ELECTION 2016

Symone Sanders juggles two telephones on the presidential campaign trail, and neither ever stops beeping.

On a good day, this Omaha native — who seems intent on breaking the speed barrier for most words spoken in a minute — gets five hours of sleep at night. In a good week, she might get to spend two nights in a row in the same bed.

It is an insane schedule. But the way Sanders sells it, she is living the American dream.

"It's crazy," said the 26-year-old who pops up periodically on national television as the voice of Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Symone Sanders was hired last year by her presidential namesake to serve as his national press secretary. It was just the latest achievement for a hometown girl whose first bit of media exposure came in 2006 when, at the age of 16, she aggressively lobbied to introduce former-President Bill Clinton at an Omaha fundraiser.

"What is so great about presidential campaigns is you get to see the depth and breadth of America ... The travel is absolutely crazy, but the crowds, I think the best thing about this is the crowds."

It is hard to keep up with Sanders. This is a woman who has held numerous communications-related internships, including a job in Beijing, and who has been involved in countless organizations and committees. She currently serves on a federal advisory committee on juvenile justice, saying criminal justice reform is her "passion."

She's also had her share of jobs, all bigger and better than the last. She once worked in the communications department of former Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, followed by a position as deputy communications director for then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook.

"She got herself where she is today by the experiences and opportunities she grabbed along the way," said Roberta Wilhelm, executive director of Girls Inc. of Omaha. "She had her thumb in a lot of pies, and it definitely shows now."

Sanders grew up in north Omaha, the daughter of Daniel and Terri Sanders. Her father is a retired chemical engineer. Her mother serves on numerous community boards and is vice president of marketing for the Great Plains Black History Museum.

As a youngster, Symone Sanders attended two parochial schools in Omaha: Sacred Heart and Mercy High School. When she was about 10, she became active in Girls Inc., an organization dedicated to helping young girls become "smart, strong and bold."

It was during this time that Sanders adopted a persona that serves her well in her current job. Sanders would often become "Donna Burns," the flamboyant television journalist who used anything and everything as her make-believe microphone as she landed scores of playground interviews.

Sanders laughed at the memory of her alter-ego during a telephone interview last week from South Carolina, but she says her role as a public speaker wasn't always a foregone conclusion. "I wasn't always a public speaker. A lot of people who knew me then, they think it's funny that I'm in public speaking. They thought I talked too loud, too fast and too much," said Sanders, with a laugh that comes as fast and furious as her words.

Sanders was the type of young girl who didn't take "no" for an answer. In 2006, when former President Clinton was going to speak at a Girls Inc. luncheon, Sanders cajoled, pleaded and begged Wilhelm to let her introduce the president. "She was sort of a pit bull you know, wouldn't let go," Wilhelm said.

Clinton later commented on the ambitious student in one of his books.

After high school, Sanders attended Creighton University, earning a degree in business administration. At one point, Wilhelm said, she worried whether the young activist would ever graduate, especially after spotting Sanders at a Women's Fund of Omaha fundraiser.

Wilhelm said she asked Sanders what she was doing there, and Sanders proudly proclaimed she had landed another internship with another community organization. "I said, 'Are you kidding me? You have another internship?' Because she was involved in everything," said Wilhelm.

It soon became apparent that Sanders' interest was in politics and that she had the ability to connect with people.

During Hassebrook's failed bid for governor in 2014, Sanders would often drive the gubernatorial candidate around, accompanying him on the campaign trail and making sure he stayed on schedule. Hassebrook said he often thought that, if he was elected, he hoped to hire Sanders.

"She's got one of those personalities that's magnetic, and she gets things done," said Hassebrook. "Sometimes people have great ideas, but they can't get it done. Symone gets things done."

After serving in various communications positions, including for a time at Ralph Nader's Global Trade Watch, Sanders decided last summer she wanted to work on a presidential campaign. She began to send out feelers to her extensive list of political contacts, along with her resume, and eventually got a call from the Bernie Sanders campaign.

She ended up speaking with Bernie Sanders for more than an hour. He offered her the job later that afternoon. Political pundits and others later speculated that Bernie Sanders hired the young African-American woman after several activists with Black Lives Matter interrupted him during a speech in Seattle. But Symone Sanders says she had already been hired by that time.

She usually accompanies the candidate on his travels, working to answer questions and set up press conferences for both national and local reporters. She's met some of the biggest political and media names on the national stage. She even got to meet her political hero: Donna Brazile, the African-American political consultant who ran Democrat Al Gore's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2000.

"It was a thrill for me. Donna Brazile is the reason that young black women have an opportunity to work on campaigns," said Sanders.

Sanders has no idea whether she'll be able to campaign in Nebraska on behalf of her candidate before this state's Saturday caucuses. She has no idea from week to week where the campaign road will take her, or even when it will end. But, as always, she's aiming high.

"I'd love to go to the White House with Bernie. That is what I'd love to do when it's all said and done," said Sanders.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1309, robynn.tysver@owh.com

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