How Bernie Sanders, an Open Socialist, Won Burlington’s Mayoral Election
On this day in 1981, Bernie Sanders became Burlington’s first socialist mayor by a margin of just ten votes. Here’s a definitive history of how Bernie beat the political establishment with a working-class coalition behind him and how we can do the same today.
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 the 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, cofounding 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-long 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 thirty-seven thousand.
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 anti-communist 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 D. 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.
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 ten 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 ’80s, authoring 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, its city council. 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 eighty-five thousand 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.
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 anti-war 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 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 nonunionized, 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 anti-war activist who was between college and law school when he met Sanders at the Liberty Union convention in Burlington in 1974.
“Bernie was a 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, and 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 cofounder] 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.”
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 ten thousand 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 until 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.
The First Political Revolution
“I think I’d make a good candidate.”
It had been a little over a week since Bernie Sanders decided to run for mayor of Burlington. Now, with these seven words, he was trying to ward off a rival challenger.
The man he was trying to persuade was Greg Guma, whose own quiet plans to run had been unexpectedly outed by the Burlington Free Press a week before Sanders made his Halloween night decision to launch his own. The two had first crossed paths during Sanders’s 1972 Senate run, when Guma made the mistake of asking Sanders to tell him about himself. That meeting had concluded with Sanders brusquely telling Guma he didn’t want his vote.
Eight years later, upon learning of Guma’s plans to challenge five-term incumbent Gordon Paquette, Sanders phoned him and arranged a sit-down. The two met downtown in Burlington’s Fresh Ground Coffee House — long a place of interest in the FBI’s investigations into local “extremists.”
As Guma recalls, the meeting was less a conversation than a “test of wills.” Over the course of the meeting, Sanders made clear he would be going forward with his campaign no matter what. Guma could either step aside or split the progressive vote and likely sink them both.
For Guma, the choice was easy, if unpalatable. His highest priority was smashing the city’s staid political establishment, and he already had a job editing a weekly paper, one he was likely to lose if he ran for mayor. Sanders, by contrast, had no job and was a natural politician, a confident speaker able to connect with voters and adept at turning every question and topic to his stock talking points. And as Guma would later tell the Washington Post, “he’s six-two and I’m five-five, and that makes a difference.”
Guma officially bowed out on November 11, telling the Free Press he didn’t “really want to be in a position of dividing progressives looking for an alternative to Paquette.” But his frustration at letting Sanders head a movement he had played a leading role over the preceding years in building was clear. “I don’t think he represents what the majority of people want,” he told the paper.
Today, Guma says the episode encapsulates something about Sanders’s leadership style.
“He makes his own decisions, he only consults with a few advisors, he trusts his gut, and once he makes the decision, you’re not going to make him change it,” he says. “Ever.”
Sanders, for his part, made clear to the public he would be playing to win this time. “What I don’t want people to believe is that this is a similar effort” to his Liberty Union campaigns, he told the press. He saw his campaign as a mini version of the political revolution that would become a staple of his speeches.
“The goal must be to take political power away from the handful of millionaires who currently control it through Mayor Paquette, and place that power in the hands of the working people of the city,” he said.
And unlike his Liberty Union campaigns, Sanders would eschew talking about national issues and foreign policy, focusing instead on building a voter coalition through speaking to local needs and issues. Before he could do that, however, he would have to figure out exactly what those were.
A Left-Wing Tax Revolt
Sanders had always had his eye on the governor’s office, acknowledging privately that “national and state issues are more my thing.” Though he had gestured vaguely at a platform when he was still mulling running for mayor, telling the Free Press he wanted more housing for low- and middle-income Burlingtonians, he and many of his allies were unfamiliar with local politics.
“We were interested in the battle of rich versus poor, military imperialism, etcetera, etcetera,” says Terry Bouricius who by then had joined the Citizens Party. “Running for local office was a stepping-stone. We wanted to build a movement.”
Some of the ideas Sanders would champion came from that November sit-down, as Guma, who been involved in battles against Paquette over development issues, outlined what would have been his own platform.
“If I was running, I would run on this and this and this,” he recalls telling Sanders.
Others came from the informal kitchen cabinet of advisors Sanders quickly assembled, several of them old friends and allies. Advising on strategy and tactics were Sugarman and Franco, two of the men who had convinced Sanders to run in the first place. Dick Sartelle, the low-income advocate who had helped them persuade Sanders, would also feature. Others included friends like Bouricius, Michael Kupersmith, an attorney, and Stanley “Huck” Gutman, a UVM English professor who would later serve as Sanders’s chief of staff in the US Senate.
Managing the campaign would be Linda Niedweske. Niedweske had moved from New Jersey to Vermont for college in 1973. Though she had known of Sanders through her cousin, who had worked for him making film strips, Sugarman, her former professor, suggested that she join the campaign.
“I thought it would be interesting, and I thought it was a time for a change in Burlington,” she says. “It was kind of the crossroads for Burlington as to how it was going to go, and the Democratic Party at that time had it all locked up.”
A latecomer was David Clavelle, the former city manager of neighboring Winooski, and a part-time researcher for and “close personal friend” of Democratic senator Patrick Leahy, whom Sanders had run against in 1974. In early 1981, Clavelle received a call from Franco, a friend, asking him to get involved.
“I came in and assisted Linda and Bernie in developing a strategy for the last few weeks,” he says.
One key member was Jennie Stoler, a thirty-four-year-old economics professor at Saint Michael’s College in nearby Colchester. Stoler had befriended Sanders while working at UVM, in whose library he had been a “fixture,” she said. Though members of Sanders’s inner circle remember little about Stoler today, the Free Press painted her at the time as integral to the campaign, reporting that she had “provided the theories for Sanders’ economic and taxation campaign issues.” (Stoler could not be reached for this article).
Through this brain trust, the Sanders campaign came up with a slate of issues that gradually unfurled over the course of the election.
Sanders’s major bugbear was the “regressive and unfair” property tax, which governments statewide had come overwhelmingly to rely on. Sanders sought to shift the tax burden away from the property tax paid by the majority of Burlingtonians and onto businesses and the city’s well off.
Sanders pushed for a new real estate assessment, charging it was “incredible and grossly unfair” that one hadn’t been carried out in more than two decades, and he floated a change to the property tax that would put higher rates on business and industry. The local New England Telephone Company, he said, whose parent company had earned record profits the year before, should pay more in tax than “a widow who owns a small house and lives on Social Security.”
He called for downtown businesses to repay the $1.5 million Church Street Marketplace bond, passed in 1979 to fund the construction of a shopping district downtown. If they refused, he would propose an “immediate reappraisal of business inventory and equipment,” which were subject to tax by the city. He insisted that tax-exempt institutions like UVM and its Medical Center Hospital chip in an annual contribution of $250,000. In the long term, he suggested a city income tax of 5 percent and 8 percent of federal rates for those earning more than $25,000 and $50,000, respectively (around $73,000 and $146,000 in today’s dollars).
In this way, Sanders tailored a left-wing version of the anti-tax message that had just taken Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the culmination of a growing sentiment that had swept the country in the late 1970s. But while Reagan would use the so-called Taxpayers Revolt as a way to start dismantling the New Deal welfare state, Sanders would use it as part of a political form of class warfare, to more heavily tax the city’s wealthiest and pour the proceeds into a more active city government. And though members of his team today say there was nothing conscious about this inversion of the Reagan agenda, it’s clear he himself recognized the dynamic.
“In Vermont, we’ve reversed the struggle over property taxes,” he would later tell the New York Times. “In California it was a right-wing revolt against property taxes, but here it’s the left that supports a cut in property taxes, to help the poor.”
Taxes weren’t the only issue that defined Sanders’s platform, however. At their November meeting, Guma had outlined several specific issues he had been planning to run on, a number of which made their way into Sanders’s campaign. One was opposition to a Southern Connector bypass, due to cut through a low-income community that looked to become another victim of the incumbent administration’s pursuit of “urban renewal.” Another was a waterfront development proposal along Lake Champlain put forward by local real estate maven Antonio Pomerleau, which Sanders labelled an “enclave for the wealthy.”
“The waterfront belongs to all of our citizens and not just a few who can pay enormous prices for their housing,” he said.
Demanding that the city’s growth “benefit the average worker and homeowner,” Sanders opposed new downtown malls and hotels “which would be used almost exclusively by the wealthy and which often pay their workers minimum wage.”
Finally, Sanders took a strong stance on renters issues. He backed the idea of rent control, as Guma had planned to do, a measure aggressively fought for by the city’s neighborhood organizations who were then in the middle of a petition drive for a special election on the matter, and vehemently opposed by the city’s elite, even as 1975 City Report and a 1980 task force endorsed the idea. He also praised the mayor’s Housing Task Force’s decision to establish a fair housing commission to hear rental disputes — one that the mayor himself would soon drop his support for — and pledged to appoint citizens to it “who would vigorously represent the interests of tenants.”
Besides this, Sanders called for higher salaries for city workers, many of whom fumed at Paquette over years of austerity. And he criticized a $77 million redevelopment plan for the Medical Center Hospital, money he charged would be better spent on “preventative health care, housing, and the development of productive jobs.” As he would in his future campaigns, he tried to find a balance between pursuing his socialist politics and stitching together a potential coalition of support.
A Party of One
On the face of it, the emergence of the Citizens Party should have meant the arrival of a natural ally for Sanders, who would need not just the mayor’s office, but a cooperative council of aldermen to govern. Yet despite Bouricius’s presence in the campaign’s inner circle, Sanders would be waging this fight separate from the party.
Sanders and the Citizens Party had unspecified “tactical disagreements,” he told the press. He decided to organize his own “Independent Coalition” of aldermanic candidates, though he would only manage to recruit two, one of which was Sartelle. Though the Citizens Party would run three aldermanic candidates, it dutifully kept the mayoral lane clear for Sanders, to have the best chance to knock Paquette off. Yet party members were “miffed,” said one, at Sanders’s plan “to get a coalition of progressives and ignore our existence.”
“There was some concern raised as to him having unilaterally made that decision to run without any approval of others,” recalls Niedweske.
Sanders’s decision to forego the party started a pattern that has endured to today. For the rest of his political career, Sanders would stubbornly remain an independent, refusing to hitch himself to any party, even those with whom he was ostensibly allied. It was, says Bouricius, a product of Sanders’s deep mistrust of party activists, evident in his departure from Liberty Union three years earlier.
“He acknowledges the importance of building mass-base, independent political movement, and that it’s going to inevitably be a party,” he says. “But he’s always had the view that all of the political parties on the Left have been a bunch of self-selected, college-educated know-it-alls who feel like they have figured out the world and they have almost no real connection with the working class and labor unions.” Sanders, he says, didn’t want those self-selected types with the leisure time and income to attend and argue at party meetings to “tell him what positions he should take on issues,” nor be beholden to a steering committee that handcuffed him to any bad decisions it made.
“I think Bernie always felt he wanted to be an independent,” says Clavelle. “He felt there was more flexibility at that time, particularly in the local elections.”
“Although emotionally he wanted to have a party, no party will ever meet the criteria of being the party that he wants it to be,” says Bouricius.
So Sanders and the Citizens Party ran parallel, uncoordinated campaigns, each in the service of the same broad goal, but stubbornly apart. An early sign of the kind of conflicts that could have developed between the two came in the party’s first caucus in January. While approving resolutions supporting a nuclear weapons freeze and a delay in the Southern Connector highway, both positions Sanders agreed with, the party objected to a resolution on the need for better pay for police officers, charging that higher salaries wouldn’t improve neighborhood protection or the police department’s relationship with the community — and clashing with Sanders’s own call for higher pay for city workers.
Both campaigns were fighting an uphill battle. The Citizens Party had only just been formed in Vermont, and Sanders, despite his Liberty Union campaigns, was still an unknown with little name recognition and an under-resourced operation that couldn’t pay for advertising. Each embarked on campaigns of furious, sole-eroding door knocking in the stinging cold of Vermont winter.
“I started knocking on doors in January and found lots of support,” Sanders reflected nine years later. “I figured either people were being very polite or I’m losing it.”
“The strategy was basically to knock on every door several times,” says Niedweske. “We had written pieces that we handed out to people, and it was mainly just on the ground, speaking to people, fielding phone calls, and just being out there and being visible. We were just out there constantly making his presence known and making his positions known.”
This scrappy, boots-on-the-ground approach had all but vanished from the political culture of a Burlington firmly under Democratic control for years, where it had long been the case that whoever was chosen as the candidate by the party caucus was the de facto winner.
“We printed up leaflets and went door to door. I knocked on every door in my district twice, and then would go back,” says Bouricius, who would leave Sanders’s fliers along with his own in homes that he visited.
“The issues were there so it really became a question of turnout,” says Clavelle. “Everything from getting leaflets developed and distributed, to some voter registration, to some phone calls — traditional voter turnout efforts.” To this end, the campaign reached out to the community groups and organizations that had sprung up around issues like waterfront development or the Connector highway.
“We did a lot of voter registration,” says Bouricius, who recalls aggressively registering those whose doors he knocked on. “I wouldn’t even wait ‘til they got to the ‘Yes.’ I’d say, ‘So spell your first name.’ I would start filling in that part, and by asking them to spell their name, in the end I’d get their phone number, and then we would call them: ‘Tomorrow’s election day, you need a ride to the polls?’”
A Divided Establishment
Sanders and his allies may have taken the race seriously, but that didn’t carry over to local political observers. In January, two months before the election, Sanders wasn’t considered a serious contender, with the Free Press even calling for the GOP to run a candidate to ensure a true citywide debate happened. The Republicans decided, just as they had the previous three elections, not to run anyone, a sign of Paquette and the Democrats’ stranglehold on Burlington politics.
Nor was Sanders taken seriously by his opponent. Paquette regularly referred to him as “Saunders” and, like many firmly established incumbents, declined his challenge to a series of debates. He would be too busy campaigning and “selling issues” that were on the city ballot in March to do so, Paquette claimed. Sanders called it “arrogant and irresponsible.”
Yet several factors made Paquette extra vulnerable going into 1981. Having run for years on having “kept the taxes down,” Paquette would now be pushing a contentious sixty-five-cent increase to the property tax rate, a hike of 30 percent. He had made himself an easy target of Sanders’s left-wing anti-tax campaign.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party had alienated the local Italian-American community. In theory, the Burlington Democrats were an alliance between the city’s three prevailing Catholic immigrant groups: the French, Irish, and Italians. But bitter memories lingered of an urban renewal project pushed by the party in 1963 that had bulldozed a working-class Italian neighborhood to make way for a mall, razing three hundred buildings and displacing 157 households.
Then there was the fateful decision by fellow Democrat and restaurateur Richard Bove to launch his own challenge to Paquette. Bove, a member of a prominent political family, had earlier served as the city’s fire commissioner before being ousted in 1975 by a closed-door caucus of Democratic aldermen.
Upset by Paquette’s tax hike, feeling the mayor had “been there a long time,” and unhappy with the nonexistent benefits of his “urban renewal” projects, Bove first (unsuccessfully) challenged Paquette for the Democratic nomination before launching his own run. He thus created the three-way race that Burlington’s left had recognized as a precondition for defeating Paquette — one that by late February became a four-way race, when Joseph McGrath, a North End resident and distant relative of Paquette’s, threw his own hat in the ring.
As the campaign proceeded, Sanders hammered the vulnerable incumbent, particularly over taxes. He charged Paquette lacked the “vision and the guts” to fight for new city revenue. He called Paquette’s warnings that a failure to pass his proposed sixty-five-cent tax increase on homeowners would put city workers’ jobs at risk a “repugnant” strategy of “divide and conquer.”
“The only idea he can come up with for raising new revenue is to increase the tax on homeowners,” said Sanders.
He accused Paquette of failing to see a crisis in kids turning to crime, in the elderly who had no voice in City Hall, and in people on low and medium incomes who were falling behind on taxes. The city should “tax those who can pay and get off the backs of the people who can’t,” he said.
Sanders proposed measures that signaled a more vigorous conception of what City Hall could do. He pledged to lead a delegation of city officials and citizens to the state legislature to protest the governor’s proposed gas tax hike. Favoring a “more human and less costly approach” to fighting crime, Sanders suggested setting up programs like an athletic league and opening gyms in the afternoon to keep kids occupied.
Perhaps most important was Sanders’s announcement in mid-February that he would make reorganizing the city’s police department his top priority. The police had long had a contentious relationship with Paquette, chafing at his budget cuts. Sanders called the resignation of a quarter of the force in the previous year a “catastrophe” and promised to fire Police Commission chairman Pomerleau — the same Pomerleau whose waterfront development he’d made a target of his campaign.
“This Is a Problem”
Sanders’s first victory came when Paquette was finally forced to properly acknowledge his existence. Paquette stopped mispronouncing his name and, under pressure from Sanders and the other two mayoral candidates, agreed to three candidates’ forums, the closest thing there would be to debates.
After having physically avoided Sanders at an event the two had appeared at only weeks earlier, Paquette took the fight to his challenger. Paquette charged Sanders with talking like “Robin Hood” (“It didn’t work for Robin Hood,” he added), accused him of wanting to be “elected dictator,” and pitched himself as an insider with the clout to get things done, while Sanders and the rest would need to be “trained.” He also took exception to Sanders’s characterization of him as cozy with business and the wealthy. “I’m not a money man,” Paquette complained. (For good measure, Paquette also accused Bove of having been too “busy making spaghetti” to attend city meetings).
Sanders fired back. He thundered that people were being squeezed by rising costs and taxes, and said that “the thrust of who I am as a human being is totally different” from Paquette. Reagan’s election briefly made its way into the race, with Sanders declaring he was “extremely concerned” with the budget the president was soon to pass with the help of Congressional Democrats.
“In virtually every area that has received help since the time of FDR there will be cuts,” warned Sanders. “There are people out there buying cat food and they don’t have cats.” Paquette denied the budget would have much impact on the city.
One of the key turning points came in late February, when Sanders received the Burlington Police Patrolmen’s Association’s endorsement, not long after granting Paquette a hostile reception at a private meeting. Sanders was the only candidate “in a long time” to show interest in the police, said its president, Joseph Crepeau, and had “constructive ideas for cutting down juvenile crime.” At a time when police around the country had rallied around a hard-right ideologue in the form of Reagan, they were backing an avowed socialist in Burlington.
More endorsements trickled in shortly before the election, such as the UVM faculty. By March, even the Citizens Party threw their backing behind Sanders, saying they supported his positions “just about down the line.”
Meanwhile, the forums did not go well for Paquette. At a February 25 event sponsored by seven Burlington neighborhood groups and broadcast on the radio, Paquette opened by immediately insulting the hosts, saying, “some of these organizations I didn’t know existed until three weeks ago”; he quickly apologized after being chided by Sanders. (In fairness to Paquette, some really had only been active for a few months). Paquette charged that Sanders would turn Burlington into his hometown of Brooklyn, which he disparaged as rundown and unsafe; the audience hissed back and the line received an angry rebuke in the letters section of the Free Press. Several audience members lobbed criticisms at him.
Sanders, by contrast, was applauded at the forum for calling for more public participation in city affairs. “Listeners heard Paquette booed and Sanders cheered by more than one hundred people,” wrote the Free Press. He received praise in its letters section from one enamored reader. Former Vermont governor Philip Hoff, whose 1962 election had heralded the state’s leftward shift and who backed Paquette, commended Sanders for saying “significant things” and fulfilling a “valuable educational function” by raising the issues he had.
“We had learned, if you create the opportunity, we’ll bring the audience,” says Guma. “A debate can be a dog-and-pony show if there’s no debate. But if you’re prepared to really compete for the audience, then you can change the playing field.”
“It was filled with low-income renters, and the place was solidly pro-Bernie,” says Bouricius. “And Paquette, you could see a look of amazement, and, not quite terror, but ‘This is a problem.’”
Still, there was no way Sanders could win. The sixty-four-year-old Paquette hadn’t lost an election in twenty-three years. He’d never received less than 54 percent of the vote. He’d never even lost a single ward since his first race in 1958. “The consensus from a variety of sources,” reported the Free Press‘s Alan Abbey shortly before the election, “is Paquette will receive 56 percent, Sanders 24 percent.” And it didn’t help that the first Tuesday of March, voting day, would be bitterly cold.
“That day may have been below zero,” Clavelle recalls. “I remember standing outside holding signs at intersections encouraging people to vote, and it was really cold out.”
“By election day, I felt one of two things would happen,” Sanders said years later. “Either I was going to win by a landslide or I’m going to get killed. I actually did not expect a cliffhanger.”
The result on March 3 was not just stunning; for many in Burlington, it was unimaginable.
“Bernard Sanders sent Burlington’s political establishment reeling,” opened the March 4 cover story in the Free Press, next to a photo of a triumphant, grinning Sanders, arms raised above his head in victory.
The unofficial tally was 4,035 to Sanders vs. Paquette’s 4,023; Sanders had won by only twelve votes, adjusted later to twenty-two. He’d won half the city’s six wards, winning easily in Wards Two and Three, the city center and Old North End. In the heavily Democratic Ward One, he won by two votes. In the rest, he came remarkably close.
“Neighborhood activists, renters and the poor — for years the traditional Democratic constituency — bolted the party to vote for Sanders,” the Free Press‘s Scott Mackay later wrote.
These margins weren’t an accident. Wards Two and Three were filled with precisely the kind of forgotten Burlingtonians Sanders had spoken about, and his campaign had worked hard pounding the pavement in those districts. His campaign also appeared to have boosted voter turnout: Sanders and Paquette’s tallies alone outnumbered the 6,594 Burlingtonians who had voted two years earlier. The turnout in Ward Three, declining for years, had suddenly spiked. Sanders’s campaign had succeeded in bringing out nonvoters.
“A lot people had never voted in local elections,” says Clavelle.
Paquette’s support, meanwhile, had rested mostly on the city’s Republicans, with his biggest margins coming from the mostly Republican Wards Four and Six. Yet even in Ward Four, Paquette’s home ward, his margin fell short of previous elections. Sanders, it appeared, had won over a substantial number of GOP voters. And crucially, Bove and McGrath had sapped away 1,090 and 138 votes, respectively, from the mayor.
“I was the dark horse who put Bernie Sanders in office,” Bove said a decade later, with Sanders agreeing.
The next morning, a sleepless and conciliatory Sanders held a press conference. “I want to see a rebirth of the human spirit in the largest city in the most beautiful state,” he said, warning that he would make mistakes from inexperience. He warned, too, that “it will be impossible for me single-handedly to bring about change,” and pledged to involve “people who have not felt a part of government.” He proposed creating a mayor’s advisory council to give voice to the groups that had put him in office.
Yet the incoming mayor was starting from a precarious position. Voters had soundly rejected Paquette’s sixty-five-cent tax hike, dumping a fiscal crisis on Sanders’s desk a month before he’d even have a chance to occupy it. The following month, they would reject several rent review proposals Sanders had backed. This, together with the narrow victory margin, didn’t suggest across-the-board enthusiasm for the new mayor and his vision.
What’s more, Sanders’s Independent Coalition candidates, or what few of them he ultimately cobbled together, had been obliterated by their incumbent opponents. Only one prospective ally won a seat on the thirteen-person board of aldermen: Bouricius, who upset the Democrat in Ward Two to become the first ever Citizens Party candidate elected to office.
“I extend the olive branch,” Sanders said at his press conference. “I do not want to go to war with anybody. I do not want to fight every step of the way, and hope we will work in cooperation.” While affirming that city decisions would “not be made in the offices of banks and big businesses anymore,” he insisted he would work in “as cordial a relationship” as possible.
Whatever surprise Sanders may have felt about winning was nothing compared to the city establishment, which was left stupefied and dismayed. Herluf Olsen, president of the Medical Center Hospital whose expansion Sanders had campaigned against, said he nearly drove off the road upon hearing the news over the radio. Sanders had little chance of having a “significant, rapid effect” on life in Burlington, insisted Hilton Wick, president of the Chittenden Trust Co., the city’s largest commercial bank. “A lot of people downtown are alarmed,” said one downtown merchant.
The city’s Democrats were particularly devastated. Their victory celebration was described as more akin to a wake than a party. “I’m a little numb, I guess,” said Joyce Desautels, the Democratic alderman for Ward One, and lifelong friend of Paquette. “I’m still depressed,” she added two days later. A pall blanketed City Hall as workers tried to adjust to the new reality. A despondent Paquette answered calls from apologetic friends and issued terse answers to the press.
“I know what it means,” he said. “I’m probably the only guy who does.”
Yet even as Sanders extended his hand in cooperation, the response from defiant Democrats hinted at what was to come. Aldermen, who had generally granted Paquette their full support, now talked about asserting their independence and authority. They predicted Sanders would find it tough to keep his promises, such as giving the police a raise. “If this guy is for real, and he wins, I’ll run against him two years from now,” Democratic state senator Thomas Crowley had vowed.
“If they want a state of siege, they might pull it off,” Franco told the Free Press.
The campaign had, as Sanders put it, “pulled off something no one thought we could do.” He had shocked Burlington by challenging its political establishment and beating an unbeatable mayor. He was about to find out that was the easy part.
The Calm Before the Storm
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 thirteenth 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. “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 runoff 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 Bouricius.
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 a 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 Anthony 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 Desautels, the city council 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 council 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 council 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 long-shot 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 Saint 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.
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 two hundred fifty 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.”
The Plot Against Mayor Sanders
It took less than a day for the FBI to come asking about the new mayor.
On the morning of April 7, a federal agent strolled into the office of Vermont’s secretary of state, wanting information about Bernie Sanders’s past political affiliations. He was carrying out a request by an assistant US attorney in New York, then representing the government in a lawsuit launched by the Socialist Workers Party.
In context, the visit was less sinister than it appeared. Though Sanders had only ever served as an elector for the party, its national secretary had incorrectly identified him on the stand as its candidate. The defense, looking to test the secretary’s credibility as a witness, wanted to verify this. It was, as far as FBI visits went, all pretty benign. The US attorney in Vermont even called Sanders in advance to tell him he wasn’t under investigation.
“After one day in office, I am proud to announce that, like the mayors of San Francisco, California, Miami, Florida, and Montpelier, Vermont, I, too, am not under investigation by the FBI,” Sanders joked.
Sanders may have taken it in stride, but others didn’t take the air of menace suggested in his joke as lightly. The visit was “reprehensible” and went “too far,” read an April 16 editorial by the Free Press, demanding an apology and charging that it called to mind the McCarthy era. The federal judge overseeing the case chided the FBI for its heavy-handed approach, reminding them that “the mere flashing of a badge in connection with some public official … could get very badly misinterpreted.”
In the scope of Sanders’s mayoralty, the incident was a blip, just another colorful story to add to the twists and turns of his unlikely tenure. But for someone like Sanders, keenly aware of his government’s long history of repressing people with his convictions, it could never be just a joke. It was less than a year earlier that he had commented to the Free Press about how the US left had been harassed and disrupted through job discrimination, ostracism, and, of course, FBI surveillance.
In some ways, it set the tone for Sanders’s first hundred days as mayor of Burlington and beyond. In his first three months alone, Sanders would face resignations, a ticking fiscal time bomb, and a campaign of obstruction never seen in Burlington before or since. By the end of his term, he would be ticketed for parking in his own parking space and have his mail stolen by his own staff. Sanders and his allies were about to learn that beating the city’s establishment would take more than winning one election.
A Hard Month
Burlington’s major newspaper wasn’t optimistic about the new mayor’s tenure.
“To say that many Burlingtonians view the new administration with suspicion, apprehension, and dread is a classic example of understatement,” read a Free Press op-ed, one of two criticizing Sanders on the first day of his mayoralty on April 6. The other warned him not to be “an obstructionist” and allow the city projects that were already under construction or had been approved to go to fruition. They were swiftly disappointed when Sanders met with Vermont’s lawmakers at the statehouse in Montpelier and chewed them out for neglecting the poor and serving the interests of big business and lobbyists.
It quickly became clear where obstruction would come from. “Aldermen plan to dig in their heels and oppose Sanders’ nominations, saying city department heads are not policy-making positions and never have changed with administrations in the past,” the Free Press reported the day before he took office. Only “ten citizens decided we needed a change” in city politics, one alderman said on inauguration day, defiantly nominating an ally of former mayor Gordon Paquette to the council’s presidency.
Barely a week later, claiming the proper procedures hadn’t been followed, the council voted eight to three in favor of firing Linda Niedweske, Sanders’s campaign manager-turned-secretary, which Sanders called “an insult” (one Democrat voted with Sanders’s allies, deciding the issue was too small to “make it the stand” against the new mayor). City residents called both aldermen and Niedweske to, respectively, complain and express support. Aldermen made clear they would next go after Sanders’s appointment of ally and low-income advocate Richard Sartelle, who Sanders had unofficially hired and was paying out of his own mayoral salary.
“I will never forgive, and never forget, the first board of aldermen’s meeting, where my secretary was fired,” Sanders would say months later. “It kind of set the tone.” (He would eventually be allowed to rehire Niedweske.)
Several longtime city employees resigned in the days after inauguration. The press reported about the “new informality” in Sanders’s and his allies’ clothing at City Hall. After criticizing a businessman and former Medical Center Hospital trustee whose construction firm was now heading the hospital’s $64 million expansion, with Sanders charging his 1973 defeat of a union had hurt wages and therefore public health, the paper urged Sanders to “temper his remarks.”
“Whether correct or not, [they] served only to further the mistrust many in the business community have of the new mayor,” it stated.
Toward the end of April, Sanders suffered a defeat when voters rejected by four to one the fair housing commission plan he had supported. Put forward by tenants’ rights organization People Acting for Change Together (PACT), the group had stepped up its efforts after Sanders’s election, and he had endorsed, and campaigned door-to-door for, their plan, which would have allowed tenants to appeal rent increases.
This time, the establishment won: its opponents, many of them businessmen, had spent nearly $10,000 on a sophisticated campaign complete with bulk mailings, advertisements, copious manpower, and a professional consultant. Several Democratic aldermen celebrated with them at the after-party. So did Treasurer F. Lee Austin, once viewed as a potential ally by the incoming administration, and city clerk Frank Wagner, who Sanders had been urged to fire by a Republican state representative.
All the while, Sanders’s fledgling administration looked for a solution to the city’s budget crunch. After winning the election by railing against Paquette’s proposed sixty-five-cent property tax increase, on April 24 Sanders put forward his own tax hike proposal to be voted on in a special June election. After seven weeks of going through “every single line item” in department budgets, Jennie Stoler and the rest of Sanders’s advisers settled on the “politically palatable” figure of twenty-five cents.
The resulting budget would see no layoffs and salary raises for city workers, but would also mean no new programs, equipment, or hires, and relied on higher parking fines and city permit fees. Admitting it was “quite as regressive, in fact, as any other in the past,” Sanders urged its adoption to “allow our city to function at roughly the same level as we did last year.” He planned out a second, more austere budget in case the hike failed.
Yet even getting the proposal to a vote would prove an uphill battle. First, Republican aldermen tried halving the increase to thirteen cents, eliminating the Civil Defense Department in the process. Then, when city union chiefs, department heads, Sanders’s advisers, and members of the public all gathered for a discussion of the tax raise at an aldermanic meeting, the eight Democratic aldermen voted as a bloc to delay talks.
“I honestly don’t know what’s going on,” Sanders said, calling it “an absolute insult.”
“It was no big deal,” Maurice Mahoney, one alderman then positioning himself for a mayoral run, told the Free Press.
“I’m sorry if he feels bad about it,” said William Blanchard, another Democratic critic on the council. “It’s part of the procedure. It is legal to table.”
He didn’t understand, Blanchard said, why Sanders had “vented his anger.” Though admitting he hadn’t informed Sanders about the delay, Mahoney told the press it had been a “foregone conclusion,” blaming the mayor for holding news conferences instead of talking to aldermen. The Free Press asked Sanders if he would cooperate with the council.
“It is not a proper thing to cave in on everything and do their bidding,” he said. “I will go the half mile. They have got to also.”
Sometimes, Sanders made unforced errors. At the close of May, Sanders nominated longtime resident Henry Allard for the position of fourth constable. Allard was a onetime president of the city council, and had served as city constable for fifteen years, during which he sometimes abstained from collecting fines from poor residents. He also happened to have been dead for two months.
“It was silly, just dumb,” Sanders said later.
“He doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s coming apart at the seams,” said James Burns, a Democratic alderman.
As reporters scrambled to get in touch with the mayor, Niedweske, now reinstated, informed them he’d had a “hard week” and asked to be “left alone” for the weekend.
The War Over Appointments
Determined to make Sanders a one-term mayor, the city’s Democrats dropped any pretense they would work as a responsible governing force looking for middle ground.
“The existing city council, they saw Bernie’s win as a fluke,” says Terry Bouricius. “All they had to do was outwait him for two years, and this would be over with.”
Past and present Democratic aldermen and city officials like Austin and Wagner continued to meet each morning at the restaurant Nector’s, just as they had under Paquette — only now without the new mayor present. In early May, they gathered at Joyce Desautels’s house for a birthday party, insisting they weren’t talking politics, only for family members to tell inquiring reporters they were “at an aldermen’s meeting.” Sanders would later recall he had to “whisper in the mayor’s office so the city clerk next door to us couldn’t hear me.”
Hovering around all this was former mayor Paquette, who had never publicly conceded the election, even after returning from vacation. Paquette continued meeting with his old crew at Nector’s, got involved in the successful campaign against the fair housing commission, and even attended the aldermanic budget sessions, arguing against increasing fines, and huddling with the Democrats during recesses. While Democrats insisted the Nector’s meetings were strictly social, one longtime friend of both Paquette’s and Austin’s sang a different tune.
“The Democrats still looked to Gordie for guidance,” she told the Rutland Herald. “He is still the one, and naturally so, that they would continue to turn to.”
One of those Nector’s regulars, a math professor at nearby Saint Michael’s College and former city Democratic Committee chair, began secretly churning out an underground newspaper attacking the new mayor. The Flea Press, a takeoff of Burlington’s largest newspaper, was delivered each week to the city’s top media and political officials, including aldermen, the pages within red-baiting and viciously mocking in highly personal terms members of the administration of Mayor “Burns A. Sunder.” One Republican alderman passed out copies of the paper at a city council meeting.
This hostile city establishment united to block Sanders from enacting his agenda.
“Most of the city government was actually administered and run outside the mayor’s office,” says Bouricius. “Fundamentally, they were going to make sure that Bernie couldn’t do anything.”
As Sanders prepared to shake up city government by replacing incumbents in patronage positions with his own appointments — key to exercising power in Burlington’s “weak mayor” system — he grasped for compromise. Ignoring his supporters’ calls to go further, he put forward only six names from a possible nineteen, and took care to praise those he was replacing, calling them “hardworking and competent.”
“The people that I am replacing should not think they are incompetent or have not done a good job,” he said.
The aldermen smelled blood. The council’s Democrats and Republicans had already sent Sanders a signed letter urging him to reappoint all the city officials “if they are doing a good job,” an act condemned by the Free Press as “an effort to erode the mayor’s authority and deny him the prerogative of organizing government in a way that suits him.”
“Sanders should be allowed to make his appointments,” the paper insisted.
As he put forward the names, Sanders warned he would take court action if aldermen chose to block them. He appealed to their sense of “fair play,” while warning the city would “be plunged into its most serious constitutional crisis in history” in the case of rejection. The aldermen, for their part, rattled off a litany of complaints: it was unprecedented; it was cronyism; they didn’t have enough time to look over the appointees; it would politicize the appointment process.
On June 1, Sanders, his nominees, the aldermen, and cheering, partisan crowds totaling more than two hundred packed into a city council room for what the Free Press called a “dramatic, unprecedented confrontation.” Without hearing from any of them, and even incorrectly identifying one as an attorney, the board summarily voted down each appointee eleven to two. Aldermen threw Sanders’s words back at him, asking why, if the incumbents were doing a good job, he would fire them.
“It was a mistaken attempt at compromise,” concluded Bouricius at the time.
“I do not understand what these people are afraid of,” said Sanders after the meeting, as he and his allies filed into his office.
Some aldermen went further. Mahoney later called Sanders’s attempted replacement “a reign of terror for competent, dedicated city employees.” Another alderman complained of the “attitude of confrontation,” griping: “We are no longer asked ahead of time. We are told to agree or be sued.” Charging the appointments were “a method of expanding the base of the Socialist Party,” Desautels drew applause as she asserted she had been elected to carry out the city’s mandate “as a woman, a Christian, and a Democrat, so help me God.” One longtime University of Vermont political science professor called the remark antisemitic.
Days later, the Sanders administration received one last blow: after already announcing his retirement for the end of that month, the civil defense director, abruptly and without explanation, asked aldermen to extend the date to the start of October. They quickly approved it while Sanders was out of the city council chambers. It was his one last chance to make an appointment.
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 ten to three. 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 the 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 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 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 a 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 city council 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.”
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 twenty-five-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.
A Trial by Fire
“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.
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.
“Our slogan during Bernie’s first term was we were going to out-Republican Republicans, we were going to run the city more efficiently, and show that we could actually run the city,” recalls Franco. “Bernie’s instincts were quite correct, which is that a lot of the city wasn’t going to tolerate the socialist mayor and some of the other issues if we didn’t run the city well and run it better than our predecessors.”
“Generally if you ask Americans who do you think would run government more efficiently, they’d say Republicans,” says Clavelle. “We had to prove that people on the Left can run the government as well or better than the Right, particularly with Bernie, because he had no experience.”
As civil defense director, one of the lone two appointments Sanders was allowed to make, Clavelle would play a leading role in this. Rather than the inefficiency of Burlington’s decentralized government that made every department its own island, he put in place centralized purchasing for things like gasoline, saving the city thousands, and poaching an idea Republicans had first suggested months earlier. Meanwhile, at Sanders’s urging, the Retirement Board moved to find a new investment manager for the city’s underperforming pension fund, and he began pushing to decouple the city from the insurance consortium that had held an iron grip on the city’s insurance contracts for thirty-five years.
“It had been an old boys’ club,” recalls Terry Bouricius. “[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.”
As part of this push, Sanders took aim at Blue Cross. 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 Chaffee. 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, six to five. 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 Chaffee 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 Chaffee the resolution passed by the aldermen.
All to no avail. Two days later, Chaffee 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 and 10 PM on the third Tuesday of 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, the mayor’s only other appointee, 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. With no record of a routine housing inspection having been done since the mid-1970s, Goodkind upped them by 100 percent, and by April the following year the department was inspecting a hundred homes a month.
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.
The first step to weaning the city off reliance on the property tax 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 fifteen 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 twenty-two 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 streak 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.
Months into their term, most city mayors didn’t get tickets for parking in their own space. Most didn’t have their secretaries fired at their first city council meeting, for that matter, or have newspapers critique their wardrobe and appearance. But then, most mayors weren’t Bernie Sanders.
“I’m not in the clique,” he had mused on the half-year anniversary of his shock win earlier that year. And in Sanders’s view, whether you were in or out of that clique pretty much determined what you thought about his brief time as mayor of Burlington.
“If you’re a senior citizen and just got back from a free concert, you might think things aren’t too bad,” he said. “If you’re a bank president, you might think this is the worst thing to hit the city.”
“The worst thing to hit the city” was certainly how the bulk of Burlington’s political establishment saw it. The March 2, 1982 aldermanic elections would not only force voters to pick a side between the two, but put on trial two competing theories of change: 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. If they pulled it off, the Democrats hoped, they would keep their seats and spend the next year doing more of the same, until it was his name on the ballot again.
Only halfway through his first ever mayoral term, Sanders was looking down the barrel of either survival or the end of his political career.
The Fungus Spreads
As Sanders saw it, the political warfare that had consumed the city in his first year was better than the “apathy and disinterest” that had been the order of the day under Paquette, as he later told an audience. A case in point: while the former mayor and four aldermen had run unopposed in 1979, three years later, twenty-one candidates were now running for seven seats.
Dismissing him at first as an accident, some parts of the city establishment had built up a grudging respect for the mayor, or at least the significance of his win. Local Republicans cheered the political opportunity it had opened up for them, especially if he failed, but acknowledged he would be hard to beat if he didn’t.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, started to see it as a wake-up call. Their state committee chair admitted there was a “germ of truth” in Sanders’s claims the party took labor for granted; a former gubernatorial candidate warned colleagues that failing to lure radical activists back to the party would hurt it; and Howard Dean, then chair of the party in Chittenden County, noted Sanders had “created an interest in the city that wasn’t there before.” This new crowd were “traditionally Democrats” who could be brought into the fold, he thought.
None of these scenarios dovetailed with Sanders’s plans.
“What I’d like to see now is a popularly based party … that can take control of Vermont,” he told students, a party that, he hoped, would draw a membership base of farmers and workers by focusing on economic issues. “The only hope for the party is the rejection of the Democratic and Republican parties.”
For some in the city, that meant the Citizens Party. Sanders was “sympathetic with many of the goals” of the party, he said, and one of his only two allies on the city council, his old friend Terry Bouricius, had run on the Citizens Party line. But it was an uneasy alliance: Sanders’s supporters viewed the Citizens’ tag as a liability in some wards, while the party’s top ranks were still peeved by his unilateral decision to run the year before, as well as his attempt to run his own competing slate.
“Mr. Sanders is going to have to make a tactical decision, either to cooperate with this party in return for its cooperation or oppose it and make a party of his own choosing with whatever following he can muster,” the party’s vice chairman now warned.
But Sanders had largely already lost that battle, having failed to put together a full slate of his own people a year earlier, let alone get any of them into council seats. Even as he pointedly insisted, “I’m an independent,” with the Citizens Party successfully pressuring even independent candidates to run on their line, five of the seven Sanders wound up endorsing would be running under its banner.
“We were not in those Sunday night meetings that Bernie held in his house where Bernie discussed what was gonna happen next week,” says Greg Guma. “Maybe one or two city councilors were there, but the party itself was never really given status within the greater coalition.”
Drawn from the ranks of university staff and neighborhood activists, Sanders’s backers were a different sort from the clubby, well-connected career politicians of the city’s Democratic machine, some of whom were running for seats that were practically hand-me-downs. And while most Democrats waffled on Sanders’s proposed “rooms and meals tax” and pledged outright to continue the year-long political paralysis that had kept the city hostage, his endorsees were resolute: the mayor would get his appointees, and he would get his tax.
Removing just two of the eight Democrats on the thirteen-member council would open up new possibilities for the mayor, who had already found it easier dealing with its few Republicans. The Republicans, meanwhile, who saw Sanders’s win as the crack in the levee that might finally lead them to be swept to power in the city, eyed three seats.
But the stakes were highest for the city’s Democrats, with six of their aldermen up for reelection. “We won’t get caught with our pants down again,” vowed one party official.
It was more than mere pride on the ballot, though. The potential for the party’s fracture was clear that January, when old guard Democratic alderman James Burns narrowly fended off a challenge at the party caucuses by Joan Beauchemin, a disgruntled Democrat and Sanders backer on the opposite side from the incumbent on the Southern Connector project. Clearly, it wasn’t just radical activists who were unhappy with how things were going in the city.
Joyce Desautels, one of Sanders’s most ferocious aldermanic nemeses, summed up the Democratic mood in what would become infamous words:
We’re going to get Burlington back to basic Burlingtonians and send a message to the socialists of this city that they are not going to hibernate here anymore and they’re not going to grow here like a fungus.
The Battle for Democracy
The fight to keep tenuous control of the city was always going to be an uphill battle for Sanders and his allies. But the effort faced a potentially fatal threat just four months before voting, when the Burlington Voter Registration Board, made up of four Democrats and a Republican, began notifying dozens of students who had applied to vote while living in UVM dorms that they would have to prove they lived in Burlington. Such a thing hadn’t happened since 1971, the height of student protests and local paranoia over their voting power, after which policy was to let new voters automatically go on the city checklist.
The student vote had played a minor role in Sanders’s win, bemused commentators insisted. They pointed to the smaller rise in turnout among the city’s student wards in 1981, one of which he’d lost.
But the math was still daunting. Sanders had won by only ten votes that year, and in a recent Citizens Party voter registration drive that signed up five hundred new voters — half of their goal by February — a hundred had been university dorm residents. Now the board was not only challenging the registrations of roughly one hundred students, but had at first set the hearing where they would argue their case the day before Thanksgiving, when many would be out of town.
Keeping a close eye on the board’s proceedings, the chair of the city Citizens Party committee had suspected “hanky-panky,” and shared his inkling that “the old guard Democrats just got together and planned it.” The Democratic board member who had written the new rules denied the motive was political. Then he later admitted they were there to ensure “if you’re going to get outvoted, you’re going to get outvoted by your own people.”
At least some Democratic aldermen agreed. Burns confessed that those living in dorms “are not residents as far as I’m concerned,” and that students shouldn’t be voting in local elections. In January, the board kept thirty-four of fifty new registrants off the city checklist whose names didn’t appear in the city directory or phone book.
Sanders was livid. Calling it “pathetic,” “antidemocratic,” and “discrimination” he charged the board with “political partisanship.” Past candidates for Senate and attorney general had registered thousands of voters to little controversy, he said, but “suddenly there is this great concern” less than a year into his mayoralty. “It’s not right to change the rules in the middle of the game,” he complained.
The fightback began. In December, three UVM students left off the voter rolls filed a class action suit against the city. The assistant city attorney released an opinion affirming students’ right to vote. Sanders personally authored an aldermanic resolution criticizing the board’s actions, but was narrowly voted down.
None of it worked. A few days later, the board voted to continue on, and held up eighty-nine more registrations, prompting a threat from the mayor to veto payment of any of its future legal bills. He urged aldermen to direct the city attorney not to represent the board in court. Before the matter’s conclusion, Sanders and his aldermanic allies would float everything from removing its members or pressuring them to resign, to testifying against the board in court.
The battle with the recalcitrant board dragged on into the back half of February, by which point nearly a hundred students had rallied at City Hall in protest, Burlington’s largest newspaper had condemned the board’s moves as “indefensible,” and the city had seen a turbulent three-hour closed-door hearing in which Sanders was repeatedly gaveled down before walking out. In the end, the courts settled the matter, with a district judge issuing a preliminary injunction ordering the board to return to its prior policy. Before long, its members voted unanimously to do so.
“We are very pleased,” Sanders said. “The right to vote is the most important right Americans have.”
Into the Wind
“I will never, as long as I live, forget the welcome I got from the aldermen.”
That was the thought driving Sanders as he set out on the long, grinding work of campaigning for his political future. Vermont’s winters are notoriously brutal, and he and his supporters were now spending the last of it trudging into the biting wind through five-foot-high snowdrifts, knocking on houses and walking into apartment buildings to get every last possible voter on side. One Citizens Party candidate would end up knocking on twelve hundred doors alone.
It was that kind of hustle that had gotten Sanders into City Hall in the first place, and he and his supporters now hoped for a repeat. As they saw it, while his margin of victory had been slim the year before, the four-candidate race had seen 57 percent of voters vote against the Democratic incumbent. And they were well-organized to take advantage of this disgruntlement: having stayed together since the election, the campaign organization deployed more than a hundred volunteers to again launch a hurricane of phone calls and leaflet drops, and turn out the vote on election day.
Despite controlling city government, Democrats were on the back foot in many ways. Having made no changes since Paquette’s shock loss, the party still assumed its institutional power in the city was enough to overcome Sanders’s grassroots operation, and relied instead on an older system of block captains contacting local voters. One of their top vote-getters in a competitive ward had decided not to run again. And as for the rest? They were longtime incumbents better used to being handed their seats than competing for them, with several running unopposed for years. Desautels, for one, had faced no challenger her last two elections.
Meanwhile, in an election that both observers and Sanders himself saw as a referendum on the mayor, his ideas, and the aldermen’s suffocation of his agenda, Democrats became increasingly isolated. Incumbents like Desautels and Burns vowed they’d keep refusing to so much as consider the credentials of Sanders’s appointees, putting them at odds with every other candidate, from independents to Republicans, one of whom called it “a mistake.” At a debate in late February, Citizens Party challengers hammered them over their behavior the past year.
Ideologically, too, the party was out of touch, as Burns’s near-loss at the party caucuses had dramatized. “Bernie Sanders out-Democrats the Democrats,” complained Brian Brennan, the city Democrats’ chairman. “He takes a Democratic position that is more extreme. When you try to draw back to a more moderate level, it looks like you are fighting him.” Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, a number of Democratic and independent candidates joined Sanders and the Citizens Party in backing the mayor’s idea of a “rooms and meals tax.”
The Dust Settles
Come election day, one Democratic party official’s prediction of “one of the heaviest turnouts you’ve ever seen” proved correct: a record 10,606 residents cast their ballots, one thousand up from the previous year. But it wasn’t in the party’s favor.
As the returns came in, Democrats found themselves decimated in the city they had controlled for more than thirty years. Five of the party’s six incumbents up for reelection soundly lost, with the sixth, Burns, forced into a runoff by Beauchemin. It was perhaps no coincidence that three of the losers had been some of Sanders’s bitterest foes on the council, including the three-term-serving Desautels, who had vowed to make Sanders “a one-term mayor” and planned to challenge him in 1983 herself.
“We never recovered from the appointments issue,” one of them said, observing that voters had viewed the Democrats as “antagonists” to the mayor.
Democrats glumly sat in a lounge on Main Street licking their wounds and picking over the result in what the Burlington Free Press described as “funeral-like atmosphere.” The disaster reverberated well beyond Burlington. The party had never won statewide without a strong showing in the city, and its gubernatorial candidate that year, Madeline Kunin, had endorsed every Democrat that had lost or been forced into a runoff, even campaigned personally for two of them. The party needed to win back disaffected Democrats, some concluded in an echo of their preelection warnings, and appeal to the new, more progressive coalition that had become a force in the city.
“We had better take a good look at ourselves,” commented a sober former governor Philip Hoff.
It was a better night for Republicans, who had lopped off one Democratic incumbent and won the open race for a seat abandoned by another. But the sweetest victory was for Sanders and his supporters, more than a hundred of whom partied at a late-night restaurant before piling into City Hall. After what the mayor had called “a very hard year and a very bitter year,” his allies had won two seats off Democratic incumbents in low-income wards, picked up a vacant third one in a ward neighboring the university (“the actions of the Voter Registration Board may have won that ward for us,” said Sanders), and forced two more into runoffs.
“I think we’re rid of the feeling that my victory was a fluke,” Sanders told reporters. “Well, if that was a fluke, then we have a fluke, a fluke, a fluke, and a fluke.”
“People voted for serious change and we intend to give them that,” he vowed. He had been “campaigning for the last fourteen months,” he complained. But he and his allies had shown voters that city government could work, “can be of the people and for the people,” and fight for “housing, jobs, justice” instead of attending to mere administrative issues. That, he argued, is why they’d won.
Voters themselves weren’t shy about offering their own reasons. As dozens of them explained to the press, they were tired of the “clique” that ran City Hall, tired of the decline in city services, tired of government that seemed to do more for the wealthy and business class than for them. And while not all were yet sold on Sanders, they were tired of watching the aldermen sulkingly block him from doing his work, especially the young, professional out-of-towners whose liberal politics sat a lot closer to the mayor and the Citizens Party than the city’s other political factions.
“The elderly just loved him,” said one winning Citizens candidate about Sanders, who in the final weeks before voting had cobbled together volunteers for “Project Snowshovel,” to clear pathways for the aged and disabled. “People feel he deserves a chance.”
Even so, three seats would be the ceiling for Sanders and his allies that year. Campaigning on ensuring the council wasn’t too “weighted” in his favor, the incumbents romped to victory over the mayor’s choices in the runoffs. A disappointed Sanders nevertheless shared his optimism that, after speaking with the Republicans, the coming year would see a “much more dignified, intelligent, civilized relationship than existed last year,” and a “lot of positive changes.”
“I think this will mean the mayor will get a fair shot,” said the incumbent Republican. “I don’t think he’ll get everything he wants, but nobody else has either.”
“There’s no question but that the voters have sent the message,” said Burns, striking a new tone after surviving the runoff. “The new administration will be given a chance.”
The new city council would have five Sanders allies, five Republicans, and three Democrats, giving no faction a majority, but preserving Sanders’s veto power — and, crucially, reducing the Democrats to a rump. The party’s change in fortunes rippled well beyond City Hall, with Vermont’s Democrats beginning a process of intense soul-searching, spurring its own mini–civil war.
Some took the spanking to heart, like Kunin, who began cozying up to the Citizens Party and calling for the party to focus on good government, idealistic policies, and being more conciliatory with the mayor. Others stayed defiant.
“Let Mayor Sanders and his program go forward,” said Desautels. “Then we will see if the city wants to go back to conservatism.”
The Year That Changed Everything
That was what Burlington’s civil defense director David Clavelle named as the mayor’s chief accomplishment after a year in power.
“And I’m not kidding,” he went on. “Bernard Sanders, now, after a year in office, is still politically a credible official. That’s an accomplishment.”
It wasn’t just that Sanders was a socialist in Reagan’s America. He was a first-time elected official with no knowledge of city government, no relationship with the people who ran it, and with an entire city establishment bent on destroying him.
But the 1982 election did more than keep him clinging to power for another year. Freed of the straitjacket of Democratic obstructionism, Sanders could start to pursue the agenda he had been elected on, however gradual and scaled back the process of political compromise would force it to be.
While in the next year his rooms and meals tax would fail by only forty-seven votes, he kept on with modernizing, money-saving efficiencies in running the government, continued programs for the elderly and youth, set up emergency shelters for the destitute, and, crucially, kept the hated property tax unchanged for another year. In 1983, despite a vicious red-baiting campaign, Sanders was reelected in a landslide on the back of another record-breaking turnout. Two years later, he won again. Then he won a fourth time.
Sanders would leave City Hall in 1989 as Burlington’s then–longest serving and most beloved mayor. By that point, he and the movement behind him had transformed the city from a decaying former industrial center to a vibrant hub regularly ranked among the country’s “most livable.” That tenure became a springboard for higher ambitions, as Sanders broke through into the US Congress in 1990, moved up to the Senate in 2006, and used his national profile to launch two bids for the US presidency, the second halted only by a last-minute, all-out mobilization by the Democratic Party to stop him.
Perhaps more importantly, at the local level, he had ushered in the “political revolution” he later turned into a national rallying cry. The fall of the city’s Democrats, it turned out, wasn’t temporary; the party suffered a permanent decline.
In its stead, the Progressive Coalition that organized itself behind Sanders wound up the city’s dominant political force. Its standard-bearer, one of Sanders’s own appointees, became his immediate successor, and progressives held the mayor’s office for most of the next three decades, forming a majority coalition in the mid-’90s, a feat achieved again just last year. In 2000, it officially became the Vermont Progressive Party, which over the years has elected twenty state representatives, four state senators, a lieutenant governor, becoming, as Bouricius wrote in 2015, “the most successful third party effort in any state over the past several decades.”
“We were really presented a gift by history here,” says John Franco today. “People in the Left in the United States were actually given an opportunity to govern. Actually run a government. Actually run a government. With a socialist. Who’s the head of government. In the United States of America. Think about that.”
Some of Sanders’s allies, perhaps even Sanders himself, had hoped his presence in the White House could have seen this history repeat on a much grander scale, a possibility the now-senator seems to have firmly shut after his defeat in the 2020 primary.
Yet there are important lessons in Sanders’s first year as mayor, for both socialists and progressives: lessons for navigating the electoral waters in a hostile political landscape; for the need to connect election campaigns and governing to social movements; for finding ways to build political power and measurably improve people’s lives outside the dusty institutions made to stifle change and ordinary people’s voices; and for understanding that obstruction, inexperience, and long odds don’t guarantee failure, if you’re willing to fight.
Bernie Sanders rode a wave of demographic change and organizing to the barest of wins, then faced a year of warfare in an office that was designed to let him do as little as possible, and that he knew little about. He came out of it a well-loved political figure who transformed a city for the better, and gradually ended up the most powerful socialist in US history. His journey began as just one middle-aged single parent struggling to pay his rent and electricity. Perhaps it ends with many more like him following the trail he left behind.