[Marxism] Bernie Sanders vs. The Machine
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Thu Nov 28 09:23:54 MST 2019
NY Times, Nov. 28, 2019
Bernie Sanders vs. The Machine
By Alexander Burns
BURLINGTON, Vt. — The young woman on the political leaflet was smiling,
but the message printed beside her in bold capital letters was severe.
“The last two years,” it said, “have shown that those who made the
revolution are not always the best to lead after the coup.”
To voters in Burlington, in 1983, the reference to Bernie Sanders was
What Democrats here were calling a coup was this: A young socialist had
captured the mayor’s office two years earlier by a margin of just 10
votes, upending the political order in a comfortable lakeside city of
about 38,000. For decades, an old-school Democratic machine had
dominated municipal government. In 1983, the party intended to reclaim
control by assailing Mr. Sanders’s “unkept promises.”
But in his re-election campaign that year, Mr. Sanders crushed the
competition. Casting himself as a champion of the people against the
establishment, Mr. Sanders summoned voters to the polls in unusual
numbers. He triumphed over two opponents — one Democrat and one
Republican — by more than 20 percentage points.
“No longer will they call my victory a fluke,” Mr. Sanders, then 41,
wrote in a letter after the election, to a city-planning expert at
Answering a congratulatory message from a correspondent in Oregon, Mr.
Sanders wrote, “Socialism, in this City, is no longer something to be
feared, but rather to be discussed and hopefully understood.”
In the 2020 Democratic primary, Mr. Sanders, now 78, is crusading for
his ideas across a vastly larger territory than the city of Burlington.
He is drawing crowds in the thousands, sometimes with Representative
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow democratic socialist, beside him.
Less than three months before the Iowa caucuses, polls show Mr. Sanders
within striking distance of victory in both Iowa and New Hampshire. On
Friday, when Mr. Sanders rebuked Michael R. Bloomberg for pouring his
personal wealth into the 2020 race, it was with a confident
pronouncement that captured the ethos of his own campaign: “If you can’t
build grass-roots support for your candidacy, you have no business
running for president,” Mr. Sanders said.
Many Democratic leaders remain skeptical that Mr. Sanders can win the
nomination or, if he gets that far, the general election. But Mr.
Sanders is confident in his approach — because, he says, it has worked
for him before, beginning with the battles in Burlington that taught him
the meaning of power, and running through his clash with Hillary Clinton
in the 2016 Democratic primaries.
If his political ideology had long been clear, it was in his early years
as mayor that Mr. Sanders refined his methods for accumulating and using
influence, according to a review of hundreds of personal letters, city
documents and newspaper articles from Mr. Sanders’s time as mayor, and
interviews with more than a dozen people involved in Burlington politics
in the 1980s, including Mr. Sanders.
By that March election in 1983, the first time in his life that he was
running as an incumbent, Mr. Sanders had forged the theory of political
change that still guides him. It is defined by direct confrontation with
conservative institutions and legislators, blunt talk about economic
grievance and an unrelenting effort to inspire demoralized, lower-income
voters with promises of true societal transformation. He believed that
only a sweeping vision of a better system could summon the kind of
grass-roots mobilization he needed to achieve even more modest goals.
Mr. Sanders never won full control of the Burlington government: The
board of aldermen — a part-time municipal legislature with 13 members,
elected to staggered two-year terms — would regularly restrain his
But by the time he won his second term by a landslide, Mr. Sanders had
achieved a durable upper hand in city politics. In an interview at his
home in Burlington this fall, Mr. Sanders said that if elected president
he would replicate his mayoral strategy “on a somewhat larger scale.”
Seated in his sunbathed backyard, with a view of distant mountains, Mr.
Sanders recalled with plain satisfaction that when he took on the local
political establishment, voters had taken his side in overpowering numbers.
“What that tells me is that if government does respond to the needs of
working people, they will come out and participate,” Mr. Sanders said.
Much as he mobilized voters against his adversaries in Burlington, Mr.
Sanders said that as president he would personally target senators who
blocked policies like “Medicare for All,” even in the most
Republican-leaning states. By showing that the working class had a
fighting president on its side, Mr. Sanders predicted he could transform
impoverished conservative states like West Virginia and Mississippi,
which President Trump carried easily in 2016, into far more progressive
“The idea that working-class people are voting for somebody like Donald
Trump is abysmal,” Mr. Sanders said, “and it speaks to the Democratic
Party’s failure to speak to and address the crises facing working-class
people all over this country.”
Mr. Sanders conceded that he would be up against huge forces of
opposition: “The Republican National Committee is not the Democratic
Party of Burlington, Vt., in 1981,” he said. And he indicated in the
interview that former President Barack Obama had raised questions about
his plans for mass mobilization.
But in Burlington, even people who do not share Mr. Sanders’s worldview
say his tactics worked.
David Thelander, a former Republican alderman, said Mr. Sanders had
upended the city by enlisting “underserved community members who,
historically, felt left out of the political process.”
“Bernie and his progressives just kind of lit a fire in certain wards of
the city, and really displaced the Democratic machine,” Mr. Thelander said.
Maurice Mahoney, a Democrat who served on the board early in Mr.
Sanders’s tenure, said the party had underestimated Mr. Sanders’s gifts
for political organizing and channeling indignation, and paid a price
“He does play the victim card very well,” Mr. Mahoney said, “because, of
course, it’s Bernie against all the big boys.”
Insurgency and Obstruction
Until 1981, Mr. Sanders had never experienced electoral victory.
As a young transplant from Brooklyn, he entered Vermont politics in the
1970s, mounting a series of protest campaigns for Senate and governor in
a rural state that was then deeply Republican. He ran under the banner
of a left-wing party, the Liberty Union, that embraced causes like
nationalizing industry, legalizing drugs and abolishing laws restricting
abortion. Mr. Sanders drew notice as a novelty but never came close to
That changed in the new decade. A friend who taught at the University of
Vermont observed to Mr. Sanders that even in his losing campaigns, he
had fared well in Burlington, a city that was growing as a trickle of
young liberals left the cities of the Northeast for the Green Mountains.
Mr. Sanders announced a challenge to Mayor Gordon Paquette, a
long-serving Democrat, attacking local emblems of inequality and
economic grievance — a proposed condo development on Lake Champlain, for
one, and a mayoral plan to hike property taxes that Mr. Sanders called
regressive. He won with 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
And then, at age 39, Mr. Sanders learned that victory did not always
For a small city, Burlington had an impressively tangled bureaucracy,
with layers of commissions constraining the mayor. On the board of
aldermen, 11 of 13 members were aligned against Mr. Sanders, ensuring an
alliance of Democrats and Republicans that could thwart his proposals
and override his veto. That bipartisan bloc saw Mr. Sanders as a
fire-breathing amateur and viewed the people he picked for jobs like
city clerk and city treasurer in similar terms.
Mr. Mahoney said Mr. Sanders initially “didn’t have a clue.” The
aldermen felt ambushed by his unexpected policy demands, and rattled by
his tempestuous manner that more than once involved storming out of
“Coming in, he was just very uneducated,” Mr. Mahoney said, recalling
that Mr. Sanders would scramble the council’s agenda and inject remote
issues into city politics. “We’d get our packets on a Friday, and the
agenda and everything is included there. Bernie would have a news
conference on Monday and add some huge new thing, like we’re going to be
supporting Daniel Ortega in a resolution.”(At the time, Mr. Ortega was
leader of the Nicaraguan revolutionary group the Sandinistas.)
When Mr. Sanders submitted his nominees for top city jobs, the board
rejected them in a humiliating fashion. Linda Niedweske, Mr. Sanders’s
former campaign manager, said he was “furious.”
“He won fair and square,” said Ms. Niedweske, whose appointment as Mr.
Sanders’s secretary was briefly blocked. “He was entitled to do what the
people had elected him to do.”
Mr. Sanders sued the board, accusing it of usurping his authority, but
lost in court. Denied a full slate of appointments, he enlisted
volunteer advisers to help him map a city budget. There were small
breakthroughs with the board — Mr. Sanders ushered through a modest
property-tax increase — but at base, Mr. Sanders said recently,
Democrats wanted to make him a “powerless mayor.”
By the fall, it was apparent to all sides that it would take an election
to break the standoff. Peter Clavelle, a close Sanders adviser during
that period, said the mayor was “intent on exposing the obstructionists
for what they were.”
With off-year municipal elections looming in March of 1982, Mr. Sanders
and his allies began assembling a slate of candidates to rescue him — a
group of activists and academics who assailed the board’s obstruction.
One challenger, Huck Gutman, told voters the board’s treatment of Mr.
Sanders was the “central issue” of the campaign.
“If the board of aldermen choose to snub him, to stonewall him, to
refuse to listen to him, they are insulting not only the mayor, but the
people of Burlington,” he wrote in a campaign appeal.
Mr. Sanders formally endorsed Mr. Gutman and five other progressives,
canvassing beside them and casting the vote as a referendum on his
leadership. Gary De Carolis, one of the progressives, said Mr. Sanders’s
intervention was decisive in his working-class ward, where Mr. Sanders
was almost a celebrity.
“They loved him in my part of town, absolutely loved him,” Mr. De
Carolis said, noting Mr. Sanders reciprocated that affection. “He loved
people who, up to this point, if the mayor ever said hi to them, they
On Election Day, three progressives defeated incumbent aldermen,
including a Democrat who had derided Mr. Sanders as representing “the
fungus of socialism.” Two other challengers forced their opponents into
“Well, we did it!! Three seats on the board of aldermen with the
possibility of two more,” Mr. Sanders wrote to a political ally.
“Needless to say, I am thrilled. I assume there will be far less
confrontation and a great deal more positive action.”
The runoffs would temper that exuberance. Progressives, including Mr.
Gutman, lost both races, depriving Mr. Sanders of a legislative majority.
Still, the balance of power in Burlington had shifted, and Mr. Sanders
had a solid bloc of allies and a veto pen with real leverage.
Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat who in the 1980s was president of
the Vermont State Senate, said Mr. Sanders had broken the resistance of
“an old-guard Democratic city, and a pretty conservative one.”
“It was kind of a full frontal assault by Bernie,” said Mr. Welch. “And,
bottom line, he succeeded.”
Erhard Mahnke, a progressive who was elected to the board toward the end
of Mr. Sanders’s tenure, said the political culture of the city was
permanently altered in the Sanders era.
“We created lists. We called people. We called them twice. We went to
their doors,” Mr. Mahnke said. “A lot of the modern techniques of ground
game, how elections are won — we brought that to Burlington.”
‘Into the Streets Where the People Were’
There was still the matter of getting Mr. Sanders re-elected. While
voters had sided with his chosen candidates in the off-year contests,
Democrats hoped a more prominent challenger would take on the mayor
directly in 1983.
In the months before that election, a prominent local business paid for
a poll that showed Madeleine Kunin, Vermont’s lieutenant governor, would
start a race for mayor with a wide lead over Mr. Sanders. But Ms. Kunin,
who would later defeat Mr. Sanders in a bitter campaign for governor,
declined to challenge him.
Ms. Stephany, who now goes by the surname Stephany Ahearn, said in an
interview that Mr. Sanders had tapped currents of social change in
Burlington, dynamics that separated a rising generation of progressives
from a city machine “controlled by more traditional, older Democrats.”
Describing herself as a liberal, Ms. Stephany Ahearn said Mr. Sanders
had captured a mood of youthful insurgency that eluded her party.
“When Senator Sanders ran, he came out of the Vietnam War protests and
he was of the opinion that both Democrats and Republicans were flawed in
the way they approach things,” Ms. Stephany Ahearn said.
In the end, it wasn’t very close. Mr. Sanders did not gain control of
the board of aldermen, though he took a majority of the vote in the
three-way race, lifted by enthusiastic voter turnout that topped his
first election by more than 40 percent.
“We were rather disappointed at not having gained a majority but I think
the board will be more agreeable due to my overwhelming community
support,” Mr. Sanders told a supporter in Syracuse, N.Y.
Mr. Sanders found that his agenda began to move more easily through city
government, allowing him to leave a durable mark on Burlington’s streets
and its waterfront, on the city’s finances and its political culture.
Over his remaining terms, he would strengthen his grip on the city,
building up a progressive movement by championing not only municipal
concerns but also global issues like nuclear disarmament and the Reagan
administration’s fiscal policies. In 1989, the city elected one of his
lieutenants, Mr. Clavelle, as his successor.
In private correspondence, Mr. Sanders acknowledged there was a space
between what he could conjure with his rhetoric and what he could
actually achieve as mayor.
He could attack the White House for shortchanging cities to fund an arms
race, but even his biggest achievements on the local level were partial
solutions — imposing a new hospitality tax to raise revenue, for
instance, or creating a local land trust to protect affordable housing.
“As a mayor with socialist philosophies,” he wrote in a 1985 letter, “I
have limitations as any mayor would, but I try to overcome these by
expanding the role, by taking the job out of City Hall and into the
streets where the people were.”
That is the model for wielding power Mr. Sanders aims to apply to the
far mightier office he is now pursuing.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, Mr. Sanders has sounded like an echo of
his younger self, threatening reprisals against the elected officials in
his way. He has pledged to campaign in even the reddest of states
against lawmakers who oppose his ideas, including against conservative
Democrats. It is a method of governing untested in the modern presidency.
Mr. Sanders suggested in the interview that the last Democratic
president, Mr. Obama, would have done well to apply relentless pressure
of the kind he envisions, rather than seeking “middle ground” with
“Obama ran one of the great campaigns in American history — a brilliant
campaign,” Mr. Sanders said. “Do I think he should have maintained that
grass roots support and activism in his first term, in a way he did not
do? Yeah, I do.”
Mr. Sanders said he had discussed the subject with Mr. Obama in a
private meeting. “He will tell you that it’s harder than it looks, which
it is,” he said.
He declined to elaborate on the details of their discussion. But asked
whether Mr. Obama had raised any doubts in his mind about his theory of
power, Mr. Sanders answered in a word — “No” — and pointed to Burlington.
“At the end of a few years,” he said, “a sleepy political city became
one of the most politically conscious and progressive cities in America.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
Alexander Burns is a national political correspondent, covering
elections and political power across the country, including Donald
Trump’s 2016 campaign. Before coming to The Times in 2015, he covered
the 2012 presidential election for Politico. @alexburnsNYT
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