making a rare exception for Jane O'Meara Sanders.
A dweller in Washington, D.C., for much of the past six years and -- this didn't help either -- a child of unruly Brooklyn, Sanders is the new provost at Goddard College here in pastoral north-central Vermont. The Burlington Free Press, the state's largest daily and ever wary about interlopers slipping into the north country, editorialized that Sanders has "progressive credentials . . . above question." She is "the right person" for the provost's job.
With the school searching for a new president, the provost is effectively in charge.
Two reasons explain the welcoming support for Sanders. She is a Goddard alumna who ebulliently credits the free-spirited school and its creative faculty for "changing my life" and, second, she is as rooted in public service to Vermont as any transplant can be.
Her married name gives a hint. She is the wife of Rep. Bernard Sanders, Vermont's lone member of the House and the only Independent now in Congress. From 1981 to 1989, Bernard Sanders, a teacher and writer, served as the democratic socialist mayor of Burlington. In the tradition of Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, he proved that principled politics could be effective politics.
One of the first volunteers offering to help the new mayor in 1981 was Jane O'Meara. She organized the city's youth office, the creation of which was the mayor's first official act. Within a few months, the couple -- with children from earlier marriages -- began dating. They married in 1988.
If the coming together of a socialist Jewish politician and an Irish Catholic social worker seemed unlikely, the bonding came through their shared belief that creating a justice-based society is not only everyone's duty but is entirely possible.
In Washington, Jane Sanders threw herself wholeheartedly into politics by serving as her husband's unpaid chief of staff and policy adviser. It meant 70-hour workweeks and some Vermont simple living in a basement apartment a walk from the Capitol.
In the past six years, Jane Sanders wrote more than 50 pieces of legislation. In the last Congress, Bernard Sanders had the second-best record in the House for passing amendments to appropriations bills on the floor of the House, offering 10 and seeing four become law. A major Sanders victory was an increase in funding for heating oil for low-income families, after the program was marked to be sacked. In 1991, Rep. Sanders began talking up an increase in the minimum wage. That is socialist babble, was the word. The bill became law this year.
Those who predicted that Bernard and Jane Sanders would be too radical, too unyielding and too far-out Vermonty either to find a fit in Congress or to be able to build coalitions have been proven wrong. In 1991, Rep. Sanders, with his wife's help, formed the congressional Progressive Caucus. Five members joined. Now it has 52.
For themselves, Jane Sanders says whimsically: "When Bernie was elected, he said, Bet you never thought you'd be married to a congressman.' The other day, I said, Bet you never thought you'd be married to a provost.' "
In her mid-forties, Jane Sanders is winsomely friendly, articulate and sufficiently experienced in local and national politics to know how to grip the gears of an organization and move it forward. Among the nation's small liberal arts colleges, Goddard, with 550 students whose names, bents and spiritualities are personally known to their professors, is in the innovative wing that includes Earlham (Ind.), College of the Atlantic (Maine), Trinity (D.C.), St. Mary's (Md.) and Hillsdale (Mich.).
Goddard students can design their own course of studies. A current seminar is called "Let Them Eat Cake." At first, some of the students thought it was a cooking course. Others said it was about the French Revolution. Neither. It's an examination of U.S. food policies and world hunger.
If students taking the course want to discuss its ideas with Jane Sanders, they can do so over a meal with her in the community dining room. Everyone -- faculty, students and workers -- chows together, including Vermont's congressman, who's been dropping in a lot lately.