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.”
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.
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 Montreal 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.”
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 former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.