Socialist Campaign in Vermont

Against the Current No. 4-5, September-December 1986

Bernie Sanders

I WON’T TELL you that we created a utopia in Burlington, because we by no means have. We have some enormous problems in Burlington. But in several areas we have paved some interesting ground that might be useful for others to explore.

Six years ago in Burlington, there was a city government, in a city of 38,000, which was a totally typical political situation. There were two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

For the previous twenty years, the Democrats had been the prevalent party. On the Board of Aldermen, which has thirteen people, there were 10 Democrats and three Republicans. They had basically split up the city, and the Democrats had allowed the Republicans to have a few of the wealthier wards. And that’s what politics were like. For aldermanic elections, most of the time one candidate would run for office. For school board elections, most of the time one candidate would run for office. And on more than one occasion, one candidate would run for mayor.

There was no reason for the Republican Party to put up a candidate to run against the Democratic Party because the Democratic candidate was really a Republican. It didn’t make any difference what the label was.

So it was a city which was apathetic. It was a situation in which people believed here was a powerful political machine which could not be defeated. And that was the reality. Why would one want to knock one’s head against the wall, against a powerful political machine?

Way back in 1970 a relatively small group of people started a third party in Vermont, called the Liberty Union Party. They talked about two things: the disgrace of the Vietnam War and about economic justice.

Time and time again we talked about an economic system where a handful of banks and corporations control the economy; we talked about an unjust war, an immoral war. And something began to happen.

At first the ideas didn’t make a lot of sense-people hadn’t heard them before. But we didn’t give up. Two years later we came back and talked about them again, and the ideas didn’t seem so strange.

What they’d read in the newspapers indicated that we were right, more and more they learned about the lies they’d been fed about the Vietnam War. And more and more they learned about the corporations that don’t pay any taxes and control the country. They learned how the economy works against average working people.

Where two years before they’d scratched their heads and said, “That’s crap,” they’d say “you’re not right, but you do have a point.”

So we kept coming back. Back in 1970, when I ran for senator from Vermont, I received 2% of the vote. In a political system where the Democrats and Republicans outspend you 100 to one, and you don’t have the support of the media, you have to begin to break through to the consciousness of the people. So we persisted.

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done

In 1981 three of us started the mayoral campaign in Burlington, Vermont. And everyone said it couldn’t be done. What kind of a campaign did we run? Very radical and revolutionary ideas.

We said the government should be responsive to the people. That’s very revolutionary, especially given the nature of the city government we had.

All the media and all the geniuses were telling us we couldn’t win. But we were knocking on doors and talking to people. They were telling us they wanted change. All the professionals and experts told us it couldn’t happen.

But the campaign developed momentum. The three become five, the five become ten, and by the last week of the campaign we had 100-150 people in the street. Two days before the election we polled one of the working­class wards, and discovered we were going to win that ward two-to-one. We were astounded. Election Day came, and we did carry that ward two-to-one.

We ended up by winning the election by fourteen votes. The establishment collapsed. They did a recount and the fourteen votes came down to ten. So we became the government of the city of Burlington.

The first year was a very brutal year. I came to office with two allies. I ran as an independent. Simultaneously, a young man, Terry, became the first Citizens’ Party candidate ever elected in the United States of America. Terry was, at that time, 25.

At the same time a woman, aged 79, and a former Democrat, also won. She had been a conservative Democrat and had been in the legislature, but had stood up and fought for the rights of the people and the elderly and the sick. The hacks at City Hall hadn’t liked her and they’d pushed her out–they’d said she was finished. She came back and won.

So that was the coalition–an independent, a Citizens’ Party candidate and an ex-Democrat.

We took on the rest of the Board of Aldermen. We didn’t have veto power at that time, so we were at the mercy of the Democrats and the Republicans.

Essentially their theory was that the people had made a mistake and the Democratic Party hadn’t taken the campaign seriously enough. They were going to make bloody sure that we weren’t going to accomplish anything.

Under the city charter the mayor has the right to appoint people-city attorney, city clerk, city treasurer-and I went out and interviewed people. I brought my appointments for approval to City Council. They turned them down without one hearing. Not one person that I appointed was allowed to take office, because we needed a majority vote for their approval.

We threatened to take them to court, there were tremendous political confrontations, and hundreds of people came out. The Democrats hung in there. Their theory was that if I could not accomplish anything, people would say, “Why did we elect this guy?” So it was a very bitter and brutal year.

At the end of the year, half of the council was up for election-seven seats. We campaigned, running candidates for every seat that we could. Now the theory was that my election was a fluke that the Democrats had nothing to worry about.

On Election Day, the five Democrats up for election found we took three seats from them and forced the other two into a run-off election. Basically, we destroyed the Democratic Party in the city of Burlington on that day.

What goes on in our country, in state after state, where people don’t come out to vote, is very profound: “Why should I spend five minutes of my time, voting for nothing?”

But in Burlington, Vermont poor people come out to vote, working people come out to vote. In the two working-class wards in Burlington, against the Democrats and the Republicans and a number of independents, I received 70 % of their vote last election.

It’s not that we’ve created utopia, or radically transformed the lives of the people. We haven’t done one-tenth of what we would like to do. There are very great limits, as I am sure you are all aware, of what an impoverished city can do.

But what people understand is that we have made real changes in their lives. We have improved the quality of their neighborhoods, and in city government, and they felt it worth while enough to come out and fight to maintain those rights.

So when you give people a real alternative, when you stand up for justice, they’re willing to come out and support you.

Socialism and Priorities

Everyone in Burlington, and in Vermont, understands that I am a socialist. Now there’s probably as many different socialist parties and governments throughout the world, and as many different definitions of socialism, as there are kinds of Christianity.

It’s true that I lose some voters because I’m a socialist. I try to explain what I mean by socialism-which basically means democracy.

But for every person we lose-because for whatever reasons, they’ve been programmed to respond negatively to the word socialism-we gain at least as many more. Many will tell us, “I don’t know what socialism means, but if you’re not a Democrat and you’re not a Republican, that’s good enough for me.”

In Burlington we have more people who say, “I used to be a Democrat” or “I used to be a Republican” than any other city in the United States of America, and I’m proud of that. It’s an indication of what can happen elsewhere. Some people come to me and say, “You’ve been mayor for five years and we still have a housing problem.” We do, we still have a lot of problems in the city of Burlington. All that we can do is the best that we can do within the context of how the system operates.

It’s like saying that in Nicaragua, after seven years, ‘They still have poverty. They must be sellouts. They’re not perfect human beings.” All you can do when you judge, is to look at people within the context of the society and the reality in which they are functioning.

It is not a fair criticism to say we have not solved the housing problem. The question should be, “Given the reality under which we are operating, how well have we responded? Given the fact that the federal government has cut millions of dollars for various programs, how have we responded? Given the fact that we are dependent on the regressive property tax-which we don’t want to raise, it doesn’t make sense to raise the tax, when you’re taking money from poor people to give to poor people–given that reality, how have we done in fighting for alternative, and progressive, taxes?”

What socialism means to me is that you hold out and say to people, “Yeah, we can only do this in housing right now. But one of the reasons we can’t go forward faster is that the United States government is spending $300 billion on the military rather than putting money into housing and all kinds of programs we need.”

What I think we do is a dual thing: we go forward and ask for the trust of the people in understanding that you do the best you can do with very limited resources. Simultaneously, you try to point out the contradictions in the system, and the relationship between local government and national government. Many people don’t even understand that the loss of revenue sharing because of national priorities means higher property taxes at home.

We save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because we’re not afraid of taking on the system.

Let me tell you how honest, cost-effective government can work. When we became the government of the city of Burlington, we looked at the budget. Burlington spends thousands of dollars each year in liability insurance. It’s very expensive.

Then we found out that the good old boys downtown were supplying the city with their insurance. We introduced a revolutionary, socialist concept: competitive bidding.

And you should have seen how these free enterprise buffs went ape when we introduced this idea. For years and years they had basically told the city what kind of insurance they should have, and made the arrangements with the large companies. We opened it up to a competitive bidding process and saved the city several hundred thousand dollars.

Taxes and Telephones

To win the respect and confidence of your constituents, you’ve got to go home and do the work they’ve elected you to do. And we’ve done that.

Right now, we’re repaving the city. We’ve developed an intelligent and long-term program of street repaving. The people want-and are entitled to-decent streets, decent sidewalks, and decent sewers. Some may say, “Well, that’s not really important.” It is important. People want that, people are entitled to that.

In Vermont it’s not the right wing that is leading the anti- property tax revolt, it is the left wing. The difference between us and them, however, is they say the property tax stinks; your property tax should be reduced by cutting teacher salaries and social programs. That’s their solution, it’s not our solution.

We say the property tax stinks, but the way we’re going to raise the revenue we need for education and municipal services is to institute progressive taxation by which rich people and their corporations start paying their fair share of taxes. So essentially what we have done in Vermont is to steal the thunder from the right and run with it.

Some issues may seem too mundane, but they are actually lifeblood issues that affect working people.

Electricity is expensive. Telephones are becoming a luxury in many areas in Vermont. The thieves that run the telephone company are taking the profits that they make from the basic service that they provide people and investing it and beaming it off Mars for all kinds of new sophisticated, technological progress and yet we find thousands of Vermonters-and it’s true all over this country that there are tremendous numbers of low-income people, elderly people-who today can no longer afford a telephone.

In the year 1986 we are looking at large numbers of people who can no longer afford a phone to call a doctor in an emergency, to call the police department, the fire department. That’s beyond comprehension, but it happens to be a fact.

In the city of Burlington, in the state of Vermont, we are leading the fight in taking on the Vermont Public Service Board. We demand that instead of trying to protect the profits of the private utilities they represent the needs of the ratepayers.

The lack of housing and daycare are national problems. We don’t have a lot of money, but we have built a municipal daycare center-the first time in the history of the state of Vermont. We’ve put money into a teen center, which is basically run by the kids.

We have made a grant through a nonprofit group to build a shelter for battered women. We have also built an emergency shelter for the homeless.

We have funded a council that has done a very good job in bringing together a wide variety of women’s groups, from conservative to radical. They have done a good job in education, and in fighting for progressive legislation for women.

We have introduced in the state of Vermont the first legislation of its kind which deals with an important economic issue for women.

Wages are abysmal for men in Vermont, they are even worse for women. What we have done is open up, through legislation, a policy by which on any construction project that involves city money at least 10% of the construction workers have got to be women.

The Biggest Issue: War

If you were to ask me, as mayor of the city of Burling­ ton, what is the most important issue facing our city, I’d tell you it’s not our budget, as difficult as that one may be, not our services. It’s the issue of war and peace.

The issue of war and peace is, and must be, the most important issue facing every mayor, every governor, and every dogcatcher in the U.S.

What we have done is to use city government, and the office of the mayor, to involve people to begin to make the fight for peace. We have one of the most antiwar states in the country. Dozens and dozens of communities in Vermont have passed resolutions supporting a nuclear freeze.

In Burlington, to the greatest degree that we can, we have attempted to deal with issues of foreign policy. We have adopted a sister-city program with Nicaragua. The city, Puerto Cabezas, is on the Atlantic Coast. On numerous occasions we have representatives of the Nicaraguan government come to Burlington.

I went to Nicaragua for a week last year, on the sixth anniversary of the revolution. We helped coordinate a real humanitarian aid program for Nicaragua, and raised a good deal of the aid ourselves. We sent 600 tons of clothing, food and medical equipment to the Atlantic Coast.

We have managed to use city government as a vehicle to bring people together. When the U.S. House voted $100 million to fund the contras we called an emergency meeting of the Board of Aldermen to discuss how the city could react.

Sadly-but this is what the Democratic and Republican parties are all about-we were unable to get a quorum. We needed seven people to have a quorum and four Republicans and three Democrats boycotted the meeting. They did not want to address the issue and they simply stayed away.

So we had six out of thirteen aldermen and it was a good meeting. Eventually what will probably occur is that the city of Burlington will make a donation-a donation more symbolic than anything-of real dollars to the Nicaraguan people, to compensate in some small way for the horrors being committed by the contras.

If even two governors had the guts to call special sessions of their legislatures, to demand the legislature convene to talk about the impact of the [U.S.-funded] war in Nicaragua on their economy and the life of the people, and a few hundred thousand people came to those meetings, the war could be ended. Washington would look and say, “My god, what’s going on?”

Suppose a governor got up and said, “What we are losing right now because of the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to destroy the people of Nicaragua, we are losing x numbers of millions of dollars for housing and education and environmental protection. What do you people think about it?”

The response would be enormous, and the lies would be exposed. So local government and state government can be an important vehicle in debating the national priorities and getting them reversed.

Rulers’ Revenge

When you stand up and do the right things for your constituency, obviously the ruling class is going to punish you very badly. What we all know is what’s going on in Nicaragua.

It’s so small and so insignificant; no one’s really worried about Nicaragua. The reason why Nicaragua must be destroyed is that if Nicaragua can develop a decent economy, if it responds to its poor people, and if it has a free and democratic society, it will be a horrendous example for the rest of Central America and of Latin America. And that’s the reason it has to be destroyed. They’re being destroyed not because of anything wrong that they’ve done, but because of all the right things they’ve done.

In Burlington, Vermont we own our electric department. We did a study on how to determine electric rates. We were trying to adjust the cost of providing the service to different classes of people-large consumers of electricity, residential ratepayers, and so forth.

We got the best consumer consultant we could. What this person told us was that the residential ratepayers in the city of Burlington were paying too, too much for their electricity and the large commercial and industrial users were paying too little.

What we came up with-what I supported, what the Electric Commission and the Board of Aldermen supported (they had no choice but to go along with it, even the Democrats and Republicans)-was a 28% reduction in electric rates for residential ratepayers.

Now people in Burlington thought this was fantastic. Then all the big businesses, and the university, went down to our state capital, and said, ‘This is terrible. It’s not fair.” So the Public Service Board only gave us a 10% reduction.

Recently in Vermont we have developed the concept of the classification system of taxation. It’s used in many other states. It means you have a different property tax rate for industrial and commercial property than for residential property. 120 % for industrial and commercial, 100% for residential. Some members of the business community were outraged.

We’ve also been determined to control development and not let developers do anything they want. Some of the big business developers have said, “We’re not going to build and put money into downtown Burlington as long as Sanders is mayor.”

The point that I am making about all these things is that when you stand up and fight the system, the system is going to punish you. Do you think the system in the state of Vermont is going to allow m2 to go around and lower electric rates and property taxes for working people?

All over the state people are saying, “This is a great idea, what they’re doing in Burlington. Let’s do it statewide.” So what they are trying to do is make it as difficult as they can.

When you do the right thing, and you protect workers and poor people, you’re going to be punished severely. What the system wants everybody to believe is that the economic crisis that exists for most people is an act of God and that it can’t be changed.

And when you bring about the changes, and you show people that you don’t have to live the way you’re living, it becomes an example, an inspiration, and a hope. And the system will fight feverishly and frantically to prevent it from happening.

Do you think that if I was elected governor of Vermont suddenly all major corporations would be flooding the state, providing us with decent, well-paying jobs? I don’t think so.

It’s a real problem-and there aren’t any easy answers. Sometimes I have a little bit of compassion for some of my fellow mayors, even though their politics are very poor. They’re being blackmailed without mercy.

You have areas like Detroit that have tremendous unemployment. So corporations say, “What will you give us if we come into your city and provide you with jobs? We want ten years tax stabilization. We want you to build the entire structure.”

That’s the dilemma of the economic system under which we live. Clearly what we’re dealing with is international finance capital.

So you do the best that you can do. But the example of Nicaragua should be well understood. The people of Nicaragua are being made to suffer because they are doing the right thing. They are going to be an example to the rest of the world.

And as we make change, as we fight, those corporations will retaliate. Just think of what any corporation can do by just picking up and leaving a state, and creating mass unemployment.

There is no easy answer without radical change. So we must question the rights of corporations to pick up and leave-in fact, question the whole existence of a system in which individuals can make those decisions.

[This is an excerpted transcript of a speech Bernie Sanders gave in Los Angeles as part of a national tour to publicize his 1986 campaign for governor of Vermont, which he lost.]

September-December 1986, ATC 4-5

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *