The revolution sanderista began in a city of 42,000 inhabitants of Vermont, 45 minutes by car from Canada, where the temperature in winter can reach 20 degrees below zero, marijuana candy is sold and one day in 1981 a Brooklyn New Yorker, Jew and son of a Polish immigrant, he won the mayor’s office. With only 10 votes of difference, a guy who declared himself a socialist in the twilight of the Cold War appealed to the Democrat who had been in office for a decade. “It was like D-Day on Omaha Beach,” says John Franco, municipal deputy city attorney for the City Council led by Bernie Sanders. Burlington had become since the sixties a pole of attraction for intellectuals and activists who left the cities and sought an affordable and tolerant place to explore life outside the system. Sanders moved there and ended up ruling her and the system for eight years.
Would you highlight a moment of frustration at that time? “He’s kidding, isn’t he? It was a war, those first years were a war, ”Franco says, 40 years later, in his office.
It’s Thursday, February 13, and Sanders just won the New Hampshire primary. The telephone of the old collaborator of the mayor has been ringing from different countries of the world for two days. To understand how a 78-year-old socialist, defeated in 2016 and after a heart attack a few months ago, has become a solid candidate for the Democratic nomination, you have to travel to this prosperous university city, the most populous in the State, where Sanders gave the first bell. For the senator, it was the testing laboratory of the social democratic political project that he now promises to take to the White House.
Greg Guma, veteran activist and editor, warns Sanders’ charism of his quality to “explain very well, very easily, the problems.” Its success, however, is due to “the ability to adapt,” he warns. “He diagnosed the problems very well half a century ago and that has been proven now,” he emphasizes.
Guma, 73, accurately describes his first meeting with the politician. It was in 1971, when he presented himself to the first of two failed elections to the Senate. The young man asked him about his history and Sanders answered him by fingernails. “Obviously you have not been listening. Do you know what the movement is? Are you against the Vietnam War? Yes, Guma replied, but Sanders was a person, not a movement, and he wanted to know his story to decide if he voted. “The only thing that matters,” said Sanders, “is the movement.” If you don’t believe in him, I don’t want your vote. ” “It was like that then,” Guma says with a laugh.
The half dozen people consulted for this report who worked or related to Bernie Sanders during those years agree to describe him as a much more pragmatic mayor than expected, who always maintained a left-wing reform agenda but ended up agreeing with businessmen and Republicans.
The vibrant Vermont of the 60s
Sanders arrived in Vermont with his first wife in 1967 from New York, after obtaining a diploma in Political Science from the University of Chicago. Shortly before, he had bought a piece of land in Middlesex, near Montpellier, the state capital for $ 2,500 at the time and they settled in a shed without electricity or running water. The marriage would not last more than two years and he moved to Burlington. He had different jobs: as a carpenter, in the Department of the Treasury, as a writer freelance. Of course, he also turned to activism.
At that time Vermont was boiling in protests against the Vietnam War and political conferences. One day in 1971, he attended the Liberty Union convention, a newly founded leftist party that was seeking a candidate for the Senate. That 29-year-old New Yorker, curly hair and pasta glasses raised his hand and, more or less, came out of there nominated. Then the unsuccessful careers began: the upper house, governor of the state, again the Senate and again the governorship. Nothing. With four races lost behind him, in 1976 he left the party and founded an audiovisual production company, where he produced a documentary of his admired Eugene V. Debs, the founder of the US socialist party.
Terry Bouricius, who shared a flat with him on Maple Street – “rather, he welcomed me on his couch for a few months,” he clarifies – says that “it is the same to hear him speak today that then, he says exactly the same thing, you just have to change the word billionaires for millionaires, because in the seventies it was what it was. ”He was stubborn, passionate and tremendously discreet personally. After his divorce, he had his son Levi with a woman. election ahead, until a group of friends convinced him to bet on local politics as a shuttle, so he presented himself as independent to the Mayor of Burlington.
“It was the right place to start a movement, you could reach a critical mass with ease, there was dissatisfaction with gentrification, many activists, and the Democratic Party was not responding and it was old, so there was room for a third party,” he explains Guma, who in 1989 published a book entitled People’s Republic Vermont and the Sanders revolution.
“They say that what he proposes is radical but what is radical is American policy. Nothing he proposes is rare in Europe. You get sick here, you go bankrupt; you lose your job, bankruptcy; you get pregnant, bankruptcy. what we were doing is carrying out educational campaigns, we were talking about a path that was not even laissez-faire of Reagan or the Soviet model, “summarizes Franco.
On March 3, 1981 Sanders won the Mayor’s Office. “The Democrats were furious and were very obstructive at first. The Municipal Council knocked down all his appointments and had to carry out two municipal budgets with volunteers. I had no Administration. Bernie managed to reach an understanding with the Republicans and the city was managed in those years in coalition between Republicans and progressives. There were spaces of agreement, none wanted so much tax burden on the workers, they wanted new sources of income. Republicans were not like now, ”adds the lawyer.
David Thelander, an independent Republican in the City Council at the time, recalls that Sanders “was very disciplined in tax matters, in a municipality you simply have to be, and Bernie was.”
A socialist worried about sewage
One of the most pressing problems encountered when arriving was the housing crisis. Burlington, once the third largest timber port in the United States and home to large factories in the nineteenth century, had emerged from its transition to a more service-centric economy and maintained significant investments from IBM or General Electric, among others. Rental and purchase prices had skyrocketed.
The new mayor promoted the creation of the Champlain Housing Trust, a non-profit entity that maintains affordable housing costs by contributing part of the input capital with the commitment that, when the owner wanted to sell, he should return that capital and also donate part of the revaluation. This project represents one of the most visible and valued legacies in the city. The entity manages a total of 3,000 rentals today and has received an award from the United Nations. Chris Donnelly, director of communication explains that “that was very innovative in the 80s. Sanders’ first intention was a rent control system, but he did not succeed in the municipal council and launched this, which is still quite unique many people come to study it. “
Sanders, say those who worked with him, became obsessed with the viability of the city, with demonstrating that, as he said in his speeches, there was no need to fear socialism. His second wife, Jane, told an interview on the NPR public broadcaster a few years ago that the work of the snowplow and the street situation took away his sleep, which he used to go out every night before going to sleep to see how they were going the works He wanted to prove that he was a good manager, that he could recite the life in verse of Eugene V. Debs, but also take care of the sewer.
When other progressives gained weight in the City Council, it had greater room for maneuver. When he appeared for reelection, he won by more than 20 points. He brought a minor baseball league, captured the flights of an airline, ended the tax exemptions of some institutions and promoted aid for child care. Burlington twinned with the Nicaraguan city of Puerto Cabeza in 1984 and with the Russian Yaroslavl in 1988.
“It was a revolution in many aspects, in the modernization of services or in the tax structure, with the limited powers that a local government gives, it changed many things,” emphasizes John Franco. “Bernie’s presence in Vermont moved the entire state’s political debate to the left. Vermont had been a Republican since the civil war and now [desde finales de los ochenta] is a democrat [en las presidenciales]. It is exactly what is happening now in the country. So far the Democrats have let the Republicans define the debate, ”says Franco.
When he got angry on the left
He also stepped on corns in many sectors of the left during his years in Burlington. The pacifist demonstrations against the General Electric plant in 1983 for producing military weapons led him to a fratricidal struggle. Bernie, the activist, had demonstrated with them. The mayor, on the other hand, watched as they were arrested, as Robin Lloyd, an unrelated pacifist of now 81 years, tells. The Wall Street Journal He asked Sanders recently about this and the senator replied: “My opinion was that you had hundreds of decent salary and union representation jobs there. If you close there, they will go elsewhere. ”
A socialist defending the plant, a revolutionary calling the police. Greg Guma says that Sanders “was always older left than new left, he was focused on economic analysis and he was not interested in identity politics, they were different philosophies.” Guma’s reflection is still valid today for many. Already as a candidate in 2016, he was very belligerent with the effects of trade agreements in the American working class, a criticism that he shared with Donald Trump from some ideas and a different mood. He now receives criticism for supporting the F-35 jets to use Burlington Airport. John Franco once said that Sanders, in the 80s, could be voted voters in turn of President Reagan. The Reagan Democrats, that is the collective that the Vermont senator wants to recover. The dilemma is whether the Sanderista speech will drive away the moderate vote, agitate the Republicans and favor the re-election of Donald Trump. If the votes that the Vermont senator mobilizes will compensate the rest.
Attorney Sandy Baird, a veteran activist, moved in the sixties, like Sander, to Vermont. He collided with the mayor for the coastal development project along Lake Champlain. Sanders came to support a project that included some semi-luxury businesses and homes. “He launched a bond to get funding and environmentalists and others mobilized against it, the council knocked him down and he changed his mind. I respect him for that, because he changed his mind, ”explains Baird, 79.
The shore of Lake Champlain, although it ended up being defined with Sanders already outside the city hall, is today a recreation area that people attribute to the senator. When his project was rejected, he was responsible for litigating with the Vermont Supreme Court to defend his public ownership. Sanders’ footprint is found in many other intangible aspects, in a way of doing politics. He promoted, for example, a neighborhood assembly system for planning neighborhoods that had small public budgets.
The future of the American center-left
The writer Russell Banks, who wrote a long profile about Sanders in 1985, during his second term, accompanied him on his door-to-door visit to the residents of the city, to whom he asked what complaints they had and also encouraged to comment on the positive. In that text, he launched a somewhat premonitory question: “Is it possible that this small town of Vermont on the edge of Lake Champlain and its scruffy socialist mayor tell us more about the future of the center-left of American politics that, say, North York and Ed Koch or Los Angeles and Tom Bradley? A closer look at Burlington and his mayor can give the answer. ”
After the mayor’s office, Sanders managed to reach the House of Representatives and the Senate. Always against the world. Now look for the Oval Office. Can you imagine him sitting there? “Yes, he has a tough style, but he always knew how to adapt, he ended up getting along well with the businessmen of that time and is trained to endure a lot of opposition,” replies Lloyd, who was arrested by the police in the protests of General Electric.
Guma and Lloyd have been together for four decades, they had a child together and, now, they are grandparents of a granddaughter, but they have never been a couple, they clarify, but friends. They live in independent apartments with common areas in the same house. Sounds very 60, it is noted. “We are the leftovers of the 60s,” Guma replies.
The photograph of the senator today is found together with that of the rest of the mayors in the town hall. It is 40 years ago, but with his famous hair, prematurely white and today a youth icon in posters and art throughout the city, it is impossible to confuse.
Max Tracy, a 33-year-old district councilor who belongs to the Progressive Party, defines Sanders as his “hero,” his “inspiration.” “Something that happens the same now and 40 years ago is that we have a series of problems to which the two great parties do not give solutions. We need that revolution that Sanders talks about, ”he insists from a cafeteria in the Old North End, the district he represents. There is some parallel between the story of the young councilor and that of Sanders. Tracy moved from Chicago to Vermont in 2005, to study at the university, and decided to settle in Burlington. When asked why, he opens his eyes a lot: “Because this city is amazing, these people, don’t you think so?”