As Vermont official, Sanders ‘got things done’
BURLINGTON, Vt. — Frederick J. Bailey is a conservative man. Fresh out of college, he volunteered for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and became an avid reader of the National Review. When he went to work as a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, his goal was “to prosper.”
And so when the baby-faced Bailey became a member of the Burlington Board of Aldermen at age 28, he was stunned to find himself sitting across from socialist Mayor Bernie Sanders. Like many conservatives in town, Bailey had dismissed Sanders as a “kook” when he became mayor in 1981 and presumed he would not last long.
But here it was four years later and Bernie, as everyone called him, was still there, sitting under his beloved portrait of Socialist Eugene Debs in City Hall.
Bailey, a banker’s son, disagreed with some of what the wild-haired mayor said, but on the bigger issues, like keeping property taxes down, they saw eye to eye. To the fury of his Republican colleagues, Bailey began to vote with the mayor.
“Other people just could not look beyond that socialist shtick of his. I just never took it seriously,” said Bailey, who later became the chairman of the board. “The truth is, he was a very decent mayor. It is a nitty-gritty job of day-by-day executive decisions and he did it well. He got things done.”
As Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency unfurls, there is a surprising truth to be found in his eight-year tenure as mayor of Vermont’s largest city, or the “People’s Republic of Burlington” as it was often called.
Sanders, the unyielding ideologue, who once read Fidel Castro’s biography during a crucial meeting in City Hall, turned out to be a pragmatic and efficient administrator, one so fiscally conservative that some Republicans say he managed to “out-Republican the Republicans.” He just did it his way.
Determined to find alternatives to the property tax, which he considered regressive, he had municipal attorneys pore over the city charter in search of novel revenue sources. When he found the city’s insurance contracts had been repeatedly awarded to the same local companies, he applied a “radical socialist concept, competitive bidding,” as he later jokingly described it, and saved the city thousands of dollars.
Conservatives grumbled when Sanders put his sneaker-clad feet up on the table, but when his new treasurer discovered a $1.9 million surplus hidden in the budget, they grew quiet.
Walk around Burlington today and it is hard to miss Sanders’ legacy. The city’s waterfront, slated for condominiums and commercial development when he took office, now boasts a community boathouse, a science center, and a public beach.
The city’s lone downtown food store is a cooperative market that heeds 26 “Supermarket Principles,” one of them a commitment to serve low-income customers. Not far from it is the Champlain Housing Trust, a nonprofit that manages about 2,600 units of affordable housing, and is the largest such trust in the country.
Sanders had his share of critics, to be sure. Those to the right said he was too antagonistic and ridiculed his development of a municipal “foreign policy,” while those on the left said he was too compromising, a traitor to the socialist cause. But few disputed that his policies resulted in an efficient and responsive city government, one that, among other successes, kept the streets cleared of snow.
Was mayor for four terms
After he won his fourth term in 1987, US News and World Report voted him one of the top 20 mayors in the United States.
“He did it one ordinance at a time,” said Peter Dreier, professor of urban policy at Occidental College who has tracked Sanders’ tenure, along with other progressive mayors.
A lot has changed since then. Sanders, 74, who famously eschewed office attire while mayor, now routinely wears a blue blazer and, on special occasions, a tie. His hair, once likened to a “cuckoo’s nest after a rainstorm’’ is combed, more or less. Many of the brain trust of young men and women whom he drew to City Hall, known as “Sanderistas,” are retired.
But one thing that has hardly changed at all is what Sanders is talking about. When Sanders campaigned in Burlington’s neighborhoods 35 years ago he was talking about “the needs of the average worker” and railing against the richest 1 percent, “who make the basic decisions affecting all of our lives.” Sound familiar?
“That is what I am trying to do now, take on the political establishment, which is what I did in Burlington,” Sanders said in a recent interview with the Globe. “The numbers are just a little larger now.”
The front page of the The Burlington Free Press on March 4, 1981, said it all.
“Sanders Stuns Paquette in Close Mayoral Race,” trumpeted the headline. Underneath it was a photograph of 39-year-old Sanders, his arms stretched triumphantly in the air, his face grinning broadly.
Sanders, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., and a perennially unsuccessful third-party candidate, had done the impossible and defeated the five-term incumbent Democrat by 10 votes. Word rocketed through the lakeside city.
“We felt complete surprise and despair,” recalled Richard “Chip” Wadhams Jr., a Republican alderman and a Burlington native. “It was someone new, someone from outside, taking control of our city. He had that accent, you know. He was not one of us.”
That he was not of the crowd that had long run the city was precisely why he won. After a decade in office, the incumbent mayor Gordon Paquette had, many felt, grown complacent and was out of touch with an increasingly young and activist electorate.
Sanders ran an aggressive door-to-door campaign, appealing to low-income people and young renters, many of whom felt city government was unresponsive. He also vigorously opposed a proposed tax increase and campaigned against a waterfront development proposal calling for 18-story condominium buildings with the slogan, “Burlington is not for sale!”
The day after Sanders won, Antonio Pomerleau, a prominent Republican businessman who had proposed the waterfront plan, strode into Sanders’ office and declared, “You may be the mayor, but it’s still my town,” Pomerleau, 98, recalled.
Pomerleau was just the kind of man Sanders instinctively opposed, for reasons rooted in his own childhood. The son of a paint salesman, Sanders grew up in a home where the shortage of money was a perennial tension. He once said in an interview that, “the centralism of money to our whole existence left a very deep impression on me . . . that I think I have never forgotten.”
In 1968, Sanders moved to Vermont full time from New York where he had been working with low-income youth.
Shortly afterward, he ran unsuccessfully for office several times as a candidate of the Liberty Union party, a leftist group rooted in the antiwar movement, and his rumpled appearance and thundering indictments against corporate America became widely familiar. The day after he finally triumphed in 1981, he seized the microphone and called for “a rebirth of the human spirit.”
Aldermen fight back
And then the war began. The 13-member Board of Aldermen dug in its heels, determined that the socialist mayor in their midst be stopped. When Sanders showed up with his new secretary, the board fired her, saying he had not followed proper hiring procedure. When he tried to make appointments to key government posts, the board rejected them outright.
“It was like Omaha Beach,” recalled Burlington attorney John Franco Jr., assistant city attorney under Sanders. “They kept driving us back into the sea again and again.”
Enraged but undaunted, Sanders’ exiled team began meeting in one another’s apartments, poring over the city budget on their kitchen tables in search of revenue sources that would enable them to hold the line on property taxes while pursuing the new mayor’s goals.
Sanders, meanwhile, planned task forces on issues related to women, youth, and the arts, and launched a hugely popular public concert series in the city’s Battery Park, which continues to this day. When local retail workers began to unionize, Sanders threw them his support.
His message to those working for him was the same: “He’d say, ‘I want new ideas,’ ” recalled John Davis, former housing director with the city’s Community & Economic Development Office, imitating Sanders accent, as many who worked with Sanders do.
Citizens enthusiastically flooded City Hall meetings with their own ideas, but the mood there remained combative. As the 1982 alderman elections approached, Democratic alderwoman Joyce Desautels predicted that the “fungus of socialism” would be eradicated.
But voters liked what Sanders was doing. Three of his allies, part of an evolving Progressive Coalition, won seats on the 13-member board, bringing the total in his corner to five and giving them the crucial ability to sustain a mayoral veto. In the next year’s mayoral election, Sanders won 52 percent of the vote, crushing his two opponents and drawing a record voter turnout. Even some of his fiercest opponents began to relent.
“That,” recalled Sanders, “is when things began to change.”
Terry Bouricius, 61, a longtime Sanders supporter who joined the Board of Aldermen in 1981, says the shift was rooted in Sanders’ growing popularity. Sanders, he said, “fixed the streets and he spoke the truth. So, going against Bernie because he was Bernie was a losing proposition.”
By the mid-1980s, the Progressive Coalition’s revolution was in high gear. City attorneys had come up with several innovative ways to generate revenue, including a tax on the gross receipts of bars and restaurants and an excavation fee on utilities whose work damaged the streets.
Sanders won the ability to increase the tax rate on commercial and industrial property, thus easing the burden on residential taxpayers. He had also begun a long-term campaign to force the tax-exempt Medical Center Hospital of Vermont, as it was then called, and the University of Vermont to contribute more to the city, which they eventually did.
Not all of Sanders’ fiscal proposals succeeded. Joe McNeil, former city attorney, estimates that several of a dozen proposals that required legislative approval were shot down, including one to stabilize property taxes on seniors.
In the mid-1980s, Sanders ran into another form of opposition, this time over the evolving plan for the Lake Champlain waterfront. Pomerleau, the developer, had backed off his proposal and he and Sanders found common cause on other issues. Sanders, Pomerleau recalled, often said, “with your money and my brains, we can go places.’ ”
Sanders endorsed a more modest plan, but some citizens objected that it was still too development-friendly. In the end, the mayor’s team had to go back to the Planning Board.
“We won,” said Sandy Baird, one of the leaders of the citizens group and a former Green Party candidate for mayor. “Bernie was just very focused on getting more taxes.”
The Sanderistas were also very focused on one of the premier issues of interest to city residents; improving the streets and keeping them clear. Widespread road repaving got underway early on and the city purchased a fleet of new snowplows. A snow removal program called Operation Snow Shovel was launched, in which young people cleared snow for the elderly and disabled.
Sanders, seated in his office beneath a poster of Nicaragua, was a restless force. Consumed by his sense of mission, he would often roam in to people’s offices to strategize or to lecture loudly, with neither a hello or goodbye.
About the only time some saw him lighten up was when his young son, Levi, dropped by for a visit. Sanders, who is famously private, was not married to his son’s mother. He is now married to Jane Driscoll, formerly the head of the city’s Youth Office.
“He was driven, driven, driven,” recalled his administrative assistant, Sue Trainor. “He could be gruff. But that’s just because he was trying to get things done.”
And many of those who worked for him minded not at all.
Aspiring political spirit
“The wonderful thing about working for Bernie was that he never started from a position of compromise,” said Davis. “He started from a position of aspiration, this is how much we ought to get for what he called ‘the little guy.’ ”
Not all the “big guys” on the other side of the table took kindly to Sanders’ aggressive demands or his frequent tirades. Once, when Sanders appeared before the state Legislature in 1984, he reportedly told state Senator Gilbert Godnick, “I believe you are here to protect the rich and big money and I think you double talk, and I think the people are becoming sick and tired of that crap, frankly.”
Godnick snapped back at Sanders that he had “a bolt that’s loose in your head.”
Some legislators felt Sanders’ abrasive style compromised his influence, but Sanders was nonetheless growing increasingly adept at using the power of his office. In few matters was that more obvious than the struggle over Northgate Apartments, the city’s largest affordable housing complex.
Not long after he took office, the property owners became legally able to convert the 336 units into luxury condos. Fiercely opposed, Sanders swiftly got several ordinances passed that limited their ability to do so.
By the time the Connecticut owners sat down in Sanders’ office in 1987, nervously eyeing the leftist posters on his wall, Sanders was developing a plan to purchase the property, and his intent was that it be turned over to the tenants to manage.
“The owners were scared of Bernie. They thought he was a Communist and weird,” said Brenda Torpy, a key housing administrator under Sanders and now the head of the Champlain Housing Trust. “When they walked in his office he said, ‘I know your job is to make as much money as you can, but we are not going to let you displace hundreds of families in our city.’ And they knew then they were going to lose.”
Sanders took on another opponent that even he knew he was unlikely to defeat: the federal government. During his years in office, the city issued a stream of resolutions calling for an end to US aid to El Salvador, condemnation of support for the Contras in Nicaragua, and the transfer of US funds from military to civilian needs, to name a few.
Ties were established with sister cities in the Soviet Union and Nicaragua, while international visitors including members of the Irish Republican Army were regularly invited to City Hall.
In 1985, Sanders was invited by the Nicaraguan government to visit for the celebration of the sixth anniversary of the rebel Sandinista takeover. Don Melvin, a former reporter for The Burlington Free Press who traveled with him, remembers Sanders charging around Managua at his usual frenetic pace, declaring, “I am trying to stop a war. I am trying to stop a war.”
The Progressive Coalition believed its “foreign policy” helped citizens engage around national priorities, but some aldermen thought it was a waste of time. Once after Sanders delivered a speech on El Salvador, an alderman burst out, “El Salvador, El Salvador — what about El Burlington?”
Fred Bailey, too, was fed up. A lot of people, the former alderman and Sanders ally, said, “took it as part of the show, part of the shtick. . . . It was a time waster.”
Voters, nonetheless, liked Sanders more than ever. By his third election in 1985, he cruised to victory with 55 percent of the vote. But still lacking a majority on the board and locked in combat with the state Legislature on a host of fronts, Sanders was worn down.
Discouraged by attacks
In an interview that year with The Vanguard Press, Sanders said, “The truth of the matter is that it becomes depressing and it becomes difficult to get up and do your job as best you can knowing that you are going to make mistakes, when you’re going to be attacked, attacked, attacked.”
By his third term, Sanders was chaffing at the limitations of local government and had begun to consider higher office. By then, Sanders had clearly made the city a far more vibrant and citizen-friendly place and his name was well-known. After a disappointing bid for governor in 1986, he easily won election to a fourth term in 1987. Months later, Sanders declared he was running for Congress.
In his final term as mayor, Sanders did something uncharacteristic. Just for fun.
When a local producer asked him if he would record an album of his favorite songs, Sanders agreed. The only problem was that Sanders could not sing very well. And so, instead, he spoke the lyrics of the several folks songs he had chosen, such as “We Shall Overcome,” in heartfelt preacher-like tones as a chorus sang back up.
In introducing Sanders on his television show in September, Stephen Colbert played a bit of Sanders singing “This Land Is Your Land” from the 1987 recording. Colbert listened bemused as Sanders intoned earnestly, “This land is made for you and me.”
Sanders, Colbert concluded, is “incredibly authentic. Because when you look at this man, when you listen to that album, I refuse to believe that any focus group in the world asked for that.”
It’s been almost 30 years since Bernie Sanders occupied the Burlington mayor’s office. But his presence still hovers over the town like the Green Mountains on the horizon.
In his presidential campaign office on Church Street in Burlington, more than a few volunteers are gray-haired veterans of Sanders’ mayoral days. Shops that line the pedestrian mall feature Bernie paraphernalia, including buttons that say “Feel the Bern” and a “Bern One for Bernie” marijuana pipe.
Sanders keeps in close touch with some of the members of his old team who still work in town. When he began thinking of running for president a couple of years ago, several of them gathered at his house to brainstorm. When he is in town, he often walks familiar routes with old friends.
In September, Sanders called his old friend Tony Pomerleau, the real estate agent, to wish him a happy 98th birthday. He also had a question for him.
“He asked me if I would serve as his vice president,” said Pomerleau. “And of course I said yes.”