The Bernie Sanders Origin Story, Part 1

In the first part of an ongoing series covering Bernie Sanders’ time as mayor of Burlington, we look at Sanders’ years in the wilderness and the circumstances that made his rise possible.

Bernie Sanders waving to a room of people, circa 1970s. Photo courtesy of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

It was 1979 and Bernie Sanders was, as he so often would be for the next forty years, in the middle of a fight. But the target of his ire was, uncharacteristically, not a major corporation or one of its political allies — it was the state’s public broadcaster.

The thirty-eight-year-old Sanders had seemed to exit gracefully from electoral politics in 1977, having run four times under the Liberty Union banner since 1972, twice each for governor and Senate, coming a distant third each time. Charging that Liberty Union had broken promises to stay active in the “struggles of the working people against the banks and corporations which own and control Vermont and the nation,” Sanders had left the party after his best ever showing, turning his focus toward elbowing his way onto the airwaves.

Sanders had been many things since moving to Vermont for good in 1968: carpenter, freelance writer, and, for a time, unemployed. With election campaigns in the rearview mirror, he decided to try his hand at filmmaking, co-founding an educational nonprofit and driving all over New England in sleet or snow, selling cheaply produced film strips directly to schools. By 1979, he had moved to video, producing his magnum opus: a half-hour documentary about socialist Eugene Debs, the twentieth-century union organizer who won a million votes from prison in the 1920 presidential election.

There was just one problem: Vermont Educational Television (ETV) wouldn’t show it.

ETV claimed its decision was made on quality grounds. Sanders viewed that as a cover for ideological objections. In the face of its obstinacy, Sanders and others formed Concerned Citizens on ETV, pressuring management to show more locally made content and hand greater say over its programming to the public.

Before long, ETV caved on the Debs film. More importantly, it formed a board made up of community groups like farmers, feminists, artists, and the poor to make decisions about public television. But Sanders’s film still didn’t air — he refused to let it run while ETV production workers were on strike, calling the idea “an insult to [Debs’s] memory.”

The Debs film eventually did run, once the strike was over. And Sanders would make more films for the broadcaster, including a no-frills look at poverty in Vermont he hoped would show people “the need to stand together, to organize, and to fight.” None of this was exactly the resume of a typical politician, even one with his eye on running a small city of 37,000.

Yet within two years, the four-time also-ran and socialist documentarian who complained that the airwaves were inhospitable to “anything that deals with class conflict” would be in exactly that position — Mayor of Burlington. And the cycle of setback, persistence, and eventual victory that characterized his battle with ETV would be transplanted to Burlington’s City Hall.

A Change is Gonna Come

On its face, 1981 was a strange year for a self-proclaimed socialist to take power anywhere in the United States. The previous year had closed with a landslide presidential victory for Ronald Reagan, a movement conservative weaned on proto-libertarian Austrian economics and rabidly anticommunist literature, who wanted to “make America great again,” and had once been considered too right-wing to be electable.

Under Reagan, the GOP’s platform read like a wish list for the radical right, emphasizing above all slashing taxes and government spending. In his convention speech, Reagan had warned of the danger of government and “its great power to harm us,” even as he proposed a more aggressive anti-Soviet policy and massive increase in military spending. Planks opposing affirmative action, busing, the Equal Rights Amendment, legal abortion, gun control, and the penalization of segregated schools by “IRS bureaucrats” won him a notable admirer: Bill Wilkinson, Imperial Wizard of the militant Klan group The Invisible Empire, who gushed that the platform read “as if it were written by a Klansman.”

Reagan’s election was the culmination of a decades-old conservative movement bent on rolling back the New Deal order put in place by President Franklin Roosevelt half a century earlier. Fueled by untold amounts of corporate money and an army of grassroots activists that gradually engineered a virtual takeover of the GOP, the movement meshed easily with the party’s use of increasingly race-based appeals to the country’s mostly white, conservative suburbs.

Combined with a seemingly never-ending economic crisis that persisted through the 1970s, these created fertile ground for a rejection of New Deal liberalism, reaching a milestone with the 1978 Taxpayers Revolt in Reagan’s home state of California. Wrought by a coalition of business leaders and conservative suburbanites, the revolt inspired imitators around the country and signaled the approaching turn away from the liberal politics of the post-Depression era, while saddling the state with a disastrous fiscal straitjacket to this day.

Conservative, overwhelmingly rural Vermont seemed an unlikely state to buck this trend. Reagan easily carried the state, which in the 132-year period spanning 1856 to 1988 had voted for a Democrat for president a grand total of once. When Roosevelt first ran for reelection in 1936, Vermont was one of only two states to vote against him. It hadn’t even put a Democrat in the Senate until 1975.

Bernie Sanders raising a fist at an election night celebration.
Photo courtesy of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

But Vermont had been changing. Starting in the 1960s, the state saw a thirty-year-influx of out-of-state migrants. By 1963, its people outnumbered its cows for the first time. Newcomers comprised nearly a third of Vermont’s growth that decade; by the 1970s they were responsible for 60 percent of it.

The first wave had been young professionals, who quickly made inroads into the state’s political and business ranks; the second was a countercultural wave, much of it from New York and Massachusetts: hippies, radicals, lefty activists, and others, fed up with the rot of city life and looking to go back to the land or engage in communal living. This influx, political scientist Garrison Nelson later said, became “the driving force” behind the state’s impending political transformation.

Suddenly, Vermont was teeming with “outsiders,” many of whom settled in Chittenden County, home to Burlington and already by far the largest county before out-of-towners came pouring in. From 1960 to 1980, the share of Vermonters born out of state jumped from less than 20 percent to more than 33 percent. In the next 10 years, Chittenden County as a whole grew by 77 percent.

“You would go to the city council and if you raised your hand, the first question they would ask you is ‘How long have you lived here? Where are you from?’” recalls Greg Guma, an expert on local and Vermont politics. Having arrived in Vermont as part of that wave of countercultural migrants, Guma straddled the overlapping lines of journalism, activism, and electoral politics over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, authoring the The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, a personalized account of the Sanders mayoral administration.

Vermont’s political landscape got a face-lift, too. In 1962, the governor’s office went to Phil Hoff, the first Democrat to win statewide office in more than a century. From 1973 to 2011, no governor would be a native-born Vermonter, and by 1984, for the first time in history, the majority of its Senators weren’t either. While around 90 percent of Vermont voters voted in Republican primaries into the late 1960s, by 1985, the electorate was roughly evenly split between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

But change was slow to come to Burlington.

“By the time I got here in 1974–1975, it had been run for a couple of decades by a Democratic machine, which had united with the Republicans,” says Guma. “We called them, or they called themselves, the ‘Republicrats.’”

This local political elite was organized less by party and ideology than by family lineage. The city’s bureaucracy and payroll were peppered with relatives of its ruling elite. And its ruling Democrats, by 1981 significantly more conservative than party members in other parts of Vermont, tended to share the French ancestry that survived in names like Desautels, Blanchard, Niquette, Charboneau, and Paquette.

The latter was Mayor Gordon Paquette, the five-term incumbent who had held some form of elected office since his 1958 election to the city’s board of aldermen. Paquette had risen through the ranks to become mayor in 1971, maintaining a stranglehold on the office for the next decade. Having first won by promising some modest progressive reforms, Paquette instead presided over the stagnation of the city’s services and living standards, largely due to his inability to stand up to the city’s business interests.

“He didn’t feel in control of things,” says Guma, who worked for some time as a contractor for Paquette’s administration. “He said, ‘I’m being blackmailed by the big money people, by the department store people, by the real estate owners, and they’re saying to me that if I don’t give them what they want they’re moving out of Burlington.’”

The urban renewal projects Paquette ended up supporting displaced communities and, combined with the county’s exploding population, raised rents and shrank the pool of available housing. Meanwhile, as the city’s finances grew tighter, Paquette opted to cut services and fight demands for better pay and benefits from city employees. The kind of poverty and urban blight newly christened Vermonters had sought to leave behind now manifested itself in Burlington.

Topping it all off was an increasing statewide reliance on regressive property and sales taxes, as local governments heaped tax breaks on businesses, worth $81 million by 1970. By 1975, around 85,000 Vermonters were living near or below the poverty line. Michael Parenti — a former University of Vermont (UVM) professor and one-time Liberty Union candidate for the House — charged that “the poor [in Vermont] subsidize the rich by working for low wages and paying high prices and by carrying a disproportionately greater share of the taxes.”

As time wore on, it became increasingly clear that popular resentment of this status quo was bubbling — and so was resistance.

Candidate Sanders

With life getting tougher in Vermont, and politics at the national level seeming to regress, the influx of mostly young out-of-staters contributed to a flowering of protest and activist movements in the state.

While in the 1960s radical Vermont had been defined primarily by the antiwar movement and a commitment to environmental protection, the 1970s saw a plethora of forms of radical activism: antinuclear, gay rights, and the women’s movement, eventually finding a capital-P political expression in the Liberty Union Party. Co-ops, fairs, and communes sprung up around the state. Burlington, straining under the squeeze of growth and development, saw a proliferation of neighborhood and advocacy organizations dedicated to matters like urban renewal projects, traffic, and tenant and welfare rights.

Sanders was part of the wave of migrants who made up the backbone of these movements, first moving to Vermont in 1964. Perhaps inspired by his formative months volunteering at an Israeli kibbutz after graduating college — “a utopian form of existence,” Sanders had reportedly said — he and his then-wife bought eighty-five acres of rural Vermont for $2,500, turning an old sugarhouse into a cabin with no running water or electricity.

“He was sort of a back-to-the-lander,” says Terry Bouricius, who would go on to become one of his key political allies. “He settled in the most rural part of northeast kingdom to try and do farming and stuff. It didn’t work out.”

Bouricius, who had moved to Middlebury for college, first met Sanders in a lecture hall in 1972 during the 1972 gubernatorial campaign. Sanders was, he recalled, the opposite of a typical candidate: untucked shirt, wild hair, and a thick Brooklyn accent “more typical of a New York street vendor selling soft pretzels than a Vermont politician.” By this point, Sanders had departed Vermont for a spell, divorced, sold his stake in the property to his ex-wife, fathered a son, and settled in Burlington.

The two wouldn’t cross paths again until a few years later, when Bouricius joined Liberty Union. In 1976, as Sanders embarked on what would be his final campaign for the party, again for governor, Bouricius split his time between running his own race for state senate and working on Sanders’s run. They crisscrossed the state in Sanders’s beat-up Volkswagen, Bouricius at the wheel and Sanders drafting speeches and press statements on one of his many stacks of yellow legal pads, going from town to town and doing interviews at local radio stations.

It was on these trips that Bouricius witnessed Sanders’s ability to connect with voters, whether shopkeepers, farmers, or hippies, and Vermonters’ surprising affinity for the socialist ideas he espoused. In one case, the two sat in the squalid living room of a New Haven plastics factory worker. As he told them about the wretched conditions he worked under in the non-unionized, unventilated plant, Sanders, Bouricius recalls, “put his arm around the guy’s shoulder and made a real human connection.” At a hippie commune on a former dairy farm, the local denizens agreed to register to vote for Sanders, partly because they were convinced his star sign presaged good fortune.

The unsuccessful campaign began what would become a lifelong friendship between the two radicals; Bouricius calls Sanders “as close to a selfless person as there is.”

Sanders would meet another future ally during these years: attorney John Franco, an antiwar activist who was between college and law school when he met Sanders at the Liberty Union convention in Burlington in 1974.

“Bernie was speaker, and he was very impressive and very charismatic, everything that attracts people to him, very articulate,” Franco, now a Burlington attorney, recalls. “He put together a lot of things people were thinking and feeling into a coherent narrative.”

At the time, Franco recalls, energy-driven inflation was a pressing issue in the state, owing partly to the oil crisis then engulfing the world, and partly to the local utility regulator’s decision to grant rate increase after rate increase for local utility companies. Drawing on a US Senate study of corporate ownership, the two would plot out press releases and press conferences on the issue in Sanders’s apartment, arguing the utility companies should be forced into bankruptcy.

“We just had a field day with the owners of these utility companies in Vermont getting bailed out by these rate increases,” says Franco, who would later run alongside Sanders for Lieutenant Governor in 1976. “That Senate study, man, that was just the gift that kept on giving.”

Out of Retirement

By 1979, however, Sanders was done with elections. As a Liberty Union in disarray tried to piece itself back together and Sanders busied himself going to war with the state broadcaster, the Burlington Free Press — the city’s largest newspaper, owned, as much of its major media was, by a conservative Republican — characterized him as “ambivalent about what electoral politics can accomplish.”

“A serious political party cannot maintain the respect of people if it simply pops up every two years for an election,” he had said upon resigning.

Today, those who came to form his inner circle say Sanders’s frustration was not with electoral action as a concept, but the party he had chosen as his vehicle.

“It wasn’t electoral politics — it was the Liberty Union,” says Bouricius. “Whatever the topic that would come up, [party co-founder] Peter Diamondstone would spend as much time arguing with a radio reporter about the right of children to vote. And it’s like, pick your battles, you know?”

“Liberty Union just wanted to run educational campaigns and get a few percentage points, and he wasn’t interested in that anymore,” says Franco. “His position was that Liberty Union had assumed and maintained an ultra-left position that was just not going to talk to real people.”

Photo courtesy of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Guma says there was another factor: a 1976 split within Liberty Union between its electoral and organizing wings. The divide fundamentally concerned strategy. Electoral leaders like Sanders, Parenti, and Diamondstone preferred to shape the party’s message and build its base around its electoral campaigns, he says. But its organizing wing, many of them radical feminists, wanted a broader platform that would make Liberty Union an “organizing party,” active in grassroots campaigns between elections.

“Basically, a lot of the women and organizers walked out,” says Guma. “Bernie knew the support he had from organizers, he was not going to have again.”

As the 1970s drew to a close, Diamondstone attempted to coax Sanders into one more gubernatorial run for the party. Sanders, after all, had won more than 10,000 votes three years earlier, and was recognized, as the Free Press put it, as “an effective campaigner and debater.”

But by the following year, it was clear the nexus of left-wing organizing in the state had moved away from the party. As the presidential election heated up, disparate leftist groups and interests began coalescing at events like fundraisers, conferences, and Burlington’s “Survival Summer,” part of a nationwide effort to raise awareness about the threat of nuclear weapons and the US-Soviet arms race. “There’s something happening today in Vermont,” wrote the Free Press.

These forces found a new vehicle in the Citizens Party, founded at the tail end of 1979 by ecologist Barry Commoner with the aim of displacing the Democratic Party on the national level, similar to what the GOP had done to the Whigs more than a century earlier. Vermont’s left-wing activists joined forces with the state’s environmentalists to found a Vermont chapter, one whose membership was decidedly more radical than the left-liberal Commoner.

“In Vermont, it was a mixture of disaffected Democrats and disaffected Liberty Unionists, and mostly more ideological left people,” says Bouricius. “But it wasn’t primarily a socialist organization.”

Guma, then editing the alternative weekly Vanguard Press, saw possibilities in this. In March 1980, he wrote a memo to Ian Laskaris, a former Democrat and early Vermont organizer for the Citizens Party, arguing that Burlington could be “extremely fertile ground for the growth of” a third party.

Outlining the city’s copious sources of resentment, he noted the growing influence of Burlingtonians unaligned with either major party, and noted that the city’s two poorest wards, while registering the lowest voter turnout, “could be mobilized and have registered high turnouts for Liberty Union.” Suggesting several strategies to bring nonvoters out, Guma predicted that “it would not be unreasonable to expect that at least one ward candidate would be elected,” and that “in a three-way race, even a mayoral candidate might be elected.”

There was another good omen. By the time the 1980 election was over, the party’s House candidate, peace activist Robin Lloyd, ended up with 13 percent of the vote, including 25 percent in Burlington. She had challenged Republican Jim Jeffords on a platform focused on reducing the threat of war, “establishing social control over multinational corporations,” and bread and butter policies like rent control, closing the gender pay gap, and upping funding for day care.

Sanders, at something of a crossroads in his life, still hadn’t ruled out another run with Liberty Union for governor. But an intervention by his friends soon changed his mind. On Halloween night, 1980, Franco and two other allies met with Sanders at the home of friend Richard Sartelle, a disabled truck driver  who had become an activist and spokesperson for Burlington’s low-income communities.

“Welcome to the poor side of town,” Sartelle told the group, as recounted in Harry Jaffe’s Why Bernie Sanders Matters.

Over the course of the night, in the laundry room of Sartelle’s subsidized housing unit, the four of them set about persuading Sanders to forget about statewide politics and think smaller: the mayor’s office.

“One of the guys was doing his laundry, so it wasn’t this smoke-filled room,” says Franco. “It was more like a Downy-filled room.”

Richard Sugarman, a professor of religion at the University of Vermont who would remain one of Sanders’s closest advisers in the decades ahead, had crunched the numbers. While Sanders failed to earn more than 6 percent statewide in his previous run, he had achieved his best result in Burlington, cracking double digits. In the city’s two working-class wards, Sanders would later recall, he did particularly well, with more than 16 percent of the vote. “You have a natural base there,” Sugarman told him.

Sanders knew little about city politics. But he realized that conditions in Burlington had deteriorated to the point that they would be easily incorporated into his favorite themes. Rents and property taxes were high, and the city was becoming increasingly unlivable for residents.

“The calculus was that it was doable,” says Franco. “In the late 1970s, there had developed quite a population of community organizations that were still active in Burlington, and very unhappy with the existing mayor. And that was a constituency that could be galvanized and tapped into.”

Though by no means confident — “What the hell would I do if, by some miracle, I actually won?” he asked the group — over the course of the night, he was convinced. After all, Sugarman pointed out, if an actor could have a chance at being president, why couldn’t he be elected mayor?

Sanders announced his campaign that November, four days after a historic landslide victory for that actor, the most extreme right-wing candidate ever elected to the country’s highest office to that point. Sanders had already been looking to build a voter coalition of the city’s forgotten and ignored as he toyed with the idea of running: poor people, blue-collar workers, and university students and faculty; he later added unions. As he made clear in his announcement speech, Reagan’s victory had made this project all the more urgent:

If ordinary people are to survive in the coming years, it is absolutely imperative that we band together in an organized effort to take control of the institutions which influence how we live.