Friday, February 13, 2009

Progressive Paradox: Beyond Bernie

On March 3, voters in Burlington chose a mayor. Incumbent Bob Kiss, the third progressive to hold office over the previous 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 Four

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 has 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.

The progressive movement has brought a new, expanded definition of the role of the city to Vermont. But unmet challenges remain, problems not yet solved or even fully acknowledged by the current political establishment. Profound and crucial, they await answers from another progressive wave.

Chapter One: Vermont’s Progressive Paradox

Chapter Two: Progressive Paradox: Rhetoric & Reality

Chapter Three: Progressive Paradox: Identity Crisis

Coming Up: Quality Control & Mixed messages

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