Monday, June 8, 2015

Will Sanders' BFF Democrat stick with him?

In 1984 Peter Welch was already a fan and urged Mayor Bernie Sanders to seek higher office

It should come as no shock that Vermont's leading Democrats are lining up with Hillary Clinton for president, despite the emergence of Bernie Sanders as a contender. The list of prominent Clinton backers in Vermont so far includes Governor Peter Shumlin, Sen. Patrick Leahy, former governor (and 2004 presidential candidate) Howard Dean, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, whom Sanders endorsed in 2012.

Welch to Sanders: "Perhaps another day."

In a way, it's understandable. For decades Sanders was a thorn in the party's side. In 1974, he ran against Leahy as a Liberty Union candidate, in the race that first put the young Chittenden County prosecutor in the Senate. In 1981, Sanders defeated a five-term incumbent Democratic mayor, Gordon Paquette, ushering in almost 30 years of Progressive-led government. 

In 1986, he ran against Vermont's first female governor, Democrat Madeleine Kunin. 

After Sanders entered Congress, he and top Democrats did find a way to co-exist, developed mutual respect, and sometimes collaborated on projects.  But one leading Vermont Democrat is absent from the Clinton list -- and maintained a cordial, supportive relationship with Sanders from the start -- Rep. Peter Welch. 

In 1984, Sanders was in his second term as mayor and thinking about another run for governor; he had run as a third party candidate in 1972 and 1976. Welch had become a state senator. But Sanders decided to stand aside and consolidate locally. On April 3, 1984, shortly after the local Progressive coalition made gains in City Council races, Welch, who lived on the other side of the state, sent a hand-written note of congratulations and urged Sanders on.

"Congratulations on your recent victories. Perhaps your opponents have come to the reluctant conclusion that the politics of obstruction doesn't work," Welch wrote. "While I understand your recent decision," he continued, referring to the decision not to run for governor, "many had looked forward to your campaign. Perhaps another day."

A few days later, Sanders wrote back, recapping the local victories and telegraphing his plan to focus on education as a priority. "I am sure we will be talking," he concluded.

Vermont's Mt. Rushmore - Welch, Sanders and Leahy

In 1990, Sanders helped convince Welch to run for governor -- instead of the US House of Representatives. Sanders wanted to make a second bid for the office, having come close in 1988. Sanders won, launching a three-decade congressional career. Welch lost and returned to the state senate. But the two remained allies. When Sanders became a US Senator in 2006, Welch succeeded him in the US House.

Leahy endorsed Clinton more than a year ago, long before she officially announced. According to NBC, at least 29 out of the 44 sitting Democratic senators have already endorsed Clinton in some form. Asked recently about his presidential preference, however, Welch said it's still too early to choose between Clinton and Sanders. But he spoke glowingly about Sanders' courage and looked forward to the debates. Perhaps that other day he wrote about is still ahead.

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