Few political theorists would rate this northern Vermont city of 40,000 as a likely spot for a socialist mayor. Yet a self-proclaimed socialist, Bernie Sanders, is gearing up for his fourth mayoral campaign here. He will face Alderman Paul Lafayette, a Democrat, at the polls March 3.
Mr. Sanders has been mayor since 1981, when he won a six-way race by just 10 votes.
``He has taken on strong candidates before ... and his margins have been growing,'' Burlington Free Press city editor Sam Hemingway says of Sanders.
Burlington is Vermont's largest city and its financial and commercial center. Sandwiched between the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain, its population is a mix of blue collar, young professional, and elderly. Its largest employers are General Electric and the University of Vermont.
A lot of people here have grown to like Bernie Sanders. For instance, community college teacher Jessica Bryan speaks highly of his ``commitment to getting things done in areas like planning and education.'' Roger Martin, a toolmaker at General Electric, says the mayor is a ``man of knowledge who listens a lot. When he says something, it's right....''
It is people like these who contributed to the 15 percent vote garnered by Sanders last November in the the Vermont gubernatorial election. His vote kept incumbent Democrat Madeleine Kunin from winning a majority, thereby throwing the three-way race into the legislature, which overwhelmingly reelected Governor Kunin. Now Sanders may have to pay a price for that showing. Kunin has urged Republicans (who have put up no mayoral candidate) and independents to vote for Lafayette and defeat Sanders.
It is this ``challenge to the ruling class'' that is at the heart of his political philosophy, Sanders says. ``What we have done more than any other governmental body in Vermont history is to take on the establishment,'' he says.
The mayor himself admits that his socialism has not come into play very often. The issues that face this city and the way they have been approached, he says, have not been radically different from those that might be found in other, comparable American cities.
``Most of what we have done,'' Sanders says, ``is not radical. ... We're just leading the effort here [in Vermont] in housing, the arts, youth programs.''
Sanders says his greatest achievement during his terms of office has been the near doubling (to around 50 percent) of voter participation.
He also mentions other successful - if not particularly socialistic - initiatives, including a major street repaving program funded partly by receipts from an ``excavation fee'' charged to all (including city departments) who have to tear up the streets to do their work, and support for the establishment of worker-owned businesses.
``He's not a socialist,'' Mr. Lafayette argues. ``He's done nothing that reeks of radical socialism. He's just a liberal Democrat. I'm a moderate.''
Then why all the fuss? For one thing, there are those who feel that Sanders is antibusiness. Filling station owner Ronald Crosby, speaking of the highter tax rates now charged for commercial property and increased water and electric rates, says, ``Poor people think he's helping them, but everything's aimed at the businessman. `He can pass it on,' Sanders says.''
Sanders is ``abrasive'' toward businessmen, political opponents, and state officials, editor Hemingway says. ``But most businessmen find a way to work with him in the long run.''
``Some of those who are against Bernie are against him not because of his `socialism' but because he won office by `stealing' liberal Democrats,'' Hemingway says. There is intense resentment from the Democratic establishment.
``And,'' he adds, ``Sanders has used the political battles with the party as a selling point in campaigning. `They're the old guard. I'm beholden to no one.'''
Hemingway says he thinks Sanders is beatable, but that he will be in a strong position with a 2 percent unemployment rate in the city, a thriving downtown commercial district, and a large new department store providing jobs and goods for Burlington.
``All the good things would have happened to Burlington without him,'' Lafayette says. ``And he goes up to the state and yells at them when we depend on the state for charter changes. He yells at big business, but if you look, he has been in partnership with them.''
So this self-proclaimed socialist running for reelection in a small New England city will be attacked not for his ideology but for the nitty-gritty of his style and policies. In the past Sanders has compaigned energetically, knocking on doors, shaking hands on street corners. His folksy populism goes a long way here, political observers say.
Lafayette disagrees. ``The people who know the mayor and watch him will see that he talks about cooperation at election time, but will know better,'' he says.
``He was a true revolutionary,'' Lafayette concludes. ``He knew how to overthrow a government but not how to run one.''