Courtesy of Fred Bayles, theguardian.com, March 4, 2016
In 1972, a few weeks into my first job as a reporter at the Burlington Free Press, I was sent to check out reports of a demonstration in one of the s poorer neighborhoods.
The scene was somewhat chaotic. Three or four people were highly exercised about some housing-related issue, but it was hard to get past the rhetoric to understand the details. To add to my rookie confusion, the group was led by a wild-haired, wild-eyed 30-something with an incongruent Brooklyn accent. I took notes and retreated to the newsroom.
“Who is this guy … Bernard Sanders?” I asked the city editor, reading from my notebook. He took on the expression of a man who had just bit into a lemon.
“Oh, Bernie,” he said. “Forget it. No story.” He sent me back to my desk, where I took obits from LaVigne’s funeral home for the rest of my shift.
More than 40 years later, that first Bernie experience, and the others that followed, feels like today. Sanders has physically aged; the dark curly hair is straighter and white, the voice softer, the tone less strident. But his message has remained remarkably consistent for a former neighborhood rabble-rouser who became a US senator and a serious presidential candidate.
“Working people can’t afford to live in the city,” he said in an interview after he was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 by cobbling together a coalition of unions, low-income families and elderly homeowners. “All these businesses and gentrification are moving in and the poor people are moving out to the trailer parks.”
And, taking the past as a prelude to what he may do after Tuesday’s showing, Sanders was clear back then that his seemingly quixotic campaigns had a greater mission than simply winning.
“One of the reasons I’m running is to make people realize they have more power than to just sit at home and watch television waiting every two years to vote for a Snelling or a Hackel [the Republican and Democratic candidates that year] and then call the whole thing democracy,” he told me during his 1976 campaign for governor as a third-party candidate.
That’s not to say Sanders didn’t have his excesses in those early days. In the mid-1970s, when I was covering the Vermont legislature, Sanders came to Montpelier to oppose a right-to-work bill. Sitting in an audience of angry union people, he stood up and began haranguing everyone. The legislators were corporate shills; the union leaders weren’t assertive enough.
“Let’s lock the doors and keep these bastards here until they vote this thing down,” Sanders yelled, standing to urge the union crowd to block the exits.
No one followed. In an odd moment of solidarity, the union officials, the legislators and the reporters covering the hearing all stared at their shoes in a common, silent hope Sanders would stop screaming.
But Bernie could also win over a crowd, a skill that now attracts and energizes supporters at campaign stops around the country. I saw evidence of that in 1976 when Sanders ran for governor on the Liberty Union ticket. The event was Boys State, an American Legion-sponsored event at Norwich University where high school boys (no girls, please, this was 1976) from around the state gathered to elect a mock legislative leadership and governor. Sanders and I arrived together as a long line of Boy Staters marched double file to the gymnasium as martial music played over the loudspeakers.
“Why are they marching?” he asked in shock. “They have them marching already?”
Sanders recovered from the moment and quickly upstaged the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates sitting with him onstage. The main party candidates went first, offering the usual patronizing platitudes about the fine young men who would become tomorrow’s leaders, adding gentle political pitches for the parents’ votes.
Sanders began with a denunciation of his opponents, the system and the complacency of boys and their parents. He hit the themes of income disparity and corporate power. He informed the students the state’s cigarette tax raised more money than corporate taxes. He noted that the Democratic candidate had worked as a utility lawyer “to raise your parent’s phone bills.” He challenged his audience to look for truth beyond their school books and the media.
“What people want you to be is good little boys,” he said to a rising chorus of taunts and cheers. “It’s time that you stop being good little boys.”
When the forum ended, Sanders was surrounded by a wide circle of students. Some were angry, others curious. They all wanted to hear more, ignoring the Democratic and Republican candidates who stood by themselves. The result: a group of students formed a mock third party and won the mock election. So much for marching in unison.
Sanders went on to get 6% of the vote in the general election and win ballot status for the Liberty Union party.
Five years later, I went back to Vermont to do a piece on the new socialist mayor. What I found was a study of a novice’s immersion in grassroots politics, coalition building and working through disappointments.
Bernie still had the passion, but he was learning to temper it with pragmatic politics.
His early days in the mayor’s office weren’t easy. The city’s board of aldermen challenged him on everything from the budget to the property tax rate to his hire for the mayor’s secretary. Following a long, frustrating night before the aldermen, Sanders and his crew retired to a bar across from City Hall where he alternatively raged at the system and plotted future strategies.
Sanders won over the long run, gaining a majority on the board in the next few elections and putting through many plans and policies that are still celebrated in the city. Yet that night, facing the seeming futility of bucking the status quo, Sanders offered a story that could apply to him today.
“Saturday, we had a cleanup in Burlington,” he explained. “Two of us were sweeping and three reporters and photographers were taking pictures of two people sweeping. And that’s what’s going on. That’s the whole damn thing. Everyone tells everybody else what they should do and they all discuss it. So I’m doing it. Why? Better doing it than talking about it.”
Permanent link to this article: https://democraticwomenofthedesert.org/2016/01/06/whos-this-bernie-sanders/
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