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Sanders' Secret Sauce

How a Vermont socialist improbably won key elections — and a national stage.



Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign is surging. In July, nearly 10,000 supporters gathered in Madison, Wisconsin to hear the 73-year-old socialist senator denounce the Koch brothers and corporate greed. Another 7,500 came to hear him in Portland, Maine. He fired up a crowd of 11,000 in Phoenix, Arizona.

More and more Americans are tuning in to the grumpy grandfather who never strays from his message, who rails against income inequality and the corruption of US politics wrought by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. Sanders comes across as stern and sincere, shaking a crooked finger as he insists that only a "political revolution" can save ordinary Americans from the predations of the "billionaire class."

Sanders' sudden popularity has surprised pundits trapped inside the Beltway, but not Vermonters closely acquainted with his political biography. They've watched his evolution from a fringe candidate of the far-left Liberty Union Party in the 1972 governor's race, to mayor of the state's largest city nine years later, to his current status as one of Vermont's most popular politicians. Sanders won reelection to his US Senate seat in 2012 with 71 percent of the vote.

Sanders-watchers say many of the attributes now becoming evident to voters outside Vermont are the same ones that have helped him assemble ever-broader majorities in the Green Mountain State over the last 35 years. A look at the factors behind his first electoral victory — as mayor of Burlington in 1981 — and his subsequent ascent to the national political scene in the 1990 race for Vermont's sole US House seat helps explain his growing appeal.

Underlying all of Sanders' electoral successes is his ability to win the support of white working-class voters. Sanders' friends, former campaign staffers, and academic analysts who have watched him over the decades agree on the elements that comprise his political repertoire: charisma, authenticity, trustworthiness, and simplicity and consistency of message. Sanders wins respect among moderates and even some conservatives, these sources add, by abstaining from ideology and by taking a pragmatic, but always principled, approach to governing and legislating.

"Bernie doesn't talk in terminology laden with Marxist lingo," said Terry Bouricius, a Burlington activist who helped Sanders achieve his upset mayoral breakthrough. "His socialism is more like liberation theology. He speaks about economic injustice as something 'immoral,' not as 'the inevitable product of capitalism.'"

As a candidate who has lost six elections, Sanders has always displayed doggedness and "political fearlessness," added University of Vermont religion professor Richard Sugarman, Sanders' longtime friend. Plus, Sanders is not intimidated by the forces arrayed against him, added Erhard Mahnke, another Sanders ally. "People see that Bernie has a fighting spirit, that he means it when he says he's on the side of vulnerable, low-income, ordinary Americans," Mahnke observed. "He's not packaged."

And, as is the case for many electoral officeholders, Sanders has also been a beneficiary of sheer good luck, especially in the two pivotal races of his career.

A Perfect Storm

By 1980, Bernie Sanders had earned a reputation as a perennial loser at the ballot box. But University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson recalled that as the Reagan decade was dawning, "a perfect storm" was gathering in Burlington.

Sanders' friend Sugarman felt the wind shift. He pointed out to his then-39-year-old friend and political soul mate that Burlington had been the source of Sanders' highest vote percentages in the statewide races he had run in the 1970s as a Liberty Union candidate. Sanders, he said, should run for mayor. "I told him he had a chance, a small chance, to actually win," Sugarman recounted.

Burlington was also home to a progressive political infrastructure key to Sanders' campaign against four-term Democratic mayor Gordon Paquette. John Franco, another longtime Sanders confidante, points to a food co-op, a community health center, and grassroots antipoverty groups such as People Acting for Change Together as local expressions of a movement rooted in the antiwar politics of the Vietnam era.

Many residents involved in those causes were mobilizing in 1981 behind a ballot item calling for a freeze on nuclear weapons deployment. About 1,500 Burlingtonians had signed a petition to put the freeze referendum on the same ballot topped by the Paquette vs. Sanders contest, notes veteran peace campaigner Gene Bergman. That amounted to a significant show of strength, considering that Burlington's population numbered roughly 38,000, and fewer than 9,000 voters would decide the outcomes of the election that year.

Sanders sympathizers were also galvanized by the election four months earlier of archconservative Ronald Reagan as president. "There was a strong feeling that there had to be a local response to that," Mahnke said.

Paquette, a working-class Democrat who had compiled a partly liberal record, had meanwhile alienated big chunks of the electorate by calling for a steep rise in residential property taxes. In what would become an incongruous characteristic of his socialist politics, Sanders was opposed to raising taxes.

In the run-up to the '81 election, Paquette "managed to piss off tenants, the cops, and firefighters," political science professor Nelson noted, by failing to address the issue of rising rents and by opposing pay raises for members of the police and fire departments. Sanders supported those wage demands, again departing from left-wing orthodoxy — this time by refusing to view the police with suspicion, let alone outright animosity. Sanders would never adopt the Sixties leftist rhetoric of cops as "pigs." He instead viewed them as "workers," Sugarman noted.

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