I think I’d make a good candidate.” Yes, that’s exactly what he said.
It had been a little over a week since Bernie Sanders decided to run for mayor of Burlington. Now, with these seven words, he was trying to ward off a rival challenger.
The man he was trying to persuade was Greg Guma, fellow left-wing activist and journalist whose own quiet plans to run had been unexpectedly outed by the Burlington Free Press a week before Sanders made his Halloween night decision to launch his own. The two had first crossed paths during Sanders’s 1972 Senate run, when Guma made the mistake of asking Sanders to tell him about himself. That meeting had concluded with Sanders brusquely telling Guma he didn’t want his vote.
Eight years later, upon learning of Guma’s plans to challenge five-term incumbent Gordon Paquette, Sanders phoned him and arranged a sit-down. The two met downtown in Burlington’s Fresh Ground Coffee House — long a place of interest in the FBI’s investigations into local “extremists.”
As Guma recalls, the meeting was less a conversation than a “test of wills.” Over the course of the meeting, Sanders made clear he would be going forward with his campaign no matter what. Guma could either step aside or split the progressive vote and likely sink them both.
For Guma, the choice was easy, if unpalatable. His highest priority was smashing the city’s staid political establishment, and he already had a job editing a weekly paper, one he was likely to lose if he ran for mayor. Sanders, by contrast, had no job and was a natural politician, a confident speaker able to connect with voters and adept at turning every question and topic to his stock talking points.
Guma officially bowed out on November 11, telling the Free Press he didn’t “really want to be in a position of dividing progressives looking for an alternative to Paquette.” But his frustration at letting Sanders head a movement he had played a leading role over the preceding years in building was clear. “I don’t think he represents what the majority of people want,” he told the paper.
Today, Guma says the episode encapsulates something about Sanders’s leadership style. “He makes his own decisions, he only consults with a few advisors, he trusts his gut, and once he makes the decision, you’re not going to make him change it,” he says. “Ever.”
Sanders, for his part, made clear to the public he would be playing to win this time. “What I don’t want people to believe is that this is a similar effort” to his Liberty Union campaigns, he told the press. He saw his campaign as a mini version of the political revolution that would become a staple of his speeches.
“The goal must be to take political power away from the handful of millionaires who currently control it through Mayor Paquette, and place that power in the hands of the working people of the city,” he said.
And unlike his Liberty Union campaigns, Sanders would eschew talking about national issues and foreign policy, focusing instead on building a voter coalition through speaking to local needs and issues. Before he could do that, however, he would have to figure out exactly what those were.
In Part One of the series, “The Bernie Sanders Origin Story,” Marcetic also explained:
Guma, then editing the alternative weekly Vanguard Press, saw possibilities in Barry Commoner’s Citizens Party. In March 1980, he wrote a memo to Ian Laskaris, a former Democrat and early Vermont organizer for the Citizens Party, arguing that Burlington could be “extremely fertile ground for the growth of” a third party.
Outlining the city’s copious sources of resentment, he noted the growing influence of Burlingtonians unaligned with either major party, and noted that the city’s two poorest wards, while registering the lowest voter turnout, “could be mobilized and have registered high turnouts for Liberty Union.” Suggesting several strategies to bring nonvoters out, Guma predicted that “it would not be unreasonable to expect that at least one ward candidate would be elected,” and that “in a three-way race, even a mayoral candidate might be elected.”
There was another good omen. By the time the 1980 election was over, the party’s House candidate, peace activist Robin Lloyd, ended up with 13 percent of the vote, including 25 percent in Burlington. Robin and I were co-parents of a two-year-old son, Jesse, and I had urged her to run. You can see the 1980 strategy memo further down in this article.
Decision in a laundry
This was hardly the first version of my pattern of stormy encounters with Bernie Sanders. I had written about them originally in my 1989 book, The People’s Republic. But six months before Marcetic and I spoke, just as Bernie was rising in the polls, Washington Post editor Marc Fisher tracked me down while unearthing crucial new details in Bernie’s origin story that were news to me.
Fisher’s June 13, 2019 feature began with this revealing scene:
On Halloween night in 1980, in a dank laundry room of a public-housing project in his adopted hometown, Bernie Sanders’s friends sat him down for a serious talk about his future. He had none.
Not if he kept going as he had for the previous decade. Sanders readily conceded that, having run for Vermont governor, twice, and for U.S. Senate, twice, never winning more than 6 percent of the vote, he risked getting stuck on the fringe, perceived as a joke.
The future presidential candidate was 39 years old and lacked even the beginnings of a career. He drifted from apartment to apartment and ended up having to leave one place because he was so behind on his rent. He had trouble connecting with the people around him. Without a steady job, he drove around the state in his Volkswagen Bug trying to sell teachers the films he had cobbled together about socialist Eugene V. Debs and other radicals.
What brought him satisfaction was diving into the battlefield of ideas. He loved to talk about how to improve life in America, and he was good at it. People left his speeches fired up, affirmed.
As he entered a second decade of campaigning, Sanders wanted another shot at running for governor.
No, his closest political pals said. Richard Sugarman, a philosopher who taught existentialism and Jewish thought at the University of Vermont, joined with three other allies and urged Sanders to give up on fruitless statewide races and target instead a place where he might actually win — Burlington. I still wonder who the others were, and whether one of them was also working inside my campaign.
Sugarman had run the numbers. Although Sanders never came close in any of his 1970s campaigns, he had pulled double digits — well, 12 percent — in the state’s largest city. He had done well in Burlington’s lower-middle-class neighborhoods. People there liked what he had to say.
Sanders was blunt: He knew little about city issues, couldn’t see himself as the guy in charge of snow removal.
But the others insisted that a mayor could focus on matters Sanders cared about: City residents were struggling to make their rent, and nothing was closer to Sanders’s heart than the plight of the ordinary worker. A mayoral campaign could tap Sanders’s passion for preaching about how the rich and powerful were the main obstacle to equality. He could battle the city’s Democratic political machine and big-business leaders
They talked through the night. As dawn neared and the workers who lived in the Franklin Square project began trickling in to wash their clothes, the men in the laundry room pressed for an answer. Sanders repeatedly said he wanted to focus on big, systemic change. But he also wanted to break out of his identity as a perennial also-ran.
He would run for mayor.
He had one last question for his friends.
“What the hell would I do if by some miracle I won?”
Even decades later, I had no idea this was the true backdrop for Bernie’s decision until Fisher’s article appeared. In the same story he also revisited how Bernie and I originally met, as well as our fateful showdown eight years later:
In 1971, Sanders showed up at a Liberty Union meeting at which the party was choosing its candidate for U.S. Senate. Nobody else seemed to want to take on the task. Sanders did. He got the nod, simple as that. Off he went, making the case against a rigged system, railing against big companies, Wall Street and the political parties that served as their enablers.
The purpose of that campaign and those that followed was “mainly educational,” said John Franco, who ran for lieutenant governor on the Sanders Liberty Union ticket in 1976. “Nobody knew who we were. Standing outside a GE plant in Rutland at shift change, Bernie was introducing me to the workers and nobody knew who he was either.”
Sanders slammed Democrats and Republicans alike, telling audiences that major-party candidates “can’t talk about this, because the people with the money will punish them.”
“I don’t follow those rules,” Sanders would say.
Or many others. The first time fellow activist Greg Guma met Sanders, at a meet-the-candidates event in 1971, Guma asked what in Sanders’s background made him the right man to be senator.
“Obviously, you haven’t been listening to me,” Sanders replied, as Guma recalled it. “Do you know what the movement is? Have you read the books? Are you against the war in Vietnam?”
Of course, Guma said, “but you’re a person, not a movement.”
“It’s the movement that’s important,” Sanders insisted. “Are you for it?”
It’s not only about policy, Guma said: “You have to prove you’re a basically good person if you want my vote.”
Sanders had heard enough: “I don’t want your vote,” he said.
“We used to say, ‘He’s a jerk, but he’s our jerk,’ ” Guma said.
Liberty Union members couldn’t decide between being a debate society and dedicating themselves to winning elections.
Some members were acolytes of a political philosopher named Murray Bookchin, an anarchist who lived in Burlington and was a pioneer in the U.S. ecology movement. Bookchin saw Sanders as an accommodator — far too willing to work within the existing system
“If socialist he be, he is of the ‘bread-and-butter’ kind whose preference [is] for ‘realism’ over ideals,” he wrote in a slashing critique in 1986. Bookchin, who died in 2006, dismissed Sanders’s “unadorned speech and macho manner” and “the surprising conventionality of his values.”
In hours-long arguments about Murray vs. Bernie, Bookchin would say, “You have to break with Bernie because he is a pragmatist,” Guma recalled. “He felt Bernie was selling out.”
By 1977, Sanders and some of his friends had had it. They left Liberty Union. “People got tired,” Abbott said, “of sitting in meetings debating ideas over and over again.”
In the years before his mayoral campaign, Sanders seemed to drop out of the political scene, according to several people who were close to him. He spent time on friends’ couches, made films, wrote for leftist papers, taught a bit, did some carpentry and house painting.
“I don’t remember him ever having a job,” Guma said. “Bernie felt like a lost soul in that time, a person who didn’t fit in exactly.”
But Sanders never seemed terribly concerned about his tenuous existence. “He’d say, ‘That’s just the way the world is,’ ” Terry Bouricius recalled.
A crucial endorsement
In March 1980, Guma wrote a memo urging fellow members of the Citizens Party, a third party that was considering running candidates in Vermont, to focus on Burlington.
The city “can be extremely fertile ground,” Guma wrote. Financial woes, cronyism between the Democratic mayor and business leaders, unrest among youths, soaring rents — the city’s troubles made it ripe for political upheaval. “In a three-way race, even a mayoral candidate might be elected,” he wrote.
Sanders was organizing low-income residents of Burlington’s Franklin Square housing project, bringing college students, the elderly and the poor together to press for affordable housing and tenants’ rights.
Guma, then editing an alternative newspaper, planned to run for mayor, but he realized that if leftists had any chance of pulling off an upset, only one of them could be on the ballot.
Some activists urged Guma to be that candidate. They considered Sanders great at reducing complicated topics to plain English, but they saw him as a pragmatist — and that was no compliment.
Guma and Sanders met to suss out each other’s plans. “Bernie said, ‘I’m running,’ ” Bouricius remembered. “ ‘This is not an educational campaign.’ ” He was in it to win it, and he needed a clear field.
Guma figured that “if I ran, I’d probably lose my job. The owner of my paper didn’t want me in politics. Bernie didn’t have anything to lose — no job. And he’s 6-2 and I’m 5-5, and that makes a difference.”
Guma stood down. But his theory about Burlington proved right.
Going up against the city’s five-term Democratic mayor and a local restaurateur, Sanders won the endorsement of the city police union. His door-to-door campaign — always telling residents, “We’re here to listen to complaints” — got its big boost after he promised a pay raise to the city’s police officers, whose income had been frozen by Burlington’s mayor.
“That turned him from a fringe candidate to somebody who could actually be mayor,” Guma said. “Once the police supported him, he couldn’t be a real red.”
Sanders slipped into office by 10 votes. He would go on to spend nearly three decades in Congress, in the House and then the Senate, but his four terms at city hall remain his only executive experience.
The rest, as they say, is history.