Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Over the Years with Bernie Sanders

I first met Bernie Sanders in late 1971 at a Meet the Candidates event in the home of a friend in North Bennington, Vermont. He was in his first race and was already aiming for the top -- US Senate. Before long we were having an argument. I wanted to know more about his background and Vermont issues. He thought it was all about the movement and capitalism, and ended up saying he didn't want my vote. 

Despite that, I've voted for him more than a dozen times in the last 40 years, in races ranging from Mayor to Congress and the Senate. For a while, before he was mayor, we were neighbors, and only once have I not backed his candidacy, although we have disagreed at times, sometimes publicly, about priorities and tactics.

In the 1970s, while I worked as a journalist and for state and local government on youth and anti-poverty programs, he campaigned for office, supported union and other activism, and worked as a film producer and writer. We sometimes wrote for the same publications, and once I asked him to write about mass media for a weekly I was editing.


In late 1980 we agreed to work together in Burlington's upcoming elections. I was still editing the alternative weekly and chairing the local branch of a new political party; he was an experienced veteran of four statewide races and had formed an independent coalition. At first we both wanted to run for mayor. But he was a more natural politician and I already had a job I liked. In the end I joined him on a coalition ticket as a City Council candidate. He won by 10 votes. I lost with 42% and went back to the editor's desk. It was the beginning of multi-party politics in Vermont and ultimately led to the formation of the Vermont Progressive Party, which has elected state, legislative and local officials.

Throughout his eight years as mayor we remained allies, working together at times, disagreeing when necessary on development and peace issues. At one point that meant he had to preside over my arrest (with many other people) outside an armaments plant. We were protesting gatling gun production and pushing for economic conversion. He felt we were blaming the workers and should protest at a congressional office instead.

After four terms as mayor, Bernie was elected to Congress in 1990 and hasn't lost a race since. (Before announcing for president, he'd already run for office 20 times, mostly statewide, won 14 races, and been in hundreds of debates and public forums.)  I went on to edit other publications, work on immigrant rights in New Mexico and manage Pacifica, the progressive radio network.

I mentioned one race where I didn't back him. Bernie had been mayor for five years and saw an opening to run for governor in 1986. But the Democratic incumbent was Madeleine Kunin, who had been in office less than two years, and was the state's first woman chief executive. In the end, I found myself privately role-played Bernie in a mock debate with Gov. Kunin. 

As Bernie retired from his job as mayor  -- to prepare for the next phase of his career, national office -- I published a book about what had happened over the past two decades, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. The next year, after being defeated in a congressional bid against Republican Peter Smith, he came back and won. That led to eight terms in Congress -- before moving on to the Senate and his latest campaign.

In 1998, while I was working for another Vermont weekly, I interviewed him at length about his philosophy and plans. By then he had made peace with the Democratic Party, often a target in his third party and Burlington years. But he could already envision a run for president and was certain he would "do well." 

One of Bernie's basic approaches is to charge that his opponents don't take strong stands, that they are all basically the same while he is different, and that the current rigged game and level of inequality are "totally outrageous." He can be adept at using sarcasm and irony, but his primary voice is declarative. He effectively channels and expresses what feels like righteous outrage. People respect and trust him. Although he can sometimes be brusque, he comes across as honest.

In 1976, he became the first "third party" candidate to get into a TV debate in Vermont. He was running for governor for the second time. Sitting between the Democrat and Republican, he effectively pushed the idea that there was little difference between them. It didn't get him many votes that time, but he did it more effectively in the 1986 against Kunin and Smith. That time he got more than 15%, a good showing for an outsider. Four years later he was in Congress, after defeating Smith, by then the Republican incumbent, and the Democrat.  

He's adept at spinning questions to make his points, occasionally without directly answering them, and is relentlessly on message. But he will strike out at the media -- or even a member of the public -- if he feels challenged. I've seen him shut down a press conference if he doesn't like the way things are going. 

He can appeal to white working class voters and even some conservatives. Clinton may think she is tweaking Bernie on gun issues, but she could be playing into his hands. He's pragmatic and savvy enough to see that being to her right on a few issues (like guns and perhaps marijuana) could help him, in the south and the general. In the 1981 election -- his first victory -- he ran AGAINST a large property tax increase being proposed by the mayor -- but at the same time said large institutions and the wealthy should "pay their fair share." It's a sweet spot he will attempt to find again. 

Running against someone like Trump, an actual billionaire, would make it even easier for Sanders to talk about oligarchy and define the race as an historic struggle. He frequently talks about "making history," refers in mailings to how powerful right wing forces are out to get him -- something that helps keep the base motivated, and defines the election choice in stark terms -- oligarchy or democracy. It's increasingly hard to disagree.

Last year, I helped Seven Days develop an interactive timeline: Bernie's Journey

Recent interviews include:

International Business Times: Bernie Sanders' Debate Plan