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

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

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tim Ashe and the Fusion Option

Progressive Eclipse – Chapter Four

TWO DAYS AFTER officially becoming a candidate for mayor, Tim Ashe participated in his first debate. At the Champlain Elementary School he defined himself as the one person in the race “who can bring people together and end the partisan fighting.” His strategy was “fusion,” which would require his nomination by both the Democratic and Progressive Parties.

Tim Ashe
Seated nearby were three other contenders for the job. City Councilor Bram Kranichfeld talked about the need to restore fiscal responsibility, trust, and accountability. Airport Commissioner Miro Weinberger described his business and leadership experience, and state legislator Jason Lorber told a moving personal story about values, trust and strength.

In an interview, Ashe, a 34-year-old state lawmaker already involved in Vermont politics for more than a decade, described how he saw things: “I’ve been forthcoming about my desire to bring Progressives and Democrats together to stop this crazy infighting that is so counter-productive.”

It wouldn’t be an easy pitch to sell. His first job after graduating from UVM was with Bernie Sanders, who'd been fighting Democrats and Republicans for years. Next, Ashe served three terms on the City Council as a Progressive. But more recently he had been elected to the House, then the Senate with the backing of both parties. Now his goal was to win a city caucus competition over Democrats with strong party connections. He would also “accept” the Progressive nomination, he explained, but only if he first won the Democratic nod.

If that didn't happen, Progressives would have a problem – scramble to find someone else, settle for Bob Kiss – the Progressive incumbent who’d alienated his base – or no candidate at all. Comfortable with Ashe, if not all the options, Party leaders decided to wait and see.

Ashe makes a point; to his right, Lorber, Kranichfeld and Weinberger  

Of course, they also knew Ashe was in a unique spot. Under Progressive Party rules, only someone who had already run solely as a Progressive could accept the nomination of another party. No other Democratic candidate qualified. On the other hand, it was precisely Ashe’s allegiance to the Progressive Party that made some Democrats skeptical, if not hostile. While Ashe argued that his ties to both parties made him the best option for preventing a Republican victory, Weinberger’s answer was that he would nevertheless be seen by many voters as an ally of Mayor Kiss. He certainly had been in the past.

During their first debate, one audience question went straight at the point: Would the losing candidates actively support whoever wins the caucus? The other three candidates had no trouble sounding unequivocal. But Ashe suggested that his backing, while likely, was not unconditional. It would depend, he said, on “a compact that all candidates live up to. We’ll see if the high road is taken.”

Defining the dysfunction

With links to two major parties, Ashe didn’t think political labels were the real issue. “Parties would be Ok if the process was more civil,” he said. “But the response to every significant challenge is people carving out factional interests on the council – not always along party lines.”

This he called “the political dysfunction, the constant theater at City Hall,” one of two “deep sets of problems” that had prompted him to run. “Anyone who has followed the Council knows it has been dysfunctional and marred by constant sniping,” he said. But the other trouble was financial, he acknowledged, mentioning Burlington Telecom, an estimated $50 million pension fund liability, and looming budget cuts.

Ashe conveniently placed much of the blame on Kiss, charging the mayor had demonstrated “a complete lack of leadership.” His primary deficit -- failure to communicate, Ashe charged. “So much of the good will he ought to have was squandered.” He didn’t mention Peter Clavelle, the previous Progressive mayor, who had negotiated the pension benefits and pushed through the development of BT.

The problem with the argument was that his view of Kiss changed only after his re-election in 2009. Endorsing Kiss at a January 2009 press conference, Ashe had expressed “deep support” and praised the mayor’s whole team for pulling “rabbits out of hats.” Kiss had “cleaned up financial messes,” Ashe claimed. “If that’s drifting then let’s keep drifting.”

Of course, that was before the public learned that Kiss and his Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold had kept a $16.9 BT debt to the city treasury secret. As a candidate Ashe was going public with a revised, very different assessment. “He didn’t share information with the public,” Ashe said,“this hasn’t happened since Day One.” It was hard not to ask why he hadn’t mentioned it earlier.
Mayor Kiss and Kurt Wrght
Tough criticism was also directed at Wright. Responding to the Republican’s proposal that the city could reduce its debt by selling the Burlington Electric Department, Ashe called the idea “totally half-baked” and “insane at this point in a campaign.”

Ashe had worked with Wright on the City Council. In fact, they'd once competed for the job of Council President. Wright won that competition in 2007 with the support of most council Democrats, who didn’t bother to nominate their own candidate. Ashe was not pleased.  “Democrats have been quite concerned with this vote,” he claimed at the time. “I'm not sure it's all been fair.”

After leaving local office for the State House, however, he had kind words for Wright’s leadership on the Council and Board of Finance. The local mood had changed dramatically in a year, especially after the BT revelations surfaced. The Council put Leopold on paid leave and began to investigate. Meanwhile, Wright and others, Republicans and Democrats, backed resolutions to consider mayoral recall and impeachment as charter changes.

Now highly critical of Mayor Kiss, Ashe said he wanted to “preserve the progressive legacy” with “a mayor who reflects the values ingrained for three decades.” The key going forward would be “an inclusive approach.”

He also promised to apply the principle to Occupy Wall Street. Burlington was “in the vanguard of meeting the demands of this movement,” he said. “The first step would be to meet with representatives to better understand their local goals.” But at least publicly, neither he nor any of the other candidates did.

“An Unusual Path”

Growing up in Massachusetts, Tim Ashe moved to Burlington to attend UVM, joined Bernie Sanders’ staff shortly after graduating, and attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before his election to the City Council. In a 2004 special election he replaced Carina Driscoll, daughter of Sanders’ wife Jane, and became the Council’s youngest member.

It was clear by then that he had a promising political future. During this period Ashe also met his partner, Paula Routly, publisher and co-editor of Seven Days. After he became a candidate for mayor, Routly announced that she would not “assign or edit stories or columns about Burlington politics for the duration of the campaign.”

Professionally, Ashe had worked with residents in mobile home parks at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, then became a Project Manager at Cathedral Square, a non-profit developer of affordable housing for seniors and people with disabilities. As a city councilor he had made affordable housing a major focus. And he wasn’t reluctant to take controversial stands at times, even if it meant an unusual alliance. In 2008, for example, he worked with Ed Adrian, frequently an administration critic, on an unsuccessful ballot item request that would have asked voters to decriminalize small quantities of marijuana possession. The proposal was defeated in a 7-6 vote.

But those were more upbeat times locally, before the financial collapse of 2008, the increased polarization following Barack Obama’s election, and the growing outrage about corporate greed and government overreach. Looking forward, Ashe saw “real financial threats” on the horizon. “Jobs and programs will be on the line,” he predicted. “To not recognize that is to be asleep at the wheel.”

His campaign pitch was that looming threats, combined with Burlington’s unique political dynamics, called for someone able to unite a “new majority.” However, his strategy of fusion wasn’t a familiar concept for most local voters. Candidates did win multiple party endorsements, and even ran as Republican/Democratic candidates at times. But this was usually due to a lack of competition or the nature of the office. A few Progressives in the legislature had run with Democratic support. But fusion as a tactic for a campaign was an urban, and often partisan, political strategy.

In New York City, for example, fusion was once the only way a Republican could become mayor; the tactic was used to bring together clean government supporters across party lines in the name of reform. The most famous fusion politician in the Big Apple was Fiorello LaGuardia. Although a Republican, nearly half his votes for New York mayor in 1933 came from Progressives and Fusionists. 

Weinberger & Ashe at the Caucus
“There are two prerequisites for the next mayor,” Ashe proposed, “the experience to do the job, but secondly, the person making the decisions must embody the values of the vast majority – on energy efficiency, peace, health care, economic equity – all the things that make people proud of Burlington. None of the others can measure up in both areas.”

It was a plausible argument. But Ashe still faced two major hurdles: convincing enough Progressives – many of whom were weary of Kiss yet remained “hard-core Ps,” as a staffer put it – that attending a Democratic caucus wouldn’t undermine their Party. And, at the same time, persuading wary Democrats that this wasn’t just a Progressive takeover ploy, that he truly wanted to be more inclusive and less partisan.

To defend against Internet attacks that he was the mayor’s lackey, Ashe went on offense. “I’ve taken an unusual path," he said, "but I don’t apologize.” In fact, his successful Senate run, with the support of both Democrats and Progressives, had “changed the culture of the Senate” and created the possibility of a “new era of collaboration.”

Yet he also had a message for his base. By joining forces with past opponents, Ashe suggested, they would be in a better position to preserve “a legacy we can be proud of” – meaning the projects and achievements of three Progressive administrations.

NEXT: Rhetoric & Reality in the Sanders Era

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Burlington Gets Occupied

Progressive Eclipse – Chapter Three

Thousands of people were taking to the streets, protesting the growing global disparity of wealth and income. Beginning on Wall Street a decentralized rebellion had spread nationwide, and was on the verge of turning into a significant multi-issue mobilization. By October 2011, the fledgling movement had reached at least 150 communities across the country and more overseas. In the nation’s capital a group calling itself Occupy DC set up camp in McPherson Square, a few blocks from the White House; more events were being planned from New York and Boston to Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco.
In Burlington, hundreds of people began to gather as part of the broader uprising, giving voice to local anger about economic inequality and the excesses of banks and economic elites. Inspired and emboldened by the wave of protests, they promised to return each week until the roots of problem were addressed. They also began to discuss whether a local “occupation” should occur.
On a typical Sunday, after a warm up in City Hall Park, the group would march and sing their way up Church Street’s pedestrian mall as shoppers watched. Then, without having requested a permit, they’d turn down College Street to the Citizens Bank, a convenient symbol of excess across from City Hall. Standing in front of the bank door, people took turns addressing the crowd, which repeated key phrases so that everyone could hear. Participants were also learning a new language, one linked in turn to a radical democratic process.
“You go bankrupt you lose your house,” shouted organizer Matthew Cropp on a Sunday in early October. “The largest banks in this country go bankrupt and they get a free ride from the government. They get billions of dollars in bailout money.” Each sentence was repeated by about 125 people.
The local protest was part of what was now called Occupy Wall Street, or the 99% movement. Spokespeople – it claimed to have no leaders – described it as a decentralized, non-violent rebellion against economic tyranny that had burst forth through social networks, websites, and a loose alliance of groups and activists.
On June 13, as part of a “day of action” in New York, a group had attempted to occupy Zucotti Park, a public space close to Wall Street and the New York Federal Reserve. Although that early attempt to “occupy” the park failed a People’s General Assembly was formed, and by October Zucotti had become the site of what was looking like a permanent encampment attracting thousands and serving as the nexus for decision-making and broader action plans.
On September 17, Adbusters magazine issued a public call to Occupy Wall Street, which immediately became known as OWS. Radical groups with names like Anonymous, A99, and US Day of Rage were among the earliest to endorse its goals. According to David DeGraw, editor of, the unifying principle was that, “anything you can do to rebel against the system of economic tyranny in a non-violent manner is welcome.”
It was radical, but in some ways mirrored the outrage and defiance of the conservative, anti-government Tea Party movement that had preceded it.
After weeks of rallies, police eventually arrested 700 protesters for attempting to block Brooklyn Bridge. This hardly discouraged the movement. In fact, more people joined. OWS wasn’t focusing primarily on the government, although it did have a legislative agenda. Its primary targets were “banksters” and corporate forces that had destabilized the economy and widened the gap between the rich and poor while enriching themselves.

Burlington’s OWS wasn’t just complaining about Wall Street; its objective was to give the growing activist urgency a local focus. Social networks made it possible both to mobilize people within hours and provide local examples of larger problems. “We need to start looking here in Burlington with our homeless shelters being more than three times of capacity,” suggested local organizer Jonathan Leavitt. Months earlier Leavitt had been a leader in the local anti-Lockheed mobilization.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch were among the first officials to back the goals of Occupy, and even offered some legislative proposals to address its grievances. For example, Welch was opposing attempts to add banking fees to checking accounts. He called the plan by Bank of America and Citibank to charge users a monthly fee for the use of their debit cards “simply shameless.” At a time when consumers are struggling, “they stick the knife in by charging customers to get access to their accounts,” Welch charged. “When will enough be enough for big banks?”

Sanders meanwhile praised the protesters for “shining a national spotlight on the most powerful, dangerous and secretive economic and political force in America.” He floated a list of ideas to change the financial system, including a proposal to break up banks that were supposedly “too big to fail,” cap credit card interest rates, provide low-interest loans to small businesses through the Federal Reserve, end excessive oil speculation, force Wall Street to invest in job creation and impose a fee for speculative investments like credit default swaps and derivatives.

At Marlboro College, Ralph Meima, director of the school’s Sustainability Management graduate program, launched an online “crowd-sourced” Google document that let contributors around the world help to develop an American People’s New Economic Charter. Crowd-sourcing had recently emerged as an Internet strategy to promote diverse, democratic input. Contributions varied from the profound to the superfluous.

The overall goal was to create a comprehensive list of legislative, regulatory and social reforms consistent with the new movement. Billed as an “experiment in total inclusion and transparency,” Meima described his project as “a declaration of the economic changes that the 99 percent want to see come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

Labor leaders also backed the general goals of the Occupy movement, according to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. During a conference with reporters he announced, “We are going to support them in any way we can. We’re not going to try to usurp them in any way.”

General Assembly in City Hall Park

The poster for an October 15 Montpelier rally captured the mood with this pointed headline: “The War on Wealth.” The schedule for the day included a solidarity rally at City Hall, then a March to the Statehouse and a people’s General Assembly. Similar events were organized in Burlington, Brattleboro and Rutland. In Burlington, more than 500 people marched for two hours, taking their jobs and justice message from downtown to the University of Vermont campus. In Montpelier, 300 turned out on the steps of City Hall and the Statehouse.

At this point, almost half of all Americans felt that the economic system was personally unfair to them, according to a Gallup poll.  A big reason was that they were getting the picture: The top 1 percent had amassed greater net worth than the “bottom” 90 percent. And, in an unusual generational twist, more people under 30 viewed the concept of socialism in a positive light than capitalism.

The movement’s objective was nevertheless ambitious – to occupy parks, schools, corporate offices, streets, basically anywhere and everywhere – until something substantial was done about what was now being called economic tyranny. It was an uncomfortably apt description of the current “world order.”

On the other hand, many in the movement expressed shock at the heavy-handed official response, as if they had discovered something new about the relationship between the state and those who disagree. Others tended to be overly suspicious about cooptation or thought that even unions and were political “Trojan horses.” Still others suggested that their efforts to create self-governing communities represented a breakthrough of paradigm-altering significance. Was it hubris, naiveté, or just idealism and youthful ambition?

Many saw OWS as a counterculture, a transformational social experiment. To survive, they argued, it would have to remain separate and uncompromised by the dominant culture. The problem was that, in order to fully participate in its non-hierarchical, consensus-based process, people had to make it a central part of their lives. This posed a problem for those without that much “free time.”

Combining 18th century democratic principles with 21st century methods, Occupy activists wanted to change the political culture. And to some extent, they were starting to succeed, shifting the focus from debt and deficits to wealth inequality. But they also wanted much more. As writer Todd Gitlin explained, “They wanted to produce a society of their own, and half believed they were producing it.”
By late October OWS activists in Burlington had launched an encampment at City Hall Park. As long as some basic rules were followed, announced Mayor Kiss, he was prepared to be flexible. Things went well at first, in contrast with the violent confrontations between police and protesters that shut down encampments elsewhere. But an impromptu concert in the park led to the relaxation of normal rules one night, and the next day some campers were still intoxicated -- including Joshua Pfenning, a 35-year-old homeless man.  His death that day from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was traumatic for the local movement, and especially for those who had tried to help Pfenning. It also marked the abrupt end of the Burlington encampment.
By that time, however, almost everyone was talking about the 1%, the few with most of the wealth – bankers, energy tycoons, hedge fund managers and the rest. And as filmmaker Robert Greenwald pointed out, there was an even smaller elite – the top 0.01 percent, wealthy military contractors. That made the welcome given to Sandia Laboratories and Lockheed Martin by Vermont’s progressive leaders even more troubling for local liberals and peace activists. 
As protesters on the streets chanted "We are the 99%,” election season was just heating up in Burlington. At a Democratic debate two days after declaring his candidacy for mayor, State Sen. Tim Ashe, a former Progressive member of the City Council, proposed an unusual alliance – fusion with the Democrats to defeat the Republican challenge from Kurt Wright. Yet on the F-35s and partnering with a predatory corporation, leading progressive critics of concentrated wealth and the military-industrial complex like Bernie Sanders and Bob Kiss were making basically the same arguments as their conservative opponents. Most local Progressives preferred to ignore it and focus instead on survival.
NEXT: The Fusion Option

Thursday, April 2, 2015

When Lockheed Came to Town

Progressive Eclipse - Chapter Two

The chances were never great that Vermont’s popular US Senator, widely known as an Independent, a socialist and a congressional hero of the left – would run for President in 2012. But that didn’t stop people from talking about it – and not for the first time. In Bernie Sanders’ old political stomping grounds, however, populist anger was aimed at the overtures he and Mayor Bob Kiss were making to Lockheed Martin and Sandia Laboratories.

On August 8, 2011 after six months of debate, the City Council had voted 8-6 in favor of nonbinding community standards for proposed climate-change partnerships, prompted by an agreement between the mayor and Lockheed. The resolution called for standards which, if they were followed, would exclude working with weapons manufacturers and environmental polluters. 

After the vote Kiss was defiant. Discussions with the corporation would continue, he announced. The city attorney added that the mayor wasn’t bound by the Council’s decision in pursuing such an executive-level agreement. Nevertheless, a few weeks later the talks ended. Apparently aware of the local mood, the defense contractor backed out of the deal in an e-mail message to the Burlington Free Press.

As Lockheed spokesman Rob Fuller put it politely, “While several projects showed promise initially and we have learned a tremendous amount from each other, we were unable to develop a mutually beneficial implementation plan. Therefore Lockheed Martin has decided to conclude the current collaboration.”

It sounded like a Dear John letter – and a bow to public pressure. In reality, the courtship was just beginning.

Sanders refused to comment. But his typical view of corporate criminals and wasteful military spending was well known; in fact, it was part of what had made him a compelling figure. Consider his fiery speech in October 2009 on the floor of the US Senate, taking on Lockheed Martin and other top military contractors for what he called “systemic, illegal, and fraudulent behavior, while receiving hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money.”

Among the crimes he mentioned were these: Lockheed Martin had defrauded the government by inflating the cost of several Air Force contracts, lied about the costs when negotiating contracts for the repairs on US warships, and submitted false invoices for payment on a multi-billion dollar contract connected to the Titan IV space launch vehicle program. Sanders called the corporation a “repeat offender” that rarely faced serious penalties.

“It is absurd that year after year after year, these companies continue doing the same things and they continue to get away with it,” he proclaimed.

And yet he had invited Sandia Laboratories, which is managed by Lockheed Martin for the Department of Defense, to establish a satellite lab in Vermont. In fact, he’d been working with Vermont utilities, energy enterprises, the university and business leaders on the plan for more than two years. Sanders also accepted the proposal that Lockheed-built F-35s be based in the future at the Burlington International Airport. If the fighter jet, widely considered a massive boondoggle, was going to be built, Sanders argued that some of the work should be done by Vermonters (Rutland’s GE plant had contracts to build an engine) and Vermont National Guard jobs should be protected. In other words, he was just bringing home some “bacon” for his state.

Sanders first visited Sandia’s headquarters in New Mexico in 2008. “At the end of the day,” recalled Les Shephard, Sandia vice president for energy, resources and nonproliferation, “he turned to the laboratory director and said, ‘I’d really like to have a set of capabilities like Sandia in New England — and very much so in Vermont.’ And that’s how it all evolved.”

Sanders listens to Sandia's Stulen at the lab's launch.
Despite concerns about Lockheed’s consistently bad behavior Sanders didn’t think inviting a subsidiary to the state would help them get away with anything. Rather, he envisioned Vermont transformed “into a real-world lab for the entire nation” through a strategic public-private partnership. “We’re at the beginning of something that could be of extraordinary significance to Vermont and the rest of the country,” he predicted.

It was a highly optimistic picture: Businesses, ratepayers and researchers would get a boost, a Department of Energy planning grant would jump start the research, and more government support would follow as the project gained steam. Sandia Vice President Richard Stulen meanwhile confirmed Sanders’ pledge that no weapons development work would be involved. The focus, they promised, would be cutting edge research on cyber security, “smart grid” technology and stopping hacker attacks.

Sandia’s motivation? As Stulen explained it, Vermont’s small, compact energy infrastructure was an “ideal place” to create a model for the rest of the country. The Feds were impressed with the work underway on forward-looking renewable energy technology and a willingness to “tinker with related policies and regulations.” Sandia defined the lab’s mission as energy “security.” For Vermont, the carrot was the prospect of jobs and a chance for local enterprises to get a “global competitive edge.”

The letter of cooperation between Mayor Kiss and Lockheed made a similar argument. Lockheed Martin Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Ray O. Johnson stressed national security and “the economic and strategic challenges posed by our dependence on foreign oil and the potential destabilizing effects of climate change.” A local partnership, he said, would “demonstrate a model for sustainability that can be replicated across the nation.”

Kiss insisted that the climate crisis required radical action, while Sanders felt comfortable simply ignoring his critics. Yet both claimed, remarkably, that they never discussed or coordinated their positions.

Cracks in the Coalition

Mayor Kiss claimed that his introduction to the idea of a partnership with the corporate giant began in Richard Branson’s “Carbon War Room.” The result was a Dec. 20, 2010 “letter of cooperation” signed with Lockheed Martin to address climate change by developing green-energy solutions. The plan was vague, mentioning only “sustainable business models” and analysis, and “energy and transportation technologies.” Yet Kiss envisioned future fuel efficient vehicles, improving the use of steam from the city-owned generating station, and generally turning “swords into ploughshares.”

Despite years of anti-corporate, peace movement rhetoric the two main elected leaders of the state’s progressive movement had both decided to make research and development deals with a powerful corporation – one that many people considered a war profiteer and a corporate criminal. It was no shock that this policy "coincidence" set off a local revolt and a period of self-assessment.

Military contracts represent less than five percent of Vermont GDP, but substantially more in the Champlain Valley, home base for the two largest recipients, General Dynamics and Simmonds Precision. Between 2000 and 2011 around 600 companies received $7 billion in contracts. Chittenden County was the big winner but there were smaller businesses employing people in almost every Vermont County, producing guns, ammunition, “quick reaction” equipment, explosive components, missiles and aircraft parts. The main Congressional booster for military contract jobs was Vermont’s senior US senator, Patrick Leahy, who frequently made appearances at factories to announce big contracts.

On the other hand, Burlington also had a rich history of social activism. In fact, over three decades it developed a series of progressive foreign policy initiatives. As Ken Picard explained in the weekly Seven Days, the debate over Lockheed Martin touched on “a bigger issue about Burlington identity and the corporations with which it chooses to associate: Given the dire predictions about imminent and catastrophic climate change, should the city accept Lockheed Martin’s technical help, and ample dollars, in the interest of achieving the greater good?

“Or, should Burlington refuse to lend its name and reputation to help burnish the image of the world’s largest maker of weapons of mass destruction? In short, is Lockheed Martin ‘beating swords into ploughshares,’ as Mayor Kiss had characterized it, or engaging in corporate greenwashing at Burlington’s expense?”
Jonathan Leavitt addresses Mayor Kiss
at August 2011 review of the Lockheed deal
Those weren’t easy questions to answer, or even discuss. But an early opportunity came on February 7, 2011. City Hall’s Contois Auditorium was crowded that night as the Council considered the mayor’s deal with Lockheed. In a scene reminiscent of the early days of the Sanders era, dozens of local residents told their leaders why they didn’t like the idea. An August follow up attracted a similar audience and the same concerns.

The proposed arrangement reinforced emerging questions about Progressive leadership. After Kiss was re-elected in 2009 major financial trouble was uncovered in the financing and operation of Burlington Telecom. Without public notification $17 million had been borrowed from city coffers to build the system. The apparent plan was to get new commercial financing that would allow repayment, then announce the violation of the utility’s license to the Department of Public Service.

BT also borrowed $33.5 million from CitiBank, and wasn’t able to handle the payments. By September, 2011 the municipal enterprise was under interim management and actively looking for a private partner. But the prospects for finding a “white knight” while holding onto a public stake weren’t bright, and the scandal had meanwhile damaged the mayor’s reputation, not to mention the future prospects of his Party.

With that backdrop, left-leaning residents and younger activists were shocked and upset that the administration also wanted to partner with a corporation that Sanders himself considered one of the biggest corporate predators – number one in contractor misconduct with 57 violations and $577 million in fines and settlements.

In February, the City Council had instructed Kiss to put the deal on hold until they had more information and a public hearing was held. Their resolution also called for serious effort on climate change and local standards for companies hoping to work with the city. The mayor ignored them.

At the same time Sanders flatly refused to discuss the situation, avoiding interviews about Lockheed, F-35s or his alliance with Sandia. And when he was finally caught off-guard at a speech in Boston a few days after the February City Council vote and asked about local objections in Burlington, he testily told the inquiring journalist he was just misinformed. There was simply no opposition in Burlington, the senator said.

In any case, the City Council had voted to set standards for partnerships that clearly excluded a corporation like Lockheed Martin. And opposing that policy were a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans, including mayoral candidate Kurt Wright. That put the city’s Progressive mayor and the movement's de facto leader on the same side as hawks and other conservatives.

The anti-Lockheed resolution was proposed by another Progressive, Mulvaney-Stanak, and was backed by the only other Council Progressive and several Democrats, including Ed Adrian, a frequent critic of the Kiss administration who proposed outright rejection of Lockheed. The overall dynamic dramatized a developing rift between the base of both parties and their leadership.

By October, it looked as if Kurt Wright might actually win the upcoming mayoral race. Even if Kiss opted not to run again – or was rejected at a Progressive Caucus – his party needed to heal some serious divisions and find a way forward. Once again, some Progressive "thought leaders" were coming to the conclusion that their best hope was a sympathetic Democrat. If they didn’t find the right one, the coalition that had launched Sanders and changed Vermont politics could lose control of local government, perhaps permanently. 

Others were more cynical, speculating that it might be better for progressives -- at least in the long run -- if in the short run a Republican ran City Hall.

NEXT: Burlington Gets Occupied