Bernie Sanders, the Socialist Mayor
A profile of the presidential candidate written in the 1980s, as he got his start in politics
In 1985, when Bernie Sanders was in his second term as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, a writer named Russell Banks published his breakthrough novel, Continental Drift. It would earn Banks the John Dos Passos Prize, and make him a finalist for the Pulitzer for fiction. Sometime after the book came out, Banks accepted an assignment to profile the self-described socialist mayor. He followed Sanders around the city, watched him interact with constituents, and recorded his candid views. He produced a remarkable and compelling portrait of a distinctive politician, but it never found its way into print. Instead, it was filed away for three decades. With Sanders leading in the polls in New Hampshire, though, we now offer it to our readers, as a look at the senator before he became a national figure.
It’s 6 p.m. on a warm, amber-colored, late-summer evening in Burlington, Vermont, suppertime in this southside, mostly working-class neighborhood, as Bernard Sanders, the mayor of the city, and George Thabault, one of the aldermen from the ward, drive down a tree-lined street and pull over in front of the first of the two dozen wood-frame duplex houses on the block. A pair of blond pre-school kids on the sidewalk study the car with undisguised suspicion. It’s a badly used, gray Datsun station wagon cluttered inside with month-old newspapers, McDonald’s wrappers, Coke cans, milkshake containers, a basketball. It’s a vehicle more like the second car of harried suburban parents than the only car of an extremely successful young politician, the unmarried, 44-year-old, three-time mayor of the state’s largest and most cosmopolitan city.
Sanders gets quickly out and heads for the front porch of the apartment on the left, passing the grim kids as if they weren’t there, while Thabault, the alderman, a trim, mild-looking man in his mid-30s in shirtsleeves and carrying a clipboard and pad, hurries to catch up. The mayor is all business, knocking brusquely at the screened door. He’s a tall man, well over six feet, but slightly stooped, not so much bent by the burdens of life as poised in careful preparation to spring, like a tennis player waiting for the serve. His tangled, prematurely gray hair is unfashionably long and looks permanently uncombed. He wears thick glasses of the plastic horn-rimmed variety preferred by serious graduate students in the 1950s, a striped short-sleeved shirt with the tail flapping over the baggy seat of dark brown corduroy trousers. His shoes are the kind of orange, moccasin-toed work shoes made in Taiwan and sold at K-Mart. On the basis of appearance alone, Alderman Thabault looks more like the mayor than the mayor, while the mayor looks like a maverick in an eastern-university philosophy department who persists in embarrassing his colleagues, making them wish they’d never tenured him.
Emerging from the darkness of the rooms beyond, a young woman suddenly appears at the door and says to Sanders, “Oh, hi!” as if to an old friend dropping by for a beer. She has the same pale, almost pink, blond hair as the kids on the sidewalk, and she’s extremely pregnant.
In a spluttering burst of words with a pace and curl that are distinctly Brooklyn, Sanders announces that he’s the mayor and this is Alderman Thabault here and they’re out tonight visiting the people in Ward Five just to talk to the folks and see how things are. “We’re here to listen to complaints. But we also want to hear about the good things, too,” he adds, passing her a thin smile. Abruptly, he stops smiling and waits for the woman’s response.
“I recognized you from TV,” she says, and she visors her eyes against the setting sun with her hand and takes a step back, as if to get a better look.
Sanders says, “So we’re just here to find out if everything’s okay, if, you know, there’s anything in particular you want to talk about with us.” He pauses. “Everything okay?”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” she says. She turns around and hollers to a figure in the kitchen behind her, a shirtless man at the table. “It’s Bernie Sanders! The mayor!” The shirtless man doesn’t answer or move.
“So … everything’s okay?” Sanders repeats.
“Yeah, sure, Bernie.”
He takes a step away, points to Thabault, says, “This here’s your alderman, so get in touch with him if you need anything, or else call me down at city hall, okay?” Then he retreats, almost falling over the yellow plastic tricycle at the bottom of the steps. The young woman at the screened door waves slowly at him. Still smiling, she says, “‘Bye, Bernie,” then orders her two kids in for supper and retreats to the kitchen.
Sanders is solemn, seems slightly irritated, and hurries to the adjacent porch, but no one’s home, so he moves down the sidewalk to the next house. The neighborhood, called Lakeside, is located on the flatlands south of the downtown by the shore of Lake Champlain and within walking distance of a large, recycled textile mill that’s now an armament factory owned by General Electric. When the original owners abandoned the mill 30 years ago for greener pastures and cheaper labor in the South, they sold the company housing to the laid-off workers, small, well-built duplex apartments, two to a house, laid out on spacious lots facing a city-block-sized park. The neighborhood is still mostly French Canadian, with a few outsiders in recent years, schoolteachers, married students, nurses, medical technicians, starting to filter into the neighborhood, intruding certainly, but poor enough and few enough not to threaten the close, almost tribal quality of life here.
“If you can’t tell the difference, then you should not call the mayor a communist!”
An elderly woman answers Sanders’ knock this time. She, too, recognizes him, “From the news,” she says, but she’s not in awe of him and invites the men graciously into her home. She listens patiently as Sanders in his loud, rapid-fire way explains his and Thabault’s mission. When he asks if she’s got any complaints, she answers precisely in French-accented English. The recent reappraisal of real estate values has increased her taxes over a thousand dollars a year, she points out, but her income has remained the same. She owns the house and lets her granddaughter and her children live next door for nothing, so it doesn’t help that the state says that the apartment can be rented on the open market for $300-$500 a month. “I can’t put my great-grandchildren out in the street, just to get the rent money to pay the taxes,” she explains. “I’m a widow, my husband died, so all I have is my social security. My granddaughter can’t work. She has problems.”
The Mayor shakes his head and bites his lower lip. He is finally listening.
The alderman speaks up. He reminds the woman of Vermont’s property tax rebate program, which surely she must qualify for. Sanders seems to have drifted into a melancholy that deepens as the woman explains how hard it is for her to heat her house in winter, how frightened she is of the effect the new condominiums going up on the other side of the park will have on her taxes, how worried she is about tripping on the sections of the sidewalk ripped up for the new gas main. “I can fall and die tomorrow,” she says. “So don’t wait four-five years for repairing that, eh?” she scolds him. She’s a tiny, silver-haired woman in a housedress, seated opposite the mayor in her favorite overstuffed chair with a large crucifix on the wall behind her. The mayor is on the chintz-covered sofa, his hands clapped to his knees like a schoolboy.
Thabault stands by the door, clipboard in hand, taking notes. “I’ll get that rebate information for you,” he assures her in a low voice.
She murmurs, “I don’t take welfare.”
The mayor says, “It’s not welfare. It’s money that never should have been taken from you in the first place, for God’s sake.”
The old woman looks at him and smiles indulgently. She clearly likes the mayor. “I shouldn’t say this,” she tells him, “but I saw you on TV the other night, with my son, when they finish fixing North Avenue? And my son says to me, ‘That Mayor Sanders, he’s a communist, you know.’ And do you know what I say to him?”
Sanders shakes his head no.
“I say to my son, ‘Don’t go around saying such things where intelligent people can hear. They’ll think you are stupid.’”
She laughs, a silvery laugh, and the mayor laughs, too, and rising from the sofa, he puts his huge hands on her tiny shoulders, thanks her and makes sure Thabault has got her address.
Stopping him at the door, the woman says, “I told my son that you’re a socialist, not a communist.”
“Precisely!” the mayor shouts.
“My son, he tells me, ‘What’s the difference?’ And you know what I tell him? I say, ‘If you can’t tell the difference, then you should not call the mayor a communist!’”
The Mayor grins, shakes the woman’s hand energetically and pushes open the door, following the alderman out.
On the sidewalk again, he says to Thabault, “What an intelligent, dignified woman!” Then he exclaims, “That damned reappraisal has been the absolute worst thing I’ve had to deal with in five years as mayor!”
Thabault nods, as if he believes that what Sanders says is true, and the two men walk up the porch steps of the house next door and the mayor knocks. “Hi, I’m Mayor Sanders, and this is Alderman Thabault, and we’re out talking to people tonight just trying to find out how things are going.”
* * *
It’s extremely difficult for a self-described socialist to get himself elected to municipal office in the United States. It’s not as rare an event as one might think, however, especially in two types of small cities, cities that have had a long and intimate relationship with organized labor, like Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or, since the 1960s, cities that have been associated, mainly through large, politicized universities, with counterculture politics, as in the Bay Area of California or Madison, Wisconsin. The socialist mayor of Bridgeport, Jaspar McLevy, was elected to office five times in the 1940s and 50s; the present city manager of Santa Monica calls himself a Democratic Socialist; and there have been numerous others.
They get elected for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with the incompetence or greed of their predecessors, but when they are reelected, it’s mainly because they have taken care of municipal business—keeping the streets paved and holding taxes down—and have talked tough to the politicians and money-men in the state capitol and Washington. They’re in an honorable tradition, these “sewer socialists”, as they’re sometimes called, and over the years they’ve articulated a kind of urban populism that seems to have spoken directly to the political and economic needs of certain types of small cities. And it’s a tradition that ought to be of more than passing interest to the Democratic National Party in the next decade,
One says this because, though Bernard Sanders is indeed a “sewer socialist”, Burlington, Vermont, is not at all like Bridgeport in the 1950s or Madison in the 1960s or the Bay Area in the 1970s. Instead, it’s a type of small city that is proliferating all over America right now, from Portland, Maine, and New Brunswick, New Jersey, south to Raleigh, North Carolina, and Austin, Texas, all the way west to Flagstaff, Laramie, and Bellingham. It’s the new, post-industrial, recycled city, powered by a rapidly growing service economy, with an indigenous population eager to participate in the economy, a nearby or regional university, and an airport. (One might even count the deregulation of airlines a factor, if in fact that’s what has given rise to People Express, for one can almost mark the location of these new cities on the national map by tracing the introduction of new People Express routes.)
And although Burlington’s Mayor Bernard Sanders is a Brooklyn native, lower-middle class, the son of an immigrant father, Jewish, educated at the University of Chicago, and is indeed what he himself calls “a Eugene V. Debs kind of socialist,” there are certain fundamental ways in which he is different from the archetypal “sewer socialist.” Sanders in action is more like Gary Hart or Ronald Reagan (though all three would doubtless cringe at the comparison)—that is, they are politicians who seem more articulate and vital on a television screen than they do in person.
Is it possible, then, that the small Vermont city on the edge of Lake Champlain and its scruffy socialist mayor have more to tell us about the future of left-of-center American politics than, say, North York and Ed Koch or Los Angeles and Tom Bradley? A closer look at both Burlington and its mayor ought to provide the answer.
* * *
How and why did Burlington end up with a mayor like Bernie Sanders, then? And who is Bernie Sanders, and how did he get that way?
To answer the latter question first, one has to start in Brooklyn, up in Flatbush, where Sanders was born in 1942, the second son of “solidly lower-middle class parents,” as he describes them. “My father was born in Poland, and he came to the country at the age of seventeen. My mother’s parents came from Russia, Western Russia. My father was a paint salesman, my mother was a housewife. There was never not enough food on the table or anything, but there was never any money in the bank, either, so money was something the family, the whole neighborhood, was constantly preoccupied with.”
In grade school and at James Madison High School, Sanders got what he characterizes as “good grades” and played basketball obsessively. Unable to make the varsity team, however, he turned to track and became co-captain of the team and, briefly, one of Brooklyn’s premier long-distance runners, finishing third in the indoor mile his senior year and second in cross country in the borough championships.
Though evidently a bright, if somewhat erratic, student and a promising, disciplined athlete, he failed to get into Harvard and reluctantly, went to Brooklyn College instead, where his older brother had gone. “My brother was a major influence on me,” Sanders says. “My father left school at a very young age, my mother graduated high school. But my brother went to college, Brooklyn College, a big thing in our family. Anyhow, he’s the one who introduced me to ideas.”
“‘Socialists!’ I was shocked. Not that I was against it, you understand, but I was amazed. Here were real live socialists sitting right in front of me!”
With his world up to now defined wholly by family and neighborhood, Sanders was the kind of person whose idea of a meaningful political act was to present himself as what people in the 1950s called a “non-conformist.” Even today, in discussing his time in high school and at Brooklyn College, he points out with unmistakable pride that he did not join any of the cliques, “not even the jock clique.” In these more gregarious times, one might call a boy like Sanders a loner. “Being a non-conformist, that was in me before I had politics,” he says. “But to give you an idea of just how politically naive I was, I remember like it was yesterday my first day at Brooklyn College, during orientation, right? There’s this fair in the gymnasium where all the sororities and fraternities and student organizations have their literature and their people out. There was this table and this group called the Eugene V. Debs Club, and I said, ‘What’s that? I never heard of Eugene V. Debs.’ and they said, ‘Oh, we’re the local socialists,’ and I said, ‘Socialists!’ I was shocked. Not that I was against it, you understand, but I was amazed. Here were real live socialists sitting right in front of me!”
Sanders did not join them, however. His major political act during his year-long stay at Brooklyn College was to write a letter to the editor of the school newspaper complaining about regulations against sitting on the campus grass. It was a difficult year; his mother died, and Brooklyn College, despite the presence of “real live socialists”, seemed to him merely a continuation of high school. He wanted to get away from Flatbush and Brooklyn, away from family and neighborhood. In the fall of 1961, arming himself with a part-time job and a loan, he transferred to the University of Chicago, and here began Bernie Sanders’s infatuation with radical politics.
It was not in the classroom that he was seduced, however. It rarely happens there. As it was for so many of Sanders’s generation of white idealists, the road from small town or neighborhood-bourgeois insularity to radical politics led straight through the civil-rights movement and out the other side of the anti-Vietnam War movement. In Chicago in the early 1960s, Sanders was able to be much more than a non-conformist protesting “Keep Off the Grass” signs. He joined the Congress for Racial Equality and in a short time was being arrested for helping lead sit-in demonstrations against segregated housing owned by the University of Chicago. These were among the first sit-ins in the North. He says now that his confrontations with the Chicago police and university officials over this issue were crucial to the development of his politics. The university administration lied about their racial policies, he says. Until then, he had not realized that respectable people often lie, and the discovery significantly changed his feelings about people in positions of authority.
There was more. There was the Student Peace Union, where Sanders met students whose parents had been communists in the 1930s and had paid heavily for it in the 1950s, and there was the growing protest against the Vietnam War. During this period, Sanders read constantly, widely, and mostly on his own. “I read psychiatry, political science, history, philosophy, poetry. I used to spend most of my time in the basement of the university library. If there had been a nuclear war, I wouldn’t have noticed it.”
His connection to his Jewish background and how he describes it is interesting. In an interview published elsewhere, he said, “I very vividly remember my father … going through an album of family photos. Virtually every member was murdered by the Nazis. Rather than religious training, the fact that my parents’ families had been destroyed by a government had an enormous impact on me.”
In 1967, his father died, and Sanders and his wife bought a small piece of land in Middlesex, Vermont. “When I was a kid I always loved the country … and when I used to go to Boy Scout camp, I would cry all the way home because I loved the trees and all. I had never been to Vermont in my life, but after I was married and after my father died and left us a few thousand dollars, my wife and I came to Vermont and located about 85 acres near Montpelier. It was just fantastic. I mean, I grew up in a three-and-a-half-room apartment, never owned a damned thing, and owning a piece of land I could walk on was just incredible! This brook is my brook! This tree is my tree!”
The following year, he and his wife set up housekeeping in a converted sugarhouse with no electricity or plumbing. Sanders was just another of the thousands of disillusioned urban intellectuals trying in those post-Woodstock years to create honorable lives outside the system in northern New England, where land was cheap and the natives were relatively tolerant of long-haired, bearded young men in jeans and women in long gingham dresses and sandals. Sanders worked briefly for the state Tax Department and then as a carpenter for a local contractor. Later, he sold ads and wrote for The Vermont Freeman, one of the first counterculture weeklies in the region.
In 1969, he divorced his wife, with whom he has a son, Levi, and moved north and west to an apartment in a working-class neighborhood in Burlington, where he began making his living, barely, as a freelance writer. And in 1971, “for the hell of it,” he walked into a convention being held by the Liberty Union Party at Goddard College in Plainfield. Later that same night, he walked out a candidate for the United States Senate.
But it almost didn’t matter. The bug had bitten him. To most observers on the left, Sanders was dynamic and had made their case as forcefully as it could be made at the time. To those on his right, which meant almost everyone in the state of Vermont, Sanders was dangerously charismatic. It’s not known how Sanders himself felt about the sudden discovery of these dubious gifts (people were referring to him as a “silver-tongued orator” and “superb propagandist”), but from this point on, the man who had no profession had become a full-time professional politician.
That fall he ran for governor against Democrat Thomas Salmon and Republican Luther Hackett and did even worse than he had in his earlier run for the Senate. In 1974 he managed to gather four percent of the vote in the Senate race won by Democrat Patrick Leahy, and in 1976, he ran a second time for governor, against Richard Snelling, a much-admired Republican businessman. Sanders took six percent of the vote this time, 10,601 votes statewide, which he believed was a fine turnout. “If you know anything about the history of third-party politics in this country, you know that six percent is not bad,” he insists proudly. Most Vermonters, however, felt more or less as Burlington poet and novelist T. Alan Broughton felt: “He was a gadfly, sort of a wise fool. But he always turned out to be the reason why you watched those televised debates, which were otherwise so boring. You knew he’d never win the election, but he was never dull.”
In an important sense, his political education was now nearly complete. He’d traveled from a three-and-a-half-room apartment in Flatbush and the close interdependency of a family of first- and second-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants who showed their children snapshots of relatives murdered by the Nazis, to Chicago in the 1960s and the disillusioning discovery of institutional complicity in racism and war. He’d gone back to New York and personal turmoil and then had found release into self-sufficiency and social withdrawal in rural Vermont, where utopianism, protest, and anti-establishment lifestyles and practical politics all huddled together inside the Liberty Union tent, which, though it turned out to be rather fragile cover against the prevailing winds of 1970s party politics in Vermont, nevertheless taught Sanders that he had valuable skills as an organizer and as a public speaker and that at least one medium, television, found him extremely attractive.
* * *
With a population of a little over 38,000 people, Burlington is the largest city in the triangle between Montreal, Albany, and Portland, Maine. More importantly, it’s the commercial, political, and cultural center of Chittenden County, which has 125,000 people, one-fifth of the total state population, and contains 532 square miles of arguably the most beautiful countryside in America, the Champlain Valley of northwestern Vermont. The craggy, dark peaks of the Adirondacks glower in the west, while east of the lake, the Green Mountains ease down to slope-shouldered glacial moraines with picturesque villages like Underhill Center and Jericho sewn to their sides. Further down, the hills and valleys give way to a broad alluvial plain cut by the Winooski River, which empties into Lake Champlain a few miles north of Burlington. One-hundred and twenty miles long and 12 miles wide, it’s the sixth largest lake in America and divides Vermont from New York like a watery interstate highway all the way from Ticonderoga north to Quebec.
In 1835, the Burlington Mill Company began manufacturing textile products at the Winooski Falls, and in 1849, the Burlington & Rutland Railroad, along with Irish railroad workers and French Canadian mill hands, arrived at the waterfront. Shortly after, the Vermont Central linked the city to Montreal and Boston, and when the Chambly Canal opened Lake Champlain in the north to the St. Lawrence River, there was suddenly released into the lake an endless flow of Canadian timber. By the 1860s, Burlington was the third-largest lumber market in the country (after Albany and Chicago), with over 400 steamers and barges plying the waters, and planing mills and lumber yards lining the lakefront for a mile and a half and wood-related industries—ice-boxes, bobbins, doors and window sashes—springing up daily.
Professor of political science at the University of Vermont, Garrison Nelson, a rumpled, bearded man in his early 40s who has a special affection for Burlington and, as a consequence, has in recent years become something of a professional Sanders-watcher, describes the recycling process this way: “There is a tremendous population replacement that has taken place in Burlington, and it’s not immediately discernible by looking at simple census figures. The city is approximately 40,000 today, as it was a few years back, as it was in 1970. But the composition of that 40,000 is quite different. Numbers gathered by the Mayor’s office indicate that more than 40 percent of the people now living in the city of Burlington did not live in the city in 1980.” This points to the presence of an extremely transient population, which, according to Nelson, is a direct result of the extraordinary growth of the university in the 1970s and the arrival in Burlington and on campus of young professionals and students from out of state who had a lot more disposable money than their predecessors. This meant that they could move off campus and rent apartments and houses downtown. Since it was much more profitable for landlords to rent to four students or three young computer programmers than to a lower-middle class family of four, “the students and the yuppies literally forced the local population out.” Rents soared, and the vacancy rate plummeted to one percent, and Burlington had a housing crisis.
“I used to say there are three parties in this city, the Republicans, the French and the Irish. They alternated holding power. Primarily, the French and Irish were Democrats—the Irish Democrats were more liberal, the French more conservative. It was all fairly low key, and the city went its own way, but there wasn’t much direction.” During the 1970s, though, when Burlington was at a crossroads, the question was whether to remain a large town or become a small city, and the business and political leaders had opted for the small city. This meant development. This meant heavy reliance on federal funds. The mayor previous to Sanders, Gordon Paquette, was an extremely successful money raiser for the city and brought in a number of federal projects. Meanwhile, Paquette made sure that when, every two years, he ran for reelection, there was no tax increase proposed. As a result, during the 10 years that Paquette was mayor, the tax rate rose only 31 percent, while the consumer price index rose 110 percent. The shortfall Paquette pretty much covered with federal grants. But the grants were earmarked for special projects, and the consequence was that the streets fell into disrepair, and the city employees had lids placed on their salaries, creating tension between the policemen, for example, and the city administration. So here was another particular constituency that felt emphatically that it was time for a change.
Sanders in debate, however, started surprising people by turning out to be a lot more savvy about local issues than anyone expected. Also, he left off his regular attacks against David Rockefeller and multinational corporations, rants that had characterized his campaigns for the Senate and governorship and, according to Garrison Nelson, “caused people’s eyes to glaze over.” Instead, he allied himself with the renters’ cause, sympathizing with their plight and promising a solution to the housing crisis. Then he acquired a crucial endorsement from the Patrolman’s Association, after having promised a much-needed pay raise. This provided Sanders with an important connection to a highly respected (and conservative) element in the city and went a long way towards erasing, or at least modifying, his image as a dangerous radical. By the same token, his alliance with the police reassured the elderly, who were concerned about growing street crime.
Paquette, besides taking Sanders lightly, made crucial errors. By not campaigning vigorously, he appeared not to respect the voters. By ignoring the complaints of the renters and the police, he looked like a front man for Burlington’s real-estate and banking interests. Then, just before the election, he announced that in his next budget he was going to have to ask for the largest single tax-rate increase in modern city history, $0.65 per $1,000, a whopping 34 percent jump. Sanders said only that he thought the increase way too high and would wait until he was in office before determining how much of an increase was necessary.
On March 3, when the votes were counted, recounted and counted again, Gordon Paquette had lost his job to Bernie Sanders by 10 votes, and Burlington, Vermont, had itself a 39 year old mayor who described himself as a socialist. Furthermore, he had turned out to be the candidate of the police, the elderly, most of the university faculty and students, the poor, the hip, and the upwardly mobile technocrats.
His election, clearly, was in many respects due to luck, flukey circumstances not likely ever to be repeated in Burlington. But it was also due to Sanders’ willingness to work long hours, day after day, week after week, knocking on doors, speaking to crowds until his voice went hoarse, shaking hands on cold, windy street corners until his right hand swelled and turned numb and, perhaps most significantly, evoking from his supporters a kind of passionate loyalty that a party machine or patronage can never generate. An ideology can generate that kind of self-sacrifice, however, and so can a remarkable personality. Sanders had both going for him. His record as a radical activist and his long association with the Liberty Union Party kept the leftist regulars out there on the hustings those cold months, knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, raising money with raffles and yard sales. But his personality brought out a commitment from many who normally regarded a politician as someone with a peculiar and slightly dangerous mental illness.
T. Alan Broughton remembers going along reluctantly with a group of local poets and writers who were giving a reading to raise funds for Sanders’s election. “We read our poems, and it was nice enough, sort of like a coffeehouse event from the Sixties, and then we passed the hat, and then Bernie got up to say a few words, of thanks, we figured. He started talking about how much he liked poetry, how much it had always meant to him, like we all expected him to do, and then, before we knew it, he was reading a couple of his own poems, which weren’t really all that great, but they had a passionate Beat Generation kind of intensity to them, about the poor, of course, and the evils of capitalism. Then, suddenly, there he was reciting from memory “Do Not Go Gentle”, by Dylan Thomas, reciting this rich, rolling Welchman’s poem in a heavy Brooklyn accent. And it was kind of wonderful, you know? He was loving the poem, letting us see him love it, and reading it totally unselfconsciously in this utterly inappropriate accent, and I felt then for the first time how great it would be to have a guy like that as mayor of my city.”
Sanders has this effect on a lot of people. His supporters and the members of his administration are called Sanderistas, originally a pejorative tag that is worn now with good-humored pride, like the T-shirts that have “Welcome to the People’s Republic of Burlington” printed on them, a slogan generated by a remark attributed to Sanders by the cartoonist Gary Trudeau in a “Doonesbury” strip run shortly after Sanders’ first election victory. Trudeau portrays Sanders as a guest on the Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show. Snyder says, “Mr. Mayor, let’s be candid, okay? You’re a socialist. You’re a Jew. You’re from New York. So how the heck’d you get elected?” Sanders answers, “The people of Burlington wanted a change. They decided to send the capitalist system a clear message.”
* * *
If there is a clear message, however, it would not seem to be in Sanders’s election, but in his reelection in 1983 and again in 1985, by increasingly wide margins. Not even Ed Koch speaks out as often and energetically on foreign affairs as Bernie Sanders, who in July of 1985 was the only elected American official to attend weeklong ceremonies in Nicaragua celebrating the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista victory over Somoza. Sanders’s radical rhetoric continues unabated from his days as the Liberty Union Party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate. “Anyone who believes the Nicaraguan nation is a military threat to the United States is obviously out of their minds,” he said. Burlington has established a “sister city” relationship with Puerto Cabezas on the Moskito Coast of Nicaragua, but even so, the mayor’s visit and his widely reported remarks prompted considerable anger at home.
On the local level, though, Sanders is considerably less controversial. He has proven to be an excellent administrator, appointing people who are in general younger, better educated and more capable than the people they have replaced.
He has streamlined city government and has introduced procedural and financial reforms, many of which have been supported by Republican members of the 13-person Board of Aldermen, a body the Sanderistas now control, but that, in Sanders’s first year, when he had only two supporters on the Board, controlled him, even to the point of refusing to allow him to appoint his own secretary.
Allen Gear, a Republican member of the Board of Aldermen since 1979, looking back over Sanders’s tenure as mayor, says, “He’s done things I don’t think we Republicans could have done, because the two traditional parties in a town like this are very close. We interact with each other on business over coffee, over tea, crumpets and marmalade, if you will, and it would have been very hard for us, us being Republicans, if we had the Chief Executive’s spot, to have done some of the things Bernie has done … He’s taken a lot of very Republican ideas and put them in place. Such as combining all of the garages of the various city departments and putting them into a single public-works department, initially a Republican proposal, to gain efficiency in handling city rolling stock … He’s put a lot of modern accounting practices and money-management practices into place that are good Republican business practices … And he has surrounded himself with some very talented, vigorous people.”
Sanders’s undeniable success as a third-party politician who combines radical rhetoric and careful day-to-day attention to detail, his unusual mixture of ideological rigidity and capacity for compromise, and his undeniable personal charm, a charm that comes through in spite of a personality that critics call “abrasive” and “combative” (terms which may in fact be euphemisms for far-less acceptable criticisms)—this remarkable success in a traditionally conservative city naturally makes one wonder if he can translate it into a successful run this year for the governorship.
In the Lakeside neighborhood he toured one night late last August with Alderman George Thabault, after visiting a dozen or more homes where folks were sitting down to supper, getting up to chat with the mayor, then returning to their table, Sanders finally ended his tour at the St. John’s Club. It’s an old-fashioned neighborhood political clubhouse, with a bar, half-a-dozen tables and chairs set around them, a pool table, a small dance floor, and a fabulous view of Lake Champlain. Beyond the lake, the sun was setting, and the Adirondacks were silhouetted against a salmon-pink sky.
Sanders sat down at a table, sipped at a bottle of beer and explained to a small group of voters from the neighborhood, men and women of various ages, all of them working people, how the state property-tax rebate works, assuring them that if their annual income is below $35,000, they can quality for a rebate. These folks are householders barely holding on to their houses, and they need to know what Sanders is telling them, so they listen intently.
It’s more a private than a public occasion, but Sanders’s intensity, heating up as he speaks, is unmodulated and is almost inappropriate. He’s on a roll now and moves to a rapid-fire discussion of the Burlington Airport and how he wants the city to get a part of the money the airport is making and that now goes instead to the state. Then, abruptly, he shuts up and for a few minutes lets the people blow off steam, just as he’s been doing, and they gripe about the condition of North Street, parking regulations, beach litter. Sanders handles each complaint with sympathy and provides detailed answers. Suddenly, he interrupts himself to announce that the University of Vermont and the Medical Center pay no taxes.
Most of the people in the group express surprise.
“How would people feel,” Sanders asks, “If we put pressure of them?”Everyone smiles broadly. He has his answer.
A small, sinewy mustachioed man in a neatly pressed, plaid flannel shirt and chinos puts down his bottle of beer and says, “Bernie, whaddaya say, you ready to run for governor?”
It’s now totally dark over the lake. Small waves lap the shore, and the clubhouse seems to float on the water like a small ship. Sanders gets wearily to his feet and motions to Thabault that it’s time to leave.
“No kidding, Bernie,” the small man in the plaid shirt says, “You gonna run, like they say?”
“It’d sure shake them up over in Montpelier, wouldn’t it?” Bernie says, and he grins. It’s the mischievous grin of a deliberate non-conformist, a kid who refuses to join cliques.
The small man grins back. “You got my vote, Bernie.”
Sanders waves and moves quickly out the door, and Thabault follows along behind.