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Bernie Sanders and big-government urbanism

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Bernie Sanders in Burlington City Hall in 1981, six months after he was elected mayor.AP/Associated Press


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is either a hopeless throwback to the 1960s or way ahead of his time. The same was true when he was mayor of Vermont’s largest city.

The self-proclaimed socialist ran Burlington from 1981 to 1989; his intellectual heirs in the local Progressive movement were in charge for most of the next quarter century. Long before today's millennial voters ever started "feeling the Bern," Sanders and his corps of idealistic aides were transforming a then-fading city via the unapologetic application of government power.

That approach synchs with his stances on national issues. But it also highlights a question that supporters of activist government face on issues big and small: When there's a wrong to be righted or a market failure to be fixed, how hard should the public sector push?


At least in some cases, the Sanders era in Burlington suggests, the answer is: Don't be timid.

Today's Burlington, a city of about 42,000, lacks certain key features on 21st-century urban planners' standard wish list: It's low-slung; it's car-centric; especially on a cold January day, its sloping downtown would be livelier with more density.

Yet the storefronts are filled, and the Church Street pedestrian mall in the heart of town still bustles. An old strip of mill buildings to the south abounds with incubators and art spaces. Because the city opened its arms to refugees and other immigrants, North Street — the main drag through a traditional working-class area — has taken on an international flavor. A two-block stretch boasts the Himalayan Food Market, the Nepali Dumpling House, and a halal food store with a sign evoking the Somali flag.

The so-called Sanderistas were prescient in important ways. Renewable energy and locally sourced food, once mere hippie fixations, have become mainstream priorities in the age of global warming. Economic inequality, Sanders' marquee issue then and now, has emerged as a matter of overriding national concern.

In his presidential bid, Sanders goes big. His plan for debt-free college isn't subtle; he wants the federal government to plow money into state universities so they can slash tuition. His response to the withering of private pensions isn't to nudge Americans to save more; he wants to expand Social Security.


Similarly, as mayor, Sanders wasn't one for modest tweaks. Under Sanders, Burlington promoted below-market-rate housing by creating community land trusts that gained ownership of property and guaranteed that the privately-owned homes built on top of it would be permanently price-restricted. The Sanderistas asserted the public's right to the Lake Champlain waterfront and oversaw a transition from industrial to recreational uses. The powerful Community and Economic Development Office, or
CEDO, that Sanders established in 1983 helped launch neighborhood business associations, an energy investment corporation, and more.

More fundamentally, Sanders and his team worked to reshape the local economy. They promoted locally owned businesses and employee-ownership corporate structures. After a downtown supermarket moved out, the city spent 17 years — well past the end of Sanders' tenure — trying to cultivate a replacement.

"Some people said, 'Why is the city developing a supermarket downtown? It's not their responsibility. Leave it to capitalism,' " recalls Bruce Seifer, who worked for decades in economic development at CEDO and took me on a driving tour of the office's greatest hits.

When city governments get deeply entangled in the details of projects, the theoretical potential for favoritism or bureaucratic overreach is significant — especially if Sanders-era idealism peters out and an agency like CEDO falls under the sway of sullen political insiders. And while
CEDO has excelled at stitching together outside grants to fund its initiatives, other government-led projects can expose taxpayers to significant risk. In Burlington, the most recent Progressive mayor, Bob Kiss, decided not to run for reelection in 2011 after officials quietly sought to cover a shortfall at the municipally owned telecom company with $17 million in city money.


Overall, though, it's fair to say Sanders-era interventionism tided Burlington over, through an era of suburbanization and shopping mall construction, until the free market once again came to appreciate shops, restaurants, bars, and residences downtown.

Plus, some of Sanders' more overtly socialistic policies have paid off in ways that superficially more moderate efforts have not. In 1984, the city established what eventually became the Champlain Housing Trust — "the nation's first municipally funded community land trust," according to Sanders. It forthrightly committed community resources to community needs, and has produced hundreds of below-market-rate homes in Burlington.

Meanwhile, in 1990, the year after Sanders left office, the city enacted an inclusionary zoning ordinance that required multiunit housing developments to set aside a certain percentage of below-market units. In theory, this is a more hands-off approach than creating and funding a community housing trust. But the law is so stringent, argues developer Erik Hoekstra, that suburbs without such requirements are building more new multifamily housing than Burlington is. (In contrast, he lavishly praises the housing trust's work.)


When Sanders came to the Globe for an interview late last year, I asked him what a 21st-century urban policy should look like. In the '80s, cities were hemorrhaging residents and capital; today, progressives in Boston and San Francisco fret over the onslaught of rich people.

Sanders wasn't buying the idea that the underlying issues had changed. "Let us talk about for a moment what so many people do not talk about," he said. "We've got 47 million people living in poverty." He went on to appeal for better child care, more affordable housing, and job creation through infrastructure repair.

His call for common action on demonstrated community needs doesn't surprise longtime acolytes. "He talked about it when he first became mayor," Seifer says. "He talks about it now. It's the same speech." Implicitly, Sanders is confronting voters on the left with a similar challenge: If you believe in concerted government action, how aggressive do you want to get?

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.