A New Path to Progressivism: An Interview with Vermont House Candidate Mari Cordes

Victoria Albert August 1, 2016

Mari Cordes is making her first run for elected office, facing off against Stephen Pilcher and incumbent Dave Sharpe in the Democratic primary. (Mari Cordes/ Facebook)

I live with my hus­band and our small flock of quirky chick­ens on our off-the-grid home­stead,” reads Mari Cordes’ cam­paign website.

But don’t be fooled by her hum­ble words; Cordes is a powerhouse.

As pres­i­dent of the 2,000-member Ver­mont Fed­er­a­tion of Nurs­es and Health Pro­fes­sion­als (VFNHP), Cordes suc­cess­ful­ly fought for paid sick leave, improved health care leg­is­la­tion, an end to insur­ance dis­crim­i­na­tion against trans­gen­dered patients and increased over­sight of for-prof­it hos­pi­tal buy­outs, all while work­ing 12-hour shifts as a car­di­ol­o­gy RN.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’ ground­break­ing pro­gres­sive cam­paign, Cordes has set her sights on some­thing even big­ger — the Ver­mont House of Representatives.

On August 9, the self-described pro­gres­sive Demo­c­rat will make her first run for elect­ed office, fac­ing off against Stephen Pilch­er and incum­bent Dave Sharpe in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic primary.

Ver­mont is one of the few states with a prece­dent of pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship. Not only have third-par­ty pro­gres­sive can­di­dates won seats in the state House and Sen­ate, but Sanders also hails from the Green Moun­tain State. Rid­ing the wave of polit­i­cal opti­mism cre­at­ed by his cam­paign, can­di­dates like Cordes are work­ing to ensure that the senator’s pro­gres­sive lega­cy will live on in local government. 

Her work has earned her the endorse­ments of the Ver­mont AFL-CIO, the Ver­mont Nation­al Edu­ca­tors Asso­ci­a­tion and the Ver­mont State Employ­ees’ Association.

In These Times recent­ly con­nect­ed with Cordes by phone to dis­cuss her past, present and future as a polit­i­cal leader.

The fol­low­ing inter­view has been edit­ed and con­densed for clarity. 

Why did you decide to run for office?

Run­ning for office is a nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion of the work that I’ve been doing in coali­tion, through union and social jus­tice activism over the last few years. I was also encour­aged to run by oth­er elect­ed lead­ers a num­ber of years ago, when we were build­ing the paid sick days leg­is­la­tion that even­tu­al­ly did pass this year. In August of last year, I was invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in a three-day train­ing with the Pro­gres­sive Change Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, a nation­al can­di­date train­ing. So yeah, a nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion of the work I’ve already been doing. But I have to say, for sure, that even though I decid­ed to run before Bernie Sanders’ kick­off, his lead­er­ship, his move­ment, his rev­o­lu­tion have always great­ly inspired me. 

It’s clear that Bernie Sanders has gal­va­nized politi­cians across the coun­try. How has the suc­cess of his cam­paign con­tributed to your own polit­i­cal aspirations?

It punc­tu­at­ed what I already know. We suc­ceed at cre­at­ing sub­stan­tive change by being togeth­er in pow­er­ful coali­tions of cre­ative people.

What is your his­to­ry with the labor move­ment in Ver­mont? What suc­cess­es have you helped it achieve?

I came to Ver­mont, and first start­ed work­ing on an organ­ic veg­etable farm. Dur­ing that time, I decid­ed I want­ed to be a nurse. In nurs­ing school, look­ing back, I was a trou­ble­mak­er and an orga­niz­er. I don’t think I rec­og­nized it at the time; it was just who I was and what I did. When things weren’t right in nurs­ing school, I orga­nized stu­dents. And I remem­ber when a friend of mine said that nurs­es will nev­er form unions until there are more men involved,” and that pissed me off, and that moti­vat­ed me. I was very proud to be a found­ing orga­niz­ing nurse mem­ber of our union in 2002 – 2003, and since then, I’ve con­tin­ued as a social jus­tice activist, work­ing with­in my union, (and) even­tu­al­ly becom­ing the sec­ond pres­i­dent in our history.

When I was pres­i­dent, we had great suc­cess with build­ing a coali­tion of LGBT groups and indi­vid­u­als, and (mak­ing) it ille­gal in Ver­mont for health insur­ance com­pa­nies to dis­crim­i­nate against trans­gen­dered indi­vid­u­als. Because of the work that we did, Ver­mont became the fourth state in the nation to have such clar­i­ty around health insur­ance com­pa­nies being required to cov­er trans­gen­der health care (and) trans­gen­der spe­cif­ic needs. We were also very involved in the paid sick day bill, ear­ly on, and we were hap­py to see that pass.

One of the major parts of your plat­form is your sup­port for unions and work­ers’ rights. If elect­ed, how do you plan to pro­mote these causes?

When I am elect­ed, and as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, I will have a back­bone on work­ers’ rights issues. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment has for­got­ten the rights of work­ers and the pow­er of the work­ing. And the neolib­er­al agen­da has become the norm, in the sense that many peo­ple in office believe that the things that work­ers are fight­ing for are fringe ideas instead of foun­da­tion­al prin­ci­ples of a democ­ra­cy. The pen­du­lum has swung so far to the right in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, as far as work­ers’ rights go. I will be one of the pro­gres­sive mem­bers in the state House who will be stand­ing strong to bring the pen­du­lum back to sup­port­ing the work­ing class.

Ver­mont is one of the few states in the nation where a pro­gres­sive third par­ty has suc­ceed­ed in win­ning House and Sen­ate seats. How can the Pro­gres­sive Party’s per­spec­tive help the peo­ple of Vermont?

Well, I think it’s already help­ing Ver­mont in that there’s a large per­cent of peo­ple that are pro­gres­sive, and who are frus­trat­ed with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment. Even Democ­rats with­in the estab­lish­ment are frus­trat­ed with the inabil­i­ty to move major issues for­ward. A pro­gres­sive plat­form, and a pro­gres­sive agen­da that’s actu­al­ized will help Ver­mon­ters in many ways.

What do you think the lega­cy of Sanders’ cam­paign will be, both on Vermont’s Pro­gres­sive Par­ty and on the nation as a whole?

Bernie Sanders’ lega­cy with this cam­paign and the polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion is con­tin­ued, pow­er­ful orga­niz­ing by an engaged elec­torate. (It is) the engage­ment of peo­ple who have not been involved for years and of young peo­ple who are new­ly involved, because they now real­ize and believe that they do have a voice. Rev­o­lu­tions cre­ate dis­com­fort — that’s their nature — that’s what they’re sup­posed to do. And in that dis­com­fort we are cre­at­ing change. 

Vic­to­ria Albert was a Sum­mer 2016 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. She is now pur­su­ing a master’s degree in mag­a­zine jour­nal­ism at New York Uni­ver­si­ty. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.
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