Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rhetoric & Reality in the Sanders Era

Progressive Eclipse – Chapter Five

DURING PETER CLAVELLE’S first race for mayor in 1989, a fundraising letter from his predecessor Bernie Sanders offered a list of his administration’s practical accomplishments, ranging from rebuilt streets and sewer reconstruction to property tax alternatives, improved tenants' rights, and public amenities. The list of achievements over eight years also included innovations like the Community Land Trust, a “people-friendly” waterfront, the flourishing arts scene, programs for women and youth, and several Sister City relationships.

Since then, Burlington has ranked as the “greenest” city in the country, the healthiest (according to a Center for Disease Control report), and a great place for beer and early retirement, among other honors. British Airways once dubbed it the “third-funkiest city in the world.”

There were more serious, subtle, and equally vital accomplishments -- changes in perception and policy on issues such as disarmament, intervention, and the local community's role in meeting human needs. Spreading across Vermont throughout the Reagan era, the success of Sanders and local progressives helped to challenge a growing distrust of government. Writing in Monthly Review, Beth Bates concluded in the late 1980s that the administration had successfully "navigated the turgid waters of free-enterprise Reaganomics and spawned a few progressive seeds."

If the measure of success is more fundamental change, however, the verdict isn't so clear. Some attempts were blocked by structural impediments and community divisions. Other initiatives, like alternatives to the automobile and fossil fuels, never made it to the top of the list. And in a few case the proposals couldn’t even be classified as "moving forward" – a popular campaign slogan in the eighties.

During the 2009 mayoral race in which Mayor Bob Kiss won his second term, he and the other candidates were still embracing the same combination of left-liberal rhetoric and cautious practice that characterized Sanders’ time as mayor. Although Kurt Wright talked about leadership and Andy Montroll charged that the city was just “coasting along,” neither challenged the basic assumptions or the social status quo. Montroll suggested that the best course was to focus on “what we have.”

Kiss meanwhile touted the city’s tourist-friendly amenities and the long-term results of urban renewal, even promising to complete the controversial Southern Connector. It was a strange turnabout, as if the “change” Sanders once talked about had transformed into the redevelopment plan first envisioned by the conservative regime he overthrew.

Still, limitations and contradictions were apparent from the start, as the Sanders administration had to deal with legislative resistance, unsympathetic state officials and its own divisions and contradictions on key issues. State government sought to regulate and sometimes overrule local initiatives and changes in city structure. Burlington was bullied into reassessing its Grand List and threatened with the loss of public funds when local officials initially tried to stop the Connector highway from being completed. A 1989 legislative attempt to strip local communities of the power to implement alternatives to the property tax was one episode in a “home rule” struggle that began with Burlington's Gross Receipts Tax.

By the end of the decade, the bottom line on tax matters was that Sanders held the line. The use of fees and cost-saving reforms had postponed increases. But what Sanders’ Progressives also managed to do, some critics charged, was "out-Republican the Republicans."

Initiatives like the Community Land Trust and a municipally-owned telecom service did challenge capitalist assumptions. Others provided benefits but had little impact on underlying inequities. And a few were disappointing and reactive, contradicting the prevailing progressive rhetoric. The Gross Receipts Tax, for example, like a defeated tax on alcohol and cigarettes to fund affordable childcare, was basically regressive, while property reappraisal mainly shifted the burden from businesses to homeowners. The problem, explained Sanders, was that state and federal policies severely limited the local options.

More difficult to explain was Sanders' resistance to requests from the peace movement to support economic conversion of defense plants, or his administration's initial willingness to settle for a waterfront plan that included expensive condominiums and a hotel at the water's edge. These flashpoints raised doubts about Sanders’ priorities and created divisions that endured.

Development presented especially complex challenges. Sanders promised "real change," but conservative opponents accused him of being anti-business while left-wing critics said he was selling out to build the tax base. An underlying limitation was the pro-growth preferences of most people. Thus, it wasn’t surprising that Progressives, Democrats and Republicans agreed on what they called "balanced growth." The result was a development posture based on private negotiations and sometimes questionable deals to extract public benefits – a gentrified waterfront in exchange for public access and amenities, the right to build luxury housing as long as some "affordable" units were also provided.

During Sanders’ four terms as mayor and those of his two successors, limits to growth were rarely set; they shifted with the terms of each development trade-off. Bea Bookchin, a Green leader of the fight to stop a controversial plan for the waterfront, pointed out that Sanders' radical rhetoric often didn’t match his actions. His approach was "that the way to do the best for people is to make the most money possible,” she argued. “The land is being used as a resource, a cash crop." Decades later, criticism by the "open space" movement is similar.

City Hall Peace Demo, 1981
Beginning in 1983, protests at the local General Electric armaments plant also led to arguments on the left. Activists wanted a commitment to peace conversion, Sanders wanted to turn the heat on Congress. The timing was wrong, he said, and activists couldn’t avoid "blaming the workers" for producing rapid-fire Gatling guns. His basic argument was that any protests, particularly those involving civil disobedience, would "force" unionized workers to the right.

It was a dispute over tactics, but the implications went deeper. In trying to limit peace protest tactics and targets, some argued that Sanders was shielding the corporation and the military-industrial complex behind it. His position seemed to conflict with the city's pronouncements and votes on military spending, intervention in Central America, and other international questions. At the least, Sanders' desire to build a union-supported democratic socialist coalition conflicted with the community-based peace and justice movement's opposition to foreign intervention. Among the casualties were some mutual trust and any workers at the plant who lost their jobs as defense contracts for the Gatling gun evaporated.

The relationship between City Hall and the peace movement usually went more smoothly, and the results were noteworthy. Burlington developed, and, to some extent, implemented a series of “foreign policy” initiatives. They emerged through citywide votes on issues like cooperation and exchange with the Soviet Union, opposition to intervention, and people-to-people programs. Designed to change consciousness and challenge anti-Communist logic, over time they did precisely that.

Between 1981 and 1987, Burlington also voted to cut aid to El Salvador, oppose crisis relocation planning for nuclear war, freeze nuclear weapons production, transfer military funds to civilian programs, condemn Nicaraguan Contra aid, and divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. Supporting most efforts of Vermont’s diverse and independent peace movement, Sanders was an effective voice for a different foreign policy.

Did the resolutions, statements, and even diplomatic links with Nicaragua pose any threat to capitalist interests? No. But they contributed to a change in local attitudes, and meshed with the efforts of activists around the state. By the end of the 1980s, most Vermont politicians supported nuclear de-escalation and a non-interventionist foreign policy. Peace and social justice had become "mainstream" issues.

Managing Mixed Messages

The main thrust during the early years of Burlington’s political realignment was economic. Other issues were not ignored. The Sanders administration's record on youth, tenants' right, and women's issues was broad and impressive. Rather it was a matter of priorities. Issues affecting women and the gay community, for example, sometimes had to wait or were addressed as matters of economic justice.

Although the city adopted an anti-discrimination ordinance, Sanders wasn’t willing to carry the banner for gay and lesbian rights, and most reforms related to gender or sexual preference didn’t originate in City Hall. They received at best cautious official support. A striking example was Sanders’ answer when questioned by a local feminist about his support for proposals to prevent job discrimination against gays. "I will not make it a major priority," he said bluntly.

While the Sanders “revolution” did help to widen the terms of debate about discrimination it didn’t offer a clear direction. The same can be said of its impact on taxation and development. These were matters no community could address on its own, even if local preferences were clear.

Despite changes in local demographics and an effective left-leaning vanguard, Burlington hadn’t become some post-industrial Paris Commune. Power remained divided between the "old guard," which continued to dominate the City Council and commissions, and a "new guard" that ran the executive branch. The community was politically balkanized – from the conservative-leaning New North End to the Progressive inner city strongholds and solidly Democratic South End.

A majority of voters supported Sanders in three re-election bids. But that wasn’t because of any socialist sympathies. It was mainly his blunt, anti-establishment style, competent staff, and ability to "get things done." Burlington had a popular leader but not a clear direction. The progressive program, to the extent that it could be defined, was a collection of moderate reforms amplified by defiant rhetoric.

Protest at the Radisson (now Hilton), 1995
In response to victory, Burlington’s “Progressive Coalition” was required to handle power and make critical decisions before it had effectively organized itself or assessed all the possible consequences. Given that, it’s impressive that so many successful projects, programs and enterprises were launched by a loose coalition of activists, officials, staffers, and left-leaning entrepreneurs. Until 1986, the only regular planning of Progressive strategy occurred at an informal Sunday meeting of key administration and elected leaders.

In an internal memo to Progressive Coalition leaders in 1984, David Clavelle and Tim McKenzie, two key organizers, noted that progressives had "been successful in creating effective campaign organizations in some wards, yet unsuccessful in maintaining some form of organization between elections."

In the 1990s Sanders ultimately endorsed the idea of forming a new political party, in Vermont and nationally. But he wasn’t eager to see it happen while he was mayor. Disillusioned by his years as a "minor party" candidate under the Liberty Union banner in 1970s, he’d concluded that America -- and also Burlington – weren’t ready for a party-based alternative to the Republicans and Democrats.

Even after the Progressive Coalition took formal shape, Sanders’ connection to it was ambiguous. Despite the image of Burlington having a "socialist" leader, he never sought office after 1976 as anything but an Independent, and his policy choices were made without submitting them for approval by any outside group. Working with a few Council allies, appointees and confidantes, he could act, as he put it, "boldly." But the atmosphere in City Hall was less than chummy. The boss was a man of gruff speech and limited tact, and supporters not intimate with the small cadre of Sanders “insiders” heard little about administration decisions until after they were made.

It was efficient and sometimes bold, but not very democratic. Thus, by the time the Progressive Coalition was formally launched in 1986, some of those it hoped to attract and represent had drifted away. Leading women activists, while welcoming specific programs, found the "PC" too much of a "boys club." Due to Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign and the Rainbow Coalition, Democrats who had backed Sanders were returning to the party. Some peace activists found the mayor generally unresponsive, and many Greens concluded that the administration was part of the problem, offering no serious alternatives on emerging ecological threats.

Building a broad-based coalition while holding onto political power was proving difficult. Compounding the problem, coalition leaders were often city officials or staff members; their day-to-day struggles tended to determine the public agenda. If a choice had to be made between the practical and the ideal, between the "winnable" and the "good" fight, the former usually held sway.

NEXT: Life after Bernie

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