By Terry Bouricius
This is Chapter 3 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.
In the same manner that Sanders’ election was assumed to be a fluke, Progressive continuing success was assumed to be possibly only in Burlington. Maybe something in the water? The Progressive Coalition has always hoped to extend progressive politics statewide and nationally. We recognized that it was first necessary to consolidate our position in Burlington and avoid overextending ourselves.
Meanwhile, we had participated in statewide left networking and electoral efforts. In the 80s we held two “Solidarity Conferences,” resulting in an actual network and monthly magazine.1 Electoral work outside Burlington was concentrated in the Vermont Rainbow Coalition based in Montpelier. The Rainbow Coalition also was deeply involved (usually informally) in coordinating many networks and organizations involved in such issues as South Africa, agriculture, Central America, and pollution.
The Vermont Rainbow Coalition followed the “inside-outside strategy” of Jesse Jackson’s campaign. Ellen David-Friedman, a socialist leader of the Rainbow was even elected Commiteewoman to the National Democratic Party as a result of Jackson delegate influence at the State Democratic Party Convention. A number of Democrats endorsed by the Rainbow Coalition were elected to the General Assembly. However, it quickly became apparent that their allegiance was to the Democratic Party rather than the Rainbow Coalition.2 Within Burlington there were Rainbow Democrats who were in opposition to the Progressive Coalition. Fairly progressive Rainbow Democrats made their primary loyalty clear when they endorsed reactionary Democrats over Progressive Coalition candidates.3 Rainbow Coalition activists from outside Burlington, and outside of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, were extremely supportive of the Burlington Progressives.
The first serious attempt at taking the Burlington revolution beyond the City was the Sanders campaign for governor in 1986. Sanders challenged the incumbent moderate Democratic governor, Madeleine Kunin and Republican Peter Smith. The core supporters of the Sanders campaign were Burlington and Rainbow Coalition activists. The campaign had serious financial and organization difficulties and never gained sufficient momentum.
One serious problem was the public perception that a vote for sanders was a “wasted vote.” This is the logic that compels most voters to vote for the “lesser evil” rather than their true preference. Sanders would do extremely well in a poll asking “who do you want to be the next governor?” But most voters will avoid “wasting” their vote on someone they believe cannot win. Sanders received 14% of the vote to Kunin’s 47% and Smith’s 38%. An analysis of the Burlington results indicates that this reflected the “wasted vote” concern.” Sanders received 55% of the vote in his mayoral races in 1985 and 1987, but only 21% of the Burlington vote for governor in 1986. Of course he was running for a different office with different opponents, but the most significant difference was the media portrayal of his chances of winning.
Sanders faced a difficult decision in 1988. The question was not whether to run, but for which office. Representative Jim Jeffords was leaving the U.S. House to run for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Stafford. Although Sanders had more interest in the governor’s office,4 the political wisdom was that the Congressional race was more winnable. Sanders’ Republican opponent, ironically, was again Peter Smith.
Sanders started where he had left off in the 1986 race and steadily gained in the polls. The “wasted vote” issue persisted, but as the election approached, polls showed Sanders well ahead of the Democrat Paul Poirer – making the Democrat the spoiler.
The 1988 campaign was far better financed and organized than the 1986 effort. Doug Boucher brought tremendous national fund-raising skills, and an army of grassroots volunteers covered the state with leaflets and phone calls. The campaign also focused on voter registration. Jackson carried Vermont, built Rainbow, and Sanders had endorsed him, which helped the statewide effort.
Election night was exciting. Early returns from Vermont cities showed Sanders in first place. However, as smaller towns and Southern Vermont5 report, the lead slipped away. With the Democrat in distant third place, Sanders lost by a mere 3% points to Peter Smith.
The 1989 election campaign was a significant test for the Progressives’ staying power. Sanders stepped down as mayor to prepare for a 1990 rematch with now-Congressman Peter Smith. It was unclear whether the Progressive Coalition was just a byproduct of Sanders’ popularity or a movement in its own right. The Progressive Coalition nominated Peter Clavelle as their mayoral candidate. Clavelle won with 54%, Democrat Nancy Chioffi garnered 42%, and Greens candidate Sandy Baird received 3%. All of the Progressive Aldermen were reelected as well.
The Vermont Progressive Alliance
In 1990 a series of meetings between leaders of the Burlington Progressive Coalition and the Vermont Rainbow Coalition led to a call for the founding of a new statewide left electoral organization. Virtually all active Rainbow members agreed that the “inside-outside strategy” had failed and that it was time to abandon the Democratic Party. A couple of hundred Vermonters (including a few Greens and Liberty Union supporters) gathered at the Montepelier High School in May and founded the Vermont Progressive Alliance. The Vermont Rainbow Coalition soon dissolved into the new organization and the Burlington Progressive Coalition eventually became a local chapter.
The bylaws of the Progressive Vermont Alliance (see Appendix B) expressly precluded dual endorsement with major parties. This was as a result of the real world experience with dual endorsements by the Rainbow Coalition. The Progressive Vermont Alliance was not, however, a full-fledged political party. It was referred to by organizers as a “pre-party formation.” In the 1990 elections the Progressive Vermont Alliance endorsed and workers for Sanders’ campaign for U.S. Congress as well as over a half dozen Independent and Progressive candidates for the State House and Senate.
The 1990 Breakthrough
The Sander 1990 campaign started where the 1988 campaign ended. Its strengths included an extensive network of experienced volunteers, unequaled in Vermont history. By adding to the in-state and national contributor lists from 1988 more than half a million dollars was raised. And finally the concept of the “wasted vote” was completely discredited – everyone knew Sanders could win this time. The Democratic candidate, was marginalized by the voters and the media – Sanders was the only contender.
Sanders was also helped by a disastrous Smith campaign. Smith had taken some unpopular votes in the recent past, angering gun advocates by going back on a 1988 campaign pledge, and ultimately resorting to strident negative campaign advertisements that backfired. Polls showed that Sanders’ support was working-class based. Support for Sanders was much more strongly correlated to income than to respondents’ self-description as liberal or conservative. Sanders won by a landslide, leading Smith by 16% points and leaving the Democrat with a mere 3%.
The Progressives also did well in the State legislative races. Tom Smith and I won our respective district races. Dean Corren, of Burlington, lost his race by just eight votes and Shoshana Rihn in Brattleboro and Kevin Jones in Rutland came very close to winning as well.
Since then, independent/progressives have also won seats in municipal governments in Rutland, St. Albans Town, Georgia, and Hinesburg. These elections haven’t had the same impact because, unlike Burlington, most municipal elections in Vermont are nonpartisan.
In September 1992, Sanders ran for reelection to Congress and a dozen Independent and Progressive candidates of the Progressive Vermont Alliance ran serious campaigns for the State Legislature. The Progressive Vermont Alliance formed a legal minor political party to assist in fund-raising and candidate support. This party, called the Vermont Organizing Committee, made no formal nominations. The name sounds transitional and was intentionally nonparty-like. Rather than prematurely forming a party and then asking others to join, the intention was to involve unions6 and other constituency groups in the founding of a full-fledged party, probably called the Progressive Party, in the near future.
- Known as VS (Vermont Solidarity) this movement-oriented monthly survived for less than two years.
- One Rainbow Democrat even asked the Rainbow Coalition to stop sending mail to him at the State House in Rainbow Coalition envelopes because he didn’t want to be too closely associated.
- Some Rainbow Democrats (including Jackson himself) endorsed Sanders’ campaigns, as did other Democrats and a few Republicans.
- Sanders is a better leader than compromised and more suited to executive functions than legislative. Also being the one Governor versus being one of hundreds of Congress people would allow for a greater state and national impact on policy.
- Southern Vermont is in a different television market area, and voters had not seen regular coverage of Sanders as Mayor of Burlington since 1981, as had most of Northern Vermont.
- Both Sanders and the Vermont Organizing Committee have received substantial union financial support. The U.E. is actively involved with promoting the creation of this third party. We are running a solidly pro-union slate (including Lindol Atkins, 21-year President of the AFSCME Local) and this is recognized by the unions.