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Bernie of Burlington

The trials and tribulations of the only Socialist head of government in the U.S.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Is it for this that Eugene Debs went to jail, that Norman Thomas suffered the blows of Frank Hague’s thugs, and that Michael Harrington labored on behalf of “the other America”? So that Bernie Sanders could worry about potholes in the streets of Burlington? Surely not. Still, these are the facts. Bernard Sanders is the only Socialist head of government in America, and he is very concerned abut potholes, not to mention other crucial elements of the proletarian revolution: property tax rates, police salaries, insurance premiums, and interest on the city’s bank account.

Sanders is the Mayor of Burlington, which has a little under 38,000 people but is the largest city in Vermont. To be sure, he is not the only Socialist public official in the country. Two Congressmen, Ron Dellums of California and John Conyers of Michigan, are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, as are many state legislators and some county board members. But none of them runs a government.

So how much has Sanders radicalized Burlington, beyond putting copies of The Militant next to issues of Government Executive in the Mayor’s office? Not very much. In fact, his Socialism is hardly the most important aspect of his administration. Both his accomplishments and his problems stem more from his aggressive, sometimes contentious manner than from his ideology. “Bernie’s a pretty good Mayor,” said one resident. “But he’s a real confrontationist, and that’s going to catch up with him one day.” To which Sanders replies, “to be cooperative means to be co-opted. If I don’t do anything, what the hell was I elected for?”

Sanders did not win his narrow victory in March 1981 by saying he would municipalize the banks, expropriate the homes of the wealthy, or disarm the police. He didn’t even propose opening the Lake Champlain shoreline to the public. What he did was, he said he would raise property taxes less than the incumbent. It worked. The voters overwhelmingly turned down Mayor Gordon Paquette’s proposed 65 cent (per $100 of assessed value) tax increase. Sanders said 25 cents would be enough, and the voters bought it.

Sanders is in the small but sturdy tradition of Socialist mayors who have won and held office by tweaking the establishment, holding down taxes, and keeping the roads paved. This kind of conservative populism was used by Frank Zeidler in Milwaukee and Jaspar McLevy in Bridgeport, Connecticut. They kept getting elected simply because they seemed more competent than their opponents. So does Sanders. “We’re running a more businesslike operation here,” he says, and no one, comparing him to his predecessor, argues with that.

Sanders still benefits from the political mistakes of the preceding regime, a Democratic machine that had held power for thirty years and ran the city like a private club. Members—Democratic loyalists and their friends and relatives—could even get low-interest mortgages from the city cemetery fund. Citizens with no special clout never knew about the fund or its loans.

Sanders did away with all that. He’s a 41-year-old man with a manner at once brusque and gentle, and a pure Flatbush accent. He replaced the politically well-connected accountants who had run the city treasury with people who were experienced in public finance. He started free health clinics for women and old people. And he created a city arts council that produces free concerts in Burlington’s Battery Park. “You could say, ‘What is Socialist about any of that?’” Sanders said. “O.K., nothing, really. I agree. But we have done some things that the best of liberals will not do.”

What this boils down to, by Sanders’s own account, is setting up a labor-management committee, giving 9 percent pay increases to the unionized city workers and only 7.5 percent to their higher salaried supervisors, even taking budget proposals to the workers. “We’re getting the workers involved in the day-to-day management,” Sanders said. ‘These guys have worked here for years. They said, ‘You can cut here, you can cut there.’ They know.”

All this goes over pretty well with most Burlington voters, in part because it enrages the remnants of the old machine Sanders replaced. When he first took office, the Democrats were so upset that the city council rejected all of his appointments without even checking to see if they were qualified. With enemies like that, Sanders hardly needed friends. The city’s sole daily newspaper, The Free Press, owned by the very un-Socialist Gannett chain, scolded the Democratic aldermen for “denying [Sanders] a fair chance to exercise his leadership.” The Democrats, the newspaper said, “will bear the blame for any chaos that might follow.” And so they did. In the midterm election last year, Sanders supporters won three of seven contested seats, and the Republicans won two. The Democrats won one contest, barely, and five of the thirteen aldermen are now Sanders supporters.

The Democrats like to gamble that they have lost ground because of “the new people,” sometimes called the “hipboisie,” the granola-chewing exemplars of backpack chic who have come here from the university and the mountains. This interpretation pictures Sanders and his minions as elitists, and allows the Democrats to claim that the working folks are still on their side. But the election results do not support this view of Sanders. He and his backers took the working-class wards too. And an unscientific but probably representative surgery in the Steer and Stein Pub and Restaurant on the corner of North and Winooski gave Sanders the unanimous support of the eight imbibers one recent evening. “I think he’s doing a good job,” said 38-year-old barber named Jim Byrd. “He’s clean out the dirt.”

Sanders has neither working-class nor Socialist roots. He comes of Vermont’s vaguely leftist, antimilitary Liberty Union Party, which he left in 1977, later joining Barry Commoner’s Citizens Party. His radicalism is based more on dissatisfaction with what is than on a vision of what ought to be. He is fond of saying things such as, “We say over and over again that nothing will really improve until there’s a national redistribution of priorities.”

Still, it isn’t likely that they care too much about all that at the Steer and Stein and environs. They do care that Sanders has proposed lowering the property tax rate. They are also happy that, in the time-honored tradition of mayors facing an election, Sanders just “discovered” an additional $1.9 million in city funds that had previously been unknown. Politically, this is a convenient thing to do just before an election. Fiscally, it may not be so convenient. By Sander’s own admission, the city is desperately short of revenue in the long run, and according to the way state law is generally interpreted, the property tax is the only local revenue source.

Sanders does not interpret the law that way. He calls the property tax “regressive,” and has proposed a 3 percent gross receipts tax on hotel bills and restaurant meals. There is some question about whether the city can legally impose this tax, and the proposal so enraged the business establishment that it went out and hired a California consultant firm to fight it—which only added to Sanders’s anti-establishment appeal.

All this makes Sanders a slight favorite to beat Democrat Judith Stephany and Republican James Gilson in the March 1 election. The Democrats, though, have reasonable hopes of forcing Sanders into a runoff, where they think they can beat him. They have a good candidate in Stephany, a 37-year-old liberal with no ties to the old Paquette machine. She takes the race seriously enough to have quit as minority leader of the State House of Representatives to run against Sanders.

If Sanders wins, some of his supporters want him to run for the U.S. Senate, and he has not discouraged their talk. The next available Senate seat in Vermont will be Democrat Patrick Leahy’s in 1986. It is extraordinarily unlikely that Sanders could get elected statewide, but by running as a left-of-center independent he could conceivably deliver the seat to a Republican. In the kind of radical politics Sanders pursues, this result would be no worse than the election of another Democrat.

But Sanders, even if re-elected, probably will not have much impact outside Burlington. He disdains what little nationwide Socialist movement there is (the Democratic Socialists of America) for its gradualist philosophy and its ties to the Democratic Party. He prefers to make the revolution in one city, fill the potholes, and keep the tax rate down. All this may not be what Debs and Thomas had in mind. But then, they never got elected.