How Mayor Bernie Sanders Orchestrated a Political Revolution

Elected mayor of Vermont’s biggest city, Bernie Sanders found himself stymied by an obstructionist local establishment at every turn — until he and the movement behind him started fighting back and winning.

Bernie Sanders and his wife, Jane. (CQ Archive / Getty Images)

As spring gave way to summer in Burlington in 1981, the weather may have been looking up, but prospects for Bernie Sanders’s mayoralty were not.

In his first hundred days, Sanders had his secretary fired, was visited by the FBI, and had all of his political appointments blocked. The establishment’s plan to dig in and win through attrition seemed to be working. Worse, he was forced to keep city government afloat through a proposal for a modest tax hike and an austere budget even he admitted was regressive — and whose enactment by public vote was far from assured.

So Sanders and the movement that helped put him in power got to work. The series of setbacks dealt to Sanders’s administration galvanized both the mayor and his supporters, who rallied and fought back. By the end of his first hundred days, Sanders would match his defeats with victories and swing momentum to his side.

From the Bottom to the Top

Sanders’s first minor victory came in early May, when the board of aldermen approved his tax hike proposal. Despite an attempt by Republicans to halve it, and despite their forming a bloc of opposition come vote time, it passed 10-3. The Democrats were not willing to go so far as plunge the city into crisis to spite Sanders.

“You know we need the twenty-five cents,” said Joyce Desautels, one of Sanders’s nemeses on the board. “We should support Mayor Sanders and his [budget] task force.”

Next came Spring Fling, Burlington students’ annual night of downtown debauchery that typically resulted in injuries, property damage, and phone calls from irate residents. Partnering with police, Sanders had taken a hard line on the event, telling students the city wouldn’t “suspend the law,” warning there would be arrests, and urging them to stay away. He won praise for his handling of the episode, particularly when the event turned out less rowdy than usual, resulting in only two arrests. Sanders walked through the dissipating crowd in the morning, picking up litter. “There are lots of garbage cans,” he told one drunken reveler who spilled beer on him.

Later that month, Sanders was elected to the board of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Facing unease from the other members over his radical politics, Sanders told the board it would have been an “insult” if he was left off. With Burlington paying dues of $11,035 a year to the body, the city’s finance board sided with Sanders. Even the most basic recognition of his mayoralty, it seemed, would have to be fought for.

As he dealt with the day-to-day struggles of governing a small city, Sanders kept his eyes on national affairs — and stayed connected to the grass roots from which he drew his support. When hundreds gathered in Burlington’s Battery Park to protest against nuclear weapons and Reagan’s brutal first budget — one characterized by papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post as a milestone in rolling back the New Deal, and voted for by thirty Democratic senators, including current rival Joe Biden — Sanders spoke. He received “one of the biggest receptions” at the latter, reported the Free Press.

Though Sanders’s voter coalition failed to turn out to pass the fair housing commission put forward by People Acting for Change Together (PACT), he had campaigned door-to-door for the measure, showing the beginnings of an alliance between the new mayor and the city’s grass roots. When one hundred representatives of the city’s neighborhood groups held an all-day conference in May to look at unifying into one political force, Sanders showed up to speak to and advise them, receiving a “rousing reception,” as the Free Press reported. After they approved a sweeping “blueprint” of progressive measures, the mayor told them it “should be the [city’s] agenda.” Weeks later, he keynoted the Vermont Solidarity Conference, an occasion for diverse activist groups to discuss the creation of a “unified progressive movement.”

Sanders had already pledged on his first day to create an advisory council of unrepresented groups, including women, public housing residents, and seniors. “The success or failure of my administration will be to tap the extraordinary talents of the people of Burlington,” he said. Now, blocked from making appointments, he instead set up a host of ad-hoc task forces that covered everything from youth, women, and the city’s waterfront to the arts, the elderly, and, eventually, wages.

“I believe that more people, not less, must be brought into the decision-making processes which affect these lives,” he said in a statement about these groups. “Both in terms of numbers and in terms of methods, we will be greatly expanding the concept of citizen participation in government in the years to come.”

The effort seemed to be working. Sanders reported getting four hundred letters, fifty to seventy-five job applications, and strangers showing up to his office offering to volunteer, all in his first ten days as mayor. Organizers behind the May neighborhood group conference told the press his election and creation of citizens’ committees had only encouraged the growth of such groups, with people feeling for the first time like City Hall was ready to listen.

One group was the Citizens Committee for Fair Play, cobbled together in two days from residents and members of unions and neighborhood groups. Looking to serve as “a shadow alderboard to watch the alderpeople,” as Doreen Kraft, one of the organizers and a Sanders ally put it, the group handed out copies of a letter denouncing their actions as “petty and obstructionist” and urging them to support and cooperate with the mayor. Sanders had warned a recalcitrant board of aldermen would have to answer to the people; now the people seemed to be answering back.

“The Beginning of Forever”

While his supporters hit the streets, Sanders began to fight back in the halls of power. On a Monday night in late June, Sanders made good on his threat and served the board of aldermen with a lawsuit for blocking his political appointees earlier that month. Perhaps even more surprising than the lawsuit was who was doing the serving.

That was Jane Driscoll, a community organizer with the King Street Area Youth Center. Like many of Sanders’s supporters, Driscoll, born Mary Jane O’Meara, was an out-of-towner, hailing from an Irish Catholic household in a Brooklyn neighborhood just fifteen blocks from where the mayor himself had grown up. And like Sanders, nine years her senior, Driscoll’s politics had also been shaped by her early memories of hospital bills: having broken his hip when she was just a toddler, Driscoll’s father had spent her childhood in and out of hospital, his health improving only once her oldest brother, a successful equestrian, was able to afford better care.

After graduating high school, studying, marrying, and starting a family, Driscoll moved around, until her husband’s job had landed them in Vermont in 1975. She returned to college for three years, divorced, and, with three children to care for, worked in the Burlington Police Department’s division for juvenile offenders, before going to King Street to help develop the state’s neighborhood organizations. When representatives met with then-mayor Gordon Paquette in the middle of the 1981 race, Driscoll went along and, frustrated by his lackluster responses, got into it with the mayor herself, relating her own experience as a low-income person.

“You sound just like Bernie Sanders,” someone said.

“Who’s Bernie Sanders?” she replied.

Driscoll soon helped organize the neighborhood group–sponsored debate that would prove so crucial to Sanders’s slim victory. “Being the good Catholic girl,” she later recalled, she was polite to Paquette, but barely said a word to Sanders. “But when I heard him speak, well, that was it,” she said. She came up afterward and told him he’d won her vote.

“Bernie embodied everything I had ever believed in,” she told the Free Press fifteen years later. “He blew me away. I just fell in love,” she said, pausing, “with his ideas.”

Driscoll first worked for the not-yet-mayor, sent by King Street to represent one of twelve organizations Sanders had drawn on for his youth task force, becoming its chair. Though the two ran into each other in the days ahead, they didn’t properly meet until Sanders’s victory party. She told him they must be crossing paths so often because they had similar ideas; he asked her to dance.

“That was the beginning of forever,” she later said.

Their meeting became the start of one of the more successful partnerships in US politics, with Driscoll — who would take Sanders’s name when they married in 1988 — becoming part adviser, part legislative aide, and part emotional support for Sanders for the rest of his career. But first, it was baby steps. In March, she accompanied Sanders to his interview with Phil Donahue. And now, she delivered his lawsuit, kicking off a years-long obsession by Sanders’s foes with Driscoll’s role in city politics.

“I was very interested to see that it was the mayor’s girlfriend taking the court papers around,” Democratic alderman James Burns told the press.

“I don’t think this is a big deal,” Sanders said. “If he had preferred to have a sheriff serve the papers, rather than a coworker of mine, we certainly could have accommodated him.”

The Watershed

Refusing “to be saddled with a team of people who are not sympathetic to my vision,” Sanders split his suit into two parts. The first asked the court to make a declaratory judgment about his power to make appointments, and the aldermen’s power to only approve or reject. The second asked the judge to nullify the aldermen’s rejection of his appointees, owing to their refusal to interview them, and order the aldermen to review candidates in “good faith” and in accordance with guidelines from the court.

Both sides played it cool. Sanders was launching the suit “unhappily,” he said, but “without bitterness.” “There is no stigma attached to going to court,” said one of the defendants, William Blanchard, president of the board of aldermen. “That’s where problems are solved.” He admitted that “the way the charter reads, it’s up the air [sic]” who had what powers.

As Sanders pushed back, things began to turn. In early June, city attorney Joseph McNeil had issued an opinion that aldermen had no right to rescind the civil defense director’s resignation, something, it turned out, he had been persuaded to do by Burns. The position would be vacant by July 1 after all.

A few days later, two hundred Sanders supporters rallied at City Hall for a forum organized by the Citizens Committee for Fair Play. Sanders, his thwarted appointees, and other speakers appealed to public support, with Burlington residents demanding that the aldermen’s “telephones should start ringing” and criticizing their “red-baiting.”

“I’m in the weird position of having to fight for the right to live up to my campaign promises,” Sanders told the crowd to applause.

Driscoll and a fellow woman supporter recounted their phone calls to Burns, protesting his opposition to the mayor’s agenda. “When he called me ‘honey,’ I hung up,” Driscoll said. Burns, for his part, called the calls “harassment” and alleged he had been “threatened” by callers, refusing to elaborate when pressed.

More and more signs suggested the aldermen’s gambit was backfiring. The Free Press had already scathingly criticized the aldermen’s “peevishness” when they had delayed discussion of Sanders’s tax proposal in April. Now, turning to the aldermen’s rejection of appointees, the paper called their comments at the time “questionable” and “disturbing to the people of the city,” and called on the people to “demand that the board reconsider its action.” (Though proving old habits die hard, the paper also declared both sides “equally responsible for the divisive political climate in the city” after the rally.)

“I did not vote for Bernard Sanders,” one letter-writer wrote to the paper. “I do accept our Democratic process. It is time for oligarchic aldermen to do the same.” Another objected to the “obstructionism” and “very transparent, childish arrogance” of the aldermen. Though by no means universal, such letters of support chiding the aldermen’s “arrogance” and “appalling” and “hypocritical” behavior, and urging cooperation with the mayor, littered the Free Press’s letters section for weeks.

Realizing that what had happened to Sanders could happen if the GOP ever won the mayoralty, too, the board’s three Republicans asked to meet with the mayor quietly. They hashed out a deal, the Republicans offering to persuade the Democrats to compromise, at the price of Sanders potentially getting fewer appointees through — only for the Democrats to shoot it down. As Sanders called on aldermen to approve his replacements for two upcoming resignations, Republican Allen Gear said his request “ought to be given consideration.” The board bristled at the friendly press given to Sanders’s three press conferences castigating them.

Meanwhile, Sanders won what may have been the most meaningful victory of his young tenure: on June 16, Burlington voters approved his 25-cent tax hike by a two-to-one margin, ensuring the government would stay afloat for another year. Sanders “could be heard throughout the corridors of City Hall whooping with pleasure when he received the news,” reported the Free Press.

“It shows a faith in the future of this city, at a time when people around the country are voting taxes down,” he said.

Despite their standoff, Sanders and the aldermen had campaigned together for the tax raise, joined by an alliance of unions and businessmen. As part of the effort, Sanders had earlier assembled a group he called “Burlingtonians United,” including union chiefs, city department heads, aldermen, and other officials, to show that it was “a non-partisan issue.” One voter said she enjoyed seeing Sanders “out on the street hustling” for its passage.

“Sanders should be applauded for bringing together people like Blanchard, [Republican alderman Robert] Paterson, and [Treasurer F. Lee] Austin in support of the tax hike,” wrote the Free Press. “That he accomplished what must have been a difficult task indicates there’s hope he may be able to steer the city through the this [sic] stormy period of adjustment.”

The end of June brought with it another, more modest victory: the board of alderman confirmed what would be Sanders’s first two appointments after all. Allies Steven Goodkind and David Clavelle would occupy the vacated posts of public health and safety administrator and civil defense director, respectively. And all Sanders had had to do to ensure it was sit through a long evening meeting complete with forty-five minutes of discussion of plumbing fixtures. After the votes were cast, a crowd of around twenty applauded.

“I don’t consider this a victory,” Sanders said. “I think this is absolutely common sense.”

The End of 100 Days

Surveying his first hundred days, Sanders could point to few tangible accomplishments. He had been straitjacketed by a political war neither he nor his allies had seen coming, and found himself fighting for the right to simply serve as mayor. But he had steered the city through a potential fiscal crisis and, through his citizens’ task forces, his handling of the Spring Fling, and his relentless energy, proved himself a capable and committed public servant, far from the stereotype of a mindless bomb-throwing radical. Perhaps most importantly, it was clear Sanders was winning the war of public opinion.

“As it stands now, the Democrats on the board are perceived by many citizens as being the villains of the piece,” read one Free Press editorial in early July. “If he is not granted an opportunity to run the city, Democrats will bear the blame for any chaos that might follow.”

The next aldermanic election wouldn’t be until March 1982. Sanders and his allies had eight months to prove the paper right.