Meredith Burak is a third-generation Wall Street executive. At 32, she has worked in global wealth management for Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. She thinks Wall Street is one of the few places in the country where people can truly realize the American Dream.
And she's supporting Bernie Sanders for president of the United States.
The same Bernie Sanders who said this about Burak's industry: "The reality is that for the past 40 years, Wall Street and the billionaire class has rigged the rules to redistribute wealth and income to the wealthiest and most powerful people of this country."
Burak doesn't take it personally. "Wall Street has been very good to my family," she said. "It has enabled myself and my cousins and people around me to go to college."
But at the same time, Burak said, Wall Street needs tougher regulation and rules. "People on Wall Street want the game to be fair," she said. "It is when people cheat that things get messed up for everyone. And to the extent that we can have rules and more enforcement to get people like [Ponzi schemer] Bernie Madoff out of the financial system, the better it is for the economy."
Burak said she left Merrill Lynch earlier this month and is traveling in Israel this week, focusing on charitable work on behalf of a cancer foundation in honor of her mother. But Burak said she'll be using the skills she learned on Wall Street for the rest of her career. "I was raised not to talk about politics and money, and somehow I talk about both of them all day," she said with a laugh.
She's not the only one.
Sanders, unlike his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton or many of the Republican candidates, has received a relative pittance in campaign contributions from people in the securities and investment industry: just more than $55,000 in all of 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
And the vast majority of those financial professionals who have written checks to the Sanders campaign work in regional financial hubs across the country: in cities like Minneapolis, Pittsburgh or San Francisco.
But scattered through the list of Sanders donors are a very small number of people who work in the heart of New York's financial center, with offices on Wall Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan. They include people who are employed at some of the industry's biggest names: JPMorgan (NYSE: JPM), Citigroup (NYSE: C), Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS).
It's difficult to draw broad conclusions about what drives the political beliefs of such a small group, but their personal experiences may hold a clue. Two of the Sanders supporters on Wall Street work in wealth management — where their jobs necessarily include helping rich people get richer. One holds a position whose purpose appears to be minimizing taxes on hedge funds and alternative investments, based on his LinkedIn description. Some have personal connections to Sanders' home state of Vermont.
Working in an industry where rank-and-file employees and executives overwhelmingly support other candidates, it's perhaps not surprising that the Sanders supporters on Wall Street are reluctant to speak publicly about their political views. "I appreciate your call and the story, but I would rather not participate," said one when contacted by CNBC.
One Sanders supporter explained that he grew up in Vermont, and has fond memories of Sanders campaigning across the state. "Bernie was such a fixture of Vermont politics for many years, so I sort of have a soft spot in my heart for him," this supporter said. And although he contributed to the Sanders campaign, he added that he's not committed to actually voting for Sanders. "I don't know at the end of the day if I would vote for him," he said. "I grew up wearing Bernie T-shirts my dad gave me."
Still, the supporter does not see any irony in Wall Street executives supporting a self-declared democratic socialist. "You've got Warren Buffett — one of the wealthiest people in the country — and he's out there supporting raising taxes and the things that Bernie talks about," he said.
Meredith Burak said her family has known and supported Sanders since he first ran for mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1980 — before she was born. But she cites a more recent development — the financial crisis of 2008 — as driving her support for Sanders.
"His issue is if you look at the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, no one at the top has been brought to court or indicted," she said. "Compare that to this whole generation of African-American and Latino kids who are put in the jail system for having a little bit of pot. There's something wrong there. People need to be held accountable."
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