How Bernie Sanders Put Socialism to Work in Burlington: A Profile from 1983

Sanders sailed to reelection as mayor of Burlington after transforming supposedly conservative issues into left victories, and helping democratize city government. In this 1983 profile, Sanders delves into why he believes “the word ‘socialism’ has value” and “politics is not dissimilar to art.”

David Moberg January 29, 2016

The profile of Sanders as it first appeared in the pages of the March 23-29, 1983 issue of In These Times. (Miles Kampf-Lassin)

Writ­ten in March of 1983 by In These Times vet­er­an reporter David Moberg — soon after Sanders’ first reelec­tion as may­or of Burling­ton, Ver­mont — this nev­er-before-pub­lished-online arti­cle offers a detailed look at Sanders’ first may­oral term, and how, with the help a broad coali­tion, he was able to over­come fierce oppo­si­tion from the city’s polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment to imple­ment a pro­gres­sive agen­da. This pro­file offers per­spec­tive on what a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist-led gov­ern­ment could look like, and how his polit­i­cal suc­cess in Burling­ton — from out­sider to con­tender — mir­rors his rise nationally. 

"Sure, nobody in the business community likes progressive taxes, but what they’re afraid of is this guy is talking more than just progressive taxes. 'He’s talking about a different kind of society where we the ruling class aren’t going to be in the driver’s seat any more,'” Sanders says.

BURLING­TON — A fren­zy of enthu­si­asm was build­ing among the over­flow crowd of sev­er­al hun­dred in Minerva’s restau­rant as May­or Bernard Sanders arrived to cel­e­brate his re-elec­tion. There was rea­son for his sup­port­ers to be joy­ous: the 10-vote vic­to­ry two years ear­li­er by the social­ist may­or who had run sev­er­al quixot­ic cam­paign for state office had been dis­missed by the old guard as a fluke. But on March 1, with a vot­er turnout that jumped more than 50 per­cent above usu­al munic­i­pal elec­tions, Sanders swamped his Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can rivals with 52 per­cent of the vote.

Bernie, Bernie, Bernie,” the ecsta­t­ic cam­paign work­ers chant­ed. It was almost too much for 41-year-old Sanders. It’s not me, Bernie, who won,” he insist­ed. It’s you, and thou­sands of oth­er peo­ple in the city.”

That may sound like the usu­al mock humil­i­ty of the politi­cian, but for Sanders and his sup­port­ers there is a dif­fi­cult polit­i­cal issue involved. As a social­ist, Sanders wants to put pow­er into the hands of work­ing peo­ple in Burling­ton, an old but still large­ly healthy city of 38,000 at the heart of a boom­ing urban region more than triple that size. Yet so far much of his vic­to­ry has been per­son­al — a tes­ta­ment to his hard work and down-to-earth” style as much as to his pol­i­cy ideas and the arro­gant indif­fer­ence of the once-pow­er­ful Democ­rats who had long con­trolled the city.

The indi­vid­ual — despite [George] Plekhanov’s book on The Role of the Indi­vid­ual in His­to­ry—unfor­tu­nate­ly plays a great role, greater than we would like think,” Sanders said a few days lat­er in his may­oral office. Peo­ple don’t just close their eyes and say what’s your view on this issue or that issue.”

Vot­ers in Burling­ton clear­ly demon­strat­ed their approval of Sanders, but they have not been as will­ing to vote for City Coun­cil mem­bers he wants or even to back all of his pro­pos­als. They have not vot­ed for social­ism, but nei­ther have they been afraid to vote for a can­di­date who unabashed­ly calls him­self a social­ist. Although Sanders ran as an inde­pen­dent rather than a social­ist, he has made no secret of his beliefs.

With a hos­tile Coun­cil and many of the city’s pow­ers in the hands of numer­ous com­mis­sion­ers appoint­ed by the Coun­cil and still loy­al to the old guard, Sanders has fre­quent­ly been frus­trat­ed in his plans for change. He has repeat­ed­ly tak­en his case to the peo­ple of Burling­ton, how­ev­er. Through per­sis­tence, direct chal­lenges and end-runs around obstruc­tion­ist author­i­ties, he and the Sanderis­tas” in city gov­ern­ment have man­aged to weak­en sig­nif­i­cant­ly the estab­lish­ment hold and bring impor­tant reforms to Burling­ton government.

Iron­i­cal­ly, Sanders has trans­formed sup­pos­ed­ly con­ser­v­a­tive issues — such as the tax revolt and the demand for effi­cien­cy in gov­ern­ment — into left issues and left vic­to­ries. He has also moved to democ­ra­tize city gov­ern­ment and involve many more peo­ple — espe­cial­ly poor and work­ing peo­ple — in city decision-making.

He has worked for a more active pub­lic role in local eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, neigh­bor­hood preser­va­tion and renew­al, a broad­er range of social ser­vices, improve­ment of pub­lic facil­i­ties such as roads and parks, statewide and city tax reform, high­er pay and an orga­nized voice in set­ting per­son­nel pol­i­cy for city employ­ees. He has also ini­ti­at­ed a vari­ety of munic­i­pal and vol­un­tary pro­grams for youth, women, the elder­ly, the home­less and oth­ers that have made Burling­ton not only a more humane but also a more excit­ing place to live.

Local­ly Sanders is as noto­ri­ous for his appear­ance as for his social­ism. His hair is an unruly snarl and, in the mold of 19th cen­tu­ry Plains pop­ulist Sock­less Jer­ry” Simp­son, Sanders is Vermont’s Tie­less Bernie.” It goes with his com­mon touch” man­ner of deal­ing with peo­ple politi­cians nor­mal­ly dis­dain except at elec­tion time.

Sanders’ loy­al­ty is to his strongest base of sup­port — blue-col­lar work­ers, includ­ing many poor and elder­ly peo­ple in the old­er res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods, wards that he won this time by a mar­gin of two-thirds. But the coali­tion that made his vic­to­ry pos­si­ble also includes many intel­lec­tu­als, arts and crafts peo­ple, small busi­ness own­ers, tech­ni­cians and pro­fes­sion­als who have been drawn to Burling­ton in recent years.

The Burling­ton area has been a com­par­a­tive­ly safe port in the storms of reces­sion, with an unem­ploy­ment rate that just recent­ly reached 6 per­cent. Part of its sta­bil­i­ty reflects the impor­tance of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ver­mont and its med­ical cen­ter to the local econ­o­my. A num­ber of man­u­fac­tur­ing firms have flour­ished for many years, but the area has also ben­e­fit­ed from a recent elec­tron­ics boom — with such com­pa­nies as IBM, Dig­i­tal and Mitel, as well as the long-estab­lished Gen­er­al Elec­tric — that brought well-paid tech­ni­cal and blue-col­lar jobs to the area.

Tourism and the retreat from the big cities has also buoyed the econ­o­my as peo­ple seek a haven on the shores of Lake Cham­plain with a view of the Adiron­dacks across the waters, and the hik­ing and ski­ing of the Green Moun­tains a few miles to the east. Yet not every­one in Burling­ton has ben­e­fit­ed. Near­ly half of city res­i­dents earned less than $10,000 in 1980, and 16 per­cent of the city is below the pover­ty line. The boom has helped only a few: in 1981, the top 20 per­cent of earn­ers in the state received 97 per­cent of the growth in income.

The new wave

Sanders was one of the new Ver­mon­ters, arriv­ing in 1968 and work­ing var­i­ous­ly as a writer and film­mak­er. A son of a fam­i­ly of mod­est means from Flat­bush in New York City, Sanders had gone to Brook­lyn Col­lege and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where he joined bat­tles against the University’s hous­ing and urban renew­al poli­cies. Once active in the Con­gress of Racial Equal­i­ty, he took grad­u­ate cours­es at New York’s New School for Social Research before com­ing to Vermont.

When the left­ist Lib­er­ty Union par­ty was offi­cial­ly formed in 1974 in Ver­mont (after foun­da­tions were laid in 1970), Sanders casu­al­ly joined the meet­ing and walked out a can­di­date for the U.S. Sen­ate. He lost, and ran again for the sen­ate and gov­er­nor. Lib­er­ty Union did well enough to main­tain offi­cial bal­lot sta­tus (tal­ly­ing 5 per­cent or more and, as a token of things to come, get­ting as much as 25 per­cent at times in some Burling­ton wards). It stirred up state pol­i­tics with a soak-the-rich” state tax reform plan and a pro­pos­al to expro­pri­ate pri­vate util­i­ties with no com­pen­sa­tion for large stock­hold­ers (sur­pris­ing­ly win­ning approval in a num­ber of town meetings).

But the par­ty was a mag­net for not only those who took win­ning seri­ous­ly but also the fringe wack­os,” as some ex-Lib­er­ty Par­ty Sanderis­tas now dis­miss them. Dif­fer­ent Maoist cults con­tend­ed with sep­a­ratist fem­i­nists. There were the organ­ic car­rot devo­tees (whom Sanders delib­er­ate­ly pro­voked by devour­ing McDon­ald ham­burg­ers and drink­ing Coke). And one leader defied local author­i­ties try­ing to clean up his yard by estab­lish­ing a Junk Conservatory.

By 1977, Sanders was among those who had tired of what they saw as ingrown wran­gling and had left the party.

In Burling­ton, con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic may­or Gor­don Paque­tte had been in pow­er for five two-year terms — con­tin­u­ing three decades of Demo­c­ra­t­ic rule. The Repub­li­cans were weak, coop­er­a­tive oppo­nents, and real estate and busi­ness inter­ests were cen­tral char­ac­ters in a clique that ran the city with lit­tle regard for the poor or the newcomers.

Sus­pi­cious fires pre­ced­ed whole­sale clear­ance of homes and shops in a down­town urban renew­al area. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and the influx of more stu­dents — with­out uni­ver­si­ty con­struc­tion of dor­mi­to­ries — squeezed the hous­ing mar­ket. Old neigh­bor­hoods declined while the city encour­aged the devel­op­ment of the down­town Church Street mall with its restau­rants and chic shops.

But the city also under­took, through its munic­i­pal-owned elec­tric util­i­ty, the con­ver­sion of a pow­er plant from oil to wood chips and autho­rized con­struc­tion of a new waste wood gen­er­a­tion plant. And it suc­cess­ful­ly fought con­struc­tion of a new shop­ping mall out­side of town. Yet devel­op­ers were nor­mal­ly giv­en a free hand. The lake­front, tra­di­tion­al­ly a rail­road and indus­tri­al area, was on the verge of devel­op­ment with tow­ers of high-priced con­do­mini­ums in 1981.

That was one of the tar­gets of Sanders, who attacked the insen­si­tiv­i­ty of the estab­lished polit­i­cal clique. He want­ed the water­front devel­oped for pub­lic use, a fair hous­ing com­mis­sion to pre­vent rent goug­ing and sub­sti­tutes for the prop­er­ty tax, which Paque­tte want­ed to increase by a small amount. Sanders opposed a four-lane road called the South­ern Con­nec­tor that would link down­town Burling­ton to south­ern sub­urbs. He iden­ti­fied him­self with the dis­con­tent­ed neigh­bor­hood groups and promised a voice to those who had been left out. And he favored bet­ter pay and equip­ment for the Burling­ton police, who were demor­al­ized and suf­fer­ing from extreme­ly high turnover.

His sup­port for the police won the endorse­ment of the patrolmen’s benev­o­lent asso­ci­a­tion, a turn­ing point in mak­ing his cam­paign appear seri­ous. With lit­tle mon­ey and a tiny group of sup­port­ers, Sanders banged on doors and debat­ed Paque­tte before com­mu­ni­ty forums. Even the local Cit­i­zens Par­ty, which was run­ning its own can­di­dates for Coun­cil, wait­ed until the last minute to endorse him. Nei­ther Paque­tte nor any of the polit­i­cal pros gave him a chance of win­ning much more than 25 per­cent of the vote, and Paque­tte did not cam­paign vigorously.

When Sanders won in an upset, the old guard was con­vinced it was a pass­ing aber­ra­tion and began fight­ing every move he made. The Coun­cil, which includ­ed only two Sanders sym­pa­thiz­ers (includ­ing Cit­i­zens Par­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ter­ry Bouri­cius), attempt­ed to block every appoint­ment — includ­ing his per­son­al sec­re­tary — and reject­ed every one of Sanders’ pro­pos­als. When a staff open­ing per­mit­ted Sanders to make an appoint­ment, the Coun­cil con­sid­ered abol­ish­ing the depart­ment. Plan­ning depart­ment offi­cials set up meet­ings with devel­op­ers, specif­i­cal­ly exclud­ing the may­or. A city clerk opened and even stole Sanders’ mail.

Sanders sym­pa­thiz­ers referred to the City Coun­cil meet­ings as the Mon­day gang-bang.” The assign­ment of such a wide range of munic­i­pal func­tions to the city’s many com­mis­sions fur­ther reduced Sanders’ power.

The truth of the mat­ter is I wasn’t knowl­edge­able about a lot of aspects of city gov­ern­ment before I became may­or,” Sanders now says. I was sur­prised to see that unelect­ed peo­ple had as much author­i­ty as they have. Most of the impor­tant deci­sions were not made by the City Council.”

Sanders sup­port­ers fought back with a Cit­i­zens for Fair Play com­mit­tee. They dis­trib­uted 10,000 leaflets dur­ing one week­end, urg­ing peo­ple to protest the Council’s behav­ior. Sanders took the Coun­cil to the state Supreme Court over his right to appoint offi­cials. His first bud­gets were ham­mered out by vol­un­teers over kitchen tables at home.

By the Coun­cil elec­tions of 1982, the old guard’s behav­ior had back­fired. All but one of the incum­bent Democ­rats lost, while three Repub­li­cans and three Sanders sup­port­ers (includ­ing two more Cit­i­zens par­ty mem­bers) won. Sanders had veto pow­er but still lacked a major­i­ty on the 13-mem­ber Coun­cil. Although the Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans unit­ed to oppose most Sanders ini­tia­tives, the mes­sage of the vot­ers got through and most of his appoint­ments were approved.

Even if they were fre­quent­ly stymied, Sanders and his few offi­cial and unof­fi­cial aides were able to take admin­is­tra­tive actions to make city gov­ern­ment more effi­cient and fair. Unlike Paque­tte, the new city admin­is­tra­tion insist­ed on com­pet­i­tive bid­ding on city con­tracts and tried to com­bine city depart­men­tal pur­chas­es. A new health insur­ance plan saved as much as $35,000 a year. On oth­er insur­ance, as much as $200,000 a year or 40 per­cent was saved by open­ing up bids. Gaso­line costs were cut 5 to 10 percent. 

Instead of leav­ing the city’s mon­ey in low-or zero-inter­est accounts, a new cash man­age­ment sys­tem was insti­tut­ed and man­age­ment of pen­sion funds reviewed, with an esti­mat­ed gain of $70,000 a year. A new cen­tral­ized tele­phone sys­tem should save $100,000 a year. High­er fees for build­ing per­mits and pri­vate police and fire alarms will bring in $150,000 a year. High­er inter­est rates for mort­gages from the ceme­tery fund yield anoth­er $15,000 in the first year. And the new city trea­sur­er dis­cov­ered a pre­vi­ous­ly uniden­ti­fied sur­plus of $1.9 million.

Over­all, the admin­is­tra­tive sav­ings and new income this fis­cal year should total at least 5 per­cent of the bud­get, trea­sur­er Jonathan Leopold argues. But for Leopold, who calls him­self a pop­ulist, as well as for Sanders, democ­ra­cy as much as econ­o­my was the goal. My inter­est is mak­ing gov­ern­ment more effi­cient and effec­tive and ulti­mate­ly more account­able,” Leopold says.

Peo­ple had expec­ta­tions that if you’re a rad­i­cal, you won’t last because you can’t run the city,” says City Con­sta­ble David Clavelle, a for­mer aide to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­a­tor Patrick Leahy and one of Sanders’ first appoint­ments. We con­cen­trat­ed on nuts and bolts. We had to prove to peo­ple that peo­ple of our per­sua­sion could run the city gov­ern­ment and run it bet­ter. As one local politi­cian said, we out-Repub­li­caned the Republicans.”

But we didn’t want to sound like Repub­li­cans, and just to be sound fis­cal admin­is­tra­tors,” Leopold con­tin­ues. We want­ed to show to what extent gov­ern­ment can be excit­ing and impor­tant to people’s lives. That’s why we moved to youth, arts, pro­grams for the elder­ly and neigh­bor­hood plan­ning assem­blies. You can do lit­tle things to make life more inter­est­ing.” Oper­a­tion Snow Shov­el was a vol­un­teer effort to help dig out the elder­ly and Bat­tery Park was trans­formed form a trou­bled teen hang­out to a pop­u­lar cul­tur­al scene. 

Last fall elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives of city employ­ees began meet­ing as the Employ­ee Rela­tions Com­mit­tee, the first step in democ­ra­tiz­ing the city work­place. They will also work on reclas­si­fy­ing city jobs to guar­an­tee equal pay for com­pa­ra­ble work. Last year city employ­ees received pay rais­es, 9.5 per­cent for union­ized employ­ees and 7.5 per­cent for non-union (to equal­ize pre­vi­ous inequities).

Although the City Coun­cil reject­ed the idea of neigh­bor­hood plan­ning assem­blies when Sanders pro­posed it, they accept­ed the idea when it returned again as a plan­ning depart­ment project (but the work of a Sanderist” in its ranks). In three dif­fer­ent rounds of ward meet­ings rough­ly 400 peo­ple have par­tic­i­pat­ed, mak­ing advi­so­ry deci­sions on com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment block grant projects (first with a vote to set pri­or­i­ties, then by allo­cat­ing monop­oly mon­ey” to each project as an exer­cise in allo­ca­tion). The assem­blies will also play a major role in future deci­sions about devel­op­ment of the city’s waterfront.

A people’s waterfront

The water­front devel­op­ment will be one of the tough­est projects Sanders faces. A pub­lic opin­ion sur­vey shows strong sup­port for his pri­or­i­ties — main­tain­ing pub­lic access and devot­ing the space to pub­lic use even if that means greater expense to the city and loss of poten­tial tax rev­enue. Ulti­mate­ly, argues John Fran­co, the assis­tant city attor­ney and a col­league of Sanders, an attrac­tive water­front may pay off since it will help draw peo­ple and busi­ness to Burlington.

But even though Sanders wants to con­sid­er pub­lic own­er­ship of part of the land and wants toe pub­lic to set the terms — both by pre­vent­ing unwant­ed devel­op­ment and design­ing a pos­i­tive plan — the expense may be too great with­out some pri­vate devel­op­er involve­ment. And a devel­op­er will insist on projects that can pay a sat­is­fac­to­ry return on his invest­ment in the expen­sive land.

The water­front is an inte­gral part of the city and should not be iso­lat­ed as a sep­a­rate enclave,” Sanders said. it has to be pri­mar­i­ly recre­ation­al, cer­tain­ly a park. I’d love to see a pub­lic muse­um, boat­ing, swim­ming, restau­rants that peo­ple can afford, per­haps some hous­ing tucked away, but pri­mar­i­ly a place where peo­ple can come to enjoy them­selves. Pub­lic own­er­ship of some key parcels would mean that we will be com­mit­ted to dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties. We won’t be out to make a profit.”

The pres­sure is great because there is lit­tle oth­er unde­vel­oped land in Burling­ton, a hous­ing short­age exists and down­town busi­ness­es do not want any new busi­ness­es locat­ed there to draw their trade away.

Already Sanders has decid­ed to com­pro­mise on his pre­vi­ous oppo­si­tion to the South­ern Con­nec­tor. While still resisit­ing the four-lane high­way, he now sup­ports a set of two upgrad­ed, one-way strets of two lanes each ot move traf­fic with less dis­rup­tion to neighborhoods.

The decline in fed­er­al hous­ing funds has made it dif­fi­cult for Sanders to deliv­er on pledges for more afford­able hous­ing. But the city has dra­mat­i­cal­ly stepped up hous­ing code enforce­ment and has won coop­er­a­tion of the major­i­ty of land­lords. But with­in a month after Sanders took office, the pro­pos­al for a Fair Hous­ing Com­mis­sion was defeat­ed two to one in a ref­er­en­dum with lop­sided spend­ing by land­lords to defeat the pro­pos­al. The vacan­cy rate is only 2 to 3 per cent, 56 per­cent of Burling­to­ni­ans are renters and rents have been ris­ing rapid­ly, but many mid­dle-income Sanders sup­port­ers were or hoped to be small-scale land­lords, and oth­ers bought the scare cam­paign against rent con­trol,” even though the commission’s pow­ers were limited.

But with the $1.9 mil­lion sur­prise sur­plus, Sanders was able to com­mit $500,000 to street repair with­out rais­ing tax­es. Indeed, hav­ing ear­li­er sup­port­ed a mod­est prop­er­ty tax increase that passed, this year Sanders is propos­ing a small reduc­tion in prop­er­ty taxes.

Tax reform is at the heart of the Sanderist pro­gram. Dur­ing recent years the city’s bud­get has been squeezed by ris­ing costs and declin­ing state and fed­er­al aid, which togeth­er have dropped by 49 per­cent in the past decade. With state-man­dat­ed pro­grams that the state does not fund and with new respon­si­bil­i­ties shift­ed to munic­i­pal­i­ties as Regan shreds the fed­er­al safe­ty net, the pres­sure on the city increases.

Far more than in all but one oth­er state, Ver­mont cities must rely on prop­er­ty tax­es. Those tax­es are regres­sive and are made more so in Burling­ton because 45 per­cent of its prop­er­ty is tax-exempt, includ­ing the uni­ver­si­ty and hos­pi­tal, fra­ter­ni­ties and soror­i­ties, rail­roads and the phone com­pa­ny. Inflat­ed hous­ing costs also raise prop­er­ty tax­es unfair­ly. Despite a tax rebate pro­gram insti­tut­ed to address the gross regres­sive­ness of Vermont’s prop­er­ty tax­es, Burling­ton offi­cials argue that the poor still pay at least twice as high a pro­por­tion of their income in prop­er­ty tax­es as the afflu­ent do.

So Sanders has set out to find alter­na­tives to the prop­er­ty tax. The first attempt was a pro­posed 3 per­cent tax on drinks, restau­rant meals and oth­er enter­tain­ments. Restau­rant own­ers and oth­er busi­ness peo­ple mount­ed a $15,000 cam­paign (com­pared to the $500 spent on behalf of the pro­pos­al) to defeat this gross receipts tax” (which they implied would be a tax on all food and led peo­ple to believe was a gro­cery receipts” tax). Pre-occu­pied with oth­er mat­ters and not hav­ing pre­pared well for the bat­tle, the Sanders forces lost their pro­pos­al by a slim 47 votes.

Now the Sanders team is push­ing for a tax on tele­phone, gas and cable TV util­i­ties that would at least recov­er costs incurred from their use of — and dam­age to — city streets. Since all of the insti­tu­tions now exempt from the prop­er­ty tax would have to pay this fee, it would be more pro­gres­sive than prop­er­ty tax­es, they argue. (There is also a pos­si­bil­i­ty that there will be a move to munic­i­pal­ize the cable TV sys­tem which is poor­ly run by a pri­vate firm now.) The city may have a cou­ple of years breath­ing time to find tax alter­na­tives, since income from the new wood-chip elec­tric plant will pro­vide some addi­tion­al income.

But the main hopes rest in the hands of the state leg­is­la­ture. Sanders wants the state to grant cities more local options (such as enter­tain­ment tax­es, a pay­roll tax shared between place of a worker’s res­i­dence and work, and a local income sur­tax), some reim­burse­ment for tax-exempt prop­er­ties, more state rev­enue shar­ing, greater prop­er­ty tax relief and the right to set dif­fer­ent prop­er­ty tax rates for dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories of property.

Sanders urges the state to dis­con­nect its tax sys­tem from the fed­er­al tax breaks under Rea­gan and recov­er much of the upper-income tax sav­ings through the state income tax. Yet, like some con­ser­v­a­tives, Sanders favors tax index­ing and crit­i­cizes brack­et creep” as a dis­hon­est way of rais­ing tax­es. Rather than sneak­i­ly col­lect the tax­es any way he can, Sanders prefers to be open­ly straight­for­ward­ly progressive.

Even­tu­al­ly, Sanders hopes to change Burlington’s form of gov­ern­ment to make the electorate’s con­trol more direct. That could mean abol­ish­ing com­mis­sions, but for a start he will con­tin­ue to make com­mis­sion­ers more direct­ly account­able to the Coun­cil. But Sanders doesn’t know what changes in form he will seek.

Some Sanders sup­port­ers envi­sion the neigh­bor­hood plan­ning assem­blies tak­ing on more impor­tance. Cam­paign lead­ers want to plug the new­ly swollen ranks of 300 cam­paign work­ers into the neigh­bor­hood assem­blies. Michael Monte, the plan­ning depart­ment coor­di­na­tor of the assem­blies, would like to see more pub­lic­i­ty — equal to that of the Mon­tréal Expos, he says — and more staff time for orga­niz­ing peo­ple to become involved. Some Sanders sup­port­ers hope that the assem­blies may be a way in which the new polit­i­cal move­ment in Burling­ton can tran­scend Sanders’ per­son­al­i­ty and insti­tu­tion­al­ize itself.

Alder­man Ter­ry Bouri­cius of the Cit­i­zens Par­ty wants the left to form a new par­ty in Burling­ton. He says it wouldn’t be the Cit­i­zens Par­ty, which has an active core of at most 40, and prob­a­bly wouldn’t be a social­ist. Yet even though Sanders favors some new nation­al par­ty based in the work­ing class,” he seems haunt­ed by mem­o­ries of the hair­split­ting debates dur­ing his last years with Lib­er­ty Union and backs off from sug­ges­tions of a new par­ty in Burlington.

Sanders first ran as an Inde­pen­dent. In last year’s alder­man­ic elec­tions, the Coali­tion for Respon­sive Gov­ern­ment was formed as a vehi­cle for Sanders sup­port­ers, who nego­ti­at­ed before the elec­tion to pre­vent com­pet­ing left can­di­da­cies. But Sanders and the Coun­cil can­di­dates worked inde­pen­dent­ly, although in tan­dem this time. While Sanders car­ried all but one ward, includ­ing a tra­di­tion­al­ly Repub­li­can and con­ser­v­a­tive ward, the coali­tion was unable to pick up any new seats on the Council.

In some cas­es, indi­vid­ual Repub­li­can or Demo­c­ra­t­ic Coun­cil mem­bers had estab­lished records as incum­bents and cam­paigned well enough that vot­ers backed them even while sup­port­ing the man they despise, Bernie Sanders. A few peo­ple spec­u­late that some vot­ers may also be reluc­tant to give Sanders unchecked pow­er with a Coun­cil major­i­ty. But it appears that some of the oppo­si­tion Coun­cil mem­bers have been suf­fi­cient­ly impressed with Sanders’ vic­to­ry that they will no longer be so uni­form­ly obstructionist.

Iron­i­cal­ly, the main line of attack against Sanders in the cam­paign this win­ter was that he was con­fronta­tion­al.” Sanders, his friends say, can be a tough bat­tler, but the vot­ers still seem to blame the oth­er side for the con­fronta­tion that has per­sist­ed. Local piz­za restau­rant own­ers James Gilson tried to tag Sanders as anti-busi­ness and attacked him a social­ist (but observers think his neg­a­tive cam­paign back­fired, espe­cial­ly when some of the exam­ples of failed busi­ness­es used in one ad had been closed or burned out for many years).

For­mer state rep­re­sen­ta­tive Judith Stephany, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the more lib­er­al wing of the Democ­rats now try­ing to wrest con­trol from the Paque­tte con­ser­v­a­tives, main­ly crit­i­cized Sanders’ lead­er­ship style. She lacked a clear alter­na­tive pro­gram, except to pro­ceed quick­ly with devel­op­ment projects such as the South­ern Con­nec­tor and the lake­front and flipflopped from crit­i­ciz­ing Sanders for advo­cat­ing a 10-cent prop­er­ty tax reduc­tion to demand­ing a 25-cent cut.

But Sanders won in part because peo­ple were impressed with his record, dis­gust­ed with the old ways of local gov­ern­ment and won over by his appeal as a defend­er of the com­mon peo­ple — in part sym­bol­ized by his own man­ner and his vig­or­ous per­son­al­ized campaigning.

Pol­i­tics is not dis­sim­i­lar to art,” Sanders said as he reflect­ed on his recent vic­to­ry, What is it that makes a great nov­el or film dif­fer­ent from a fair nov­el or film? In a sense, you’ve got to inspire the peo­ple, and you’ve got to talk to them where they’re at today. Two years ago a lot of peo­ple in the pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty in Burling­ton didn’t think that I should run. I was too indi­vid­u­al­is­tic. You’re always right after you suc­ceed. Right now I’m the smartest per­son in the world, but two and a half years ago a lot of peo­ple didn’t think I was very smart.

Peo­ple have got to devel­op con­fi­dence in them­selves,” he con­tin­ued. They’ve got to get inspired. They’ve got to believe they can do it. Some­times you have groups of peo­ple sit­ting around in end­less dis­cus­sions, and they go absolute­ly nowhere. I’m elect­ed because I prob­a­bly knocked on more doors than any­body in the his­to­ry of Burling­ton. [In three cam­paigns] I’ve prob­a­bly knocked on half the doors in the city. You can’t be afraid of the peo­ple — and you’ve got peo­ple who sit around talk­ing con­tin­u­al­ly about the peo­ple, the peo­ple, the peo­ple,’ but God for­bid they’ll ever got out and knock on a door.”

Beat­ing red-baiting

Sanders’ door-knock­ing and his con­tin­u­al advo­ca­cy of the poor and down­trod­den against the rich and pow­er­ful pay off. On the Sat­ur­day after­noon after the elec­tion, I stopped in the Suds City laun­dro­mat in Burling­ton’s Old North End, a blue-col­lar Sanders’ strong­hold, to glean some reac­tions to his election.

Massie, a 27-year-old truck dri­ver who had lived in Burling­ton 10 years but wore a cow­boy hat and a Texas shirt pin which with an armadil­lo on it, said, Sanders was the only guy who made any sense in this town in the past 10 years.”

Get more peo­ple like him,” his wife, Fay Ler­oux, added, Get rid of Reagan.”

If Rea­gan lis­tened like Bernie does, the coun­try would be bet­ter,” Massie con­tin­ued. He cares about the envi­ron­ment, the work sit­u­a­tion, how you make a liv­ing, if you’re down and out. It’s a good pos­i­tive atti­tude for city gov­ern­ment. So far, what I’ve seen of it [his social­ism] I like. I don’t con­sid­er him a Com­mu­nist or any­thing like that. I think it’s an idea of get­ting peo­ple to work togeth­er, to stop a seg­re­gat­ed soci­ety with upper crust and low­er class — like the land­lords are forc­ing rents up so high poor peo­ple are dri­ven out of the city. Sanders comes up and says, Hel­lo.’ He’ll lis­ten to what you say. It makes for a homey attitude.”

Mike Peden, a 29-year-old car­pet lay­er who’d lived in Burling­ton half his life, did­n’t know what Sanders meant by call­ing him­self a social­ist, but I thought he was more for the peo­ple, and he was the bet­ter qual­i­fied. He’s worked for the poor, and he gets peo­ple involved in government.”

At the near­by Dairy Queen, mid­dle-aged Geral­dine Yandow and her aunt, Eva Spicer, an elder­ly Ver­mon­ter in a red stock­ing cap who had the stur­dy style of inde­pen­dence for which the state is famous, were also fans of Sanders. I wasn’t for him at first,” Yandow said. His social­ism was one of the rea­sons I was so against him. It was Com­mu­nis­tic. But I don’t believe it any­more. Now I believe he’s for the every­day per­son,” she con­tin­ued. He’s down-to-earth, and we need more of that. Vermont’s gone crazy — the influx of out-of-staters. Even though he’s not a true Ver­mon­ter, he knows how to run the city. My neigh­bors bowl with him and they said he’s so down-to-earth you can’t help but like him. The old Coun­cil couldn’t be decent or civ­il to him. But he kept his cool.”

Every­body deserves a chance,” Eva Spicer observed.

But one thing that irks me is his dress,” Yandow said. Then with a mother’s sigh of res­ig­na­tion, she said, But what’s clothes?”

We’ve had too much of this high-falutin’ stuff,” Spci­er continued.

Across the aisle some of the out-of-staters,” John and Paul Thomas, were eat­ing with their kids. A man­ag­er at IBM, John had liked Paque­tte but was impressed with Sanders’ admin­is­tra­tion — putting insur­ance and city cars up for com­pet­i­tive bid­ding, for exam­ple. He had no wor­ries about Sanders’ social­ism, but he didn’t like the way the may­or dresses.

He’s not very pro­fes­sion­al look­ing,” Thomas said. I’m sor­ry, but he ought to get a tie.”

Just for the elec­tion, Sanders did wear a tie now and then — a point­ed gift from his city trea­sur­er. But he did not aban­don his social­ist label, even if he did not pub­li­cize it. On the whole he’s found his expe­ri­ence as an open social­ist pos­i­tive,” even though it’s brought forth a lot of ven­om and fear.”

The word social­ism’ has val­ue,” he argues. Because what it says is that we believe in a dif­fer­ent vision of soci­ety, and we believe work­ing peo­ple should have pow­er in soci­ety rather than a hand­ful of banks or cor­po­ra­tions. But what can I do as may­or of Burling­ton to bring that about? There are lim­i­ta­tions. I work with banks for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. We are not going to nation­al­ize the banks. We couldn’t if we want­ed to.

But talk­ing about what must hap­pen in this nation and get­ting sup­port of peo­ple here is a very fright­en­ing thing to the peo­ple who own the city and the state,” Sanders con­tin­ues. They are out­raged that work­ing peo­ple are sup­port­ing us and our vision even if we freely admit that we can’t bring that vision about — that pover­ty is unnec­es­sary, that we could elim­i­nate it in a few years with some eco­nom­ic development.

Can I do that in Burling­ton? I can’t. But even say­ing those things and point­ing the way in a direc­tion of pub­lic own­er­ship of the major means of pro­duc­tion, for exam­ple, and involve­ment of work­ers in day-to-day deci­sion-mak­ing infu­ri­ates those peo­ple. What infu­ri­ates them even more than 3 cents tax on a bot­tle of beer is that we’re talk­ing about a vision of soci­ety where work­ers should be mak­ing deci­sions rather than boss­es. Sure, nobody in the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty likes pro­gres­sive tax­es, but what they’re afraid of is this guy is talk­ing more than just pro­gres­sive tax­es. He’s talk­ing about a dif­fer­ent kind of soci­ety where we the rul­ing class aren’t going to be in the driver’s seat any more,’” he says.

Peo­ple are sup­posed to repu­di­ate that. You’re sup­posed to get 2 to 3 per­cent of the vote, if you’re lucky. That’s what all the text­books and shows on radio and TV are about, that these ideas are fool­ish and not wor­thy of being dis­cussed in the Unit­ed States. Well, I dis­cuss them and I just beat my Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent by 20 per­cent and the Repub­li­can can­di­date by 30 percent.

The issue of social­ism is not of tremen­dous impor­tance in the day-to-day run­ning of city gov­ern­ment. It is of tremen­dous impor­tance in rais­ing con­scious­ness of peo­ple who are now say­ing, Gee, this can be a dif­fer­ent world.’ Do you think it makes the rul­ing class hap­py that the turnout in this elec­tion was so heavy? They much pre­ferred it the old way when the more con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments would come out, and work­ing and poor peo­ple wouldn’t vote because they’d giv­en up, and that’s just what the sys­tem wants.

There are meet­ings every night in city hall — Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day, El Sal­vador. Not many gov­ern­ments in Amer­i­ca spon­sor with their unions a worker’s pride week. It may not have the effect this year or the next, but unions have not come togeth­er before in the mayor’s office to talk about a pro-union agen­da for the state.

If I get crit­i­cized for not being rad­i­cal enough for some peo­ple, that’s fine. But I’m not a Demo­c­rat, and I’m not a Repub­li­can. We’ve stood up, tak­en them on and beat­en them. We’re talk­ing about a vision that will not be brought about tomor­row, maybe not in a hun­dred years, but it’s a vision, and main­tain­ing a vision of an alter­na­tive soci­ety is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant thing we can do,” he concludes.

Mak­ing sense to workers

Ter­ry Bouri­cius, who also iden­ti­fies him­self as a social­ist (and a coop gro­cery work­er), thinks that by being can­did, vot­ers are dis­armed. I’m not inter­est­ed in just reform, good gov­ern­ment,” he said. I want peo­ple to under­stand that there’s more involved, a vision of a bet­ter soci­ety. It hasn’t meant much to vot­ers. Some say, He’s a Com­mu­nist, so I won’t vote for him.’ But we’ve reduced red-bait­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly. If we side-stepped and said we’re for eco­nom­ic democ­ra­cy, we’d be accused of some­thing despi­ca­ble. But we say, of course, we’re social­ists — and that takes the wind out of them. The buga­boo with the world social­ism’ has been reduced dramatically.”

Yet Bouri­cius acknowl­edges that most vot­ers sup­port Sanders as the oppo­nent of entrenched polit­i­cal inter­ests” and not as the oppo­nent of the wealthy or cap­i­tal­ists. More­over, few of his sup­port­ers under­stand just what he means by social­ism,” and at best they decide it is irrel­e­vant, much as if Sanders said his reli­gion was Bud­dhism. They rarely iden­ti­fy what he has done in Burling­ton with social­ism” in any way.

So far, the Sanders coali­tion has stayed remark­ably intact. But like any coali­tion, it has its frac­ture lines. There are Sanders sup­port­ers who are anx­ious to build the South­ern Con­nec­tor high­way and relieve traf­fic con­ges­tion, but Sanders thinks his new plan will be an accept­able com­pro­mise to both sides. A seg­ment of envi­ron­men­tal­ists think that Sanders is not suf­fi­cient­ly vig­i­lant; the Sier­ra Club and one of his Coun­cil allies fought the new wood­chip elec­tric plant, which Sanders supported.

Some of the most mil­i­tant fem­i­nists feel that Sanders does not take their issues seri­ous­ly. The direc­tor of a new bat­tered women’s shel­ter, fund­ed by the city and sup­port­ed by Sanders, nev­er­the­less backed his oppo­nent, Stephany, because she didn’t believe Sanders gave women a suf­fi­cient role in the admin­is­tra­tion. Sanders acknowl­edges that there is also poten­tial ten­sion when a large bloc of his sup­port comes from blue-col­lar Catholics and anoth­er bloc includes advo­cates of gay rights and a woman’s right to abor­tion — both of which he sup­ports. A few peo­ple were unhap­py when Sanders ordered a city hall dis­play of Hiroshi­ma pho­tos tak­en down ear­ly after some city work­ers com­plained that the pic­tures were so dis­turb­ing that they couldn’t work.

Burlington’s for­eign pol­i­cy” has irri­tat­ed Repub­li­cans but has not alien­at­ed many vot­ers. Last fall vot­ers approved a ref­er­en­dum call­ing for an end to mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic aid to El Sal­vador and a recall of all advi­sors by a 3‑to‑1 mar­gin. Sanders repeat­ed­ly speaks out on issues of peace and mil­i­tary spend­ing, and the Coun­cil vot­ed not to par­tic­i­pate in cri­sis relo­ca­tion plan­ning for nuclear war, as many oth­er Ver­mont town meet­ings also did this spring. The city’s civ­il defense direc­tor worked with Par­ents and Teach­ers for Social Respon­si­bil­i­ty to dis­trib­ute a man­u­al on the arms race. But, part­ly because of the Council’s make­up, there have been a few res­o­lu­tions on world issues, which Sanders main­ly address­es in his pub­lic talks.

What­ev­er the poten­tial ten­sions in the coali­tion, Sanders per­son­al­ly feels com­mit­ted above all to the work­ing class” (which has won him not only blue-col­lar votes but also strong sup­port form work­er unions). With­out the new Ver­mon­ters — the intel­lec­tu­als, artists, pro­fes­sion­als and counter-cul­tur­al back-to-the-coun­try con­tin­gent — it is unlike­ly that the Sanders cam­paign would have ever emerged. But with­out the enthu­si­as­tic sup­port of work­ers whom he had care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed — reach­ing out them per­son­al­ly, speak­ing on their behalf, advo­cat­ing their inter­ests — Sanders would nev­er have been elected.

His own social­ist prin­ci­ples as well as his homey” style have set the course of his cam­paign­ing and his admin­is­tra­tion, but he adapt­ed them — as any suc­cess­ful politi­cian must — to the spe­cif­ic local issues of Burling­ton. He was helped by a smug, con­ser­v­a­tive incum­bent clique, but has so far with­stood the chal­lenge of the mod­er­ate-to-lib­er­al attempt to wrest con­trol from the Left.

Sanders’ lack of major­i­ty pow­er in the Coun­cil and the inher­it­ed obstruc­tion in city depart­ments and com­mis­sions has made it impos­si­ble for him to test many plans — such as eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment schemes that rely more on pub­lic invest­ment and coop­er­a­tive own­er­ship — but like many social­ist pre­de­ces­sors, he has won the hearts of vot­ers by being an effi­cient admin­is­tra­tor of a gov­ern­ment that is as humane as its restrict­ed bud­get allows.

Mean­while, Sanders and his friends hope that their vision and suc­cess can inspire oth­ers, even if they have no clear idea of how to build from such iso­lat­ed vic­to­ries to a more potent statewide or, even­tu­al­ly, nation­al pres­ence. But they are real­is­tic enough to know that even if they may dream of a new world with­out boss­es and with work­ing peo­ple in pow­er, they must fix the streets, buy new police cars and col­lect out­stand­ing tax­es — while lis­ten­ing to callers com­plain about delin­quent kids and noisy neighbors.

Assis­tant city attor­ney John Fran­co cut short his thoughts about a future munic­i­pal cable com­pa­ny one morn­ing recent­ly. I’ve got to run for some bark­ing-dog arraign­ments,” he said. Noth­ing glam­orous about the rev­o­lu­tion when you’ve got park­ing tick­ets and bark­ing dogs.”

But it sure beats los­ing all the time, and if deal­ing with bark­ing dogs and pot­holes is part of the long march to social­ism Bernie Sanders and his friends are ready. 

David Moberg, a senior edi­tor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the mag­a­zine since it began pub­lish­ing in 1976. Before join­ing In These Times, he com­plet­ed his work for a Ph.D. in anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and worked for Newsweek. He has received fel­low­ships from the John D. and Cather­ine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion and the Nation Insti­tute for research on the new glob­al economy.

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