By Terry Bouricius
This is Chapter 2 of Building Progressive Politics: The Vermont Story, a 1993 pamphlet by Marxist Terry Bouricius, that chronicles how the only successful left third party in the U.S. today was built over the course of three decades. The remaining chapters will be published on this blog in the coming days.
Few people expected the March 1981 town meeting election of a small city in Vermont to have much significance. But when Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist, defeated a five-term incumbent Democratic mayor, he made history. The race had no Republican, but included two other fringe independents. Sanders did not receive a majority of the vote but won the plurality by a mere 10-vote margin. Burlington’s Charter requires a runoff election if no candidate tops 40% of the total. Sanders was well over this.
The Citizens Party also ran candidates for the Board of Alderman.1 As one of these candidates, I won a surprise 52% victory over an incumbent Democrat in a two-way race in Ward 2. In Ward 3 a three-way race with a Citizens Party Candidate, a Democrat, and an Independent was not decisive, so Gary DeCarolis, the Citizens Party candidate who came in third, endorsed Independent Sadie White, as did mayor-elect Bernie Sanders. Sadie White, an 80-year-old disaffected Democrat who had served many terms in the State House won the runoff.
Before this time the Democratic Party had dominated Burlington politics, controlling 11 of the 13 seats on the Board of Alderman in 1980. The Republicans had given up challenging them in the mayor’s race and most aldermanic races. The local ruling elite were divided between the two parties along ethnic and commercial lines. As a generalization, the French-Canadian and Irish-Catholic propertied class (landlords) dominated the Democratic Party leadership. The Republicans were more often WASPs involved in stocks, retail, and other business.
The Board of Aldermen in 198 was little more than a rubber stamp for Mayor Gordon Paquette. They met typically once a month and had little debate. Since the revolution of ’81 the meetings have been closer to weekly, often going past 1:00 a.m. with stormy debate.
Why Did Bernie Sanders Win?
A convergence of many factors and unique circumstances led to Sanders’ win. The first reason would have been the arrogance and overconfidence of the Democratic incumbent. Gordon Paquette had been in office for five terms and was running with the tacit support of the Republicans. His administration was widely viewed as a closed old-boy network. A significant theme of the Sanders campaign was to open up city government to the people.
After years of quixotic campaigns for state-wide office on the Liberty Union ticket, Bernie Sanders was a reasonably well-known figure. With no Republican in the race, if the news media were going to cover the campaign they had to acknowledge Paquette’s main opponents. Sanders got roughly equal time in the free media. Thus Sanders was perceived as a “real” candidate by the public.
Burlington also offered a virtually unique blend of demography, geography, and media. Burlington is small enough (40,000) that door-knocking and leafleting can literally cover the city. Burlington also has three local television stations and is not merely a suburb of a neighboring larger metropolis. A candidate running for mayor of a 40,000 population community outside Boston might never make it onto the evening news. Sanders did. Without the legitimizing effect of television coverage Sanders might never have been considered a “serious” candidate.
The one-on-one flavor of the race eliminated the age-old voter dilemma of not wanting to “waste” a vote on someone who can’t win. Many or even most people who voted for Sanders didn’t think he could win. There was no “great evil” (Republican) to worry about. Sanders also benefited from protest votes. Some people who merely wanted to shake up Paquette would probably not have voted for Sanders if they thought he could win.
Sanders also benefited from years of community organizing. Activists in the King Street and Old North End neighborhoods, who were primarily concerned with housing issues, had become disgusted with mayor Paquette’s unresponsiveness. The neighborhood organizations set up a candidates’ forum at a church where a large crowd heckled Paquette and cheered Sanders. Even the establishment media saw that Sanders was winning over these working-class constituents.
Another problem Paquette faced was his support for huge property tax increase that he had a put on the ballot. Although many agreed that the city needed revenue after years of infrastructure neglect, the size of the increase on the ballot was inappropriate.2 The city’s insurance program exhibited waste bordering on corruption, and, because of the incompetence of the Treasurers’ Office, Paquette was unaware of a substantial fund balance surplus.
Sanders also challenged the powerful real estate interests in Burlington, with the slogan “Burlington is not for sale.” Ironically, much of the attention was focused on millionaire developer Tony Pomerleau, who in later years cooperated well with the Sanders administration.
Shortly before the election Sanders received a key endorsement from the Police Union. The Union, which had been fighting with Paquette and the management of the department for years, cited Sanders’ strong support for unionism. Voters figured that if the police were willing to support Sanders, he must not be some bomb-throwing crazy. This completed Sanders’ legitimization.
The final element of Sanders’ campaign that cannot be over-emphasized is hard work. A relatively small core of dedicated volunteers with very little campaign know-how covered the city.3 Sanders personally knocked on thousands of doors. An informal personal style compelled people to refer to him as “Bernie,” rather than “Mr. Sanders,” set him apart from other politicians.
After the Revolution
The first year of the Sanders administration was like a siege. The Democrats assumed Sanders’ election was a fluke and they merely had to hold the line until 1983 when the “fungus”4 would be removed. The City Charter allows the mayor to appoint City Officials such as City Clerk, Treasurer, and Attorney, with ratification by the Board of Aldermen. All of the mayor’s appointees were rejected by the Board without consideration of qualifications. The mayor sued, but the incumbent officials continued to serve in those offices. Sanders had to rely on volunteer assistance to prepare the city budget while facing intentional sabotage by city officials at every turn. Nonetheless, Sanders was able to expose the incompetence of the previous administration. The Treasurer had virtually no training in bookkeeping or accounting, and like the City Clerk, was primarily qualified by being a friend of Paquette’s. The City Clerk was caught opening mail addressed to the mayor and was eventually suspended. Most important planning meetings with Sanders’ advisors were held outside of City Hall for fear of eavesdropping devices.
A broad-based citizen backlash resulted. A group called Citizens for Fair Play opposed the stonewalling by the Democrats. The 1982 election saw every Democratic incumbent up for election except one removed by the voters. The Independent and Citizens Party “Sanders supporters,” as they were known, grew to 5. The Republicans also gained.
We paid a lot of attention to how candidates would be selected without a unified party structure.5 Many of us feared that our early success bring all kinds of people out of the woodwork to run, splitting the left vote. We formed the Coalition for Responsive Government which eventually evolved into the Progressive Coalition. The organization didn’t even have a written platform for the first couple of years. What united us was support for Sanders and the direction of change in Burlington. One clearly defined rule was that anyone who wanted to be a candidate had to agree at the outset not to run if another person was selected by an open caucus. The risk of too many candidates never materialized. This is not to say that some of the candidates from various wards weren’t less than ideal. But the threat of splitting was not a problem. Virtually all left/liberal/radical people had already abandoned the Democratic Party in city-level politics.
The 1983 reelection campaign resulted in the highest voter turnout in years. The Democratic leader in the Vermont House, Judy Stephany, resigned to run for mayor against Sanders. The Republicans, sensing an opening, ran a hard-hitting campaign with the chair of the School Board, Jim Gilson. The Democrats also persuaded one of the most prominent State Senators, Esther Sorrell, to challenge my reelection. Sadie White did not seek reelection. Her Coalition replacement, Sanders, and I all won with strong majorities.
This campaign saw significant red-baiting and fear-mongering.6 But most Burlingtonians no longer exhibited the automatic fear reflect when they heard the word “socialist.” They know knew one, and they kind of like what he had to say. Still, Sanders was reelected more in spite of being a socialist than because of it.
In subsequent elections the Progressive Coalition picked up a sixth seat, and for two years even held the Presidency of the Board of Aldermen.7 The Democrats dropped from 11 seats in 1980 to just two seats by 1984. The Progressive Coalition dropped to 5 seats for a couple of years but in 1992 returned to 6. The Progressive Coalition has never achieved a majority of the City Council. Despite this fact the Progressives have made astonishing advances in public policy – but those are not the subject of this paper.
Several working-class wards of the city that used to be considered Democratic strongholds are now referred to by news commentators as “traditional” Progressive Coalition Wards. Indeed, in some families there are now second-generation Progressive voters. This is the result of a constant high level of activity by a core of political activists, linked to a grassroots base.
The issue of burn-out is a serious one. Running numerous campaigns every March and every other November leaves little time for recovery. We have sometimes faulted ourselves for doing inadequate nonelectoral issue and education work – we get absorbed in running the city. It is also difficult to recruit candidates to run for School Board and City Council. Councilors get only nominal pay for extremely hard work – not to mention the all-consuming work of campaigning.
The Progressive Coalition has elevated election campaigns in Burlington to a new level of intensity. It is now expected that a candidate will knock on every constituent’s door during the campaign. We were also the first to computerize our voter identification database. While this database is always slightly out-of-date it is invaluable for get-out-the-vote efforts.
A key element of every Progressive campaign is voter registration drives. Door-to-door registration by the candidates themselves is the backbone of this strategy. Of course volunteer sweeps by Progressive Notary Publics8 is also common. The core of the Progressive support has always been in the working-class neighborhoods, but the large population of university students are also a priority for registration drives. In the mid 1980s the City’s Democratic- and Republican-dominated Voter Registration Board attempted to require all students to provide special evidence of residency not require of other applicants. With the support of the Secretary of State and City Attorney this illegal discrimination was halted.
These registration efforts remain a constant need because Burlington’s largely tenant population has rapid turnover. Many low-income Burlingtonians still aren’t registered. It is common to hear a low-income resident respond proudly, “No, I don’t vote.” They believe this is an indication of their political savvy. Having seen through the dishonesty of politicians, they are boycotting the electoral process to avoid complicity. We win over a few more of these people each year,9 but the attitude is still prevalent.
We also put major emphasis on absentee ballots to serve the many elderly and marginal voters who would never make it to the polls to vote. We try to make a personal contact with as many as people as possible and offer to arrange to have an absentee ballot mailed or delivered to them. We also keep track of which voters fail to mail their absentee ballots back, so we can get their ballots in on time. A letter or postcard is also sent to every absentee voter on the same day their ballot is mailed to remind them of the Progressive choices on the ballot.
Door-to-door literature drops are probably the most familiar part of Burlington campaigns. Along with direct mail, a voter in Burlington is likely to receive 3-6 pieces of literature from the Progressive candidates in a given election.
Organizational Structure of the Progressive Vermont Coalition
It took several years, but the Progressive Coalition finally adopted bylaws and a platform. The Progressive Coalition is not organized as a political party as defined in state laws. The Progressive Coalition has two arms -– one is strictly electoral with a separate bank account, while the other is everything else.
The Bylaws (see Appendix A) provide for semi-annual membership meetings for the adoption of platforms and the election of leadership. They created a Steering Committee with Ward and at-large representatives, as well as ex-officio seats for all elected Progressives. The Bylaws require that at least half of the dozen Ward and at-large members must be women, but in 1992, the majority of the elected officials were men. The Progressive Coalition is recruiting women candidates.10 A five-member Executive Committee exists but is rarely active.
In the early years the Steering Committee met infrequently and played a minor part in policy development. Most policy discussion took place at Sunday evening strategy-planning meetings at the mayor’s house with the Progressive Aldermen (the Board of Aldermen met on Mondays). After a few years the Sunday night meetings were changed to Steering Committee meetings, and the location was rotated. This involved far more members in genuine policy making. The down side is that the Steering Committee tends to be dominated with the concerns of administering city government rather than mobilization and education.
The Progressive Coalition faces a constant tension between its job as mobilizer and educator on the one hand and administration of the City on the other. We come through when an election is pending, but often fall short between elections. A similar tension exists between the organization and the elected officials. When should the mayor consult with the Coalition leadership or membership on some city issue, and when should he exercise his own judgment as an elected official. This dual accountability to both the electorate generally and the organization in particular has no obvious solution. The original draft of the Bylaws restricted elected officials’ ability to dominate the leadership of the organization. This reflected a cautious attitude toward the possibility of devolving into a mere electoral vehicle succumbing to the opportunistic needs of elected officials. This banning of elected officials was quickly removed as both unworkable and undesirable.
Burlington was thankfully free of the sectarian left politics common in the 1960s and 1970s and in larger urban areas during the early years of the Burlington revolution. In the last 1970s a Maoist party called the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) came into conflict with the Burlington Peace Coalition. The CPML stressed the threat of “Soviet imperialism,” while the Peace Coalition stressed the threat of nuclear war, and tried to defuse the fear of the Russians. The CPML self-destructed nationally and locally prior to the 1981 revolution.11 There was also the tiny Socialist Workers Party, but he moved to Ohio.
All left, independent, and many liberal activists coalesced around Sanders’ victory. History had already moved the left forward and our last task was to get behind and help push. But this unanimity did not last.
Murray Bookchin, an author who lives in Burlington, pulled together a group of mostly young anarchists. Initially Bookchin had supported Sanders but eventually became disapproving. This group evolved into the Burlington Greens. Over the years they have had various names and factions including the Greens, the Youth Greens, and Civic Forum. For ease I shall simply refer to them as the Greens.
The issue which most sharply divided the Greens from Sanders (and future Mayor Peter Clavelle) was the development of the waterfront. I won’t take the space here to analyze this dispute – but it did lead to a de facto alliance between the Greens and opportunistic Democrats against the progressives. The Greens eventually ran electoral campaigns against the Progressives (virtually never criticizing the Democrats or Republicans). The Greens stressed environmentalism and decentralization from a seemingly left perspective. In many respects the Greens were left in appearance and right in reality. They became “reactionary” in the true meaning of the word – attacking Progressive initiatives because they were put forth by Progressives. The two clearest examples of this were their opposition to the Child Care Initiative that would have guaranteed affordable child care to all Burlingtonian families and their opposition to the $11 million Energy Conservation Bond issue by Burlington’s municipal electric utility. Their most striking alliance with the Democrats occurred in Alderman Mahnke’s reelection campaign when they conspired to fix a supposed debate between the Democrat, the Independent, and a Green candidate. When the conspiracy was revealed it fractured the Greens. A handful of Greens continue to practice sectarian politics, but are now dissolving into the Democratic Party or nonelectoral work.12
- At the time the Aldermen were the legislative body of the City. The Board of Aldermen and Mayor together with the Mayor chairing for certain functions, such as Commissioner appointments were termed the “City Council.” This was changed by a Charter Change late in the decade. Today the term “Alderman” has been retired as a sexist hold-over. Burlington now has a City Council and “City Council with Mayor Presiding.”
- Indeed, by 1992 Burlington has still not reached the property tax rate for general City purposes proposed by Paquette in 1981. Sanders and his successor, Peter Clavelle, have made seeking alternatives to the unfair property tax a priority.
- Extremely sophisticated campaign skills were honed over the following years. The Progressive Coalition moved to state-of the-art computer-based campaigning before the major parties did. This was not instantaneous. Shortly after the startling 1981 victory there was a special election on rent control. With no voter registration, voter identification, get-out-the-vote effort, or skillful media usage, we were defeated overwhelmingly.
- This was the term used by the former Democratic President of the Board of Aldermen.
- Remember, Sanders and some Aldermanic supporters were not Citizens Party members.
- One full-age newspaper ad featured photographs of empty commercial buildings with a threat that this would be the future of Burlington if Sanders were returned to office.
- In 1984 I was elected Board President because one of the Democrats had resigned her seat shortly before the organization day leaving a 6-to-6 split. After many ballots the Democrats and Republicans realized we would never give in and they began to vote for George Thabault, the newly elected Independent. They hoped that they could flatter and win him away from the Progressives. If Thabault had voted for himself he would have won. Finally after some more negotiation over committee chairmanships I was elected on the 31st ballot. Some years later Erhard Mahnke, an Independent/Progressive from Ward 1 was elected President for a year when a maverick Republican rebelled against the choice of the Democratic/Republican caucus.
- In Vermont a citizen must take the Freeman’s Oath to register to vote, and this oath must be notarized.
- I remember registered a 68-year-old woman who had never voted in her life. She had seen Bernie on TV for years and liked what he stood for. This was probably the third time I had knocked over a five-year period and asked whether she wanted to register. Previously she had always said “No, that’s O.K. I don’t vote.”
- In the city election of March 1992, 75% of the candidates were women, and 50% of the elected Progressive City Councilors are women. However, despite affirmative action efforts, the current crop of Progressive candidates for the State Legislature from Burlington are all men.
- Interestingly many of the CPML activists reevaluated their convictions of that time and have been active members of the Progressive Coalition.
- Sandy Baird, a recent Green candidate for Mayor is now running as a Democrat for the State House. Many of the former Youth Greens are emphasizing work in the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies, Ward level groups created by the Progressive City government.