Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Progressive Paradox: Identity Crisis

On March 3, 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 race into perspective, this series looks at the movement that began with the election of Bernie Sanders on March 3, 1981 and subsequently changed the face of Vermont politics.


Chapter Three


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 affecting 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. And often 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 effective 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.


Chapter One: Vermont’s Progressive Paradox

Chapter Two: Progressive Paradox: Rhetoric & Reality


Coming Up: Beyond the Legend, and Quality of Life

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