Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Vermont’s Progressive Paradox

On March 3, 2009 voters in Burlington chose a mayor. Incumbent Bob Kiss, the third progressive to hold office in Vermont's largest city over the previous 28 years, defeated Democratic, Republican, Green and Independent challengers. To put the race into perspective, Maverick Media offers a new series that 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 One: 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 the 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.

After Sanders became mayor, Democrats and Republicans often joined forces to wield appointive power or modify administration initiatives, giving weight to the view that they were no more than "Republicrats," two wings of the same ruling class. The local Republican Party didn't even field a mayoral candidate between 1985 and the 1990s. At one point the previously dominant Democrats had a mere three seats on a 13-member city council.

The new progressive establishment meanwhile flooded the city with ideas, initiatives and programs, establishing Youth and Arts offices, a Women's Council, and a powerful economic development arm. But Sanders and his aldermanic allies often found their plans scrutinized from both the right and left. Taking center stage also meant becoming the prime political target of both ideologues and opportunists.

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.

Chapter Two: Progressive Paradox: Rhetoric & Reality

Chapter Three: Progressive Paradox: Identity Crisis

Coming up: Third Party Politics, the Limits of Reform, and Burlington after Bernie.

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