Vermont and the Progressive Paradox
On March 3, 2009 voters in Burlington chose a mayor. Incumbent Bob Kiss, the third progressive to hold office over the last 28 years, defeated Democratic, Republican, Green and Independent challengers. To put the election into perspective, this essay looks at the movement that began with the election of Bernie Sanders on March 3, 1981 and subsequently changed the face of Vermont politics.
The Sanders Revolution
It was a bolt from the blue, the longest of long shots. A third party radical had turned a shoestring campaign into a real challenge of Burlington's five term mayor, Gordon Paquette. Yet, even on Election Day in 1981, Paquette and his Democratic comrades were predicting a decisive victory.
After all, Ronald Reagan had been elected President only four months before. Bernie Sanders was no threat, they assumed, nothing more than an upstart leftist with a gift for attracting media attention.
"It's time for a change...real change." That was Bernie's slogan. The former "third party" radical, now running as an Independent, promised to work for tax reform and opposed Paquette's proposed 10 percent increase in property taxes. He wanted open government, he said, and new development priorities. He opposed an upscale Waterfront project and an Interstate access road to downtown called the Southern Connector. He supported Rent Control. "Burlington is not for sale," he proclaimed.
"I am extremely concerned about the current trend of urban development," Bernie told voters. "If present trends continue, the City of Burlington will be converted into an area in which only the wealthy and upper-middle class will be able to afford to live."
On March 3, 1981, with a few thousand dollars, a handful of volunteers and a relatively vague reform agenda, Sanders won the race by just ten votes. Burlington had a radical mayor, a self-described socialist who was determined to change the course of Vermont history.
According to Gene Bergman, then an activist with a low-income advocacy group, later a Progressive city councilman, and today assistant city attorney in Burlington, the victory would be "just the beginning of the efforts to bring the long neglected and exploited working class to its rightful place in the city." The next three decades proved just how much=2 0the political establishment underestimated Bernie's appeal, not to mention the potential for a progressive movement both in the city and across the state. Burlington's progressives not only consolidated their base in local government, affecting all aspects of management and shaping debate on the issues. They challenged the accepted relationship between communities and the state, and helped fuel a statewide progressive surge.
They even weathered the storms of succession struggle, demonstrating with Peter Clavelle's 1989 mayoral victory on the Progressive ticket that - in Sander's words - "It's not just a one-man show, it's a movement." Clavelle remained mayor for all but two of the next 17 years, and was succeeded by the current Progressive Mayor, Bob Kiss. Sanders meantime went on to become an Independent Congressman for more than a decade, and, since 2006, the only independent socialist in the US Senate.
Throughout the 1970s, left-leaning activists had struggled for attention from the press and the powers-that-be. At election time, third-party candidates were nevertheless treated as nuisances and often excluded from debates. Protests by activist groups were casually noted by the mainstream press, and quickly forgotten. By the end of the 1980s, in contrast, the internal soul-searching of left-leaning leaders and disputes between "mainstream" progressives and "radical" Greens were food for front-page news analysis and after dinner dialogues. A multi-party system had redefined Burlington's political landscape.
This far-reaching realignment in Vermont's largest city didn't occur overnight. Bernie Sanders began his mayoral tenure with only one assistant and two allies among the councilmen. He spent much of his first year in office fighting ridicule and rigid resistance. His struggle to replace key city officials with his own appointees led to months of litigation before he was finally able to restaff City Hall.
The new "Sanderistas," as this ad hoc coalition was soon nicknamed, managed eventually to prove that it could run city affairs at least as efficiently as its "old guard" predecessor - and save some money as well. The intransigence of the Republicrats only fueled public discontent. In 1982, more Progressives replaced Democrats on the council. By March, 1983 they were the largest faction. And "Bernie" was more popular than ever, re-elected with a clear majority over Judy Stephany, a former Vermont Representative, and James Gilson, the Republican chairman of the school board.
Bernie became a national celebrity, a "socialist mayor" in Yankee Vermont, and one of the best-known politicians in the state. A skilled debater and telegenic master of media dynamics, he built a political base that didn't depend on party backing or swings of the ideological pendulum. In 1985, up to 30 percent of the voters who had cast ballots for Ronald Reagan's second term were ready to return Bernie Sanders to office for the third time.
One of his proudest accomplishments, Bernie often said, was a dramatic increase in political participation. The number of people voting in local elections virtually doubled after the "new guard" took center stage. But the impact went far beyond the city's borders. Inspired by the local movement, progressive activists across Vermont formed a coalition, the Rainbow, which both influenced the Democratic Party from within and pressured it from without for several years. The idea, explained Rainbow Co-chair Stewart Meacham, was "to view the Democratic party as a community-organizing target."
Though Bernie's accountability to the Rainbow and later, even to the Vermont Progressive Party, was questionable, his political choices had the power to command an army of volunteers. When Bernie ran, most of Vermont's hardcore progressives ultimately followed.
Not the Green party, however, which eventually concluded that the reformist policies of the Progressives represented an unholy alliance with capitalism that made Sanders' democratic socialist rhetoric meaningless.
Rhetoric & Reality
When Vermont progressives sum up their accomplishments in Burlington, the list invariably includes innovative projects and programs launched during the Sanders administration - the Community Land Trust, a people-friendly waterfront, a vital arts community, programs for women and children, Sister City relationships, and more. In a letter of support for Peter Clavelle, who succeeded Bernie Sanders as mayor in 1989, Sanders offered a list of successes that included rebuilding streets and sidewalks, sewer reconstruction, alternatives to the property tax, improving tenants' rights, award-winning programs, and various public amenities. More recently, Burlington has ranked as the "greenest" city in the country, the healthiest (according to the CDC), a great place for beer and early retirement, and, according to British Airways, the "third-funkiest city in the world."
There were also more profound accomplishments: changes in consciousness on issues such as disarmament, intervention, and th e local community's role in meeting human needs. In a subtle way, the emergence of an activist political generation helped to reverse the widespread distrust of government. Writing in Monthly Review in the late 1980s, Beth Bates concluded that the Sanders administration had successfully "navigated the turgid waters of free-enterprise Reaganomics and spawned a few progressive seeds."
On the other hand, if the measure of success is the nature and impact of fundamental reforms, the portrait isn't as rosy. In many cases, attempts at change were blocked by a combination of structural impediments and divisions within the community. Quite a few progressive solutions, such as viable alternatives to the automobile, never made it to the top of the agenda. In a few instances, the ideas couldn't even be classified as "moving forward."
In the recent race for mayor, most candidates embraced the combination of progressive rhetoric and conventional practice that first emerged during Sanders' time as mayor - and has changed little since then. Although the Republican candidate, Kurt Wright, talked about leadership and the Democrat, Andy Montroll,20argued that the city was "coasting along," neither challenged the basic assumptions or the cultural status quo. In fact, Montroll said that the best course is to focus on "what we have."
In one mayoral debate, the only substantive criticism of incumbent Progressive mayor Bob Kiss revolved around his handling of accounting and personnel matters. Independent challenger Dan Smith stressed the need to "reinvent ourselves" in a "post-partisan" era, yet adopted a similarly booster-ish tone. Meanwhile, Kiss joined his opponents in touting the city's many tourist-friendly amenities and the results of urban renewal, while promising to push for completion of the Southern Connector. It was as if the change that Sanders once talked about had morphed into the redevelopment plan initiated by the conservative regime he overthrew.
Limitations and contradictions were apparent from the start, as the Sanders regime found itself confronting state officials, legislative resistance and its own ambivalent nature. Vermont government sought to regulate and sometimes negate changes in=2 0city structure and practice. Burlington was bullied into reassessing its Grand List, and even threatened with loss of public funds when local officials initially tried to obstruct the building of the Southern Connector highway. The legislature's 1989 attempt to strip local communities of the power to choose alternatives to the property tax was only one episode in a struggle which began with Burlington's Gross Receipts Tax.
By the end of the 1980s, the bottom line, at least in tax matters, was that the progressives held the line. Use of fees and cost-saving reforms at least postponed increases. But, basically, what the Progressives had managed to do was "out-Republican the Republicans."
Some progressive initiatives - notably the Land Trust and, during Clavelle's tenure, creation of a municipal cable TV service - did challenge the logic of capitalism. Others simply provided benefits but left the system unchanged. A few initiatives, however, were reactionary responses that contradicted the progressive rhetoric .=2 0Most people agreed, for example, that a Gross Receipts Tax, like a defeated tax on alcohol and cigarettes to fund affordable childcare, was actually regressive. Likewise, property reappraisal shifted the burden from businesses to homeowners. The problem, explained Sanders again and again, was that state and federal policies severely limited the available options.
More difficult to rationalize was Sanders' resistance to pleas from the peace movement to embrace peace conversion, or his administration's willingness to settle for a waterfront plan that included expensive condominiums and a hotel. These flashpoints raised doubts about Progressive priorities, creating divisions that endured.
Economic development presented especially complex problems. Sanders had promised "real change," yet faced a variety of obstacles. Conservative opponents accused him of being anti-business, while left-wing critics said he was selling out to build the tax base. The basic limitation, however, was the pro-growth leanings20of most residents. Thus, it wasn't surprising that most Progressives agreed with Democrats and Republicans on the need for "balanced growth." The result of these tensions is a development posture based on striking deals to extract some benefits for the public - a gentrified waterfront in exchange for public amenities, the right to build luxury housing as long as "affordable" units are also provided, and so on.
Bea Bookchin, a Green leader of the fight to stop a controversial 1980s plan for the waterfront, noted that Sanders' initial rhetoric about development didn't match his subsequent actions. His approach, she argued, was "that the way to do the best for people is to make the most money possible...the land is being used as a resource, a cash crop."
In practice, limits to growth were never set. They simply changed with the terms of each trade-off. Two decades on, things are pretty much the same.
Beginning in 1983, protests at the local General Electric plant also produced arguments on the left: activists wanted a city commitment to peace conversion, Sanders and other progressives wanted to turn the heat on Congress instead. The timing was wrong, Bernie believed, and the movement couldn't avoid "blaming the workers" for producing rapid-fire Gatling guns at the local plant. The basic worry was that protests, and particularly civil disobedience, would "force" unionized workers to the right.
It was a disagreement on tactics, but the implications went deeper. By opposing the GE protests, some felt that Sanders was protecting the corporation and the military-industrial complex behind it. His position seemed to contradict the city's strong pronouncements on intervention in Central America. At the very least, Sanders' commitment to an industrially-based socialism had collided with the community-based peace movement's commitment to ending foreign intervention. The casualties were some mutual trust - and the workers who ultimately lost=2 0their jobs as demand for the guns waned.
Usually, the working relationship between City Hall and the peace movement was smoother. The results were clear and significant. Burlington developed, and, to a limited extent, implemented a foreign policy. A series of citywide votes established the framework for local initiatives - cooperation and exchange with the Soviet Union, protests against intervention, people-to-people programs. Designed to change consciousness and challenge the dominant anti-Communist logic, they did just that.
Between 1981 and 1987, Burlington voted to cut aid to El Salvador, oppose crisis relocation planning for nuclear war, freeze nuclear weapons production, transfer military funds to civilian programs, condemn Nicaraguan Contra aid, and divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. Buttressing the efforts of the independent peace movement, Sanders was a consistent and compelling voice for a new foreign policy.
Did such resolutions, statements, and even diplomatic links with Nicaragua pose a threat to capitalist interests? Hardly. But they did contribute to a change in attitudes, and meshed well with the efforts of other activists around the state. By the end of the 1980s, most Vermont politicians supported efforts at disarmament and a non-interventionist foreign policy. Peace and, to a limited extent, social justice had become "mainstream" issues.
The thrust of reform during the early years of Burlington's progressive realignment was mainly economic, driven by the mayor's "redistribute the wealth" approach. It wasn't so much that other questions were ignored; the administration's record on youth programs, tenants' right, and women's issues, for example, was broad and impressive. Rather it was a matter of priorities and focus. Issues aff ecting women and the gay community just took a back seat sometimes, or were handled indirectly as matters of civil rights and economic justice.
Take comparable worth, for instance, an economic approach to sexual discrimination, ambitious in intent and yet based on concerns about equity rather than sexual oppression. The city's anti-discrimination ordinance addressed the problems of gay men and women as a matter of civil rights, yet Sanders, among others, wasn't eager to carry the banner of gay and lesbian rights. Thus, most reforms relating to sexual preference and relations between the sexes didn't originate in City Hall. Normally, they received at best cautious support during Sanders' time.
A striking example was Bernie's response to questions from local feminists about his support of proposals to prevent job discrimination against gays. "I will not make it a major priority," he said bluntly.
In short, the Sanders "revolution" helped to widen the terms of debate about sexual relations, but couldn't resolve the dilemmas. The same could also be said of its impact on perceptions of taxation and development. Clearly, these were matters no local community could address on its own, even if a consensus could be established. In some areas, however, even a consensus among progressives was missing.
Despite changes in local demographics and the presence of a strong left-leaning movement, Burlington wasn't transformed into a post-industrial Paris Commune. Instead, power in City Hall was divided between the "old guard," which continued to dominate the City Council and commissions, and the "new guard," running the executive branch. The community itself was diverse - from the conservative New North End to the Progressive inner city strongholds and mainstream Democratic South End.
A majority of voters supported Sanders in three re-election bids. Yet, the reason wasn't his socialist sympathies. Rather it was his anti-establishment style and ability to "get things done." Burlingtonians had a popular leader, but not a clear direction. The Progressive program, to the extent that it existed and could be implemented, was essentially a collection of reforms glued together by fiery, yet vague speeches.
In a real sense, Burlington's Progressive movement was forced by history to handle power before it could effectively organize itself. Given that, it's remarkable that so many programs were launched by such a loose collection of activists and liberal professionals. Until 1986, the only regular planning of Progressive strategy occurred at an informal Sunday meeting of key administration and elected officials.
In an internal memo to Progressive Coalition leaders in 1984, David Clavelle and Tim McKenzie, two key organizers, noted that progressives had "been successful in creating effe ctive campaign organizations in some wards, yet unsuccessful in maintaining some form of organization between elections." Though Sanders later endorsed the idea of forming a new political party, in Vermont and across the country, he was less than eager to see it happen while he was mayor. Disillusioned by his early years as a "minor party" candidate under the Liberty Union banner in 1970s, he felt that America - as well as Burlington - wasn't ready for an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats.
Even after the Progressive Coalition took shape, his connection with it remained ambiguous. Despite all the hoopla about Burlington's "socialist" government, Sanders never sought office after 1976 as anything but an "independent." His political choices, he felt, were best made without submitting them to group approval. Working with council allies and top appointees, he could act fast and, as he put it, "boldly." But the atmosphere in City Hall was less than chummy, since the boss was a man of gruff speech and limited tact. Most supporters not intimate with the City Hall group heard little about decisions until after they had been made.
What was efficient and bold, unfortunately, wasn't always so democratic. By the time the Progressive Coalition was formally launched in 1986, some of those it hoped to attract and represent had drifted in other directions. Many women, while welcoming specific programs, found the "PC" to be too much of a "boys club." Due to the impact of Jesse Jackson's first presidential campaign and the Rainbow Coalition, left-leaning Democrats were returning to the party. Some peace activists found the mayor unresponsive. And the Greens concluded that the administration was part of the problem, offering no solutions to emerging ecological threats.
Building a solid and broad-based Coalition while struggling to hold onto power proved to be a demanding task. Increasingly, the leaders of the Coalition were also city officials; their day-to-day struggles determined most of the agenda. If a choice had to be made between the practical and the ideal, or between the "winnable" and the "good" fight, the former usually held sway.
By the end of the 1980s, the idea that Vermont's Left might one day "take over" the state was no longer some far-fetched fantasy. It wasn't actually "the Left," however, but Bernie Sanders who was positioned for victory.
Party loyalty had been dropping for more than a decade. Up to 40 percent of Vermont voters now considered themselves independents. Even many stalwarts crossed party lines to vote for the most likeable, trustworthy or competent person in a race. Bernie profited from these shifting realities of electoral life. Like many successful politicians, he had become a political institution, able to command respect and votes without tying himself to any concrete program or organization.
In 1986, he chose to run for governor against Vermont's first female chief executive, Democrat Madeleine Kunin, despite warnings that it was the wrong race at the wrong time. For almost any other leftist, it would likely have been a disaster. But Sanders managed to pull 15 percent of the vote even without solid organizational support, scoring best in the most conservative area of the state, the Northeast Kingdom. No progressive candidate for governor broke that record until Anthony Pollina, also running as an Independent, challenged Republican incumbent Jim Douglas 22 years later.
For Rainbow Coalition activists who stuck with Sanders in 1986, it was a trying experience that demonstrated his preference for winning votes over organizing a movement. But that didn't prevent him from returning two years later. His 1988 run for Congress became a triumph of profound importance. Without party backing he raised about $300,000, dominated the debate, eclipsed Democrat Paul Poirier, and came within 3 percent of winning. Although Republican Peter Smith took that race, Sanders came back and defeated him two years later. He's been in Congress ever since.
"What I have been saying over and over again," Sanders explained after the 1988 race, "is that it is absolutely outrageous that you have a handful of giant corporations and wealthy individuals who have so much wealth and so much power when most people are not getting a fair shake. And you know what? People accept that message. People understand that. They're not stupid."
As he had done at the local level, Bernie had also handed the Democrats a demoralizing defeat, leaving them with the fear that they might one day be the state's "third party." The question was whether they would be replaced by a statewide Progressive party or a permanent campaign machine. For all Sanders' talk about the need for an alternative to the Republicrats, he'd done little except make himself the de facto head of whatever eventually emerged.
Before Sanders and the Progressives, on the other hand, Burlington was a cultural backwater run by an aging generation, unresponsive to the changing needs of the community. If you attended a council meeting with a problem, the first question asked was, "How long have you lived here?" Political competition was the exception; clannish Democrats and compliant Republicans made the rules.
By the early 1990s, the Queen City was nationally known for its radical mystique and "livability." Ex-urbanites and counter-culturalists had transformed it from a provincial town into a cultural mecca, socially conscious and highly charged. Yet the fundamental nature of the change remained difficult to pinpoint. Even a clear definition of the term "progressive" was elusive.
At one time a progressive was someone who fought for relief from the devastating impacts of a new industrial order. Early in the 20th century Burlington had a self-described "progressive" mayor named James Burke, an Irish Catholic blacksmith who led a pragmatic reform movement. In the 1960s, when a new political alignment in Vermont led to the election of Democratic Governor Phil Hoff, ending a century of Republican rule, the forces behind the man also called themselves progressive. For Hoff and his allies progressive meant modernized state government, improved schools, and regionalized services. Twenty years later the definition changed again, incorporating tax reform, open government and redistribution of wealth.
On any standard scale, the achievements of Burlington's progressives command high marks. After 1981, Burlington clearly became more dynamic, more open. The unemployment rate was virtually the lowest in the nation. The cultural forces set loose in the 80s, and nourished by local government, made the urban core more a magnet than ever. But there were clouds on the horizon, some new and others gathering force after years of neglect. For Burlington, the price of success was seen in traffic jams and high rents, toxic dumps and a landfill crunch, the feminization of poverty and the building boom.
In her 1989 race for mayor, Sandy Baird, mounting a leftist challenge to the Progressives as a Green candidate, provided perhaps the most damning critique. "The past and present administrations of our city," she charged, "are on a collision course with both the natural world and poor people." Baird subsequently left the Greens and became a Democrat, chairing the party's City Committee. In the 2009 race for mayor, she backed the Republican candidate, Kurt Wright, against Democrat Andy Montroll, Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss, and Dan Smith - son of Peter Smith, the politician Bernie Sanders defeated in 1990. For Baird and many others, it's been a long and winding road.
Driving up Battery Street in Burlington in 1997, I passed what looked like a private prison. "Unless you belong here, go away," it seemed to say. After living for two years in New Mexico, where punishment had become a growth industry, maybe incarceration was simply on my mind. But in this case it turned out to be The Residence, luxury living for Burlington's upper class.
Well, at least it's not on the waterfront, I thought. And if people were ready to pay top dollar to live in a building with what looked like guard towers, that was their business.
What also struck me, however, was its size. Big. Before returning to town, I'd read a sugary story in The Nation describing the Queen City as a prime example of "what works." Although it was partly hype, after living in Los Angeles and Albuquerque for much of the 1990s I was eager to get back to a place where people understood "human scale." While I was away, however, the definition had apparently changed.
Don't get me wrong. Burlington was still a fine place to live. Concepts like "sustainability" and "quality of life" underpinned local policies. In fact, that Fall the city's Ordinance Committee was considering how to turn complaints about abandoned housing, garbage and other neighborhood nuisances into enforceable law. But did people really want to regulate lawn conditions, I had to wonder, or confiscate skateboards from unruly kids?
Mayor Peter Clavelle, now in his third term, predicted that Burlington's road-building era was coming an end. On the other hand, he also argued that downtown urban renewal was "irreversible" and ought to be completed. In the old days, progressives had called it "urban removal," and wouldn't have been very enthusiastic about the coming of Filene's and Borders.
Gazing at the waterfront, I thought I saw the20ghost of Mayor Gordie Paquette. Like Hamlet's father, he was moaning something like, "If you're going to finish my work, at least give me some of the credit."
Since returning to office after a one-term defeat, Clavelle had become more guarded. His circle of advisors was smaller, and the Progressive Coalition no longer called the shots. When the debate over Filene's began, Terry Bouricious, the first Progressive city councilor of the Sanders era, suggested a supermarket rather than a department store for what was left of the urban renewal area. Other Progressives also had doubts. But none were ready to break publicly with their leader. Despite talk about sustainability and dialogue, big decisions were being driven by tax and business imperatives.
Neighborhood associations were upgrading parks and addressing problems that fell through the cracks. Yet neighborhood planning assembles, established during the Sanders era, no longer sparked much interest. In some wards, it was hard to drum up a quorum unless it was time to divvy up some money. In short, it was becoming tougher for a maturing, tourist-dependent city to retain small-town quality. Residents were less engaged, more prickly and, in some cases, too demanding.
The previous winter Traci Sawyers had been recruited by Bouricius to run for the City Council. In accepting the challenge, she hoped to be asked about Filene's and waterfront development as she knocked on doors in Ward Two. But many voters hadn't even heard about the impending arrival of the new department store and didn't expect to shop there. Instead, they complained about noise at "party houses," run-down buildings owned by absentee landlords, trash spilling into their yards, graffiti, and dog poop. Along with the loss of green space, Sawyers concluded, "The most significant threat to Burlington are these quality of life issues."
It wasn't a new problem. For some time, Council President Sharon Bushor had been pushing for a comprehensive program to combat "neighborhood decay." The main obstacle, according to Assistant City Attorney Jessica Oski, was enforcement. Depending on the complaint, that could fall to housing or building inspectors, the Fire Department, or the police.
Some residents blamed the perceived decline on students, particularly those attending the University of Vermont. Others targeted absentee landlords, or the city's failure to enforce existing ordinances. The problem went deeper than enforcement, however. In the end, it was linked to the city's changing culture and how people defined that vague phrase, quality of life.
In the 1950s, as the US entered what John Kenneth Gailbraith named the Age of Affluence, "quality of life" had emerged as a way to describe a public desire for something beyond an improved standard of living. Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson circulated it during his 1956 campaign, borrowing the phrase from TV commentator Eric Severeid. It was also used by Arthur Schlesinger to contrast the "quantitative liberalism" of the 1930s New Deal with a growing middle-class desire for "qualitative liberalism."
In the 1960s, the emerging environmental movement expanded the definition, relating quality to issues such as pollution. But it was primarily related to the emergence of what Gailbraith called the New Class, a largely professional and educated group that placed a premium on clean, secure, and comfortable surroundings.
Vermont experienced the impact as middle-class families deserted deteriorating urban areas. Drawn by the state's slower pace, cleaner air and water, and relatively safe communities, many newcomers were willing to accept lower salaries in exchange for a "higher" quality of life. By the 1970s, however, quality control problems were already becoming obvious. Many young people were alienated, suburban sprawl was on the horizon, and Burlington's "gentrification" was driving up the cost of living. In other words, the Age of Affluence was having some adverse side effects.
By the end of the 20th Century the state's largest urban area reached a turning point. While it wasn't possible to say that conditions were entirely worse - in fact, some low-income neighborhoods looked better than they once did - attitudes had changed. People harbored a series of small grudges that were approaching critical mass. Sawyers, who had moved from Boston in the mid-90s, talked about "an environment of disregard for people." Mayor Clavelle said that nuisances like abandoned cars on front yards were "getting under people's skin."
The proposed solution was to consolidate and toughen enforcement, as Sawyers put it "to change the culture of what's acceptable." But that opened up more questions; for example, can you actually regulate that type of behavior without creating repressive standards? Can you really force people to be good citizens? And, is a clean and quiet neighborhood what "quality of life" is all about?
If a psychic had predicted in the 1970s that Bernie Sanders would someday stand on the White House lawn in support of an embattled US President, or enthusiastically support another Democrat for the presidency, most people who knew him would have considered it a bizarre joke. Bernie himself probably would have been insulted.
At the time he was a perennial "third party" candidate who, in four statewide races, had dedicated himself to broadside attacks on capitalism and its henchmen - the two major political parties. Nevertheless, on December 19, 1998, just hours after the US House voted to impeach a President for only the second time in the nation's history, there he was, lined up with Democratic notables behind Bill Clinton. Ten years later he was backing Barack Obama from a seat in the US Senate.
This has to be one of the most remarkable metamorphoses in US political history. An irascible outsider became a seasoned player in the national political establishment. As the longest-serving Independent, and the only open socialist in Congress, he has entered the record books. Considered an effective coalition-builder, he can sometimes get GOP conservatives to play ball with Democratic liberals. He also founded the Progressive Caucus, a congressional alliance that had fought for tax reform, single payer health care, military=2 0spending cuts, and control of international financial institutions. Along the way, he has proven virtually invulnerable to electoral attack.
Yet, as Bernie sees it, "My views about what I believe is right and what I want to see in this country have changed very little." And that may be the secret of his success. Bernie is nothing if not consistent, managing to stick with essentially the same rap not matter what the political climate. The surface image has certainly evolved - from aggressive, fast-talking radical in jeans and sandals, struggling angrily to be heard, to self-assured, well-dressed statesman who couches his criticisms with frequent acknowledgements of respect for opponents and practical realities. But the message, however updated with new evidence, is virtually identical.
As he put it during a one-on-one interview about ten years ago, "You have two political parties that are controlled by monied interests…You have a corporate media. When you talk about consolidation, you are talking about oil and gas, banking, and perhaps most importantly, the media - where there are very few voices of dissent regarding our current position on the global economy.
"That gets to even the more fundamental issue - the health of American democracy. Do people know what's going on? And how can they fight what's going on? I fear that they don't."
We were talking at the start of a mind-boggling week. Bill Clinton was only two days from launching a new round of Iraq bombings - on the eve of his own impeachment. Bernie had already made up his mind on Clinton: yes to censure, no to removal or resignation. But he was more equivocal on the subject of intervention. A critic of high defense spending who voted against the Gulf war, he nevertheless believes that military action is sometimes appropriate, for example in Yugoslavia or to get rid of a dictator like Saddam Hussein. "I do not want to see a man like this develop biological or chemical weapons," he explained. "So, it's not an easy situation."
The real trouble, he argued in early 1999, is that unlike the broad public opposition that emerged to the Vietnam War, about 80 percent of the people will support just about any decision to use force these days. "That makes it difficult for people in Congress to oppose it," he said, even though "the tactic often backfires." He didn't expect the situation to change "until tens of millions of people say no," and didn't think most peace activists were on the right track. Winning credibility is the first step to building a broad-based movement," he explained, and the way to do that is to take on bread and butter issues. "I don't think you can just look at the issue of war and peace," he said. "People have got to know you are on their side."
Now on a roll, he added, "I have long been concerned that some 'progressive activists' do not stand up and fight effectively or pay enough attention to the needs of ordinary Americans. Right now, one of the issues I am terribly concerned about is what is being proposed for social security, which I think would be a disaster. It affects senior citizens today. It affects future generations. How much discussion is there of that issue among activists=2 0and intellectuals, who should understand it? I've heard very little in Vermont."
Bernie had little idea of how Congress operated before he arrived, he admitted. Like his early days as Burlington mayor, dealing with an unsympathetic legislature and entrenched local bureaucracy, it was a rude awakening. Years later, although he now knew how the game is played, it still galled him that "what we read in the textbooks about how a bill becomes a law just ain't the case."
When we talked, he pointed to conference committees that are supposed to iron out legislative differences. "How many people know that when you have the House and Senate agreeing on a position, the ten people in that room can junk it completely - even when there is agreement?" It was the kind of rhetorical question that peppered his speech, this one conveying his core belief that the public is kept in the dark about routine abuses of power and corruption of democratic processes. "I get outraged at both the television and newspapers about their refusal to educate people about how the process works," he said.
One aspect, he noted, is that winning congressional battles often involves working with people whose stands on other issues you abhor. In fact, much of Bernie's early legislative success came through forging deals with ideological opposites. An amendment to bar spending in support of defense contractor mergers, for example, was pushed through with the aid of Chris Smith, a prominent opponent on abortion. John Kasich, whose views of welfare, the minimum wage and foreign policy could hardly be more divergent from Bernie's, helped him phase out risk insurance for foreign investments. And his "left-right coalition" helped to derail "fast track" legislation on international agreements pushed by Bill Clinton.
Having arch-conservatives as allies felt strange, he acknowledged. But the job was to pass legislation rather than "moralize and be virtuous and not talk to anybody…. If you are a good politician - and I use that in a positive sense - you seize the opportunity to make things happen."
Another role, one perhaps closer to his heart, is provocateur. "I respect people who are in the political process," he explained, but he also enjoys flushing them out. "Issues affecting billions of people with the world not knowing what's going on. I think, as a result of the role I and other have played, there may be more transparency. But obviously the issue goes beyond that."
We were getting to the core of Bernie's analysis: international financial groups protecting the interests of speculators and banks at the expense of the poor and working people - not to mention the environment - behind a veil of secrecy. Governments reduced to the status of figureheads under international capitalist management. Both political parties kowtowing to big money flaks. And media myopia fueling public ignorance. His task, he argued, was to raise consciousness and, when possible, expose the real agendas of the powerful.
"I think it's imperative that people keep working on what is a very difficult task; that is, creating a third party in American," he said. Despite that view, however, he had no plans to help develop one in Vermont. "I am very much preoccupied and work very hard being Vermont's congressman," he explained. "I am not going to play an active role in building a third party."
On the surface, he seemed to be contradicting himself. Yet, Bernie had maintained an arms-length relationship with party politics since turning Independent in the late 1970s. He hoped that the Progressive base could significantly expand beyond Burlington, and sometimes lent support to local candidates. But active involvement in party-building would inevitably mean supporting other statewide candidates against people like Howard Dean, then Vermont Governor, and could strain his personal détente with Vermont Democrats.
Rhetoric aside, Bernie had made his peace with pragmatism, and wasn't embarrassed about playing to win. Forced to choose between being "virtuous" and effective, he opted for success - as long as it didn't violate long-held beliefs.
On the other hand, "There are not very many members of congress who hold my views," he said. "The President does not hold my views. The corporate media does not hold my views. That is the reality I have to deal with every single day." His job, as he has defined it over the years, is to understand the constraints and "do the best you can with the powers you have. You don't just stand on a street corner giving a speech."
That was a bit ironic, I thought, since giving a speech - in fact, the same basic speech - was probably what Bernie did best. Over the years it nevertheless had taken him from third party obscurity to the Rose Garden and the Senate. Meanwhile, as time passed, more and more people came to see things his way. It was only a matter of time until this kind of pragmatic populism, ultimately embodied in the campaign of Barack Obama, hit prime time.
If history is truly written by the winners, the story of Vermont during the 20th century should at the least be co-authored by the three progressive movements that transformed its politics at the close of the last millennium. The first, and least known, was the early 1900s reform era led by Burlington's fiery Irish Catholic mayor, James Burke. Uniting the city's growing ethnic and immigrant groups, he ushered in public power, experimented with independent politics, and - in the words of a Burlington Free Press eulogy - stirred "the smoldering embers of democracy when they seemed to be dying out."
Despite Burlington's breakthrough, however, the state remained a Republican bastion until the next progressive surge. It began officially in 1962 with the election of Phil Hoff, the first Democratic governor since 1853. Like the earlier movement, it was sparked by a passion for reform and an influx of immigrants - in this case ex-urbanites looking for a higher quality of life. Before it was over, Vermont became a two-party st ate with a reputation for environmental innovation and independent thinking.
The third progressive era is still in progress. After redefining Vermont politics in the 1980s, Bernie Sanders moved onto the national landscape, forming a Progressive Caucus in Congress and leading battles to mitigate the impacts of corporate globalization. In 2006, after 16 years as Vermont's sole representative in the US House, he replaced retiring US Senator Jim Jeffords, who had concluded his own political career by leaving George W. Bush's Republican Party and becoming an independent. Electing another Independent to succeed him, especially when Bernie's main opponent was a wealthy Republican, came as no surprise.
Back in Burlington, the Progressive Coalition that emerged from Bernie's early victories continued to dominate the political scene. Writing about the impact in the late 1990s, labor organizer Ellen David Friedman, a long-time Sanders associate, argued that the result was a "definitive shift to the left in Vermont's center of gravity." The evidence? Friedman mentioned the dominance of Democrats in state politics, the second highest minimum wage in the country, delay of utility deregulation, "best-of-the worst" welfare reform, and the failure of reactionary wedge issues to gain a foothold. From this she concluded that democratic socialism had gained a significant following, becoming "a fact of life in Vermont politics."
Despite claiming such a debatable victory, she did admit that the movement hadn't been a complete success. After dozens of campaigns, for example, the Progressive Coalition (which became the Vermont Progressive Party in 1999) had yet to elect a single "progressive independent" to the state legislature from outside Burlington. By 2004, it had six state representatives, including three from beyond Burlington's borders, but had lost ground on the City Council. In the 2009 elections, the Progressives, who currently have three seats on the 14-member Council, entered candidates in only two of the seven races. With six seats, the Democrats had six candidates. Though long shots, there were five Green Party challengers.
"After n early two decades of work," Friedman wrote a decade ago, "we bind ourselves together with only the loosest of structures." Although that problem was addressed by the formation of a statewide political party, debates have persisted since then about how much emphasis to place on elections, and how to relate to Democrats. In fact, some Burlington progressives say they prefer dealing with Republicans, despite the ideological differences, than negotiating with unpredictable, fence-straddling Democrats.
Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle's agenda, expressed in various public statements, was a city that struck a balance between "economic development, environmental protection, and social equity." Among his long-term goals was making affordable housing "a basic right, not a commodity," and "an economy that is primarily locally owned and controlled." That certainly sounded like democratic socialism, but the likelihood of either occurring was increasingly remote.
Clavelle's analysis illustrated both the movement's idealism and flaws. Like most progressives, he wanted to increase wages, preserve open spaces, protect the community from social breakdown, and promote political engagement. He also appeared to share Bernie's distress about unfair distribution of wealth and commitment to a more fair tax system. On the other hand, he felt that the route to such a "livable" future was adaptation to the requirements of the market. Thus, despite concern that "our economy is no longer controlled by people who live in our community," he welcomed expansion of the city's downtown mall, a department store owned by the 400-outlet May Company (later replaced by Macy's), and Borders. No doubt there were considerable benefits, notably a greater line of consumer items. But their arrival also intensified the local economy's dependence on out-of-state owners and global trends, precisely what Clavelle hoped to avoid.
Housing posed a similar conundrum. The Progressive administration wanted to provide more options, improve substandard units, and return abandoned buildings to productive use. But none of this would alter the market conditions making apartment rentals in Burlington almost as expensive as they were in Los Angeles. Finding the right balance between commerce, equity and the environment proved difficult indeed.
After 15 years as Burlington's Progressive mayor, Peter Clavelle retired in 2006 - but not before returning to the Democratic Party for a gubernatorial race in 2004. His opponent was the incumbent Republican Jim Douglas, an archetypal, tight-lipped political bureaucrat who had already served as Secretary of State and State Treasurer. Clavelle was blunt and uncharacteristically passionate in that race, often looking miffed as he talked about lost jobs or the 63,000 Vermonters without health insurance. Watching the two men debate was like eavesdropping on a labor-management negotiation destined to end in strike.
Unlike Bernie, Clavelle often seemed vaguely uncomfortable in the role of candidate, and when we spoke during the 2004 race admitted that he probably enjoyed governing more than campaigning. "What gets me excited is to bring people together," he said. He was also a bit defensive when asked about his move back from Progressive to Democrat. "Nothing has changed in terms of who I am and what I sand for…I come from a family and tradition of 'Yellow Dog' Democrats," he explained, recalling how his mother once defined the term. "We'd vote for a yellow dog before a Republican," she told her six-year-old son. "The truth is that most Progressives are Democrats," he said. "And unless we find common ground, the only winners will be Republicans."
That November, Clavelle was decisively beaten by Douglas (recently a prominent GOP supporter of Barack Obama's stimulus plans). In 2005, Clavelle experienced another defeat: his bold plan to let the Greater Burlington YMCA turn the decaying Moran generating station on the city's waterfront into a state-of-the-art recreational facility was rejected by local residents in an "advisory" vote. The opposition included Kurt Wright, a local Republican with mayoral ambitions, and Sandy Baird, a Green-turned-Democrat. That alliance apparently lasted, given Baird's 2009 endorsement of Wright for mayor.
Waterfront plans had frequently=2 0met resistance. In the 1970s, Mayor Paquette, with strong Democratic and Republican backing, had pushed a highly commercial plan that envisioned high-priced condos and underground parking at the water's edge. That idea was greeted with protests, particularly by residents of the adjacent King Street neighborhood who feared redevelopment would lead to higher rents and drive them out of their homes.
Although the project didn't get far, it did open the spigot to government funds for housing rehabilitation and subsidies in the nearby low-income area. Many people saw this as an attempt to buy off critics, but also as an offer that was difficult to reject. Already dreaming about a marine museum near his operation, Ray Pecor, owner of Lake Champlain Transportation and a force in waterfront planning, stepped in to fund a needed renovation of the King Street Area Youth Center.
Waterfront redevelopment also served as a rallying point for the electoral movement that coalesced around Berne Sanders. When he first ran for mayor, he was pointing directly at the shoreline when he said, "Burlington is not for sale."
After a few years in office, however, Bernie's attitude became more pragmatic. With Clavelle running the new Community and Economic Development Office, the city nurtured a $100 million project that dwarfed all previous visions. Known as the Alden Plan, it included everything from a boathouse and modest bike path to condos and a seven-story hotel. At the time Clavelle called it "a unique model for urban development."
The first criticisms centered on "secret meetings" between the developer and officials. When a citizens' group pushed for open negotiations and a much larger bike path, Bernie labeled it a Democratic front group, but eventually supported its main idea. Environmental critics also geared up, demanding more open space. Then came a public bond vote. Due to persistent criticism and coalition of Greens and Democrats, the measure fell short of the required two-thirds majority and the project died. Twenty years year, many of the players in the ongoing waterfront debate remained the same. Even the criticisms had a familiar ring.
By 2006, Clavelle had had enough. But he and a number of other local progressives didn't believe that another Progressive could be elected or that the local party would long survive, and thus decided to endorse Hinda Miller, the Democrat running to succeed him. The leaders of Burlington's Progressive Party weren't willing to accept the idea that its time had passed, however, and nominated Bob Kiss, a veteran human services bureaucrat. Kiss ended up beating Miller by about nine percent and became the first Burlington mayor elected using instant runoff voting. Rumors circulated that Wright, the GOP candidate, advised supporters to give Kiss their second place vote. In any case, the public apparently rejected Clavelle's conclusion that the progressive era was over and that the smartest move was to strike a bargain with local Democrats.
In office, Kiss continued along a pragmatic, moderately populist path - lean budgets, "modest growth," and practical innovations like municipal cable television. Business Week recently called Burlington one of the best places "to raise your kids," and the Centers for Disease Control has crowned it the nation's "healthiest city." Kiss even helped craft a "redevelopment" plan for the Moran plant that local residents could accept, a public-private partnership combining a community sailing center, a children's museum, and a for-profit recreation facility. The city will retain ownership of the building.
The Greens still aren't happy, and their candidate for mayor in 2009, James Simpson, argued that a proposed skate park and splash park would negatively impact nearby wetlands. But without a broader base of support and with Democrats, Republicans and Progressives lining up behind the project, such criticism achieved little traction. Although he didn't get 50 percent of the vote, incumbent Bob Kiss won the race, followed in the instant runoff by Republican Kurt Wright.
The journey has been easier, though no less ironic, for Sanders at the national level. As he put it in one fundraising letter, he has been fighting "not only the reactionary Republican a genda but the move to the right" by the Democrats. To do that, however, he sometimes has had to ally himself with congressional conservatives whose goals are very different from his own. Defeat of a late 1990s bailout of the International Monetary Fund, for example, was seen both as a victory for human rights and for racist critics of foreign aid. Opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade and investment deals also had a double edge. For some, the object was to continue the economic blockade of Cuba, hand Bill Clinton a defeat, or prevent the development of international mechanisms for the resolution of disputes. Although Bernie's goals were considerable more altruistic, defeat did also serve the interests of economic nationalists and reactionaries whose ultimate aim was states' rights and isolationism.
The notion of building a left-right coalition against the forces of centralized power and wealth can be seductive. When this was briefly attempted in Vermont in the late 1970s, the two ends of the political spectrum found common ground in some areas. Both preferred small scale energy production to mega-plants, widespread ownership of land and business, and removal of "government barriers." But things got sticky when the discussion shifted to welfare, environmental regulation, affirmative action, and abortion - none of them trivial topics. The rub is that the same arguments for "decentralization" and sovereignty that sound progressive in certain cases can be used in support of unfettered capitalism and discrimination.
The heart of the nation's progressive movement in the early 20th century was an attempt to control concentrated wealth and widen democratic participation. For a quarter century, reforms addressed workers' rights, monopoly excesses, political corruption, uncontrolled development, and the devastating impacts of the early industrial era. Yet, most the efforts quelled popular discontent rather than producing basic changes. The resulting reforms were mainly co-opted by business groups to serve their own long-range interests. Rather than leading the country toward some form of social transformation, early progressivism ended up heading it off.
In the process, many people did get relief from the worst effects of uncontrolled capitalism, a considerable accomplishment. The same can be said of the recent progressive era in Burlington and, by extension, Vermont. But the price of the bargain has been high. In the birthplace of Vermont progressivism, it has led to commercial homogenization, environmental triage, and the continued commodification of housing and other resources. The attempt to balance "sustainability" with a pragmatic acceptance of market forces assumes that an economic system based on continuous growth and profitability can be effectively harnessed to serve human needs and respect the natural world. If that has happened, it is capitalism's best kept secret.
Greg Guma has edited and written for newspapers in Vermont for 40 years, and wrote a book about progressive politics in Vermont, The People's Republic. He is also a former Executive Director of Pacifica Radio, the 60 year-old progressive media organization. An unabridged version of this essay, as well as other writing about Vermont and politics, is available on his website, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).