San­ders is in with the en­emy, some old al­lies say

Fiery in­de­pen­dent’s Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial bid irks so­cial­ist purists

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID A. FAHREN­THOLD

Burling­ton, vt.— It was one of the first po­lit­i­cal events Bernie San­ders ever went to in Ver­mont: a 1971 dis­cus­sion by a small group of left-wingers, the Lib­erty Union Party.

These peo­ple were not win­ners, in the elec­toral sense. The clos­est they had come to win­ning a statewide race, at that point, was los­ing by 56 points. So some­one in the au­di­ence asked: Why don’t you be­come Democrats? Why not sac­ri­fice third-party pu­rity for a chance at ac­tual power?

San­ders — a trans­planted Brook­lynite, known in Ver­mont for his over­heated writ­ing and un­der­whelm­ing car­pen­try — spoke up from the crowd. The sac­ri­fice wasn’t worth it.

“He felt strongly that you worked out­side the Demo­cratic Party,” said Jim Rader, a long­time friend who took San­ders to the meet­ing. “He felt there were too many com­pro­mises that had to be made, too many com­pro­mises of po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ples.”

Last week, 44 years later, a group of so­cial­ists gath­ered in a Ver­mont li­brary to­have a strik­ingly sim­i­lar de­bate. This time, they were de­cid­ing whether they could sup­port Bernie San­ders him­self.

San­ders was not at this meet­ing. The scruffy so­cial­ist of the ’70s — who later be­came a mayor,

and U.S. sen­a­tor — is out on the cam­paign trail now, draw­ing huge crowds as a can­di­date for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

In Ver­mont, the so­cial­ists’ speaker said his an­swer was no. The purest so­cial­ist in main­stream Amer­i­can pol­i­tics was no longer pure enough.

“When San­ders de­cided to run as a Demo­crat,” that was the last straw, said Jim Ramey at the­meet­ing of the In­ter­na­tional So­cial­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s Burling­ton branch. “Peo­ple on the left should not sup­port him.”

The story of Bernie San­ders’s life in pol­i­tics is the dis­tance be­tween those two meet­ings.

San­ders got his start on Ver­mont’s left fringe. In mul­ti­ple third-party runs for of­fice, he learned the craft of pol­i­tics, which has been the only steady work he has ever had. San­ders also de­vel­oped the same pol­icy ideas that still de­fine him: tax­ing the rich, ex­pand­ing the safety net for the poor and weak­en­ing the in­flu­ence of Wall Street.

But if San­ders kept the fringe’s ideas, he quickly dis­carded its small-bore tac­tics — and be­gan mak­ing al­lies, and com­pro­mises, that would bring him big­ger au­di­ences and higher of­fice.

The re­sult is that Ver­mont is strewn with dis­sat­is­fied so­cial­ists, de­nounc­ing San­ders for per­ceived sins that go back to the ’70s.

And Bernie San­ders is run­ning for pres­i­dent.

“A very skilled and savvy politi­cian,” said Rader, who later worked in San­ders’s con­gres­sional of­fice, so close to San­ders that they shared one well-used neck­tie. “He’s not a purist. He’s con­sis­tent. He holds very deep con­vic­tions. Buthe is not a purist.”

San­ders was born in Brook­lyn, the son of a paint sales­man, and be­came in­volved in left-wing pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Chicago. He ar­rived in Ver­mont in a wave of new­com­ers, back-to-the-lan­ders. They didn’t make a habit of ask­ing one another where they had come from.

“He was poor as a church mouse back then . . . liv­ing in an apart­ment that I al­ways re­ferred to as dark, stark and clut­tered,” said Darcy Troville, a friend from those early days. San­ders had been di­vorced years be­fore. He had a son, whose mother and he never mar­ried. “I was won­der­ing how he ended up with this baby alone. I didn’t know what he did for work,” Troville said.

If Bernie San­ders had a great tal­ent at that time, it was not ob­vi­ous.

He wrote for the Ver­mont Free­man, a counter-cul­ture news­pa­per, for $10 or $15 a story, in­clud­ing an es­pe­cially strange piece about dark sex­ual fan­tasies. San­ders also did some car­pen­try. No­body re­mem­bers the writ­ing or the wood­work­ing well.

The thing San­ders was good at, it turned out, was pol­i­tics.

But even that wasn’t clear right away.

“We didn’t have a chance in hell,” John Bloch said, re­call­ing a meet­ing of the Lib­erty Union Party in 1971, when mem­bers were seek­ing nom­i­nees to run for the U.S. Se­nate. “I said, ‘Is there any­body that can be lion bait for the Se­nate race? We need a body.’ ” San­ders vol­un­teered. In his first ra­dio in­ter­view as a can­di­date, he­later re­called, his ner­vous knees knocked the ta­ble so loudly that the mi­cro­phone picked it up. “A strange thump­ing noise tra­versed the air­waves,” San­ders wrote in his 1997 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, as the sound engi­neer waved at him to stop it.

The mes­sage that San­ders used in that cam­paign is present in this one. “Wealth = power, lack of wealth = sub­servience. How could we change that?” he re­called in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, called “Out­sider in the House.” “The ideas I was es­pous­ing were not ‘farout’ or ‘fringe.’ Frankly, they were ‘main­stream.’ ”

Maybe. But San­ders wasn’t. He got 2 per­cent of the vote.

In 1974, San­ders ran for Se­nate again. Four per­cent.

In 1976, he ran for gover­nor. Six per­cent. He was get­ting bet­ter at de­bates and re­tail pol­i­tics. And at this rate, he would be up to an elec­toral ma­jor­ity in only . . . 44 more years.

So, in 1977, San­ders quit the party.

In the media, he called Lib­erty Union “a fail­ure.”

“I didn’t re­ally think he had a right to do that,” said Doris Lake, a for­mer House can­di­date who had cam­paigned along­side San­ders in his first race. She meant bad­mouthing the party. “We were still keep­ing it alive.” Not for the last time, San­ders had alien­ated one of the true be­liev­ers with whom he had started out.

“Enough was enough,” San­ders told him­self, he re­called in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “My po­lit­i­cal ca­reer was over.”

Trou­ble was, his other ca­reer was worse.

San­ders made slide shows with au­dio for Ver­mont schools. But his op­er­a­tion was so painfully lowtech that he was stymied by the need for a “beep” to tell the teacher to ad­vance to the next slide. He couldn’t af­ford a pro­fes­sional beep. “He tried bang­ing a pot lid with a spoon,” friend Terry Bour con­gress­man icius said. That wasn’t a beep. Fi­nally: “His son’s walkie-talkies, if you pushed both the but­tons at the same time, it would make a beep sound.”

San­ders also tried to be a doc­u­men­tary film­maker, with a movie about a per­sonal role model: Eu­gene V. Debs, leader of the So­cial­ist Party of Amer­ica. San­ders did

his hero’s voice him­self: “Oneclass is small and rich and the other

lah­wge and poor,” he read in his Brook­lyn ac­cent, ac­cord­ing to au­dio dis­cov­ered by Mother Jones mag­a­zine. He con­tin­ued: “One con­sists of cap­i­tal­ists, and the other of workuhs.” Debs was from In­di­ana. “I said, ‘Bernie, you’re not go­ing to sell this thing. The sound­track, Debs has a Brook­lyn ac­cent you can cut with a knife,’ ” Bloch, his friend, re­mem­bered say­ing. Ver­mon­ters wouldn’t un­der­stand it. “He said, ‘ They’ll lu­uhn.’ ”

It still wasn’t much of a liv­ing. San­ders’s land­lord raised his rent, and he moved in with a friend.

Then that friend, a Univer­sity of Ver­mont pro­fes­sor, per­suaded him to go back into pol­i­tics — run­ning for Burling­ton mayor as an in­de­pen­dent, with­out the bag­gage of a larger party be­hind him. This time, San­ders fo­cused on lo­cal is­sues: a wa­ter­front­de­vel­op­ment, fight­ing a tax in­crease, keep­ing a hill open for snow-sled­ding.

He won by 10 votes. That year, San­ders re­calls, his friends chipped in and bought him some­thing a mayor needs: a leather brief­case. He was 40 years old.

San­ders first faced strong op­po­si­tion from Repub­li­cans and Democrats. He did some things that his old al­lies liked— he hung a pic­ture of Debs in City Hall, he crit­i­cized U.S. pol­icy in Cen­tral Amer­ica, he set up an of­fice to in­crease af­ford­able hous­ing, and he tried make ca­ble TV cheaper for the poor.

But he still alien­ated some on the left, at times, by act­ing like a mayor in­stead of a so­cial­ist.

In 1983, for in­stance, some of San­ders’s old al­lies planned to block the gates of a Gen­eral Elec­tric plant in Burling­ton that made guns for mil­i­tary he­li­copters. They would de­mand that the fac­tory start mak­ing some­thing peace­ful in­stead.

“He said he would have us ar­rested,” said Greg Guma, who had known San­ders since 1972. “Then the day came. And he did.” The so­cial­ist mayor sat qui­etly on a guardrail, watch­ing them be­ing hand­cuffed.

In the same pe­riod, San­ders also be­gan a po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship with the Demo­cratic Party. He still de­nounced the party as ide­o­log­i­cally bank­rupt, part of a closed and cor­rupt two-party sys­tem.

But, when big elec­tions came, he also cam­paigned for its can­di­dates, as he did for Wal­ter Mon­dale in 1984.

That lost him another so­cial­ist ally.

“The friend­ship could not stand him storm­ing around the state for Fritz Mon­dale,” said Peter Di­a­mond­stone, one of San­ders’s friends from the Lib­erty Union Party and Doris Lake’s hus­band.

In the good old days, Di­a­mond­stone used to stay over at San­ders’s house in Burling­ton, and the two men stayed up late shout­ing po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ments at each other.

One such row had been over whether all chil­dren should be al­lowed to vote. Di­a­mond­stone said yes. San­ders said only af­ter pu­berty. “I said, ‘Wad­dya want, the town clerks to start do­ing ex­am­i­na­tions?” Di­a­mond­stone re­mem­bered yelling.

Now, that was over. Di­a­mond­stone staked out a Mon­dale event. He caught San­ders com­ing in and handed his friend a leaflet that called him a “Quis­ling.”

Since then, as San­ders rose through the po­lit­i­cal ranks, Di­a­mon dstone has con­tin­ued to run as a third-party can­di­date for state and fed­eral of­fices. He has run 16 times. He has never won. He has never even cracked 6 per­cent.

“It was who we were. I mean, he was the best politi­cian. But I watched how he changed. And those changes seemed to be re­lated to mov­ing to the right” to build a big­ger fol­low­ing, Di­a­mond­stone said. “I was my­self, and he was him­self. He be­came a Demo­crat. And I stayed where I was.”

San­ders served as mayor of Burling­ton for eight years, leav­ing of­fice in 1989. Later that year, he and Frank Kochman — his old pub­lisher, from his thread­bare days as a $15-per-story writer — found them­selves alone at a party, look­ing out over Lake Cham­plain.

“He’s look­ing off in the dis­tance, and he says ... ‘I think I ought to run for gover­nor or Congress.’ I said, ‘Bernie, I don’t think that you’ll ever get elected gover­nor,’ ” Kochman said.

The state might not want to be gov­erned by a so­cial­ist. But it might send one to Washington. “Congress,” Kochman said. “I think you got a real shot.”

San­ders ran, and now it ap­peared that his court­ing of the Democrats paid off.

Their big guns stayed out of the way, ap­par­ently as­sured that San­ders was close enough to be­ing a Demo­crat al­ready. With the help of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion, which hated the Repub­li­can in­cum­bent, San­ders won.

His as­so­ci­a­tion with Democrats con­tin­ued to pay off.

By1991, San­ders— although still of­fi­cially an in­de­pen­dent — was part of the Demo­cratic cau­cus in Congress, climb­ing the party’s se­nior­ity lad­der. He has not faced a se­ri­ous chal­lenge from a Demo­crat in all the elec­tions since.

“Why would you run against him, you know what I mean?” said Jeff Weaver, a long­time San­ders staffer and cur­rent cam­paign man­ager. For Demo­cratic lead­ers in Congress, he said, San­ders “was a more re­li­able vote than a lot of other peo­ple down there who had a ‘D’ af­ter their name.”

But, in this elec­tion, San­ders is run­ning as a Demo­crat— of­fi­cially, fully, within the party sys­tem he de­cried for so long. San­ders said the party’s struc­ture makes it eas­ier to get on bal­lots, into de­bates and into the media.

He has said that if he loses in the Demo­cratic pri­mary, he will not run as an in­de­pen­dent.

“His de­ci­sion to run this elec­tion in the Demo­cratic pri­mary was com­pletely in­formed by Ralph Nader,” said John Franco, a long­time friend who is a lawyer in Burling­ton. He said San­ders did not want to draw votes away from a Demo­crat and elect a Repub­li­can in the process, as hap­pened when Nader ran and Ge­orge W. Bush won in 2000. “That re­ally turned out swim­mingly,” Franco said.

What about those on the left who think San­ders has sold out by re­fus­ing to go it alone?

“Frankly, those peo­ple — they have their meet­ings in a phone booth,” Franco said.

Or, at least, in an up­stairs meet­ing room at the Burling­ton public li­brary.

There were 28 peo­ple there at the In­ter­na­tional So­cial­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion meet­ing Wed­nes­day night. They called one another “com­rade.” They praised Nader for hav­ing the guts to chal­lenge the two-party sys­tem in 2000. No mat­ter who got elected in­stead.

“My first vote was for Ralph Nader,” said Pa­trick St. John, 32.

“Good­for you!” some­body called out, and meant it.

Ramey, a fork­lift op­er­a­tor for a cho­co­late com­pany, was in charge of an­swer­ing the ques­tion: “Should the Left Sup­port Bernie San­ders?” He listed some of San­ders’s pol­icy goals: a higher min­i­mum wage. Equal pay for women. Free col­lege tu­ition. A sin­gle na­tional healthcare sys­tem.

“I’mnot go­ing to lie. That would be pretty good,” Ramey said.

But it wasn’t good enough, he said, be­cause of San­ders’s choice of tac­tics: He was run­ning as a Demo­crat. Which meant that he could lose and de­liver his vot­ers to Hil­lary Clin­ton, a main­stream Demo­crat with ties to Wall Street and big busi­ness. De­liver them to the sys­tem they all wanted to de­feat.

“Warts and all, the [San­ders] cam­paign has a lot go­ing for them,” Ramey said. “But the Demo­cratic Party is not a wart.” It is a fa­tal flaw, he said.

So, if San­ders wasn’t good enough, what should the so­cial­ists do? They didn’t set­tle on a plan. Af­ter an hour of dis­cus­sion, a man in a straw hat stood up.

“I’m tired of be­ing pow­er­less!” said Al­bert Echt, 66. He wanted to sup­port Bernie San­ders, warts and all. “Let’s jump on Bernie’s coat­tails. . . . That would ac­tu­ally be

do­ing some­thing, in­stead of sit­ting around!”

The room was not moved. The mod­er­a­tor called on the next per­son who had raised a hand. Echt, frus­trated, walked out.

“They’re such fools!” he told a re­porter, in a too-loud whis­per, as he left.

The­meet­ing broke up am­i­ca­bly with­out him. In the next week, San­ders was plan­ning big ral­lies in Iowa and Louisiana. The so­cial­ists had a plan to meet again on Thurs­day in Burling­ton.

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

John Bloch, a long­time friend of Bernie San­ders’s, shows off old cam­paign but­tons at his home in­Mont­pe­lier, Vt.

PHOTOS BY JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASHINGTON POST

Chil­dren with the Cen­ter City Lit­tle League Sum­mer Base­ball Pro­gram prac­tice at Roo­sevelt Park in Burling­ton, Vt., on Tues­day. Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.), a can­di­date for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, helped start a Lit­tle League in the park’s run-down neigh­bor­hood.

John Bloch, top, has known Bernie San­ders for decades. JimRader, mid­dle, was a long­time ally of San­ders’s and used to be so close to the can­di­date for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion that they shared one well-used neck­tie. “He’s not a purist,” Rader said of San­ders. “He’s con­sis­tent. He holds very deep con­vic­tions. But he is not a purist.” Greg Guma, above, is a for­mer lib­eral ac­tivist who worked with San­ders and wrote a book about him.

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