[Marxism] Bernie Sanders vs. The Machine

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
Cornell University.

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 
for it.

“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 
bring power.

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 
were lucky.”

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 
runoff elections.

“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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