Reflections from Vermont

Article excerpt

The following is an edited version of remarks made by Bernard Sanders at a meeting sponsored by the National Committee for Independent Political Action (NCIPA) at New York City on June 22, 1989.--Ed.

I'm here to give you some good news. I know that many of you are in desperate need of good political news, so let me start off by giving you some reasons as to why you might want to be somewhat more optimistic politically than you might otherwise be.

I'm from Vermont, and in Vermont the political world seems a little bit different than most other places in the country. I'm here tonight not to provide you with grandiose theory but to tell you about our experience so you can learn something that's practical, what we have done, and maybe we can talk about how we can do it around the rest of the country.

Let me begin by giving you the end of the story, and then we'll get back to the beginning. The end of the story is that today, in Vermont, a state whose residents are primarily low-and moderate-income people, overwhelmingly white, largely working-class--including farmers being driven off their land--the largest city in the state, Burlington, has had an independent, progressive government for the last nine years. I was elected mayor on four occasions and served from 1981 to 1988. My successor, Peter Clavelle, who had been a member of my administration for seven year, won a smashing victory in March against a candidate who had the combined support of the Democratic and Republican parties. He received 54 percent of the vote, she received 43 percent, and a Green candidate received 3 percent.

Further, the Progressive Coalition has had strong representation on our Board of Alderpersons for the last seven years. Right now there are six progressives, four Republicans, and three Democrats on the Board. Unfortunately, while we have had a plurality on the Board, and mayoral veto power for the last seven years, we have never yet had a majority.

In some parts of the country there still exists a debate, I suppose, as to whether or not there are real ideological differences between the Democratic and Republican parties. In Burlington, very few people engage in that debate any more because the political reality of the city, demonstrated on an almost daily basis, shows that there is no serious difference between those two parties. When, in two straight mayoral elections the Democratic and Republican parties combine around one candidate; when, on almost every important issue facing the city, the Democratic and Republican members of the Board combine to defeat or water down progressive initiatives; when, with one exception in nine years, every Democrat and Republican on the Board combines to elect their own Aldermanic President; when, every year, the two parties combine their aldermanic strength against the progressive plurality to select city commissioners; when all this occurs, one begins to get the feeling that there is not much of a difference between these two parties.

In fact, increasingly in Burlington, the political factions are differentiated by two labels--the Progressive Coalition and the Conservative Coalition (Democrats and Republicans). In any case, the good news from Vermont is that a progressive political movement has had power in Burlington for nine years, taking on and substantially defeating the local Democratic and Republican parties.

Further, in Vermont, independent politics has gone beyond the city of Burlington. In November 1988 I ran for the United States House of Representatives which, in Vermont, is a statewide position as we have only one Congressperson. The Republican candidate, a moderate, won with 41 percent of the vote; I came in second with 38 percent and a liberal Democrat who was the Democratic Leader in the State House of Representatives came in third with 19 percent.

In that election I carried almost every working-class area of the state, sometimes getting more votes than the other two candidates combined. …

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