Road to 2020: The roots of Bernie’s revolution

Why We Wrote This

Some see Bernie Sanders as too liberal and uncompromising to be president. But his track record as mayor reveals a pragmatic side.

Donna Light/AP/File
Six months after his election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont's largest city, Bernard Sanders, pictured Sept. 11, 1981, is fighting in court for the right to hire his city appointees and finding tickets on his car when he parks in the mayor's spot. "It hasn't been easy," he says.

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When Bernie Sanders won his first election – by 10 votes – he took out a yellow legal pad and scribbled out his inauguration address as the new mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

It is, more or less, the same speech he has been giving ever since – and offers clues to his popularity 40 years later as he emerges as one of the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination, capping one of the most improbable rises in modern American politics.

But even as the long-time crusader sees his ideas gaining momentum, some say he’s too liberal and uncompromising to implement them as president. His time as mayor reveals a pragmatic side, however. Yes, he championed the plight of the poor and railed against the Reagan administration’s military adventures in Latin America, but he also forged alliances with local Republicans, who appreciated his fiscal conservatism.

“I think a lot of the myth about Bernie Sanders is ‘this is a guy that’s just yelling in the back of the room,’ ” says Tad Devine, chief strategist for Mr. Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “But his track record as [mayor] is to the contrary.”

It was a quixotic bid from the start. Bernie Sanders was what Vermonters derisively call a “flatlander” – someone who moved to the state after growing up elsewhere, in this case New York City.

True, Mr. Sanders had quickly immersed himself in the rural and rustic ways of Vermont. He lived his early years in a converted maple sugarhouse with no running water. He bathed in a cold stream outside. The ritziest thing on his property was a new outhouse.

He had no political experience. Although he had run for the U.S. Senate on the little-known Liberty Union Party ticket in 1972, he garnered only 2% of the vote. Four years later, he would run for governor, capturing a reed-thin 6% of the vote.

Yet here he was again, in 1981, at the age of 39, seeking the mayorship of Burlington, the state’s largest city. A friend had convinced him that there was a reservoir of support for him in the city’s working-class neighborhoods. So he went door to door as an independent.

His competition was hardly intimidated. “All Bernie wants to talk about is Vietnam and the Third World,” said Mayor Gordon Paquette, the five-term Democratic incumbent. Mr. Paquette miscalculated, however. When the ballots were counted, and recounted, Mr. Sanders had won by 10 votes. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
People walk Church Street Marketplace in downtown Burlington, Vermont.

The mayor took out a yellow legal pad and scribbled out his inauguration address. It is, more or less, the same speech he has been giving ever since – and offers clues to his popularity 40 years later as he emerges as a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, capping one of the most improbable rises in modern American politics.

For decades, the man from Vermont with the self-described democratic socialist ideas was just as likely to be the subject of a punchline than a headline. Then came 2016. No one predicted that Mr. Sanders would almost topple a presumptive heiress to the Democratic throne. Now he’s back, an instant top-tier presidential contender, the leader of a broad-based progressive movement that seems remarkably less improbable than four years ago.

His prominence is rooted in part in his consistency, the trumpeting of the same issues since his days in Burlington City Hall. He has been talking about income inequality, a lack of affordable health care, and the follies of an over-interventionist U.S. foreign policy since before fellow presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was born. Those convictions remain, independent of his new rock star status.

“He would be doing this even if he hadn’t made any progress [in politics] at all,” says Terry Bouricius, who in the 1970s rattled around Vermont with Mr. Sanders in an old Volkswagen bug, dropping him off at AM radio stations for campaign interviews.

Yet his ideological purity is also a weakness. Many believe Mr. Sanders is too liberal for America and is tailor-made to be a crusader but not a chief executive.

“In some ways he’s better as a standard-bearer,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont, who notes that supporters like that about him. Based on his legislative record, he adds, “He’s much better at articulating the righteous indignation for the country’s failure to achieve what he believes in than making the compromises necessary to seeing [that] those principles are achieved.”

Yet Mr. Sanders does have a pragmatic streak that often gets overlooked. It was evident in his days fixing potholes as mayor, has surfaced from time to time in the U.S. Senate, and is infusing his stances on some key issues today.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Bernie Sanders wrote out his mayoral speeches on yellow legal pads, some of which have been archived at the University of Vermont.

In many ways, his sudden rise says more about the country than him. A growing number of Americans are fed up with paltry paychecks and overpriced college and medical bills. It’s a principal reason he has raised more money and amassed more donors than any other Democratic candidate. He attracts concert-sized crowds from Berkeley to Brooklyn. He is polling better than all but one of his 20-plus opponents. 

Yet he is hardly a shoo-in for the nomination. He’s still, in the eyes of many, an “old white guy” at a time when many Democrats are yearning for youth and diversity. Many other candidates in the most crowded Democratic field in modern history are espousing the same left-wing views that he has championed for years. Why him instead of them? Indeed, the central question facing Mr. Sanders as the 2020 campaign ratchets up may be a simple one: 

Has history passed him by, just when it seemed to be arriving?

Mr. Sanders may hate war, but he loves a good battle. Winning the Burlington mayoral election was just his opening salvo. Then came the real fight. The Democratic establishment, which had controlled the city for 30 years, still held most of the other important positions – including 8 of 13 seats on the Board of Aldermen. And they weren’t about to cede any more territory. 

At Mr. Sanders’ first board meeting, his opponents fired his secretary. They blocked his nominees. They put his items last on meeting agendas and made sure time ran out before they could discuss them. The city clerk locked the door between Mr. Sanders’ office and the clerk’s office and intercepted the mayor’s mail.

Mr. Sanders pushed back, getting his secretary reinstated, taking the city to court over his nominees, and setting up volunteer committees to circumvent the stonewalling. “His election brought into the public arena a basic conflict over the direction and purpose of urban life,” writes Renee Jakobs in a 1983 Cornell University master’s thesis on Mr. Sanders’ first term. “His opponents refused to acknowledge this as the cause of the conflict in City Hall. They blamed his ‘abrasive personality’ and ‘confrontational style.’”

To be sure, Mr. Sanders could get fiery, stomping out of meetings or banging his fist on the table. But however much his opponents tried to thwart him, it had the opposite effect.

“Bernie found the resistance in 1981 really energizing,” says Mr. Bouricius, a progressive candidate who had gotten elected as an alderman that same year and was one of only two Sanders allies on the 13-member board. “It was an exciting time. It was a political battle.”

Toby Talbot/AP/File
Bernie Sanders records a tape of songs outlining his ideas while mayor of Burlington in 1987.

He recalls Mr. Sanders holding Sunday night strategy meetings with allies in private homes –  a group that was dubbed his “kitchen cabinet.” “The powers that be were trying to completely obstruct the way he was trying to govern,” says John Franco, his assistant city clerk who was part of the group.

Mr. Sanders and his team sought ways to circumvent the Democrats, setting up mayoral councils on shoestring budgets. He started free outdoor concerts, a Little League baseball team for low-income families, and a tree-planting program. 

His attempts to promote civic engagement dovetailed with a strategy of building a progressive coalition to reform city government. And the Democrats helped, unwittingly. The Democratic chairwoman had called on voters to “halt the socialist ‘fungus’ growing in Burlington”; instead, they voted her out. Three more allies of the mayor got elected, giving the “Sanderistas” control of more than a third of the board. “It was revolution,” says Mr. Franco. “There’s no other way to describe it.”

When he first won the mayoral race, fan letters poured in, not only from around Vermont but from across the country. One even came from China. Many of the supporters heralded the election of a socialist mayor as a light in the Reaganesque darkness.

But at least one man was not so enraptured. Antonio Pomerleau, a self-made millionaire and Burlington’s biggest landowner, had been castigated by Mr. Sanders in the campaign over plans to build waterfront luxury condos. Shortly after the election, the developer walked into the mayor’s office.

“You’re the mayor, but it’s still my town,” he declared. In the course of their three-hour conversation, though, Mr. Sanders assured the developer that “if you get some good ideas for the city, I’ll back you up.” 

And he did. That unlikely partnership proved to be central to one of Mr. Sanders’ greatest accomplishments in Burlington – turning the unsightly industrial area along Lake Champlain into a public park. In fact, Mr. Sanders proved surprisingly pragmatic, for all his idealism. 

He has cited Martin Luther King Jr. and Eugene V. Debs, a founding member of the Socialist Party of America, as having had the greatest influence on his political thinking. 

Mr. Sanders was among those in 1963 who heard King give his “I have a dream” speech in Washington. The same year, he worked on an Israeli kibbutz, which often flew the Soviet flag. 

Back in America, red-baiting was still popular. But Mr. Sanders openly identified himself as a socialist and chose red for his campaign color. “We just owned it,” says Mr. Bouricius. 

As mayor, Mr. Sanders established sister city relationships with municipalities in the Soviet Union and Nicaragua and was one of the only mayors in the United States to have a foreign policy. But his attention to practical details, such as keeping the budget in check and repairing roads, garnered him support well beyond his liberal base. Republican aldermen increasingly voted with him. 

Paul Sancya/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in Warren, Michigan. The Vermont senator is running second in the polls, behind Joe Biden.

“I think a lot of the myth about Bernie Sanders is ‘this is a guy that’s just yelling in the back of the room,’” says Tad Devine, chief strategist for Mr. Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “But his track record as a chief executive of the largest city in his state is to the contrary.”

One of Mr. Sanders’ early appointees saved the city $20,000 in his first six months by centralizing purchasing. His administration moved the city’s cash into higher interest-bearing accounts, yielding an additional $70,000 a year. He initiated a competitive bidding process for the city’s insurance contracts, cutting costs by 40%. 

Mr. Sanders also led a national search for a new city treasurer, replacing the incumbent who was overseeing $50 million in city finances despite having no experience in accounting, according to Ms. Jakobs’ thesis. The new treasurer discovered a budget surplus of $1.9 million that had gone unaccounted for amid the city’s poor bookkeeping. Mr. Sanders used half a million dollars of it to repair city streets.

The man who championed the plight of the poor, who wrote letters admonishing the Reagan administration to end its military adventures in Latin America, was embracing fixing potholes and plowing roadways.

“You can talk all you want about El Salvador and the international problems of capitalism, but [if the] sidewalks [are not] plowed we are not doing the job we were elected to do,” said Mr. Sanders at the time. “But, if one becomes just more efficient, we could lose the reason we were elected.

“You have to have a vision. You have got to talk about what society, what life, can be like,” he added.

On a winter day after he became a congressman, Mr. Sanders and his team were traveling to an event at the state capital when they crested a hill and dropped down into Elmore, population 855. “Hey! There are ice fishermen out there! Stop the car!” Mr. Sanders said, according to an aide who was with him at the time.

His staff pointed out that they were going to be late for their meeting, but Mr. Sanders insisted and they all trudged out onto the frozen lake, in dress shoes, to talk to them.  The vignette is indicative of why, across Vermont, almost everyone has a Sanders story. 

“He’s our guy, he’s Bernie, he’s our crotchety old uncle – you see him every Fourth of July or Memorial Day parade and he scowls at you and you say, ‘There goes Bernie,’” says Professor Dickinson of Middlebury College.  

Mr. Sanders’ crusading style and gruff demeanor endear him to many Vermonters, who have always valued a sense of independence dating back to Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in the Revolutionary War. At the entrance to his Senate office in Burlington, Mr. Sanders keeps a Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom of Speech,” that was inspired by a town meeting at which one man “rose among his neighbors and voiced an unpopular view.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘I always thought he was a man ahead of his time.’ – Mike Isham, a fifth-generation Vermont farmer and owner of the Isham Family Farm in Williston, who hosted a pig roast fundraiser for Bernie Sanders and other politicians last fall

Sanders is known for attracting an effective and responsive staff and working them hard, which is something he demands of himself as well. As a runner, he once clocked a 4:37 mile. The 77-year-old senator’s idea of a vacation is driving around West Virginia talking to coal miners.

“It’s not a job – it’s a calling,” says Mr. Bouricius, describing Mr. Sanders’ attitude. “You’re not here to help me get elected, you’re here to change the world.”

But there is also a sensitive side to Mr. Sanders that is not well known, says Phil Fiermonte, who worked for him for 20 years. At one point, Mr. Fiermonte was going through a bad experience and had to take some time off. 

“He called me every day to see how I was doing at an incredibly stressful time politically for him,” says Mr. Fiermonte. “Anyone from his political family – Bernie’s there.”

Mr. Sanders seems most in his element when he’s in places like Elmore, with salt-of-the-earth Vermonters. Though Jewish himself, he has credited Pope Francis’ focus on the world’s dispossessed with inspiring him to think about the need for a “moral economy,” channeling more of the world’s resources toward the common good. He took time off his 2016 campaign to visit with the pope and top leaders of the Roman Catholic Church at a Vatican conference on the subject.

Though he recently became a millionaire, he doesn’t flaunt it. His Burlington home is in a modest neighborhood, where neighbors see him out for walks or shopping at the local supermarket. He has been ranked one of the worst-dressed senators in Congress, although the rumpled lawmaker with the untamed hair jokes that he looks like a GQ model compared with his early days. 

Mr. Sanders has won 15 elections in Vermont and today maintains a 64% approval rating among his constituents, the highest of any senator in the country.

“He maintained his popularity in Vermont because of his advocacy and how outspoken he was,” says Rep. Peter Welch, who replaced Mr. Sanders in the U.S. House when he moved on to the Senate. “But his explosion in popularity was based on the success of his first [presidential] campaign where it became clear that his appeal extended beyond just the progressive elements of the [Democratic] Party.”

His presidential run has boosted the visibility of Vermont, not only in the U.S. but abroad. Burlington architect Carol Stenberg recalls introducing herself to colleagues in New Zealand who responded, “Oh, you’re from Bernie-land!” Now his appeal is being tested as more candidates in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary field echo the ideas Mr. Sanders has touted for decades.

“I’m kind of bothered that the ... [other] candidates have co-opted his catch phrases,” says Josh Martin, a lawyer in St. Albans.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘[Bernie Sanders has] never done anything for me. I don’t believe in anything for free. ... Somebody has to pay for it. It’s going to come out of all our pockets, absolutely – all the working-class people.’ – Chad Hale, owner of Back Country Sports gun shop in St. Albans, Vermont

But some see Mr. Sanders’ call for things such as Medicare for all and free college education as pipe dreams – or worse. Just up the road from St. Albans, where coffee shops offer scones and maple lattes, Chad Hale owns the Back Country Sports gun shop. He stands in front of shelves brimming with ammunition as he runs a background check for a customer looking to buy a rifle. 

“He’s never done anything for me,” says Mr. Hale. “I don’t believe in anything for free. ... Somebody has to pay for it. It’s going to come out of all our pockets, absolutely – all the working-class people.”

Others across the state question why people on heating assistance have a yard full of snowmobiles, or why taxpayers should bail out people who send their children to colleges they can’t afford.

“It’s a nice thought, but it’s not doable,” says Keith Wolstenholme one morning at the Thetford town dump. “I understand how [Mr. Sanders] wants to help people, but people also need to help themselves.”

It is that kind of sentiment that has made many analysts think Mr. Sanders could never beat Donald Trump. America, they say, just isn’t ready for a Socialist president. It’s also a reason many Republicans ardently hope the senator wins the nomination.

Despite such skepticism, Mr. Sanders has been able to win support across class and party lines in his home state. In the 2016 presidential primary, he won every town in Vermont, except for the ones without polling places, and beat Hillary Clinton by a margin of 22 points next door in New Hampshire. Across the country, Mr. Sanders won several conservative states, including Idaho, Utah, and Nebraska. 

“That was not a surprise to a lot of us, because he did well in Vermont in statewide elections in the most conservative part of the state,” says Representative Welch.

Bill Rowell, a moderate Republican and dairy farmer, won’t say whom he voted for. But he credits Mr. Sanders for being responsive to farmers like him, who are facing a prolonged downturn in milk prices.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘Even though Bernie’s political ideology differs from mine, I have to recognize him for his willingness to help the dairy farmers correct a dysfunctional system.’ – Bill Rowell, a moderate GOP dairy farmer in Vermont

Mr. Rowell went to Washington to talk with his congressional delegation about fixing the problem, and Mr. Sanders sponsored a bill to stabilize milk prices. Though it didn’t become law, Mr. Rowell credits him for trying. “Even though Bernie’s political ideology differs from mine, I have to recognize him for his willingness to help the dairy farmers correct a dysfunctional system,” he says.

During his 16 years in the U.S. House, Mr. Sanders passed more roll call amendments (those in which the tally is officially recorded as opposed to a simple voice vote) when the chamber was controlled by Republicans than any other lawmaker.

When it comes to actually enacting laws, however, his track record over 28 years in Congress is far more limited. Of the 408 bills he has sponsored, only seven have become law – two of which involved naming post offices in Vermont, according to the website GovTrack.

But Mr. Sanders has had a hand in other key legislative victories. Most notably, he hammered out a bipartisan deal with Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2014 on a $16 billion landmark bill to reform the Veterans Administration. More recently, Mr. Sanders got seven Republicans to support a measure he co-sponsored to end America’s involvement in the war in Yemen.  

“When you’re a principled legislator and you don’t cut deals out of politics, what ends up happening is you find odd bedfellows,” including principled conservatives, says Mr. Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir. 

Mr. Sanders’ track record in Congress and in Burlington has fueled a debate over how he would act as president – whether he could temper his ideological purity enough to build alliances and forge broadly acceptable policies. Some see him as pragmatic, taking the occasional go-it-alone stands, yes, but also voting with Democrats on major pieces of legislation and now and then siding with Republicans as well. 

He has also been signaling on the campaign trail in recent months that he’s not a rigid ideologue, offering tempered comments, for instance, on impeachment and declining to support reparations for descendants of black slaves.

Yet Mr. Sanders remains one of the most consistently liberal politicians of the past 50 years, a man who is a true oddity in American politics: a lifelong independent running for the nomination of the Democratic Party, whose establishment he has often railed against, espousing democratic socialist ideals that Republicans love to ridicule.

But at least everyone knows where he stands. Just look at that first speech.

***

Sanders bio

Born: Sept. 8, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York 

Father: Elias Ben Yehuda Sanders, who moved to the U.S. from Poland and became a paint salesman. Most of his family was killed in the Holocaust. 

Mother: Dorothy Glassberg, daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia

Early penury: Grew up in a 3 1/2-room apartment in Brooklyn. His mother once yelled at him for not walking farther to a cheaper grocery store when she sent him out with a shopping list.

Spouse: Jane O’Meara Sanders, whom he married in 1988 while mayor of Burlington, Vermont. They honeymooned in the Soviet Union. She has worked as a political adviser, college provost, and college president.

Children: Four, one (Levi) from a previous relationship of Mr. Sanders. The other three stepchildren are from an earlier marriage of Ms. Sanders.

Education: University of Chicago, Bachelor of Arts in political science

Religion: Jewish

Elections: Won 15, lost 8 – including coming in last in an election for class president in high school 

Political career: mayor of Burlington for 8 years, U.S. representative for 16 years, and U.S. senator for 12 years (so far)

Athleticism: Former competitive runner. Ran 4:37 mile in high school. 

Early lesson in capitalism: The owner of Mr. Sanders’ beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, whom he would watch from 60-cent bleacher seats, sold the team to Los Angeles interests.

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