Thursday, April 30, 2015

Burlington After Bernie: Paradoxes & Definitions

Progressive Eclipse – Chapter Six

BY THE END of the 1980s, the idea that Vermont progressives might someday run state government was no longer a far-fetched fantasy. But it wasn't a new party that threatened the political establishment. Just one person was poised for power.

Party loyalty had been dropping for more than a decade. Up to 40 percent of Vermont voters considered themselves independents, and many crossed party lines to vote for the most trustworthy, competent or likeable person in a race. Bernie Sanders profited from these realities of electoral life. Like other successful politicians before him, he built a personal network and a brand, and as a result could command attention and win votes without wedding himself to a specific platform or organization.

In 1986, he chose to run for governor – his third race for the office – against Vermont's first female chief executive, Democrat Madeleine Kunin. He did so despite warnings that it was the wrong race at the wrong time. For almost anyone else, it would have been a political disaster. But Sanders managed to attract 15 percent (after claiming that he was running to win) without solid organizational support, and did best in the state’s most conservative region, the Northeast Kingdom. No “alternative” candidate for governor broke his record until Anthony Pollina, also running as an Independent, challenged Republican incumbent Jim Douglas 22 years later.

Gov. Peter Shumlin & US Sen. Bernie Sanders joined forces in 2011 to make Lockheed Martin 
subsidiary Sandia Labs a Vermont energy development partner 

For most of those who worked for Sanders in 1986, it was a difficult experience that underlined his preference for campaigns and power plays over organizing or movement building. But that didn’t stop him from running for US House of Representatives two years later, as he was ending his last term as mayor. Without the backing of a party he raised about $300,000, dominated the debate, eclipsed Democrat Paul Poirier, and came within 3 percent of winning. Although Republican Peter Smith prevailed, Sanders returned to defeat him two years later. He has been in Congress ever since.

In 2006, after the most expensive campaign in Vermont history, Sanders finally made it to the US Senate by defeating businessman Rich Tarrant. Taking no chances, early in that campaign – his third race for the office – he arranged with the Democratic Party to be listed in their primary, then decline the nomination after he won.

The first clear sign he would eventually run for president came on December 10, 2010, when Sanders delivered an 8½-hour speech – called a “mini-filibuster” -- against a bill proposing extension of the Bush-era tax rates. In February 2011, shortly after those remarks were published as a book, a “Draft Bernie Sanders for President” website was established. 

"What I have been saying over and over again," Sanders explained after his 1988 race, "is that it is absolutely outrageous that you have a handful of giant corporations and wealthy individuals who have so much wealth and so much power when most people are not getting a fair shake. And you know what? People accept that message. People understand that. They're not stupid."

When he said that, he’d just handed Vermont Democrats a defeat, briefly raising the possibility that their party might one day be eclipsed. But the real question was whether political parties would be replaced by permanent campaign organizations. Despite rhetoric about the need for a functional alternative to the Republicans and Democrats, Sanders had done little except make himself the de facto leader of whatever emerged.

On the other hand, before Bernie and the “Sanderistas,” Burlington was a cultural backwater run by an aging generation, unresponsive to changing needs. If you attended a City Council meeting with a problem, the first question would often be, "How long have you lived here?" Political competition was the exception; clannish Democrats and compliant Republicans made the rules.

By the 1990s, the Queen City was nationally known for its alternative mystique and livability. Once a provincial town, it had become a cultural hotspot in northern New England, socially conscious and highly charged. Yet the fundamental nature of the change was difficult to pinpoint. Even a clear definition of the word "progressive" was elusive.

At one time a progressive was someone who fought for relief from the devastating impacts of a new industrial order. Early in the 20th century, about 70 years before Sanders’ emergence, Burlington had another self-described progressive mayor, James Burke, an Irish Catholic blacksmith who led a pragmatic reform movement.

In the 1960s, when another political realignment in Vermont led to the election of Democrat Phil Hoff as governor, thus ending a century of Republican rule, the forces behind the man also called themselves progressive. For Hoff and his allies it meant modernized state government, improved schools, and regionalized services.

Twenty years later the definition evolved again, incorporating tax reform, fairness and redistribution of social benefits. The city became more dynamic and open during Sanders’ tenure. The unemployment rate became virtually the lowest in the nation. The cultural forces set loose in the 1980s, with the support of local government, made the city a regional magnet. But there were clouds on the horizon, some new, others gathering after years of neglect. For Burlington, the price of success included traffic jams and high rent, a toxic dump and a landfill crunch, the feminization of poverty and the replacement of local businesses with chain stores.

In a 1989 race for mayor, activist lawyer Sandy Baird issued a damning critique. Running as a Green candidate for mayor, she was challenging Peter Clavelle, the Progressive candidate selected to succeed Sanders at the new party’s caucus. "The past and present administrations of our city are on a collision course with both the natural world and poor people," Baird charged. She later left the Greens and became a Democrat, chairing the party’s City Committee. In the 2009 race for mayor, she backed Kurt Wright, the Republican candidate, against the Progressive incumbent Bob Kiss, Democrat Andy Montroll and Dan Smith, son of Peter Smith, the politician Sanders had defeated in 1990 to win his first race for congress.

For Baird and others, it had been a long, winding political road.

Quality Control & Mixed Messages

Driving up Battery Street in Burlington in 1997, I passed by what looked to me like a private prison. “Unless you belong here, go away,” the façade suggested. After living in New Mexico, where punishment was a growth industry, maybe incarceration was on my mind. In this case, it turned out to be The Residence, a new luxury housing development for Burlington’s more affluent residents.

At least it’s not right on the waterfront, I thought. If people were ready to pay top dollar to live in a building with what looked like guard towers, that’s their business.

Before returning, I’d read a sugary story in The Nation describing the Queen City as a prime example of “what works.” It was partly hype, but I was eager to return to a place where “human scale” still meant something. While I was away, however, the definition had changed.

Burlington remained a great place to live. Ideas like “sustainability” and “quality of life” underpinned many local policies. The city’s Ordinance Committee was considering how to turn complaints about abandoned housing, garbage and other neighborhood nuisances into enforceable law. But did people really want to regulate lawn conditions, I wondered, or confiscate skateboards from unruly kids?

Now in his third term, Mayor Peter Clavelle predicted that Burlington’s road-building era was coming to an end. On the other hand, he also argued that downtown urban renewal was “irreversible” and ought to be completed. In the old days, progressives called it “urban removal,” and would not have been enthusiastic about the arrival of Filene’s and Borders.

Sustainability and national chain stores were hard to reconcile. Borders had already come to downtown (it closed about a decade later). But the country’s second largest bookseller was accused of fierce opposition to unions. In Boston and elsewhere, protests were being led by the United Food and Commercial Workers and IWW, which called for a national boycott.

As a result, having Borders downtown also meant that retail workers could do some organizing. One aspect of the Borders protests was wages; at the time booksellers often made under $6 an hour, a fact that resonated in the campaign to raise Vermont’s minimum wage. The City Council was about to vote on a “prevailing wage” ordinance that would require city contracts to meet an established hourly minimum – not a livable wage (what it actually costs to make ends meet) but at least a start.

Peter Clavelle holds a Press Conference;
at left, columnist Peter Freyne
Since returning to office after a 1993 defeat, Clavelle had become more guarded. His circle of advisors shrank and the Progressive Party no longer called the shots. When the debate began over Filene’s, Terry Bouricius, the original Sanders supporter on the City Council, suggested a supermarket rather than a department store for what remained of the urban renewal area. Other progressives privately questioned the choice. But few were willing to break publicly with their leaders. Despite much talk about sustainability and open dialogue, big decisions were being driven, often quietly, by tax and business imperatives.

Neighborhood associations were upgrading parks and addressing problems that fell through the cracks. But Neighborhood Planning Assemblies, established during the Sanders era, no longer sparked the same interest. In some wards, it was hard to drum up a quorum unless it was time to divvy up Community Development Block Grant money. In short, it was getting tough for a growing, tourist-dependent city to retain small-town quality and broad public involvement. Residents were less engaged, more prickly and, at the same time, quite demanding.

During the winter Traci Sawyers was recruited by Bouricius to run for the City Council. In accepting the challenge she expected to be asked about Filene’s and waterfront development as she knocked on doors in Ward Two. But many people hadn’t even heard about the impending arrival of the new department store and didn’t expect to shop there anyway. They complained instead about noise at “party houses,” run-down buildings owned by absentee landlords, trash spilling into their yards, graffiti, and dog poop. Along with the loss of green space, Sawyers concluded, “The most significant threat to Burlington are these quality of life issues.”

It wasn’t a new problem. For some time, Council President Sharon Bushor had been pushing for a comprehensive program to combat “neighborhood decay.” According to Assistant City Attorney Jessica Oski, the main obstacle was enforcement. Depending on the complaint, that could fall to housing or building inspectors, the Fire Department, or the police.

Some residents blamed students, particularly those attending the University of Vermont. Others pointed to absentee landlords or the city’s failure to enforce existing ordinances. The problem went deeper than enforcement, however. In the end, it was linked to the city’s changing culture and how people defined that phrase – quality of life.

In the 1950s, as the US entered what John Kenneth Gailbraith named the Age of Affluence, “quality of life” emerged as a way to describe a public desire for something beyond an improved standard of living. Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson circulated it during his 1956 campaign, borrowing the phrase from TV commentator Eric Severeid. It was also used by Arthur Schlesinger to contrast the “quantitative liberalism” of the 1930s New Deal with a growing middle-class desire for “qualitative liberalism.”

In the 1960s, the emerging environmental movement expanded the definition, relating “quality” to issues like pollution. But it was primarily related to the emergence of what Gailbraith called the New Class, a largely professional and educated group that placed a premium on clean, secure, and comfortable surroundings.

Vermont experienced the impact as middle-class families deserted deteriorating urban zones. Drawn by the state’s slower pace, cleaner air and water, and relatively safe communities, many newcomers were willing to accept lower salaries in exchange for a “higher” quality of life. By the 1970s, however, quality control problems were already becoming obvious.
Many young people were alienated, suburban sprawl was on the horizon, and Burlington’s “gentrification” was driving up the cost of living. In other words, the Age of Affluence had some adverse side effects.
By the end of the 20th Century the state’s largest urban area reached a turning point. While conditions weren’t entirely worse – in fact, some low-income neighborhoods looked better than they once did – attitudes had changed. People now harbored a series of grudges that were approaching critical mass. Sawyers, who moved to Burlington from Boston in the mid-1990s, talked about “an environment of disregard for people.” Clavelle said that nuisances like abandoned cars on front yards were “getting under people’s skin.”

The proposed solution was to consolidate and toughen enforcement, “to change the culture of what’s acceptable,” as Sawyers put it. But that opened up other questions; for example, can you control that type of behavior without imposing restrictive standards? Can you really regulate people into being good citizens? And, is a clean, quiet neighborhood all that “quality of life” is about?

NEXT: Art of the Possible: The Sanders Style


  1. It really is interesting to be able to hear all the different kinds of things that can be done when it comes to politics. I personally would be very interested to learn what would be done if the public was able to be more involved with the kind of problems like the filibuster. Something that would be amazing is to have some kind of way to know the different options that are available for public involvement in the world of politics. Thank you for sharing.

  2. It really is interesting to be able to hear all the different kinds of things that can be done when it comes to politics. I personally would be very interested to learn what would be done if the public was able to be more involved with the kind of problems like the filibuster. Something that would be amazing is to have some kind of way to know the different options that are available for public involvement in the world of politics. Thank you for sharing.