Burlington, March 1981: The Calm Before the Storm

After his narrow election as mayor, the fight for Bernie Sanders to carry out a progressive agenda in Burlington, Vermont was just beginning. Sanders and his allies had to fight through a recount, grapple with a looming fiscal crisis, and overcome incessantly hostile opponents in the city who refused to give Bernie an inch.

Bernie Sanders, mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in his office at City Hall on March 1, 1985. (Donna Light / Getty Images)

In early March 1981, Bernie Sanders had gotten, and given Burlingtonians, the shock of a lifetime by narrowly defeating five-term incumbent Gordon Paquette for the mayor’s seat. He faced a looming fiscal crisis, an unfriendly political and business establishment, a host of ambitious promises he had made to city workers and voters, and a board of Democratic aldermen far from eager to cooperate with the man who had just given them a historic routing.

But before he could deal with all that, he still had to win an election.

Sanders’s margin of victory, a mere twenty-two votes, was extremely narrow. Expecting a recount, he and his team had acted quickly, asking Superior Court Judge Edwin Amidon at 2 AM in the morning after the election to impound all paper ballots. They wanted no funny business.

The Sanders campaign had already complained about “irregularities” during the election. There were reports the city’s police chief had been campaigning for Paquette while in uniform. Other reports had Paquette standing inside polling places, helping voters. Paquette and his allies countered that Sanders had “hounded” campaign workers over these suspicions, claims repeated by people calling in to a local radio show.

Sanders and his team had reason to be paranoid. Adviser Richard Sugarman and his wife Linda would both make signed statements alleging that while observing the ballot counting in Ward Five, they had noticed a discrepancy with the absentee vote tallies, which had been counted at City Hall: Sanders’s showing in the absentee votes didn’t square with his margin of victory in the ward. Sure enough, when they examined the tallies, they found twenty-one marks for Sanders, not the sixteen that had been announced. “This was immediately changed, and we were given the excuse that everyone involved was tired from the long hours,” Linda Sugarman wrote.

“There was a party afterwards where we first found out the results,” recalls David Clavelle. “Soon after that, our whole focus was on preparing ourselves for the recount.”

After several days, city Democrats snapped out of their shock and resignation and filed for a recount. Held a week later, the ballots would be counted by a board made up of city aldermen and three Citizens Party members. Despite Sanders’s and the party’s initial ambivalence toward each other, the party had petitioned to take part in the recount process at his campaign’s urging, one which would be watched over by representatives of both candidates.

A throng of reporters, photographers, and campaign supporters crammed into the Chittenden County Courthouse on the morning of Friday the 13th to watch the tense spectacle from start to finish. Three hours later the result was announced to some applause: Sanders had won by only ten votes. He would be the first socialist to govern a New England city in thirty years.

“Landslide: Sanders wins again,” he joked after the result was set. It was an “enormous load” off, he said more seriously.

“The last two weeks have been a living hell,” said John Franco.

Paquette, on holiday in Florida where he was looking for a winter house, phoned treasurer F. Lee Austin after it was over. He left no statement for the press.

“The news alone was enough for him,” Austin said.

Laying the Groundwork

In the meantime, Sanders prepared the ground for his impending mayoralty. He tasked his attorney with inspecting the City Charter and the precedents set by previous mayors to find the extent of his new powers. “I was not elected to be a weak mayor,” he said.

In the background, Jennie Stoler, Sanders’s economic adviser during the campaign, met with key figures in Burlington, outlined in a series of memos she sent to Sanders that hint at the city’s complicated politics. One such figure was Ted Riehle, an environmentalist and Republican state representative based in South Burlington who had been responsible, to conservatives’ chagrin, for Vermont’s billboard ban law, the first of its kind in the nation.

“Ted is ‘obviously not unhappy’ with Bernie’s election since Republicans were not previously listened to at City Hall,” Stoler wrote in a memo to Sanders and Linda Niedweske, who had managed the insurgent campaign. “Offers us whatever service he can at the state level or in town.”

“There were Republicans and Democrats who welcomed the change because city government was ossified and unresponsive,” says Greg Guma, author of The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. “You had these old-line Democrats who were just resisting, and then you had these other people like Ted Riehle who were trying to accommodate and live with the new reality.”

Due to his “many differences” with Richard “Chip” Wadhams — one of the three Republican aldermen on the city council — Riehle “would be much more comfortable eventually meeting with you alone rather than in a group with other Republicans,” Stoler reported to Sanders. Riehle gave the incoming administration several recommendations, including firing the city clerk Frank Wagner as soon as possible; Stoler in turn suggested Riehle become a contact for “ideas on how to preserve Burlington family life.” He left them with his home phone number.

Clearly, Sanders’s electoral defeat of the establishment was an opportunity for more than just the city’s burgeoning left. Wadhams himself would tell the press that while a successful Sanders administration would be hard to get rid of, his failure could open up a “political vacuum” for Republicans to fill.

The mayor of neighboring Winooski got in touch, too, hoping to set up relations with the new administration and change the town’s treatment as a “stepchild.” But the new mayor had more fundamental issues to deal with. In a memo titled “Re: Our ‘Vision’ problem,” Stoler suggested that someone keep notes on ideas that emerged, even use a tape-recorder to get down “middle-of-the-night thoughts.”

“Then as inauguration approaches you and I and someone like Richard [Clavelle] can distill the development and other implications from the best ideas and turn out an overall plan of action (and of course an inauguration speech),” she wrote.

Bad News Budget

All the while, a fiscal crisis loomed. Voters’ rejection of Paquette’s tax hike meant a budget crunch on the horizon, something the outgoing mayor hadn’t drawn up a contingency budget for prior to heading off on vacation. Sanders sent department heads a memo asking for seven ways to reduce expenses and boost revenue, such as through user fees, licenses and better bill collection. He tasked them with identifying “areas which are least critical to your overall operating performance” for cutting.

“Our mandate is clear,” Sanders wrote, referring to the tax increase’s defeat. “We must significantly reduce the proposed 1981-82 budget requirement.”

The incoming administration had difficult choices to make. There was the issue of the leaky Memorial Auditorium, managed by the Treasurer’s office, a “net drain on the budget now of close to $60,000 [around $174,000 today],” Stoler wrote, and which would require at least $60,000 more worth of repairs. If the cash-strapped government raised the auditorium’s rent to make it self-supporting, it would anger the public, she noted; but selling it off meant antagonizing veterans.

But far bigger was the question of personnel cuts, particularly when Sanders had campaigned on raising city employee wages. “I suggest the first session be another go around at cutting without layoffs of people,” Stoler wrote to Sanders. “Then the real hard one looking at bodies.” Yet even those would be financially fraught: “for each body we layoff [sic] we must pay unemployment comp. . . . So initially at least we save for each person hired only about half a salary,” she cautioned. The news that Paquette’s secretary, with her two-and-a-half months’ worth of accumulated vacation pay, was quitting her forty-two-year-long post rather than work for a socialist, was also “a complication.”

Yet the backstage scramble to get a hold of the city’s finances seemed to produce a potential ally. While the city’s Democrats appeared to be steeling themselves for a fight, Austin, the city Treasurer, “could not have been more reasonable in tone and helpful,” Stoler reported; “in no way did I feel he was holding back helpful information for me.” Austin, she wrote, wanted to meet with Sanders to share his own suggestions for cuts, and she urged Sanders to sit down with him for “several long sessions” on the budget.

“Time is of the essence,” she wrote on March 20.

City Hall and the Streets

Following up on his warnings that he could not go it alone, Sanders and the activists and groups that had helped to get him elected continued to liaise. A collection of community groups and activists praised Sanders and stated their intention to work with him, as they delivered petitions for a special election on a fair rent commission.

Sanders pledged to join a citizens’ group critical of the Medical Center Hospital’s expansion at a hearing about the project. He met with students, artists, the elderly, and the King Street residents who had been fighting development in their neighborhood to discuss issues, as well as the residents of the mostly Republican, Paquette-voting Ward Six. He also promised to appoint an aide who would represent community groups, whom he would pay out of his $33,000 salary (around $96,000 today), a post that would ultimately be filled by Dick Sartelle, the friend and low-income community organizer who had first urged Sanders to run.

Sanders also envisioned a free program of free arts and entertainment cobbled together through private funding or foundation grants and run by volunteers, particularly the artists his election had excited. “It will just be a nice thing,” he said. “A beautiful end unto itself.” He also took a strict line on the Spring Fling, the annual, rowdy gathering of college students and teens that infuriated local residents every year, warning students it would have to end. “We can’t tolerate destruction of property,” he said.

But perhaps most urgent for the success of Sanders’s plans was the Ward Three run-off election. The ward had seen a three-way race between the incumbent Democrat, Citizens Party candidate Gary DeCarolis, and dissident Democrat Sadie White, who ran as a “taxpayer’s advocate,” neither of whom had won more than the 40 percent plurality needed to win. Despite endorsing the two other Citizens Party nominees, Sanders backed White in the race, “just to show his independence and because he was being strategic in that particular ward,” says Guma, who had been the Citizens Party candidate for Ward Six.

One of seven kids born to dairy farmer parents at the turn of the century, White had worked for decades in the American Woolen Company’s mill in Winooski, ever since leaving school at fifteen, helping organize its first union in 1943. After its closure, and after she had already retired, she had embarked on a second career in politics, becoming a state representative in 1965.

“She was a classic labor-union, working-class kind of person who got involved in politics,” says Terry Bouricius, the only Citizens Party candidate to win in 1981.

Fiscally conservative and preferring job training to the dole, White nonetheless made for a natural ally to Sanders: a genuine working-class person and union organizer who had pushed to expand home-based care for the elderly and disabled, called for crime prevention over prison, and who shared Sanders’s pugnacious attitude. She had gotten involved in politics, she later said, “to be able to argue all I wanted to.” Whenever anyone tried to order her around, she said, “I tell them to go to hell.”

“She was free spirit in a sense, and when it came to politics, really thought that what Bernie was talking about were the right issues to be talking about,” says Clavelle, pointing to Sanders’s stances on the elderly and property taxes. “Sadie was a property owner in one of the poorer neighborhoods, so property taxes would’ve been important for those people for affordability reasons.”

“I think Bernie has done something good for the city,” she said ten years later. “When he first got in, I think he turned things around a little and straightened out a lot. I think he made more people interested in politics and interested in the governing of the city than ever had been before.”

White, recalls Bouricius, had run for alderman “out of spite.” Having served fifteen years in Vermont’s state house in Montpelier, White had lost the September 1980 primary to a younger Democrat preferred by the party, complaining of a “dirty deal.”

“She was livid,” says Bouricius.

With the runoff down to just White and the Democrat, the city’s progressive forces got moving. DeCarolis endorsed White, and on March 20, so did Sanders. Praising her as someone who was “willing to stand up to people with lots of money and lots of power,” Sanders joked he couldn’t “keep up with” the eighty-year-old White who was “too young and vigorous” for him.

“We really worked for her, the Citizens Party people, Bernie people, we did the door-knocking,” recalls Bouricius.

For her part, eager not to cast the election as a proxy war between Sanders and the Democratic establishment, White said she was “happy to get anybody to support me,” and insisted she would be an independent voice on the board. She won. Sanders would have one more ally in City Hall.

While he collected what few allies he could, Sanders also reached out to his opponents. He and his advisors began looking at attracting a minor league baseball team to the city, something he hoped would build a bridge between his office and the city’s business community, which supported the idea. He had a “cordial” meeting with the Downtown Burlington Development Association and met with Antony Pomerleau, the Burlington developer he had turned into the face of the city’s rapacious moneyed elite through his attacks on his waterfront project during the campaign. The two had what Sanders called a “surprisingly pleasant meeting,” in which they lay the ground rules for working together.

“I do not want to destroy the business community,” Sanders said. “It is not my intention to frighten them. They may be surprised if I come up with ideas to help them.”

Not that he gave up his more strident rhetoric, labeling business threats to move out of the city “blackmail” and even a possible “terrorist act.”

Though Sanders had warned that any attempt by aldermen to fight him would mean they’d be taking on “all of the people,” he tried to woo the Democrats through what the Free Press called “gentle persuasion.” He toured City Hall and had a private conversation with Joyce Desautels, the aldermanic board president, who told the paper that she trusted Sanders and that the two “share our love for Burlington and the people in it.”

“I feel we will be able to work on some issues,” she said.

Yet Sanders’s charm offensive could only go so far. When Sanders asked aldermen to hold off filling city vacancies on three city commissions until he took office, so he could open them up to low-income and working people and his own supporters, the board rejected his request with no discussion and made their own appointments. It ignored his recently created arts committee in discussing the leasing Memorial Auditorium, and made plans to oppose anyone Sanders nominated to head city departments. Clearly, dealings with the Democrat-controlled board were going to be an uphill climb.

The Freak Mayor

All the while, Sanders’s victory and radical politics had turned him into something of a national curiosity. Across the country people wanted to know: How had a socialist won in conservative Vermont at the very same time the rest of the country had lurched right by electing Reagan?

“People will be paying $10 a head to see the freak mayor of Burlington,” Sanders commented.

The New York Times profiled Sanders shortly after his win, portraying him as alternately radical and pragmatic. “We’re coming in with a definite class analysis and a belief that the trickle-down theory of economic growth, the ‘what’s good for General Motors is good for America’ theory, doesn’t work,” he told the Times. In the same breath, he railed against “upper-middle-class junk” like luxury condos and health clubs being situated next to areas of abject poverty.

Still, Sanders stressed he would not be “going to war with the city’s financial and business community.” “I know that there is little I can do from City Hall to accomplish my dreams for society,” he assured the paper.

In late March, a curious Phil Donahue invited Sanders onto the Today Show to discuss his victory, in an appearance that got renewed life after Sanders’s post-2016 rise to prominence. Sanders explained to Donahue that Vermont conservatism was “not big money conservatism” or “right-wingism and warmongerism,” but a respect for individual rights, and he again assured those watching that his powers were limited, that he wouldn’t do anything radical. While outright denying he was a capitalist, he added there was “something to be said for free enterprise on a local level and competition” that was, ironically, being crushed by large corporations.

“He’s very good. He’s really very good,” Donahue said after the cameras stopped rolling. Sanders declined his invitation to return to the show, not wishing to become “the overnight national spokesman for socialism.”

The national media attention forced the issue locally, too. Sanders’s socialism had barely been mentioned during the election, with news reports often describing the longshot candidate as a “historian and filmmaker” instead. Now, Burlingtonians wondered what their new mayor’s socialist beliefs actually meant for the city. Sanders pointed to the issues he had raised in the campaign, namely a “sympathy for low-income and elderly people.” “It is certainly not the Soviet Union,” he said. “It is not authoritarianism.”

Sanders’s win appeared to have some small reverberations beyond City Hall, too. In the state legislature, a Democrat proposed a bill allowing different property tax rates for homes and businesses, one of Sanders’s signature proposals. Nearby St. Michael’s College elected as president of the student association an activist once arrested for trespassing at a local nuclear plant, which the press tied to Sanders’s victory.

Shots Fired

This flurry of activity was interrupted late in the month when shocking news came out of the nation’s capital. On March 30, Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest by John Hinckley Jr. Sanders was at the Free Press offices, talking to reporters and editors, when the news came in. “He was unable to continue speaking for a minute, and tears formed in his eyes,” reported the paper.

“That’s going to make everything much worse,” Sanders said, warning that it would “inflame” the country’s problems.

But he couldn’t worry about that for long. Exactly a week later, on April 6, Sanders took the oath in front of a crowd of 250 onlookers, officially becoming the thirty-seventh mayor of Burlington, and the first socialist to hold that title. In a speech interrupted a dozen times by applause, Sanders hit on his usual talking points and campaign promises, adding swipes at City Hall “cronyism” and a new pledge to seek a “bare-bones” tax hike to keep the city afloat. Most aldermen and a group of businessmen in the crowd sat in silence throughout. Desautels symbolically turned away as Sanders was sworn in.

With the national spotlight suddenly on Burlington, Sanders told the crowd, the city could show the rest of the country “that ordinary people, working together, can recapture that certain quality, that sense of purpose which we seem to be lacking today as a nation.” Perhaps if the country regained its “democratic and egalitarian” spirit in the coming decades, he said, “maybe the political pundits will point back to Burlington, Vermont, 1981, and say, ‘That’s where it all began.’”

It would be a long road ahead. “Winning election as mayor does not mean much,” he had said shortly after his victory. “My goal is to bring about change. The struggle continues.”