BURLINGTON, Vt. — When Bernie Sanders, the eight-term independent congressman and self-described “democratic socialist” from Vermont, swept to victory in the race for U.S. Senate last week, it was the culmination of 30 years’ work building an independent political base.
That his victory was accomplished with the full support of the Democratic Party shows just how powerful that base has become.
When Sen. Jim Jeffords announced his retirement last year there was never any doubt that Vermonters expected Sanders to take his place and become their voice in the fight against the anti-worker, pro-corporate and pro-war policies of George W. Bush.
Sanders first became involved politically as the candidate of the Vermont Liberty Union party for Senate and the governor’s office in the seventies. When he was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 (by 10 votes) as an independent, it was considered a fluke by traditional politicians. In fact, it was the result of a grassroots organizing campaign by working class, student and left voters who had come together in the Burlington Progressive Coalition.
After Sanders’ four terms as mayor, the political scene in Burlington was transformed, with independents, socialists, environmentalists, women’s rights and civil rights advocates showing what could be done when government was directed at meeting the needs of working people and their families instead of catering to the rich and powerful.
In 1988, Sanders ran for Congress and came in second in a three-way race, with a 2 percent margin between him and the eventual victor. Two years later, after more grassroots organizing, he won and has been there ever since.
Most importantly, Sanders has been effective. He has built alliances on issues that include both Democrats and Republicans, and no other congressperson has passed so many roll-call amendments, amendments that are actually voted upon. He is one of the founders of the House Progressive Caucus and its first chair.
Sanders’ winning formula is always the same: hundreds of volunteers, meetings with panels of local activists in town halls and church basements, and a straightforward commitment to the needs of working Vermonters.
His campaign says his volunteers knocked on 70,000 doors in the last six months, and he drew support from all sectors of the population, especially working people and farmers who have traditionally voted Republican.
While he got almost two-thirds of the vote for the Senate, a landslide, the Democrat running for Congress got just over 50 percent, and Republicans won every other contested statewide office.
The political independence that Sanders represents is more than the career of one man. The current mayor of Burlington, Bob Kiss, is the city’s third Progressive mayor. (Progressives have held the office for all but two of the last 27 years.) The Progressive Coalition, and now Progressive Party, have elected city councilors and maintained a working majority for most of that time. And Sanders’ campaigns have inspired many other grassroots activists to run for office.
In 1999, the Vermont Progressive Party was born. While Sanders is not officially part of the VPP, there is no doubt that his successes convinced many that an alternative to the political parties of big business was possible. In three elections, Progressives went from two Burlington seats to six seats from around the state, half of which are from rural, formerly Republican districts.
Sanders showed that if you talk to working people about the issues that matter to them, and stand up for them despite the pressure from corporate interests, they will vote for independents or Progressives.
This point has not been lost on the two major parties. The Democratic Party, which had opposed Sanders until they gave up running candidates against him as a waste of time, enthusiastically supported his candidacy this year. In fact, they let him win their primary and then decline their nomination so he could continue to run as an Independent.
This shift reflected both the fact that political leaders like Sen. Patrick Leahy and former Gov. Howard Dean realized that unity against the Bush administration was the first priority, as well as a recognition that Vermonters would accept nothing less than an independent voice against the war in Iraq and the pro-corporate policies that have dominated Washington for so long.
Several Democratic legislators have moved to the left because they see that voters will support such policies, and the Progressive Party is gaining strength and support around the state. The movement towards political independence of working Vermonters, family farmers, even small business people, continues to broaden and gain strength.