July 15, 2024

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What did Bernie Sanders do when he was mayor?

HE calls himself anti-establishment. And yet he is the establishment. He is a self-proclaimed radical socialist, and he is also mayor of the largest city in Vermont.

He is perpetually controversial.

But in this city of 38,000 on the shores of Lake Champlain, Mayor Bernard Sanders is facing the same basic decisions about taxes, streets, and municipal development that his capitalist colleagues are facing in cities and towns across the United States.

And, like elsewhere, many of the solutions to problems in Burlington come down to one simple word: money.

It is tough enough these days for an American mayor to raise funds to run and improve his or her city, but when the mayor is a socialist, the whole exercise takes on a peculiar irony.

Mayor Sanders himself recognizes that there are limits to how much radical socialism can be injected into the daily running of Burlington. There is no talk of nationalizing local banks, nor of mass redistribution of Burlington’s wealth to the poor and disadvantaged.

”There are obvious, real limits to what we can do,” Sanders says. ”I suppose we should be at civil war with the business community. A lot of them hate our guts, and none of them vote for us, that’s for sure.”

But he adds that his administration cannot afford to isolate itself from the business community, which has access to funds needed to upgrade Burlington.

At the time of his election in 1981 and his reelection in 1983, there were predictions that Sanders’s policies would lead to a mass exodus of businessmen from the city. They haven’t.

The day-to-day reality of the Sanders administration has proved to be a lot less radical than many observers anticipated.

”The mayor does talk a very good game,” says Judith Stephany, who lost to Sanders in the 1983 mayoral race. ”He would like to redistribute the fruits of the wealthy to the less wealthy. But when push comes to shove here in Burlington , those words have not been translated into action.”

Nonetheless, Sanders takes his socialism and radicalism seriously.

”I think I was always a rebel as a child, not tolerant of conventional wisdom, and basically somebody sympathetic to the underdog,” Sanders says of his youth in Brooklyn, N.Y.

It is an outlook that three years in the mayor’s office have not changed.

One observer called him ”a gadfly in power.”

A local banker described him as ”a man with a chip on his shoulder.”

”Bernie is a real fighter for the people, the forgotten, the low-income, the elderly, and the people who have been left out,” says Ken Dean, who coordinated Gary Hart’s primary campaign in Vermont. Mr. Dean adds, ”Some of Bernie’s speeches sound like Hubert Humphrey. He actually is, in the best sense of the word, a very good Democrat. But he would get upset if you called him that.”

Sanders’s rise to power came in 1981, when he beat five-term incumbent Mayor Gordon Paquette by 10 votes. After a rocky first term in which Sanders and the Board of Aldermen were engaged in almost constant verbal combat, Sanders took his campaign back into the city’s working-class neighborhoods in 1983 and won reelection, capturing 52 percent of the vote.

Sanders’s political education came in large part during a decade of struggle as a leader of the Liberty Union Party, a progressive third party in Vermont. He ran twice for governor and lost, and twice for the US Senate and lost. In the 1976 gubernatorial election, Sanders gained 6 percent of the vote. It was his best statewide showing.

Earlier this year, Sanders toyed with the idea of entering Vermont’s current governor’s race. Some political observers say that while Sanders has demonstrable support in Burlington, his support cannot be translated into votes statewide, particularly in traditionally conservative rural areas, which make up most of the state.

There is still considerable mistrust between Burlington’s business leaders and the mayor’s office. But Sanders isn’t shying away from his radical label. He stresses that his policies and accomplishments – in the context of running Burlington – have been radical.

”I like the word radical,” the mayor says.


”Because I am a radical.”

How so?

”Anytime you do something for the first time, its radical,” Sanders says.

He adds, ”Radical is not only specific ideas and hopes for the future, but it is also trying to respond to the pressures that you are in.”

Bernie – as the mayor is called by friends and foes alike – is on his way to becoming something of a legend here. He is portrayed by those who know him as a political Robin Hood of sorts, who has vowed to do battle against the rich and to give to the poor.

And he is not alone. Since his first election in 1981, six members of Sanders’s Progressive Coalition have won seats on the local 13-member Board of Aldermen. They have organized grass-roots campaigns against both the Democrats and Republicans – and won. The Progressive Coalition is a loose collection of socialists, progressives, independents, renegade Democrats, and neighborhood activists – many of whom, like the mayor himself, migrated to Vermont’s peaceful woods in the late ’60s in an effort to escape the controversy of the Vietnam war and the problems of urban life.

Later this month, the coalition may, for the first time, gain a majority position on the Board of Aldermen with seven seats. If the coalition’s candidate defeats his Democratic challenger in Ward 5 in a special May 15 election, Mayor Sanders’s power to bring change to Burlington may greatly increase.

What will that mean for Burlington?

No one is sure. According to political observers, the Ward 5 race is too close to call.

”What will happen, obviously, (is that) we’ll be able to move in to more quickly implement some of what we want,” Sanders says.

High on the mayor’s agenda is finding progressive alternatives to property taxes.

The mayor’s first effort in this regard has come in the form of a new city ordinance requiring utility companies doing excavation work in city streets to pay an excavation ”fee” of $10.30 per square foot of road dug up. The telephone company, gas company, and local cable television company have taken the city to court, charging that the measure is unconstitutional.

The mayor is standing behind the ordinance. City officials anticipate the excavation fee will raise $500,000 a year for badly needed street repair. The funds are expected to help keep property taxes down, and thus help ease the tax burden on elderly and low-income homeowners in Burlington.

The proposed $100 million development of the city’s waterfront is another example of how Sanders’s brand of socialism is affecting Burlington.

It is also an example of how Sanders is willing to work with ”private capitalists.”

Private capitalists in this case refer to the Alden Waterfront Corporation, which is developing a planned waterfront complex, including parks, boating, restaurants, shops, museums, and apartments, on 25 acres at the edge of Lake Champlain. The city is applying for a $20 million federal urban development grant to help fund the project. The rest will be funded by private capital.

The mayor has not compromised his socialist principals to get the project. On the contrary, the project has a distinctive Sanders stamp.

The waterfront project was originally proposed by the previous Democratic administration in City Hall. That plan envisioned luxury high-rise condos. Sanders opposed it because it offered few benefits to working-class city residents. In addition, the project would have obliterated the lake view of an entire Burlington working-class neighborhood.

The revised development plan, designed with input from nearby residents, limits the height of the proposed buildings to preserve the lake view. It also ensures public access to the waterfront, with affordable activities for all the city’s residents. The apartments to be built will include various price ranges to accommodate elderly and moderate income renters. There will also be expensive town houses.

Other Sanders initiatives include greater employee input in city departments to help smooth employee relations, the proposed ”municipalization” of the local cable-television franchise, the establishment of co-ops and worker-owned shops, and an upgrading of youth programs.

One of the mayor’s least controversial initiatives has been his work to bring minor-league baseball back to Burlington. Sanders sees it as a means to provide low-cost recreation and entertainment to city residents and to enhance community spirit.

Burlington’s new baseball team is a farm club of the Cincinnati Reds organization.

On opening day last month, Mayor Sanders – a baseball fan himself – was on hand to throw out the first pitch. To some it was only appropriate that the city’s first socialist mayor should kick off the team’s first home game.

The team’s official name? The Burlington Reds.

Editor’s note:¬†¬†This story was originally published May 3, 1984, under the headline “Socialism Vermont-style.”

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