BURLINGTON, Vt. — The president of the United States jokingly dismissed him last week as “a pot smoking socialist.” And while people in Bernie Sanders’ hometown were more polite, they reacted to his new quest for the White House Thursday with bemused skepticism.
Sanders and his iconoclastic, strident views will make a great Vermont export for a while — certainly a good deal livelier than maple syrup and wooden bowls. But the Oval Office?
“As a state, we’ve embraced characters,” explained longtime resident Mike Sarvak, 50, seated with his wife at U-shaped white counter at a local diner. “But nobody would say, ‘That’s the guy who could lead the country.’ ”
The Vermont senator and former Burlington mayor, who describes himself as an independent and a “democratic socialist,” became the first challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination Thursday when he blasted out an e-mail just after midnight announcing his campaign.
He laid out the populist message that he’s known for, immediately moving to occupy the space to the political left of the former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state.
“For most Americans, their reality is that they are working longer hours for lower wages,” he said Thursday outside the US Capitol. “How does it happen that the top one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent? It is unsustainable. We can’t continue.”
He hit on climate change, Republican mega-donors David and Charles Koch, and the need for more jobs.
Clinton, hoping to tamp down any notion of a challenge from the liberal wing, posted a message on her Twitter feed Thursday afternoon.
I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America's middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race. –H— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) April 30, 2015
Clinton’s team also has sewn up some local support. Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, said in an interview that he is backing Clinton. “Bernie was one of the most effective mayors that Burlington ever had,” Weinberger said in a brief interview. “I’m supporting Hillary because I think she’s the right person at the right time, and I think she’ll be a great president.”
Sanders plans a trip to New Hampshire this weekend and will have a more formal campaign launch in Vermont. The Washington news conference Thursday included classic Sanders moments, the 73-year old senator held a folded paper in one hand and hunched over the podium. A breeze caught strands of his white hair, emphasizing a feature that’s commented on almost as frequently as Clinton’s various coifs.
“The hair kind of throws me for a loop,” offered Robert Palmer, a Burlington resident who was strolling with his dog near Lake Champlain Thursday, taking advantage of crisp clear weather. “Brush it. Fix it. Do something.”
Palmer wasn’t the only one to bring up Sanders unkempt look with no prompting. Dwight Stauffer, a 49-year-old shopping for collard greens at a Burlington market that specializes in local food put it like this: “He looks like Einstein.”
Burlington knows Sanders — and his rants against the powers of corporate America — better than anyone. So the news of his candidacy generated a buzz in diners, coffee houses, and Ben & Jerry’s. Almost everyone interviewed Thursday for this story had some personal contact with Sanders, whether it was meeting him in person, hearing him speak, or serving him coffee.
Typically he orders a small, house roast and a cider doughnut at Uncommon Grounds – a local coffee house that roasts its own beans, according to barista Amelia Devoid.
“We have a different kind of life in Vermont, and I’m excited to have that system exported to the rest of the country,” said Devoid, 26. She said she sees him in the coffee shop about once a month and wishes the rest of the country could have that kind of access to their top elected officials.
Still, it’s not clear yet that there will be the same kind of enthusiasm for Sanders as there was for, say, Barack Obama. Devoid said Sanders is not as “marketable” as was former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who made an unsuccessful presidential run in 2004, she said. By comparison, she worries that Sanders comes across as “no-nonsense, grumpy, and tired.”
She hopes Sanders will talk about sustainable farming while on the hustings and the benefits of medical marijuana. “I’m just excited about him pushing his ideas,” she said.
The conversation at Handy’s Diner prompted Sarvak’s wife, Kathy, to wonder whether the whole country will believe Sanders’ far-left views are held by all Vermonters.
“He is our poster child?” she said. “Argh.’’
Diner owner Earl Handy, 40, joined the conversation after polishing off a stack of pancakes soaked in maple syrup. “Are people going to think we’re all like Bernie Sanders?” he asked. “A lot of us are really conservative.”
Even if they don’t agree with him, the locals can rattle off his political history. Kathy Sarvak reminded the group that Sanders should not be underestimated, recounting how won his first mayoral election here by 10 votes in 1981. He stayed on for four terms, and then was elected to Vermont’s sole US House seat in 1990. Sanders moved up to the Senate in 2006 and won reelection two years ago with 71 percent of the vote.
Despite the hometown doubt about his path to the White House, Sanders has said he would run only if he thought he could win. He would have to raise about $50 million, which would mostly come in via small online donations, in order to sustain a credible campaign, said a strategist close to his campaign. “Can Bernie raise $50 million? That is the question,” the strategist said.
There are some bright spots for him on the primary calendar. Two early states — Iowa and Nevada — have a caucus process to select a nominee. Sanders’ team believes these caucus-goers will more receptive to his populist message than the typical primary voter. And the early primary calendar also tilts toward Sanders’ home turf of New England — three of the six states in the region will have primaries in the opening weeks of the 2016 cycle.
And without any other alternative to Clinton in the race so far, Sanders will benefit from a blast of media attention in coming weeks. Obama’s humorous jab at Sanders during the president’s stand-up comedy at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday was just one indication his national recognition is creeping higher. But some Burlington residents worried how Sanders will fare as conservative parts of the country become more familiar with him.
“I lived in Nashville, Tennessee,” said Tamsin Laflam, 41, taking a morning stroll near Lake Champlain. “They would spit him out. There is no way he could be elected in the South.”
She said she would love to vote for him. But she does not think his run will last until the March 1 Vermont primary.