- Interview by
- David Duhalde
Americans are stuck with a dysfunctional two-party system that works to constantly stymie the kind of substantive political change we desperately need. But that doesn’t mean third parties can’t be successful in some contexts. David Zuckerman, the lieutenant governor of Vermont and current gubernatorial nominee for both the Democratic and Progressive parties, tells Jacobin how the Progressive Party has figured out how to push left-wing politics in the state.
In an interview with David Duhalde, Zuckerman recounts his own political history, the relationship between the Progressive Party and the Democrats, and how democratic socialists and populist messaging can break through the noise. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about your history running for office that led to your current leadership as lieutenant governor of Vermont.
I was a student at the University of Vermont (UVM) back in the late ’80s, early ’90s. And I wasn’t very enthralled with the political system and the corporate money involved. I saw Bernie Sanders speak at UVM in his first congressional reelection in 1992. I thought, here’s an independent, takes no corporate money, says exactly what he believes.
Which, of course, now, across the country, people know that Bernie is on his values all the time. He’s not a finger-to-the-wind political figure. That inspired me back then as a college student, much as he has now inspired millions, particularly young people, who didn’t think they would ever get involved in politics.
I volunteered for that campaign and led a campus voter drive that registered more than a thousand people. Over the next few years, through his campaign, I met local people working for affordable housing and environmental issues and engaging in politics.
They were members of what’s called the Progressive Coalition at the time. In 1994, still as a senior at UVM, I was asked to run for the legislature in a district that was held by an independent and a Democrat. I ran my tail off, and I lost by fifty-nine votes out of one-and-a-half thousand votes.
I then was appointed to the Burlington Electric Department, the local public utility of Burlington, and served three years on that five-member commission in Burlington, which was an incredible experience moving Burlington toward renewable energy as one of the first renewable energy utilities in the country and away from Vermont Yankee, which was nuclear power.
I ran again in the fall of 1996 and won. I was sworn in in ’97 and served seven terms in the Vermont House as a member of the Progressive Coalition that turned into the Progressive Party, and I was the first chair of a committee in the Vermont House as a third-party member.
We worked on a number of issues, the first medical cannabis law in the country in 2003, labeling genetically modified foods — something very important to me as an organic farmer. In 2005, when Democrats took the House back, I was appointed chair of agriculture.
I served fourteen years in the House. A seat opened up for the Vermont Senate in the 2012 election. I ran for that seat. In that election, I ran in a Democratic primary, much as Bernie did nationally. The multiway race was just too difficult to get over the hurdles to a third-party candidacy — you end up debating whether you have a right to run and whether you’re a spoiler more than being able to talk about economic justice issues, social justice issues, environmental justice issues.
I ran in a Democratic primary, and a write-in campaign for the Progressive primary. And I won them both, and I ran as a Progressive/Democrat for the Senate, which I won. I served for two terms in the Vermont Senate.
In 2016, our then-governor did not run for reelection. Our lieutenant governor ran for governor. I chose to run for lieutenant governor in a very contested race, where the speaker of the House ended up running. In the end, a strong former legislator from Burlington was running. The reason I was able to win that race is that fundamentally as a legislator, I always felt my work was stronger by building support for the issues in the districts where I needed to swing a vote.
So, I would travel from Burlington to every corner of the state to meet in people’s living rooms, or coffee shops, library meeting rooms, church basements with three people, ten people, twenty people, on minimum wage, cannabis reform, marriage equality, GMO labeling — all of these different issues that weren’t mainstream.
That gave me the base of support to win not only the primary, but then the general election for lieutenant governor against a Republican who had won statewide as auditor prior to his run for lieutenant governor. He outspent me, ran negative ads, and I won by 6 percent.
Two years later, I was outspent three to one by the Republican. But I expanded it to an 18-point victory two years ago, to now be running for governor against the guy who was lieutenant governor who became governor, which is Republican Phil Scott.
You’re a farmer by trade, which in this country can have a real conservative side. What are some of the progressive agricultural policies that you’re promoting?
With an agricultural policy perspective, the farm I’ve started and grown has been focused very much on local markets, both direct sales to customers at the farmers’ market, and direct sales to customers through community-supported agriculture (CSA), where people prepay the farmer for a season’s worth of vegetables. Throughout the summer, they get those vegetables all summer and season long. The farmer gets money up front so they don’t have to take out loans with interest from the bank. And the consumer buys into some of the risk of farming. If there’s a crop loss of a certain crop or two, they don’t get that crop. But instead of a farmer losing everything, that loss is distributed, which is a form of insurance by community involvement.
I have pushed Vermont to look at regenerative agriculture as a way to both tackle the climate crisis and sequester carbon, as well as get farmers paid a better price for their product. In particular, our animal agriculture is hugely focused on dairy in Vermont. In fact, we’re the most single commodity-dependent state in the country, with 70 percent of our agricultural dollars still coming from dairy. No other state is over 50 percent. So I would like to see us de-commodify our milk industry.
We have to shift away from commodity pricing, where our dairy farmers have been struggling for five years of pathetic prices. We also introduced a policy this year with CARES Act money called Everyone Eats, in which the state gives restaurants money to put their employees to work to cook meals made with local food, supporting local farmers, supporting the restaurant employees by putting them to work, making meals for people who are hungry. So, the Everyone Eats program is producing 18,500 meals a week through our restaurants using some local products to feed hungry people. Each dollar the state spends is used two or three times.
I gave my swearing-in speech with a farming metaphor. I said, I got thirty heirloom dry bean seeds of a range of varieties, and I gave one to each senator. And I said, on their desk is an heirloom dry bean. Now, some of them were big, some are small, some were all one color, some were two colors, some were speckled, some were yellow, red, brown, white, you name it.
And I said, each one of those seeds has all the genetic potential to be a thriving plant. Every single one has everything it needs right in that little seed to germinate, grow, reproduce, be productive. However, the ability for any of those seeds to live to their fullest potential is greatly determined by the environment they grow in. The metaphor is that our children are exactly the same way. Every single kid, when they’re born, has the potential to thrive.
But we know that some have more enriching environments and more challenging environments. How far we succeed as individuals is in large part shaped not only by our own internal drive, but also, by the environmental conditions that we are put into, by dumb luck.
Our job in governance is to make sure we work to make the environment as wholesome for every single kid as possible. That’s what we’re talking about with public education. That’s what we’re talking about with human services support for families who are struggling, to make sure those kids get healthy food and opportunities.
I feel fortunate that in Vermont, we do some more long-term thinking than a lot of places. But because voting cycles are every couple of years in order to get reelected, you’ve got to make sure you solve today’s problem. In this campaign, we are talking about a number of issues; in particular, how we can create an economy that is climate focused and offers good-paying jobs. If we were to sequester half of the Trump tax cuts to the top 5 percent of Vermonters, we would have about $100 to $120 million a year, which, for Vermont, is a lot of money.
And if we were to put $20 million a year for three to five years into broadband into our rural areas, then the education chaos that is happening with remote learning would help resolve some of that environmental degradation for our kids that are trying to learn that don’t have broadband.
If we had broadband, we would have better-paying jobs in our rural areas through working from home and remote work. That’s just $20 million. Another $20 million a year could go into weatherizing people’s homes — particularly working-class Vermonters, and fixed-income seniors who don’t have the money up front to weatherize their homes. Their monthly bills would go down even if they were paying back some of the money, and we would immediately be putting people to work in $15- or $17-an-hour jobs weatherizing people’s homes, solarizing people’s homes, saving working people money while putting working-class, non-college graduates to work with a stable living.
We could be building efficient, affordable housing in our village centers with an additional $20 million. That would help revitalize our small towns.
That’s a piece of my campaign. We have to get through COVID, but we also have to rebuild the economy in a way that works for the environment. And we have an opportunity to do that here in Vermont.
Tell us about your membership and activism in the Progressive Party.
The Progressive Party really formed out of Bernie’s independent tenure as mayor of Burlington. There were a number of different independents who ran for the City Council after he had been elected mayor, and the establishment in Burlington really thwarted most of his initiatives. And so, the next election, he went out and helped get a number of new city councilors elected.
It created a lot of animosity with the Democratic Party, which dominated Burlington. And it was very challenging because there wasn’t much of a Republican Party in Burlington. The Democrats really ran the show, and to be challenged on populist working-class, and environmental, and social justice issues from the left was difficult for the Democrats. That created quite a bit of angst and discord in Burlington.
Across the state, Progressives started running in the later ’80s and ’90s. When I ran for the legislature in 1994, there were three members of the state House out of 150 that were members of the Progressive Party or independents associated with the Progressive Party. And they were from two very dense districts in the working-class part of Burlington. When I ran, I became the fourth.
In the early 2000s, we got up to five or six. And one of the key successes for the Progressives was in rural parts of the state that were dominated by Republican legislators, where sometimes Democrats either hadn’t run, or certainly hadn’t served for possibly decades.
Some people ran as Progressives, and they ran a populist Progressive message, and they won. And so, it got to the point where there were three Progressives from Burlington, and three Progressives from across Vermont. One was from Brattleboro, which is one of the most progressive towns in the country. But two were from very rural, relatively conservative districts.
It really shifted the mindset of many people to realize that a populist, working-class message could actually succeed. And then, what started happening was there was real concern in a number of races around three-way races where Progressive started running for statewide office.
There was concern about three-way vote splitting. When I ran for the Senate, I ran as a “fusion candidate.” I did it in part to say, “Look, instead of running third-party solely, I will do what Democrats have asked for Progressives to do, which is run in the Democratic primary.”
Now, they meant “become Democrats.” But that isn’t the word they said — they said “running in the Democratic primary.” And I said, “I’m happy to do that, I will carry the banner. If I win with a D, I will run with the D. I’m also intending to run on the Progressive ballot.”
I said, “I am not interested in being a ‘spoiler’ and having the worst person get elected. If I lose the Democratic primary, but I win the Progressive write-in, I will still not run,” because I wanted to also earn the genuine support of the Democrats who were saying, “You’re only using us to run. And if you lose, you’re still going to cause us trouble.”
I said, “I’m running to win. I am running to win with both labels, and I’ll either run with both labels, or I won’t run.” And I did win. And that’s how I’ve run for the last eight years, as a Progressive/Democrat in the general election, having won both primaries, as I just did again, now in my race for governor last month.
When you say “Progressive/Democrat,” what does that mean to the voters?
By running as a Progressive/Democrat, that defines which part of the Democratic Party I would affiliate with. As well as by putting the “Progressive” first, it points out that I do believe we need more choices. I believe we need a voting system that allows for more choices. We need a campaign finance system that would allow for more choices and more people to run.
I think by putting both words there, and in particular, putting them in the order that I do, it says, “I’m happy to be a Democrat as well. But I do think the system needs change.” Many voters are participating in the system, but many are not. Because they really feel like the system doesn’t represent them.
I’d like to see there be more options for people. I want to participate, but there’s no way for me to vote for someone who I really want to get behind.
Senator Sanders and Jane Sanders were by your side as the Vermont delegates were announced at the Democratic National Convention. Also, you and Bernie both identify as democratic socialists, but have won over the majorities of Vermont voters to win the statewide office.
Could you expand a little bit on your strategy? What are the similarities and differences between your and Bernie’s strategies?
Bernie mentored me in a lot of ways, in terms of just being straightforward, being clear about what you stand for. A friend of mine, Senator Chris Pearson, interned in Bernie’s office many, many moons ago, and he was taking Sanders around the state. And at a rural county fair, a rugged, older Vermonter with a big gray beard came up to him and said, “Bernie, I disagree with you on almost every position you have. And I vote for you every single time.”
Bernie asked, “Why?” He responded, “Because I know exactly where you stand.”
That shows that people want integrity. They want someone that isn’t going to tilt to the corporate dollars or the issue of the day. They have a core set of values that they’re going to stay true to no matter what winds are blowing in the moment.
I do think being a farmer connects with a lot of rural Vermonters, both more conservative ones as well as some that are liberal. I think it’s being a real human, and not a cut-and-paste politician that’s just going to say the right, milquetoast words that don’t really define what you believe in.
In my primary just now, I was very clear: the wealthy should be paying more for the fundamental economic and social justice infrastructure that we need to have in society. I’m not going to hide that. When you say what you believe in, and that you’re going to do that in order to pay for it, people at least know they can trust you to stand up for what you believe in.
One of the ways that Bernie and I both campaign in a way is like the doughnut. The outside of the doughnut is the rural area. The core hole in the middle is the urban area, and the donut itself is suburban, upper-middle-class people. You’ve got to make inroads with the doughnut. But you also got to go to where the holes are, and get those voters, and really engage them in the process, and up their engagement, and up your percentages in them.
We need to go talk to the folks who have been subsumed by Fox News and have a different perspective on how things are working and say, “It’s ever since [Ronald] Reagan that neoliberal politics have concentrated wealth in the hands of the few. Working-class people have been left behind.” And we can go to working-class people and poor people and say, “You’ve been screwed by the system. We want to bring that money back into the economy, and help you weatherize your home, and help you get higher education, and opportunity, and help lower your health care costs, and all these things that have gone up because of the ‘trickle-down economics’ that Reagan put a stamp on, and everybody else has bought into, unfortunately, including some of the Democratic Party.”
And that is how, if we bring a progressive economic message, we can reach those same voters who right now are voting for this president. We need to go out there and talk to them. You can’t just go up to someone and tell them suddenly to vote in a very different way than the way they’re currently thinking. It just doesn’t work. But if you go up and talk to them about what they care about, how their kids are doing in school, what’s their passion, you’ll have more success.
There’s a huge upswell of progressive down-ballot victories over the past few years that is impossible to separate from Bernie Sanders’s movement. Where do you see this movement headed in Vermont and nationally?
I’ve been so inspired by the upswell of activism in our country. The Black Lives Matter movement, youth engagement, the indigenous peoples’ engagement, the many disenfranchised people who have been beaten down for decades but have been even more so under this president. Engaging in the process is incredibly inspiring.
My fear is that if we, the broader non-Trumpian world, win based on just being not-Trump, and not with a mission to really produce results that are going to impact people on the ground, then we will miss the opportunity. Because this energy is here right now, but you have to feed it. You have to engage it.
You have to make sure it has a voice in the process, and that the policies we produce reflect the energy that’s out there around a social, economic, and environmental future for everybody. And I think the opportunity at the state level is that for me, if I become governor, and I have a strong majority in the House of the Senate, we can move a progressive agenda on the climate crisis, on systemic racism, on rural economic development that actually helps rural working-class people on tackling these incredible injustices. We have that opportunity in a way that almost no other state would, because with a Progressive/Democrat leader at the top, we can move that agenda, and really improve people’s lives.