When Carina Driscoll announced she was running for mayor of Burlington – the local Vermont office her stepfather Bernie Sanders once held – she was determined to be her own candidate.
But the Sanders family ties have loomed large in the race, for better or worse.
On one hand, her campaign hopes to capitalize on the popularity of the state’s independent senator, with one ad calling her “Bernie's daughter.” But another family connection could prove more problematic.
With the election coming up next month, Driscoll’s candidacy has been hit with controversy over payments her business once received from the college her mother used to run.
Jane O’Meara Sanders was president of Burlington College from 2004 through 2011 – and from 2009 through 2012, the college paid about $500,000 to Driscoll’s Vermont Woodworking School.
“It speaks to the way she does business,” Carol A. Moore, Jane Sanders’ successor as Burlington College president, told Fox News, when asked if the deal reflects on the Driscoll mayoral race.
She accused Driscoll of gouging the college with a sweetheart deal awarded by her mother.
The college itself also has been in the headlines for months.
A federal grand jury has heard testimony regarding a $10 million loan to the school in 2010, and allegations the college overestimated its ability to pay the money back.
Jane Sanders left with a $200,000 severance. The college closed in 2016 unable to pay its debt.
Reached by phone, Driscoll campaign spokeswoman Elise Greaves told Fox News she would call back, but did not. Greaves didn’t respond to subsequent detailed voicemails about the topic of this story.
Driscoll did not respond to an email inquiry from Fox News sent to an address provided by the Vermont Woodworking School.
Carving Out a Deal?
The details of the partnership between Burlington College and the Vermont Woodworking School were first reported by VTDigger, with links to the college’s 990 forms. Later, other news outlets also reported on the controversial links.
The college paid out $500,000 to Driscoll’s business over the course of the partnership.
“The partnership and the financial agreements were brought to the board by Jane Sanders and developed by Jane Sanders and Carina Driscoll,” said Moore, who presided over Burlington College’s 2016 demise and is now president of Columbia College in South Carolina.
Moore said the woodworking school could not have been financially sustainable without Burlington College, because it needed to be able to provide degrees in order to qualify for student financial aid. Driscoll’s woodworking school now has an agreement with Johnson State College.
As for the probe regarding the Burlington College finances, Moore said that when investigators from the FBI and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. talked to her, the woodworking school was “not directly” a topic.
She added, “Their focus was on the bank and loan, but they are looking at the full tenure of Jane Sanders at Burlington College and the financial workings or lack thereof.”
Driscoll’s campaign website touts that she founded the woodworking school in 2007, but the campaign does not mention Burlington College. Driscoll’s campaign site says she and her husband Blake Ewoldsen, along with their friend Bob Fletcher, founded the school.
“Carina had taken up woodworking as a hobby and the three founders identified a need for a school in Vermont, a place where craftsmanship and fine wood furniture-making was both an important part of our heritage and a dying art,” the campaign site says.
‘On My Own’
Driscoll is running as an independent in the March 6 election -- with the endorsement from Vermont’s Progressive Party -- challenging incumbent Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger. Also in the contest is independent candidate Infinite Culcleasure.
When announcing her candidacy for mayor in December, Driscoll told Vermont newspaper, Seven Days, “It's important to me that I enter this campaign on my own.”
Driscoll, who previously served in the Vermont state legislature and on the Burlington City Council, even vented to the paper, “I will never, ever get credit for fully completing anything on my own.”
For his part, Sen. Sanders said upon his stepdaughter’s announcement in December, “Today is Carina's day, and her words and her ideas should be the focus, not anyone else’s.”
However, Driscoll later posted an ad on social media that says: “I am Bernie's daughter, and am one of the thousands of people across this country inspired by Bernie to lead during this challenging time.”
Our Revolution, a political group that grew from the Sanders presidential campaign, endorsed her, with a tweet that said Driscoll “will push for more transparent government, protect community assets, and invest in Burlington schools.” The organization’s profile page on the candidate also linked to Driscoll’s fundraising page.
Weinberger has raised more than $80,000 compared to Driscoll’s haul of about $33,000, Vermont Public Radio reported in early February.
Weinberger’s spokeswoman Jordan Redell told Fox News the mayor would not be commenting for this story.