When crime and policing surface on the campaign trail, the senator from Vermont often changes the subject to economics.
When Bernie Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981, he was even more of an underdog than he is now in his bid for the presidency.
An outsider born in New York City, Sanders was facing a popular five-term incumbent. He had already failed twice in bids for the U.S. Senate (1972 and 1974) and twice more as a candidate for governor (1972 and 1976). His brand of socialism was not faring too well in Vermont, where many voters leaned populist but were decidedly blue-collar on social issues such as guns, crime, and policing.
They may have agreed with him on jobs, but they were not likely to tolerate his apparently critical view of law enforcement—like the time he walked around Chicago posting fliers denouncing police brutality while a cop trailed behind him, taking them down.
So Sanders changed his tune on the police.
“Bernie took the approach that cops were ‘labor,’ not the enemy, their demands should be listened to, and they deserved higher pay,” says Huck Gutman, his former chief of staff and longtime friend. “He promised to open negotiations with them and generally to keep coming back around to income and the economy.”
For reframing the issue, Sanders was rewarded. In a turn of events that “surprised everyone,” Gutman says, the Burlington Patrolmen’s Association decided to endorse him—the leftist, anti-Vietnam War agitator—rather than the incumbent, whom it had endorsed in the past. Even the police commissioner, Tony Pomerleau, a wealthy, conservative Republican who had frequently sparred with Sanders over the development of Burlington’s waterfront, was impressed and became an ally.
With their help, Sanders went on to win that election by 10 votes. Then he won 13 more races, serving as mayor for eight years and as a member of Congress for well over two decades and counting.
Throughout, he apparently never forgot the lesson of his first winning campaign: In a state like Vermont, when it comes to criminal justice, change the subject to economics.
“You talk about criminal justice, and Bernie Sanders is not the name you would think of,” says Virginia Sloan, founder and president of the Constitution Project and former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, when Sanders was a representative. “He voted reliably [with other liberals] on those issues, but he wasn’t out front on crime and the police and prisons, because his focus was always economic inequality.”
Sanders’s voting record has indeed been consistent. He was one of the few white members of Congress to vote against ending Pell Grants for prisoners, and he opposed President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill in no uncertain terms. More recently, he has supported the Smarter Sentencing Act and the Second Chance Act, which would reduce prison sentences for low-level offenders and help them reenter society, respectively.
Sanders says his focus on economic issues is absolutely consistent with a commitment to a fair criminal-justice system. “As a nation, we must do everything we can to make sure that people do not end up in jail,” he said in a statement. Therefore, “we should be investing in jobs and education, not jails and incarceration.”
But Sanders “has never taken direct action on criminal justice that I know of, and I haven’t heard anything from him about dealing with it here in our home state,” says Suzi Wizowaty, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform.
He has also taken mostly pro-gun, pro-police stances throughout his career, natural for a Vermonter but surprising to those who see him as a predictable lefty. “I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about,” he told NPR this year, in a typical exchange over guns.
Even as a wave of police-involved shootings have seared race and police reform into the 2016 contest, Sanders has until very recently declined to focus on police and criminal-justice issues, instead offering his usual focus on economic inequality as the “root cause” of crime. In interviews and statements following the events in Ferguson, Missouri, he repeatedly invoked his tenure as mayor of Burlington, suggesting that he knew first-hand that policing was a tough job. He then offered general support for “community policing” and “de-militarization of the police” before quickly tacking to statistics on unemployment.