[Marxism] As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 26 07:24:45 MST 2015

NY Times, Nov. 26 2015
As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist

BURLINGTON, Vt. — When Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist, served 
as mayor here in the 1980s, he often complained that the United States 
had its priorities wrong, that it should be diverting money from the 
military to domestic needs like housing and health care.

So when dozens of antiwar activists blocked the entrance to the local 
General Electric plant because it was manufacturing Gatling guns to 
fight the socialists in Central America, the protesters expected the 
mayor’s full support.

Instead, he lined up with union officials and watched as the police made 
arrests, saying later that in blocking the plant, the activists were 
keeping workers from their jobs.

It was a classic example of how Mr. Sanders governed — as a pragmatist. 
He tended to talk globally but act locally, in this case choosing the 
real and immediate socialist principle of protecting workers over 
blocking the making of weapons to fight leftists abroad. Although he 
often shouted about foreign affairs, Mr. Sanders was consumed with 
running the city.

Now 74 and the junior senator from Vermont, Mr. Sanders sometimes cites 
his eight years as mayor as he seeks the Democratic nomination for 
president. His mayoralty was his only experience as a chief executive, 
and it showed him to be a leader guided more by practicality than ideology.

The mayor who was quick to condemn millionaires also imposed fiscal 
discipline here in this laid-back blue-collar university town of 38,000 
residents. He used a budget surplus not to experiment with a socialist 
concept like redistributing wealth but to fix the city’s deteriorating 
streets. And he oversaw the revitalization of downtown, often working 
with big business.

Back then, the Democrats were considered the old guard, his adversaries; 
in many cases, Mr. Sanders aligned himself with Republicans to get 
things done.

“Even though he talks revolution, he’s an incrementalist,” said Richard 
Sugarman, a longtime friend and a professor of religion at the 
University of Vermont. “He knows that things will only be changed little 
by little, one by one. That’s why he’s been effective.”

Critics on the right said their socialist mayor gave the city a bad 
image, wasting time on foreign affairs, including trips to Nicaragua and 
the Soviet Union. At the same time, critics on the left said he 
compromised too much with business interests and did not go far enough 
in pursuing socialist ideals. Over the span of his mayoralty, the number 
of families living in poverty grew — to 798 in 1990 from 563 in 1980, an 
increase of 42 percent.

Still, he was re-elected three times, each with an increasing share of 
the vote. Under his watch, Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, cropped 
up on lists of the best places to live. U.S. News and World Report named 
him one of the nation’s 20 top mayors in 1987, crediting him with 
preserving affordable housing, holding the line on property taxes and 
making a serious push for home rule in a state where cities had little 

“He learned how to use the levers of local government to improve 
people’s lives,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics and public 
policy at Occidental College who studied Burlington during Mr. Sanders’s 

This was not necessarily what many had expected.

The arrival in the mayor’s office in 1981 of a self-described socialist, 
who hung a portrait of Eugene V. Debs on his wall, put Burlington on the 
political map — but as something of a joke. Garry Trudeau, creator of 
“Doonesbury,” called it “The People’s Republic of Burlington.” Two weeks 
after Mr. Sanders was elected, unseating the entrenched Democratic mayor 
by just 10 votes, François Mitterrand, a socialist, was elected 
president of France. This spawned the slogan “As Burlington goes, so 
goes France.”

But Mr. Sanders had more local concerns. Chief among them: the powerful 
board of aldermen, now called the City Council.

Of the 13 aldermen, 11 opposed him and blocked everything he tried to 
do. They were convinced that Mr. Sanders’s whisker-thin victory had been 
a fluke and were determined to stifle him. They fired his secretary. 
They refused to let him appoint his own cabinet. The city clerk opened 
his mail.

The voluble Mr. Sanders did not sit idly by. The Burlington Free Press 
described that first year as “one long shouting match.

He finally gained his footing in March 1982 when he mounted a campaign 
against some of the aldermen who faced re-election. He mobilized voters, 
a tactic that would become a Sanders hallmark. And on Election Day, most 
of the old guard Democrats were tossed out, bolstering his progressive 
coalition of “Sanderistas.”

“Bernie couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag,” said Garrison 
Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont. “But he 
brought on board an extremely talented group of people.”

Mr. Sanders, frugal by nature, set the tone. And together, they 
conducted the first audit of Burlington’s pension system in a 
quarter-century. They moved the city’s money into higher-yielding 
accounts. They raised fees for building permits and for utilities that 
dug up the city’s streets. And they ended the cronyism by which the 
city’s insurance contracts had been let, opening them to competitive 

Taken together, these moves saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Our slogan was we would ‘out-Republican the Republicans,’” said John 
Franco Jr., who was assistant city attorney in the Sanders 
administration. “The Republicans on the board liked that, and so on 
fiscal issues, they would side with us and we would have a governing 

For all of his socialist oratory — his first speech to the local chamber 
of commerce denounced Washington’s support for “fascist dictatorships” 
in Latin America — Mr. Sanders turned out to be good for business. Even 
though he imposed new taxes, on hotels, restaurants and bars, businesses 
did not flee.

Mr. Sanders also formed alliances of convenience, including one with 
Antonio Pomerleau, a wealthy developer whom Mr. Sanders had criticized 
during his first campaign for mayor. Mr. Pomerleau visited him after the 
election. “I said, ‘Congratulations, you’re the mayor, but it’s still my 
town,’” Mr. Pomerleau, now 98, recalled in an interview. He told him he 
was a Republican, but added, “If you come up with good ideas for 
Burlington, I’ll back you up.’”

Mr. Sanders came up with several that Mr. Pomerleau found agreeable, 
like raising the salaries of police officers. Mr. Sanders overlooked the 
mogul’s status as a 1 percenter, saying he was a self-made capitalist, 
not a corporate capitalist, and relied on his advice. They remain 
friends to this day.

If Mr. Sanders had a guiding political philosophy then, it might best be 
described as an amalgam of economic pragmatism, political savvy and a 
dash of his own brand of socialist theory. He defined that theory as 
“opening up the doors of government, paying a special attention to the 
needs of poor people and working people.”

This was the logic behind his support for the workers at the General 
Electric plant making Gatling guns, which opened him to criticism from 
activists on the left.

“It was a big disappointment that a fellow leftist did not support us,” 
said Jay Moore, a longtime Vermont political activist who was among 
those who had blocked the General Electric plant.

But in other instances he was a hard bargainer, and he became a 
practiced horse trader.

When he wanted to create a Community and Economic Development Office — 
in part to seize power from the Planning Department, an obstructionist 
agency controlled by the old guard — he won Republican backing by 
promising to use it as an instrument of economic growth. But the office 
also allowed Mr. Sanders to pursue his own agenda of creating more 
affordable housing.

“The creation of CEDO was the beginning of creating a strong mayor,” 
said Michael Monte, who was assistant director and later director of the 
office. “It became the administration’s policy arm for a wide range of 

Among them was Mr. Sanders’s initiative to save the Northgate 
Apartments, a huge, run-down complex of 336 townhouse-style units near 
Lake Champlain. The Sanders administration created a nonprofit entity 
that bought the complex from its private owners, stopping the proposed 
conversion of Northgate into high-priced condos, which would have driven 
out its low-income tenants.

“The key was to make sure the city didn’t get gentrified,” said Mr. 
Nelson, the political scientist.

While many on the left applauded his efforts on housing, they were more 
critical of Mr. Sanders’s stance during the yearslong, convoluted battle 
over development of the city’s spectacular waterfront along Lake Champlain.

Mr. Sanders wanted to open up the lakefront, long marred by a decrepit 
rail yard, for public use. Eventually, that is what happened. But for a 
time he backed a private proposal to build a complex of high-end condos, 
hotel and commercial space that critics said would block views of the 
lake and limit public access.

More deal maker than ideologue, Mr. Sanders later worked for a 
compromise that scaled back the proposal and added public amenities like 
green space. He said the compromise, supported by most of the aldermen, 
was the best he could get and that the development would expand the 
city’s tax base, bringing millions of dollars into city coffers.

He then championed a $6 million bond issue to pay for the infrastructure 
and public amenities.

But environmentalists and others accused Mr. Sanders of selling out to 
business interests. The dispute led to a highly contentious campaign 
over the bond issue.

“We fought like hell,” recalled Sandy Baird, then part of the Green 
movement, now a professor at Burlington College. “We wanted that land 
open to the public.”

Mr. Sanders’s side lost. In December 1985, the bond issue garnered 54 
percent of the vote but not the two-thirds majority necessary to pass; 
many working-class areas voted against it.

With the proposal dead, Mayor Sanders tacked again toward the pragmatic: 
The city and state revived a lawsuit to claim the waterfront for public 
use. After years of litigation, Vermont’s highest court ruled in their 
favor, clearing the way for the much-heralded public waterfront of today 
— free of large private high-end development along the shoreline.

Now, the waterfront is Burlington’s most valuable asset. Residents and 
tourists flock to its leafy open spaces, public docks, restaurants and 
bike path.

In May, it provided a picture-perfect backdrop for Mr. Sanders to 
announce that he was running for president.

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