Thirty years ago today, Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington — a political upset that launched and legitimized the Brooklyn-born pol as a force in Vermont politics.
Today, "Bernie" as he's known to most Vermonters is a U.S. Senator after serving eight terms in the U.S. House.
After several losing attempts at statewide office on March 3, 1981 — 30 years ago today — Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington by an eventual 10-vote margin in a three-way race against Democrat Gordon Paquette. On election night, the vote tally was slightly higher. A recount trimmed the total to 10.
Independent Richard Bove was also in the race. Bove had failed to defeat incumbent Paquette in a primary and ran as an independent in the general election, splitting the vote, and helping aid a Sanders victory.
Still even with a third "spoiler" candidate in the race, Sanders supporters and even Sanders himself recall the victory as a bit of a shocker.
"As a Liberty Union candidate the best I had ever finished was six percent, but did I think we had a chance to win? Yes, I thought maybe we could win and win big, or given my Liberty Union experience lose big. To win it by 10 votes was kind of stressful and we had to go through a recount process, too," said Sanders. "But, it was a very exciting moment I recall that day and night very clear."
A pre-election telephone poll orchestrated by David Clavelle — former Mayor Peter Clavelle's cousin and a former staffer of Sen. Patrick Leahy — found Sanders winning big in the Old North End, something Sanders said surprised him, at first. But, as he saw ballots being counted election night, he realized the strong turnout in Wards 2 and 3 would likely propel him to victory.
"It was an incredibly exciting night and at the victory party what you saw was a very, very unusual coalition — of women's groups, the Burlington Patrolmen's Association, and housing advocates. A coalition of very different elements came together to make that victory possible," said Sanders.
Sanders has since attracted diverse groups of voters to win statewide office. At first, though, he used this diverse coalition to build a new administration and "open up City Hall" to groups that had previously been shut out, and which helped him build his own allies in City Hall. Inheriting his predecessor's administration made it difficult to govern since many didn't want to follow orders from the new mayor. So, Sanders had to rely on volunteers at times to run government.
Finding allies in the city's wards, however, and getting them to turn out to meetings helped him build a governing coalition.
"One our biggest and most exciting achievements in that first two years was getting ordinary people involved in the process and having meetings filled up at city hall," said Sanders. "That was the goal: To open up city hall to people who did not have a voice."
Voter turnout, Sanders recalled, doubled from 1981 to 1983 — a victory itself.
One of Sanders' longtime political allies was also elected to the city council that year — then called the board of aldermen.
"We weren't expecting it, and it came as quite a shock to us that he won," said Terry Bouricius, who ran on the Citizens Party ticket.
"It was so shocking, in fact, that the first thing we did was to get a court order to impound the ballots to be sure they were secured before a recount occurred."
Sanders said he remembers seeking out a state judge in the wee hours after election night to secure the court order, too.
A recount did happen and Bouricius was on the recount committee. Bouricius served on the council for 10 years and Progressives continued to hold onto his seat until 2009 when they lost the seat to Democrat Bram Kranichfeld.
In 1982, Bouricius was joined by three other allies. In 1981, Democrats held nine of the 12 aldermanic seats — there were only six wards at the time. Democrats eventually dwindled to just two seats on the council from 1984 to 1986.
"It just goes to show that political parties can bounce back," chuckles Bouricius. Today's Burlington City Council sports only two Progressives and a party that is seen in a sharp downward spiral under the leadership of Mayor Bob Kiss and the constant fiscal struggles of Burlington Telecom.
According to Greg Guma, a longtime Burlington political observer and journalist at the old Vanguard Press in the 1980s, he recalled the event, too, as a "shocking moment."
At first, many Bernie backers — dubbed Sanderistas after the leftist Nicaraguan rebels known as Sandanistas — believed their mayoral candidate would get about 25 percent of the vote.
But, notes Guma, when the unions began to support Sanders the tide turned and victory seemed not only possible, but plausible. "We all knew he would do well, but a turning point in the campaign is when the unions started to come around. That's when things changed," said Guma.
Ironically, Guma noted, Sanders ran largely in opposition to a proposed tax increase offered by Paquette. Instead, Sanders called for tax fairness — a winning message to both conservatives and liberals.
"It was a shocking moment, but also very satisfying after years of fighting the city's old Republicratic establishment. The next day I remember Bernie giving a press conference and talking about 'liberating the human spirit,'" added Guma. "Very moving. Little did we know what an incredible journey was beginning for him, or the political realignment it would spark across the state. When I arrived in the 1960s Vermont was still considered one of the most Republican states. Today it's one of the most liberal and Democratic. And what happened 30 years ago in Burlington has a lot to do with that."
As Guma notes, Vermont's political climate has changed a great deal since 1981 — as has the nation's to some extent. The year Sanders was elected mayor, the nation saw Republican Ronald Reagan sworn in as president.
Though a near distant memory, Sanders' victory still remains sharp for some longtime allies.
"I remember it like it was yesterday. Who would have thought how far it all has come? He's now a U.S. Senator. We have an African American President. Our governor is calling for single payer health care," notes John Franco, a Burlington attorney and longtime Sanders friend. Franco worked in the original Sanders administration as a city attorney. "In 1981 it was all outlandish. Today it is mainstream."
* This post was updated to correct the spelling of Terry Bouricius' name.
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