Magazine article Monthly Review

Burlington, Vermont: Socialism on the Local Level?

Magazine article Monthly Review

Burlington, Vermont: Socialism on the Local Level?

Article excerpt


When the voters of Burlington, Vermont, went to the polls on March 5, 1985, they overwhelmingly re-elected Mayor Bernard Sanders, an avowed socialist, for a third term. Both the Democrats and Republicans tried to field candidates and campaigns that would undercut Sanders, but most of their efforts backfired. "Sanders is just too popular,' acknowledged one inside Democrat. That the Sanders administration has remained afloat and survived in spite of the macro restraints imposed on this small municipality has been, at times, like defying gravity. But recently, the very success of Sanders has raised questions about what the process of survival does to the nature of socialism. For example, does the process of survival within a capitalist system necessarily dilute the socialism? And further, what--besides repair potholes, plant trees, and publicly point out the endless contradictions of American foreign policy--can a socialist mayor do?

"Very little on the one hand,' Sanders will tell you as he freely admits the powerlessness he often feels. "After all,' he points out, "ninety-nine point nine percent of the power lies elsewhere . . . not with us.'

But a closer look at what the Sanders administration has done with that decimal point of power is impressive. Like salmon swimming upstream, they have navigated the turgid waters of free-enterprise Reaganomics and spawned a few progressive seeds. Ironically, they have done this by taking Reagan literally and discovering local solutions to social problems. And while their solutions are not exactly what Reagan had in mind, neither are they always socialist; nevertheless, the synthesis that is emerging is instructive, at the least, since it shows that just because you don't have your revolution, doesn't mean you can't dance.

In fact, dance was about all Sanders could do when he was first elected in March 1981 by a slim ten-vote margin. His administration met mountains of resistance from the conservative, Democratic clique that had ruled Burlington for three decades. The Old Guard tried to ignore this fluke from Flatbush (where he was raised in Brooklyn), as they called him, and proceeded to block practically every appointment (including Sanders' personal secretary) and proposal that Sanders presented to them. He had only two supporters on the Board of Aldermen during his first year in power and not many others on the outside; a number of those on the left, and in the highly elastic middle, were at best lukewarm. After all, they had to prove they were right when they thought Sanders should not have run for office in the first place. He's too individualistic, they said. Indeed, he is. But then, so is all of Vermont: the whole state defies easy categorizing when it comes to politics. And, in that sense, he fits right in.

But while the fit was still in question and the gang-bang tactics of the Old Guard at Monday evening board meetings delayed his official appointments, Sanders made the most of a difficult situation by formulating a budget that ended up outdoing Republicans for fiscal efficiency and accountability. Sanders' kitchen cabinet--which met, appropriately, over someone's formica kitchen table--came up with a series of reforms in tax collection and budgetary and accounting procedures that saved the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. A new cash-management system was instituted to put city funds in higher yielding accounts, for an estimated gain of $70,000. Charging higher fees for building permits and private fire and police alarms brought in another $150,000 a year. A new centralized telephone system saved about $100,000. City contracts were opened to competitive bidding, and city departmental purchases were combined. These efforts ushered in a new health insurance plan that saved around $35,000 a year and as much as $20,000 a year on other insurance policies, and cut gasoline costs between 5 and 10 percent. …

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