As Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981 to 1989, Bernie Sanders showed that radical democracy is feasible, even in a small American city.
His accomplishments in Burlington would make him a significant figure in the history of American political reform even if he never held any other elected office.
As mayor, he fostered public ownership and local businesses, including worker-owned businesses. He fought big corporate development projects and privatization of public services, and proved a small city could thrive without providing big tax abatements to attract outside industry and chain stores.
Sanders was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Sept. 8, 1941, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland. He attended public schools and Brooklyn College and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964 with a degree in political science. He spent some time on an Israeli kibbutz, and moved to Vermont in 1968.
During the first 20 years of his adult life, he led a marginal existence as a left-wing activist. He ran twice for Senator and twice for Governor of Vermont in the 1970s, never getting more than 6 percent of the vote. He was barely able to earn a living, working as a carpenter, freelance writer and creator of slide shows and documentaries for college classes.
He was elected mayor of Burlington, a city then of just under 38,000 population, defeating the incumbent by a margin of just 10 votes. He won re-election three times by substantial majorities, and stepped down voluntarily after his fourth term. None of his successors have tried to dismantle his accomplishments.
Sanders went on to become one of Vermont’s most popular politicians. He won more than 70 percent of the statewide vote in the last two elections.
He ran in 1981 with the endorsement of Burlington’s police union, which was stalled in contract negotiations with the incumbent, and he opposed an unpopular property tax increase. Once in office, he negotiated a moderate pay increase with the police union, which continued to endorse him.
He pushed through an increase in commercial property taxes while holding down residential property taxes.
The big issue in his first term was the development of Burlington’s waterfront on Lake Champlain. A businessman named Tony Pomerleau, a native of Burlington, proposed to convert the industrial waterfront property owned by the Central Vermont Railway into a 150-room hotel, 240 condominium apartments in an 18-story building and high-end retail stores.
Nothing doing, said Mayor Sanders. He wanted a “people’s waterfront” where, as a friend said, an ordinary person could rent a rowboat or buy a hot dog.
Burlington voters turned down his proposed bond issue for an alternative plan. But Sanders persisted, and Burlington’s waterfront now is a mixed-use district with public beaches, facilities for small boats, many parks, a science center and an eight-mile bicycle path.
He also made friends with Pomerleau, who became a supporter.
Sanders announced his candidacy for President at Waterfront Park.
Another big confrontation came in 1986 when the owner of the government-subsidized Northgate Apartments, a government-subsidized affordable housing project, proposed to convert his property into luxury condominiums and market-rate apartments.
Sanders fought that proposal by every legal means at his disposal. He got the city to enact a law requiring apartment building owners to give two years’ notice before converting to condos and give tenants the right of first refusal. Another law prohibited landlords from demolishing apartments unless they replaced them with housing units elsewhere in the city.
He then worked with U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and the Vermont state government to obtain $12 million to buy the owner out.
When Sanders was elected mayor, Burlington lacked a major supermarket. He rejected proposals by supermarket chains to erect stores in Burlington. Instead he brought in the Onion River Cooperative, a nearby co-operative food stores, which continues to operate to this day.
His administration sued the local cable television franchise and brought down cable TV rates. It attracted a minor league baseball team, the Vermont Reds, which, Sanders insisted, is named for the Cincinnati team, not the Bolsheviks.
The Sanders administration provided new local firms with seed money, offered technical assistance and encouraged local businesses to form trade associations.
The city attracted Gardeners Supply Co., an environmentalist gardening products firm, to Burlington in 198e; its founder, Paul Rapp, in 1987 began selling the firm to its workers. Burlington helped Seventh Generation, a green cleaning-products firm, when it started in 1988, and it is reportedly a major employer.
During the 1970s, the population of Burlington declined slightly. In the 1980s, it grew. Growth was good, but created a problem for keeping housing affordable.
The Sanders administration channeled its federal block grants into non-profits committed to that goal, and created a housing trust fund, paid for in part by a 1 percent increase in property taxes. Burlington had Neighborhood Planning Assemblies in each of the city’s six wards, and they had a voice in the use of federal Community Development Block Grants in their neighborhoods.
The city had special programs for encouraging women entrepreneurs, and required that 10 percent of city-funded construction jobs be filled by women.
The City of Burlington engaged in symbolic left-wing gestures during the Sanders era. It passed resolutions on topics such as nuclear disarmament and mailed them to world leaders. It established Sister City relationships with towns in the Soviet Union and in Nicaragua, then led by the Sandinistas. Mayor Sanders visited the USSR and Cuba.
But when there was a conflict between socialist ideals and the economic interests of Burlington, he put Burlington first.
One former supporter, in a recent letter to socialistworker.org, describes how Central American solidarity activists picketed the General Electric factory in Burlington that manufactured machine guns used in military helicopters against peasant guerrillas:
“I vividly remember Bernie standing arms-folded alongside the right-wing union officials from the factory and the Burlington Police Department as we were being arrested. He falsely insinuated that we were ‘anti-worker,’ and he refused to have any serious political dialogue with us activists.”
Based on what I’ve read, I think Sanders’ record is exemplary. It is true that he faced fewer obstacles as mayor of a small city in a prosperous racially-homogeneous state than if he’d been elected, say, mayor of Ferguson, Missouri. It takes nothing away from Sanders’ accomplishments to point out that the problems of Burlington were not the same as the problems of Baltimore.
I think Bernie Sanders is a worthy representative of the kind of socialism represented by the social democratic parties of Scandinavia and Germany. What they stand for is a kind of socialistic capitalism, whose goal is to regulate and guide business in the public interest, rather than a revolutionary socialism that would completely transform society.
How Bernie Sanders Learned to Be a Real Politician by Tim Murphy for Mother Jones.
What Kind of a Mayor Was Bernie Sanders? by Peter Drier and Pierre Clavel for The Nation.
How Bernie Sanders’ ‘radical’ ideas entered the municipal mainstream by Ben Schreckinger for Politico.
How Bernie Sanders Shaped the Northeast Punk Scene by Paul Blest for Vice News. About Burlington’s youth program and how it gave teenagers free rein.
Inside the Mind of Bernie Sanders: unbowed, unchanged and unafraid of a good fight by Paul Lewis for The Guardian.
The right-wing political record of Bernie Sanders by Tom Hall for the World Socialist Web Site. Bernie Sanders says he’s a socialist, and most Republicans would say he’s a socialist, but this real socialist doesn’t think so.
I don’t have first-hand knowledge of Burlington. Everything I’ve written in this post is based on second-hand sources. I’d be interested in comments from current or former Vermonters, especially Burlington residents.