Mayor Bernie Sanders’s Trial by Fire

Faced with wall-to-wall obstruction from the Burlington, Vermont city establishment, a newly elected Mayor Bernie Sanders won a series of early fights that showed the country what a creative, pro–working-class socialist government could accomplish at the local level.

Bernie Sanders campaigns for Burlington mayor in 1981. (Vermont Press Bureau)

“This is politics,” wrote Chittenden Superior Court Judge James B. Morse. “This court shall not enter the political thicket.”

Nearly three months after Bernie Sanders had hit Burlington’s board of aldermen with a lawsuit for rejecting his political appointments without so much as interviewing them, the judge was throwing it out of court. It was the latest setback in a year defined by nothing but.

Having been elected mayor by the slimmest of margins half a year earlier, Sanders had hoped to pursue a transformative progressive agenda and build political power in Vermont’s biggest city. Instead, he had found himself locked in a political battle with its Democratic aldermen, who were determined to stymie him and reclaim the office for themselves. When they had blocked his appointments — the surest way in the city’s weak-mayor system to get much of anything done — he had fired back with the lawsuit.

A disappointed Sanders called the judge’s August 31 decision “a bad one, not only for me but for any mayor to come in the city.” He and future mayors would have “virtually no staff through which to carry out programs he or she campaigned on,” he said, and he worried for a future “conservative mayor stuck with a radical treasurer.” The Burlington Free Press, often at odds with the new mayor, seemed to agree, warning the decision “dilutes the mayor’s appointive capacity under the city charter,” and urging him to appeal the decision.

“Those people who are laughing today may have the joke on them someday,” Sanders said.

The lawsuit’s failure seemed to close the door on Sanders’s prospects of seeing any of his platform become reality. Little could change until the next aldermanic elections, six whole months away. In the meantime, Jennie Stoler, the economics professor behind many of Sanders’s economic policies, had given up her fight to be named city treasurer, going back to teaching. And the lawsuit would spark yet one more political battle, with aldermen refusing to let Sanders pay for the suit’s legal expenses with city money.

But with political gridlock now a fact of life, Sanders instead turned his attention to other matters: he moved to secure worker power, began the fight against the city’s health insurer, worked to expand working-class involvement in City Hall, and took his battle against the establishment beyond the city and into Vermont’s state legislature, as he fought for the right to enact a new business tax. With the city’s political institutions effectively closed off to him, Sanders looked to build power outside of them.

“The Mayor of the Union”

As mayor, Sanders — a socialist who had won the election partly thanks to the endorsement of the police union — would help lead the city’s coming contract negotiations with three unions: the Firefighters and Patrolmen’s Associations, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union. Not everyone was happy about that.

“I have a problem with which side of the [bargaining] table you’re on,” Republican Alderman Allen Gear told Sanders in the middle of negotiations. “If you can’t make up your mind which side of the table you’re on I suggest you consider resigning.”

“I have a problem with his position,” said Democratic Alderwoman Joyce Desautels, one of the mayor’s aldermanic antagonists, urging him to be “objective.” Sanders “doesn’t realize he’s on the city’s side,” she said; “he is the mayor of the city, not the mayor of the union.”

Aldermen wanted to play hardball with the unions, and carry on doing what the city had always done: giving a flat percentage raise to all workers, meaning those making the most would see the biggest gains. Sanders, wanting to give more to “those workers who need it most,” pushed for a sliding scale approach, giving smaller percentage raises to the most well-paid. Functionally, everyone would get about the same dollar amount.

“His theory is to close the gap,” complained William Blanchard, president of the board of aldermen. “This is another first. The city is a corporation and he is the chairman of the board.”

Aldermen were uneasy over Sanders’s plan to present a maximum offer right off the bat, too. That meant skipping the initial phase of bargaining, something Sanders said would save money by limiting lawyers’ fees and other costs. “The first proposals shouldn’t necessarily be final,” said Blanchard.

But while aldermen balked at the mayor’s approach, city unions felt the opposite. “We have a listening ear in Bernie we never had before,” said Lindol Atkins, president of the municipal workers’ union. “We respect him for it.”

Not that unions would be getting everything they asked for. With a bare-bones budget and around $325,000 to give raises to hundreds of workers, Sanders invited union officials to his office for several informal “chats” as the negotiations unfolded. They couldn’t get everything they wanted, he explained, but the city wasn’t against them. The unions would be forced to accept markedly less than they had hoped, including the police union, which dropped its demand for the dental package that other nearby cities provided their police. At the same time, Sanders offered the unprecedently high figure of an 8 percent minimum wage increase, saying anything less would have been “an insult, and that brings out animosity and bitterness.”

The ultimately successful negotiations constituted another victory for the mayor, taking only three months to wrap up, a “record time” according to the Vermont press. Sanders won plaudits for his handling.

“By taking a more sympathetic approach to negotiations and being candid with union leaders about the state of the city’s finances, Sanders apparently won their trust and convinced them that an agreement without prolonged bargaining was in the best interests of the city and rank and file union members,” read a Burlington Free Press editorial.

“There weren’t hostilities,” said the police union chief.

“This year the bargaining team got the feeling that the city came to bargain in good faith,” the firefighters’ attorney told the press. “It’s the first time I can remember the city giving the bargaining team that feeling. There’s only one team player that’s changed — that’s the mayor.”

Key had been Sanders’s decision to “put essentially all our money on the table at the commencement of negotiations,” as William Sorrell, the city negotiator, put it. Sorrell had warned Sanders the move risked inciting an unfair labor practice charge, before being assured by the unions they would do no such thing. Sanders’s building of trust with the unions had borne fruit, it seemed.

“The main change was that we did not go into the negotiations considering the unions enemies, but as friends and allies,” Sanders later said. “The unions were extremely reasonable.”

The successful negotiations capped off months of a budding alliance between the mayor and the city’s unions. Union heads had fought for Sanders’s tax raise, while in August, Sanders had come to a meeting of local union leaders as they voted to support the striking air traffic control workers then locked in a battle with anti-union President Ronald Reagan, saying he was horrified at the president’s response. He took symbolic measures like establishing a Carpenter Centennial Week in the city in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the carpenters and joiners union, while January the following year, his Council on Women held a “Women in Work Week,” featuring films, speakers, and workshops, complete with free day care.

But it didn’t end there either. In August, as the city’s mostly female downtown retail workers began to organize, Sanders gave them his backing. “I am anxious to see that workers make good wages,” he said, calling their idea of a Downtown Burlington Retail Workers Association “a positive step.” After all, he said, employers already had their own groups like the Chamber of Commerce.

Over the coming months, Sanders would attend multiple meetings of the retail workers, listening to their stories, encouraging their efforts, and assuring them they couldn’t be fired for organizing. When one complained she had been told her boss could fire her if he didn’t like how she parted her hair, Sanders told her that could be illegal sexual harassment. One month later, he set up a fact-finding panel to investigate the wages and working conditions of the city’s retail workers.

The director of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce — exactly the kind of employer association Sanders had meant — blamed the mayor’s encouragement and general pro-union stance for the organizing drive. In response, retail employers themselves began organizing, meeting to discuss how to nip it in the bud.

The Sword and the Shield

Having made an enemy of the Burlington’s retail businesses, Sanders next turned his attention to the sector that would become the focus of his ire for much of the next four decades: the health insurance industry.

This particular conflict would be more practical than ideological. The city had paid nearly $600,000 the year before to Blue Cross-Blue Shield, the city’s health insurer and the biggest in the state, which now proposed a whopping 18 percent rate hike. Sanders thought the city could get a better deal.

“It had been an old boys’ club,” recalls Terry Bouricius, one of two Sanders allies on the board of aldermen during his first year. “[Former mayor Gordon Paquette] had put together an insurance advisory board made up of insurance agents in town, and they would advise the city on what insurance they should buy up for the next year, and then they would take turns dividing it up amongst themselves.”

The company’s rate increase, which aimed to net itself $3 million more by upping the cost for consumers by as much as $108 a year, had to be approved by Vermont’s Banking and Insurance Commissioner, George Chafee. The mayor’s Advisory Council on the Elderly urged Sanders via letter to intervene, noting the impact the hike would have on the city’s seniors.

Sanders had already met with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns — the same body that had once questioned whether to let him be a member — to explore the possibility of entering their health insurance policy, something that, using Blue Cross’s own figures, the city’s Personnel Director calculated would have saved more than $100,000. (“The option is always available,” the League’s director said. “Burlington never asked.”). He contemplated launching a class-action lawsuit, and announced the city would join several citizens groups to oppose the hike in an upcoming September hearing on behalf of its residents. It would be the first time a Vermont city had done so, and the first major fight against one of the company’s increases.

But the mayor was still at the mercy of a group of conservative aldermen. Though an effort to soften the wording of the resolution from an “unreasonable and unwarranted” hike to simply a “large” one succeeded, aldermen voted down the prospect of sending the city attorney to testify, 6–5. It was beyond the remit of city government, they argued.

“In my city the people who are fighting me hardest are the Democrats, so I don’t have time to worry about Republicans,” Sanders told a conference of progressives later that week.

So, he decided to go himself. This time — despite a fight that saw aldermen refuse to let the city pay the legal fees Sanders accrued in his lawsuit, and Sanders swear to veto the payment of theirs in retaliation — the board nearly unanimously backed his appearance at the widely publicized hearing. He would’ve gone regardless of how they voted, he insisted.

Appearing the same day, Blue Cross revealed it would seek yet another hike to make up for Reagan’s Medicare cuts, Sanders launched a barrage of denunciations. He slammed Blue Cross for not pressuring doctors and hospitals to keep costs down, warning that working-class people were paying more and more to subsidize “millionaire doctors” and health care providers. He blasted Reagan for telling Americans they needed to “bite the bullet,” and said it was time for providers to “start biting the bullet as well.” Thousands of Vermonters “can’t afford medical care at its prices now,” he said, which was becoming a “luxury” that “fewer and fewer can enjoy.” He urged Chafee to nix the increase and let Vermont make a “national impact” by sending the message that health care was “a right for all people.” He handed Chafee the resolution passed by the aldermen.

All to no avail. Two days later, Chafee granted the rate hike. A month later, he approved a second, bigger hike. Five months later, Blue Cross would be eyeing an even bigger one, this time at 30 percent. Sanders continued railing against the company, working with the Vermont League on insurance reform, pressuring doctors and providers over affordable treatment, and otherwise looking for ways to tighten up city finances. But he had lost this battle. He would have to wait until next year to resume it.

Here to Help

Blocked from enacting his actual policy agenda, Sanders increasingly focused on his other political goal: bringing ordinary citizens into the fold of city government.

In an era where Reagan charmed audiences by saying the “nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’” Sanders took those nine words as his mantra, seeking to make City Hall more responsive to Burlington residents, and prove that government could be a positive force in their lives.

With his appointments blocked, Sanders was already relying on a small group of allies who formed a kind of shadow government — allies like Stoler, who spent months poring over the city’s finances.

“We did not have an administration for over the first year,” says Franco, another such ally. “It was all done with volunteers.”

“It was this kitchen cabinet — people who had no income from it, and no title, who would meet every week and figure out, what do we need to know about this,” recalls Bouricius.

But Sanders also began relying on ordinary residents eager to help the new city government out. He had early on tapped artists, entertainers, and students to give up their time and labor on behalf of the city, but aldermanic obstruction had made this a necessity. Such volunteers built a playground in a family housing project, shoveled snow for elderly and disabled residents, and put on free concerts in the city’s Battery Park, which soon came to be referred to as “Bernie’s Concert.”

One such project was the mayor’s “People’s Circus,” featuring music, carnival games, sack racing, and various circus performers, some of them from as far afield as Paris, France, all at no cost to the city.

“People getting away from TV and expressing themselves is a political act,” Sanders said. “Just look at the smiles on people’s faces as we went through the neighborhoods. That’s what government is all about.”

In September, Sanders began holding extra office hours between 7–10 PM on the third Tuesday each month, so “that the average Burlington citizen has access to his or her local government.” Some came with complaints; one suggested a cabs-for-the-elderly program; another, a twelve-year-old, suggested a production of Annie, which soon had fifty kids involved. “The most exhilarating part is that people have lots of good ideas,” he told the Free Press. “But it’s bureaucracy that kills the spirit.”

By this time, the city had already come to be known as the “People’s Republic of Burlington,” with foreign and national press making their way to Vermont to interview the radical mayor. When T-shirts bearing the phrase were made by State Sen. Peter Smith as a light-hearted dig, Sanders began raising money for his arts and youth councils by receiving $1 from the sale of each autographed copy. After selling more than a thousand, Sanders eventually grew tired of signing the shirts. (Smith would later face Sanders no less than three times at the ballot box, eventually knocked off by the then-former mayor’s first successful Congressional run in 1990).

When a dozen tenants became fed up with their treatment at the hands of the management of their apartment complex, they came to City Hall for advice. Sanders suggested they try a rent boycott, while Richard Sartelle, the low-income advocate and friend Sanders had unofficially hired and paid out of his salary, advised them to link up with other tenants in the city. “We will use the resources of the city to protect you,” Sanders told them. “If you stand together you will succeed.”

Two days later, as the irate residents confronted management in a Saturday night meeting, Sanders turned up to give them his backing. Questioned by the manager who had initiated the first gathering in City Hall, Sanders shot back: “It was not a Communist conspiracy from Moscow to get them to come to my office.”

Before long, several anti-poverty groups had formed Vermont Tenants Inc., a statewide renters association that considered Sartelle one of its “founding fathers.” Besides lobbying for tenants’ rights, the group offered legal services, pushed for more housing for the poor, and set up a statewide information phone line. Steven Goodkind, one of the lone two appointments Sanders had succeeded in making, put the city’s Health and Safety Department behind the effort, announcing a program of regular housing inspections, and distributing a “self-inspection checklist” to the group, instructing them to file it with him when complaining to their landlords.

But governing also meant disappointing some supporters. Environmentalists were dismayed when Sanders came out in favor of an $80 million wood-chip burning plant, swayed by a seven-hour presentation from the Burlington Electric Department. Weighing up the pros and cons, Sanders concluded it was “acceptable to me,” citing the city’s long-term energy needs and the millions already invested in it.

“I feel ripped off,” said one representative of a group campaigning against the plant. “He spent half an hour talking to our group and an entire day talking to Burlington Electric.”

The mayor’s decision would ultimately lead to long-term environmental issues for the city, and foreshadowed the tension that would develop between Sanders the elected official and the city’s activists. Nonetheless, looking back in September, Sanders viewed his efforts to include Burlingtonians who had been previously ignored by local government with pride.

“Some of these people had never set foot in City Hall,” he said. “Bringing them in has been the greatest accomplishment.”

Rooms and Meals

But Sanders would notch one last accomplishment before the next aldermanic elections were over, as he began the long fight to equalize the tax burden of the city’s residents.

Sanders had run and won on a left-wing anti-tax message, promising to change the city’s reliance on the property tax that fell hard on ordinary homeowners. The first step came in December, when after six months of study, the tax study committee he had appointed on his inauguration laid out a series of alternative ideas to raise money for the city. Among them was a rooms and meals tax, a 1–3 percent tax on hotel, bar, and restaurant receipts devised by Franco.

While homeowners needed a place to live, Sanders reasoned, “nobody forces people to go out to a restaurant, to a bar, and spend twenty or thirty bucks.” Even as little as a 1 percent tax, he said, would raise $325,000 while knocking 15 cents off the property tax rate. When he officially proposed the tax, he set it at 3 percent.

The idea met a mixed reception. Aldermen ranged from cautiously interested to opposed. The Free Press was in the latter camp, warning that “political leaders who propose tax increases will set themselves on a collision course with a public that has expressed strong opposition to such solutions,” and calling on aldermen to veto the measure should it ever make it to a vote.

Unsurprisingly, restaurant, bar, and hotel owners hated it. Complaining about the “anti-business mentality in City Hall” and “Sanders’ insensitivity to the importance of the commercial community,” more than fifty of them began organizing to oppose it, forming a downtown association of their own. Sanders, for his part, denied the idea made him anti-business, arguing it was like saying “one is anti-homeowner for imposing a property tax.”

The tax cleared its first two hurdles when city attorney Joseph McNeil announced the city’s charter did indeed give it the power to levy such a tax, and the Finance Board unanimously approved it shortly after, inching Burlington closer to being the first Vermont city to impose such a tax. But it ran into a wall when lawmakers in the state capital of Montpelier got wind of the idea.

Vermont’s state government already had its own rooms and meals tax of 5 percent, and it was eager to keep that power for itself. A bipartisan set of state lawmakers soon came out swinging against Sanders’s idea, including Republican Gov. Richard Snelling, State Senate Democratic leader Robert V. Daniels, and House Ways and Means Committee chair Peter Giuliani, all of whom insisted the right to levy such a tax was the state’s alone. Coupled with McNeil’s warnings that the statehouse could take Burlington’s newfound power away if it so decided, it was an ominous sign.

“The towns are creatures of the state,” said Giuliani. “They have only such powers that are granted to them. The legislature can wipe out a town if it so chooses.”

It was Giuliani who would wind up Sanders’s greatest nemesis on the issue, threatening to ask the state legislature to simply change the city’s charter. “They have the power,” Sanders admitted. “We will fight it.”

So the following week in late January 1982, Sanders and other city officials made the pilgrimage to Montpelier to make their case. “We are asking you to do nothing,” he told them. He laid out a practical case. To raise the nearly half a million dollars extra the city would need to provide the same level of services the next year, he said, they’d have to raise the property tax by 22 cents. “The odds of us getting that are not very good,” he said. Meanwhile, three Burlington restaurateurs testified how the tax would hobble their business.

While Sanders’s other tax ideas got a somewhat favorable reception — including wiping away the tax-exempt status of university and railroad property, and taxing residential property at a lower rate than commercial and industrial — the same could not be said for the rooms and meals tax. By pursuing a form of “home rule,” Sanders was challenging the very foundations of Vermont government. “It would disrupt the balance of power that exists between the state and local communities,” wrote the Free Press.

The battle dragged on for a month. Giuliani had warned he would pass a bill to head off Sanders’s plan, which his committee approved in late February, as he vowed not to let cities and towns “invade the state’s tax area.”

“I am doubly amused by the fact that the proponent of this action, Mr. Giuliani, is a good conservative Republican who has been yelling about getting government off our backs,” Sanders bitterly noted. “These conservatives have always been telling us they want big government out of our life. Now their response is not to debate us or try to dissuade us, but to strip us of a right we’ve had for 100 years.”

As part of his cause, Sanders had assembled a group of ten local mayors and city managers to help him oppose the bill and support his other tax measures. He also got the backing of the Vermont League, which pledged to fight the bill and make sure Vermont’s other municipalities could throw off their reliance on the property tax. And despite objecting to the rooms and meals tax, Burlington representatives predicted their colleagues in the city would oppose Giuliani’s measure on the basis of home rule.

The battle finally came to a head on February 25, as the House prepared to vote. Arriving in the capitol with a briefcase and ready to lobby, Sanders warned of the “very ugly, scary precedent” the measure would set, promising to keep fighting it even if it passed. He’d be “wasting his time,” a confident Giuliani said. “I think there’s a lot of support for the bill,” the House Speaker affirmed. With the idea of postponing the vote ruled out, Sanders watched the dueling speeches from the third-floor gallery. In his corner was Rep. Ted Riehle, the Burlington Republican who had reached out to Sanders all the way back in March, when he had offered him his assistance. “These people have a right to solve their problems in their own way,” he told the House.

To everyone’s surprise, the measure failed after less than five minutes of debate. In what the Vermont press termed “a stunning blow to the Republican leadership” and “a decision that stunned onlookers and legislators,” the House voted overwhelmingly to kill the bill in a voice vote. The measure had united both liberals and conservatives in opposition, while the Vermont League had unanimously adopted a resolution backing Sanders’s plan and lobbied hard against Giuliani’s countermeasure. Republican leadership, believing it was a shoo-in, hadn’t bothered mustering the same energy. “I was stunned,” said Desautels, who had called Sanders unrealistic for proposing something the statehouse almost certainly wouldn’t allow.

A “delighted” Sanders and McNeil walked out of the state house, grinning. It couldn’t have gone better if he had written it, he said. But the mayor knew this was just the first battle of a longer war.

“Believe me, there’s going to be another fight back home,” he said. “But it’s a fight that should be fought in Burlington.”

The Test Ahead

By conventional measures, Sanders’s mayoralty should’ve been over only two months in, when a hostile city council rejected all of his political appointments and made clear they intended to turn Burlington from a weak-mayor system to a nonexistent-mayor one. Sanders appeared to be headed for the same fate as boy-mayor Dennis Kucinich two years earlier in Cleveland, defeated after one term by a ruthless business and political establishment he had dared to defy.

Instead, Sanders and his allies had done the improbable. They had built power outside of Burlington’s political institutions; steered the city through a fiscal crisis; inspired and drawn on the city’s residents to make government work for people; and proven themselves committed and effective administrators, capable heirs to the Midwestern “sewer socialists” of earlier that century. In the process, Sanders had revealed a pragmatic steak as an executive in the pursuit of radical goals, coupled with a pugilistic defiance of political obstruction, taking the fight to not just the city establishment, but state government, too.

But the real test of Sanders’s success would come in March 1982, when nine seats on the thirteen-person board of aldermen would be up for grabs. Both sides furiously organized to prove their theory of change right: for Democrats, that a year of relentless obstruction could sink a movement of people power; for Sanders, that a bold program that centered the needs of working people could galvanize those who had given up on the political process.