PHOENIX — A mother of five cried as she recounted being sexually assaulted in an immigration detention center. She pulled up the sleeves of her navy blue blazer to show where she had tried to slit her wrists with an asthma inhaler container. Across the table, a father who had been detained in a workplace immigration raid cried as he described the humiliation he felt living with a GPS-monitoring bracelet around his ankles.
They told their stories in the hopes that the woman sitting next to them would take them to her husband, who is running for president. “I’m here to listen because you’re fellow human beings,” said Jane Sanders, who still has a chance of becoming the next first lady if Sen. Bernie Sanders can pull off a series of upset wins over the next few months.
Jane Sanders—a 65-year-old former college president, community organizer, and motorcycle enthusiast—has largely avoided the spotlight as her husband battles Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. But on a recent solo swing through Arizona, which holds its primary on Tuesday, Sanders showed why she might be the campaign’s last best chance to decisively win the Latino and Native American voters her husband needs to breathe new life into the race.
In a series of emotional meetings with Latino and Native American groups in Arizona, and in interviews with Fusion, the candidate’s wife was surprisingly candid about her own life, demonstrating a personal touch even she acknowledges her husband sometimes lacks.
“Bernie thinks and focuses on the issues and the policies. I feel, and I focus on how those policies could affect a woman I’m looking at right now,” Sanders told me in an interview at the campaign’s Arizona headquarters in Phoenix.
Jane Sanders is often referred to as her husband’s closest adviser, despite her low profile. On this trip, she became the subject of controversy herself after she was photographed speaking with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has endorsed Donald Trump and has been found by a federal court to have engaged in racial profiling by targeting Latinos for raids and traffic stops.
Sanders had planned to view the conditions at Arpaio’s infamous “tent city”—a makeshift outdoor jail notorious for its allegedly appalling conditions—but Arpaio unexpectedly showed up and invited her inside. When photos of the pair talking inside the jail started circulating online, critics started speaking out in anger that Sanders would meet with a man so reviled among progressives. In interviews, Sen. Sanders was forced to speak up and defend his wife’s visit.
What many of the critics failed to mention was that Sanders’ visit had been organized by Puente Arizona, a Phoenix immigrant rights group. (Puente Arizona also helped organize a protest that blocked traffic to a Donald Trump rally on Saturday.)
The conversation with Arpaio was hardly cordial. She asked him: “You don’t think there’s any problem that we have more people in jail in America than every other place, including communist China?”
“Well, in a lot of countries they chop heads off,” Arpaio responded.
Immediately after the run-in with Arpaio, Sanders sat down with 12 immigrants for a roundtable discussion organized by Puente Arizona. For close to an hour and a half, she asked questions and cried alongside undocumented immigrants, including teens who entered the country as unaccompanied minors seeking refuge. Sanders didn’t say much until all of them were done speaking.
“What you have endured is not right, and it is not the way we want to be as America,” Sanders told the room. It was 6:26 p.m., and she was running late to meet with a group of Native Americans. But there was still another group of immigrant rights leaders in the neighboring room waiting to greet her. So after wiping away her tears, Sanders put on her game face and walked across to the next room, where she encouraged a bigger group of undocumented immigrants to tell their U.S. citizen friends to vote for her husband.
Sanders met her husband while working as a community organizer—she was working on a campaign to block a proposed property tax, and he was running for mayor of Burlington, Vermont. She seems more in her element on the ground having conversations with people than she is on the stage.
Unlike her husband, who’s known for sticking to his policy points, Jane Sanders said she likes to wing it. She talks to crowds without teleprompters or notes. She’s briefed ahead of events, then improvises as she goes.
“I can answer questions all day,” Sanders told me after a rally at the Arizona headquarters. “I want to be in the moment, talk to people and see what they need and speak to the reality in front of me. I speak extemporaneously—it’s just me.”
In an apparent effort to capitalize on these strengths, the campaign sent Sanders to Arizona three days before her husband arrived. In 2008, Hillary Clinton won 13 of Arizona's 15 counties in the Democratic primary, defeating the future President Obama. Clinton did particularly well with Latino voters in the state, and the Sanders campaign, already facing a steep challenge in the delegate math, is trying to prevent a repeat.
But Sen. Sanders hasn’t yet proved himself to Latino voters, especially older Latinos. Clinton convincingly won the Latino vote in both Texas and Florida, two of the biggest states on the primary calendar. Sanders’ campaign claimed to have won the Latino vote in the Nevada caucuses in early February, but those numbers have been called into question by the Clinton camp. Some polls showed him crushing Clinton among Latino voters in the Illinois primary, but he ultimately lost the state.
There are projected to be 1.3 million eligible Latino voters in Arizona this election, up from 796,000 in 2008—Latinos make up 21.5% of eligible voters in Arizona. Native American voters comprise 3% of Arizona's population.
Sanders was born Mary Jane O’Meara to Irish Catholic parents in Brooklyn and grew up in a working-class family struggling to keep up with medical bills. (When Sanders was 2, her father tripped on a sidewalk and was hospitalized for more than two years.)
She moved away to study child development at the University of Tennessee. She met her first husband and fell in love with riding her motorcycle through the roads of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg.
“I will not let my kids have a motorcycle, but I had a wonderful time driving in rural Tennessee,” said Sanders, who stopped riding after she had three children. She bought the Bridgestone 60 Sport in 1969, she said, at a discounted price from someone who had won it on The Newlywed Game. At the time women constituted about 1% of motorcycle owners.
When I asked Sanders whether she knew of other women who rode motorcycles, she said no. She had never thought about it that way.
For her, unconventional choices were typical. “I didn’t know anyone who had a natural childbirth when I had my first child. I didn’t know anyone who breastfed when I had my first child,” she said. “I didn’t seem to think about where my path led. I didn’t worry about it being well-traveled.”
A researcher at the National First Ladies' Library said it had no documentation that a first lady has ever commuted by motorcycle. Another historian of first ladies told me she had never heard of one who rode motorcycles. (Jackie O. may have ridden in Greece, but no one can say for sure.)
After she had her third child, Sanders considered getting a motorcycle again. But as she was test-driving a new bike, she fell and hit her head and went blind for a day. She hasn’t considered buying another motorcycle since.
“I was so mad at myself—so, so mad at myself. How can I take that kind of risk with my children? I never rode a motorcycle again,” Sanders said. “I’m young at heart, what can I tell you?”
Unlike her husband, Jane Sanders travels without Secret Service agents, which means people can grab her for selfies whenever they feel like it. At the rally, there was no orderly line waiting for her. Instead, it was a swarm of admirers who had waited in the hot Arizona sun for hours. The senator’s wife maintained a smile.
When she took the stage, she spoke for less than five minutes. She’s been the president of two private colleges and has addressed large audiences before, but these campaign speeches are new to her, she said, because she has to ignite the crowd and move it to action. At this event, the campaign was looking for volunteers who would commit to driving registered voters to the polls.
As she left the stage, the crowd ran toward her, holding their smartphones in the air to take pictures. There weren’t many people of color, even though just up the street hundreds of Latinos were walking out of a Sunday Mass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church. A Mexican-American churchgoer selling pan dulce and other breakfast goods to raise funds for the church said she had no idea there was a rally down the street. She’s a Clinton supporter but is reconsidering because she heard the only female candidate left in the race supports Planned Parenthood. (Sanders also supports Planned Parenthood.)
“I do know Bernie Sanders is a Democrat and that he’s running for president against Hillary Clinton. That’s as much as I know,” said the churchgoer, Juanita Islas, a parent coordinator at a local high school.
Despite not knowing much about Bernie Sanders, she said the senator from Vermont could still win Arizona for one simple reason.
“A lot of Hispanics are afraid of Donald Trump and turning their votes in a different direction,’ Islas said. “I think he’s got a fair shot.”
Arizona voters will vote in the primary on Tuesday. Jane Sanders will be there until then.