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Here's how Bernie Sanders made his millions — and why it matters in the 2020 election

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How Bernie Sanders made his millions
Key Points
  • Self-proclaimed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders became a millionaire after he vaulted to national fame as a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.
  • Much of the Vermont lawmaker's income stems from book deals.
  • Sanders says his wealth will not affect his policies as he runs a presidential campaign that hinges in part on criticizing the influence of "millionaires and billionaires."

It turns out even democratic socialist authors can rake in cash. Just ask Bernie Sanders.

The independent senator from Vermont has enjoyed a recent windfall driven by book deals. In both 2016 and 2017, Sanders and his wife, Jane, had adjusted gross income of about $1.1 million, according to tax returns his 2020 presidential campaign released last month. The couple followed it up with about $560,000 in income last year.

The totals mark a stark increase from 2015, when they made roughly $240,000.

[CNBC is looking at how top 2020 presidential candidates accumulated their wealth. Check back for more updates.]

Sanders built a devoted following during his 2016 Democratic presidential primary bid against Hillary Clinton. His income spiked along with his fame. Now, the senator ranks among the "millionaires and billionaires" he has criticized during his nearly four decades as an elected official.

The tax returns raised questions about whether Sanders' newfound wealth conflicts with his message. The senator, who wants to hike taxes on the wealthy to build up social programs such as "Medicare for All" and tuition-free public college, says his fatter wallet will not affect his plans. During a CNN town hall last month, Sanders responded to questions about his wealth by saying, "I plead guilty to have written a book which was an international best-seller."

"But I think your question should ask, well, now that you wrote a book, you made money, is that going to mean that you change your policies?" Sanders continued during the event. "Well, you're looking at somebody who not only voted against Trump's disastrous tax plan — 83 percent of the benefits going to the top 1% — but I have and will continue in this campaign to fight for progressive taxation."

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont holds a rally at Central Piedmont Community College on the lawn of Overcash Center in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, May 17, 2019. (David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
David T. Foster III | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

So just what made Bernie and Jane Sanders millionaires?

Book royalties

  • In 2018, Bernie Sanders reported more than $390,000 in book royalties.
  • He more than doubled the haul in both 2016 and 2017, taking in about $850,000 each year from books.
  • Jane Sanders added about another $106,000 in book income in 2017.

Senate salary

  • Sanders makes a $174,000 annual salary as a senator.
  • The couple's returns list taxable wages at $130,000 to $140,000 from 2016 through 2018.

Assets and liabilities

  • The couple had assets valued at $472,000 to $1.3 million last year, according to a Senate financial disclosure form.
  • A chunk of it, worth $250,001 to $500,000, sits in bank accounts at the U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union.
  • Much of the wealth comes from mutual funds and annuities held by Jane Sanders.
  • They list one liability: a mortgage estimated at $250,001 to $500,000. Sanders has three homes: He most recently sparked criticism when he bought a $575,000 summer house on Lake Champlain in Vermont. It is unclear which house has a mortgage.

Sanders has argued in recent days that institutional and policy change will do more to address issues in the U.S. than charity. Responding Sunday to billionaire Robert F. Smith's donation to forgive student debt for all 2019 Morehouse College graduates, he called the gift "very generous" but said "the student crisis will not be solved by charity" and "must be addressed by governmental action."

Politicians making big money — both while they hold office and after they leave — is nothing new. President Barack Obama reportedly commanded $400,000 speaking fees after his tenure ended in 2017. President Donald Trump used his wealth as a selling point during his 2016 campaign — and he still profits from his private businesses while in office.

While Sanders has made big money for a public official, his 2020 Democratic rivals are no slouches either. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and her husband Douglas Emhoff — a partner at law firm DLA Piper — reported about $1.9 million in adjusted gross income last year, according to tax returns. Harris herself reported about $157,000 in income as a senator and plus $320,000 from her writing.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and her husband, Bruce Mann, listed an adjusted gross income of about $846,000 last year, tax returns show. On top of Warren's Senate salary, she made about $325,000 from writing. Mann took in more than $400,000 as a professor at Harvard Law School.

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