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Vermont Political History 

Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Published December 6, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Blustery Barre, Vermont, was the backdrop Saturday evening as more than 300 Vermont Democrats and a handful of Vermont socialists gathered at the Old Labor Hall to celebrate their historic election victory on November 7.

In a country where the radical right has been in absolute control at the federal level for the past six years, a light is finally shining through the darkness. And after a 12-year congressional drought, Democrats have reclaimed majorities in both houses of Congress and picked up record majorities in both houses of the Vermont Legislature as well.

"I think of this Labor Hall," said U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy to the relieved celebrants. "My father was born here in Barre. Both my grandfathers were stonecutters. They spent time here, my Irish grandfather and my Italian grandfather. We feel tonight the sense of history."

This Vermont political columnist of 25 years was also feeling a sense of history at the sight of Independent U.S. Sen.-elect Bernie Sanders, the first socialist ever elected to the United States Senate, standing amidst these happy Democrats as their true political champion. That historic fact drew the presence of the only other journalist in the hall, Antoine Agasse, from the New York City bureau of Agence France-Presse. The election of a socialist to the U.S. Senate, said Agasse, was news en France. (However, as socialists go back home, he said Ol' Bernardo would be rather mainstream.)

Having witnessed firsthand the Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders of 1981-1989, and witnessed his endless verbal attacks on Democrats as well as Republicans, we could only marvel at how far everybody has come, eh?

A few years ago, Vermont Democratic Party Chairman Ian Carleton considered Sanders a political enemy. Those days are definitely history.

"It becomes more and more of a pleasure every time I get the opportunity to introduce Bernie Sanders," said Carleton, the attorney who also chairs the Burlington City Council. "This relationship has been developing and improving over the last year in leaps and bounds, month by month," he said. "And as I stand here today, I think the sky's the limit!"

We dare say, he's got that right. Having Bernie of Burlington join the offense in the Democratic U.S. Senate Caucus at this moment in history could not have been scripted any better by Hollywood. And as one who has heard Ol' Bernardo's stem-winders for longer than I'd like to remember, the one Saturday night at the Old Labor Hall in Barre was one of his best. It was the kind of speech a historic Democratic Party leader might have delivered.

"We have come a long way," shouted Bernie to the party faithful when their cheers finally died down. "Nobody up here tonight did it by himself or herself. We did it together. And in fact, what every person in this room should take pride in, and tens of thousands who are not in this room, too, is that together we ran the strongest grassroots campaign in the history of the state of Vermont!"

And Sanders, like his elected replacement, Congressman-to-be Peter Welch, made it clear that ending the madness of the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq is the priority. "We've got to end this war as soon as we can," said Sanders. "We've got to bring the troops home."

The Vermont Democrats ate it up. After all, there hasn't been a whole lot for them to cheer about in the last few years, has there?

"We have got to give the president a message that he cannot ignore," said Vermont's first socialist senator, "and that is that tens of millions of Americans want our troops to come home. But that doesn't happen," he pointed out, "unless tens of millions of people are mobilized."

With Bernie Sanders, it's always been about getting ordinary people involved. And nobody does it better. No one in politics around these parts hits the passion button so squarely, a fact proven once again on November 7 with his landslide - a better than 2-to-1 thrashing - over Rich Tarrant, a self-funded Republican who had few ideas and more money than he knew what to do with.

"I mean this from the very bottom of my heart," said Sanders. "I have always believed that destiny indicates that this small state is going to play a leadership role in transforming the United States of America."

In closing, St. Patrick noted he'll be at Ol' Bernardo's side on January 4, 2007. Bernie, the socialist from Vermont, officially makes American history that day, when GOP Vice President Dick Cheney administers the senatorial oath of office to the newbies.


Leahy commented that, unlike the last oath Cheney administered to him on the U.S. Senate floor, "This one you can actually print in the newspaper."


Health Care Reform Hero? - Full disclosure: This writer admits to being an AARP member. Aging gracefully. That means we get the magazine. And the latest edition, which arrived last Thursday, was a hot one!

It had nothing to do with actor Robert DeNiro on the cover. It had everything to do with the full-page photo of Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas inside. Seated in blue business suit and red tie, the Green Mountain guv was surrounded by a half-dozen Holsteins.

Face it, the guy is on a roll. GOP Jim just won a third consecutive term at the top in the land where America's left shines the brightest with the likes of Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy and Howard Dean, the Democratic party chairman.

The Vermont governor, along with actors DeNiro, Marlo Thomas and David Hyde Pierce, was chosen by AARP for a 2007 IMPACT Award as one of "10 People Who Make the World a Better Place."

What a life! How does he do it? In leftist, Democratic/ Progressive Vermont, how does a Republican who supported Richard Nixon as a Middlebury College senior and Vermont House candidate in 1972, and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, keep winning elections in Vermont, year after year? And guess what Douglas won the AARP IMPACT Award for? Sitting down, are you?

Vermont's Gov. Douglas was recognized for his leadership on health-care reform! Hello?

Writes veteran New York magazine writer Joe Treen for the January/February 2007 edition of AARP, which bills itself as the "World's Largest Circulation Magazine":

. . . in May, after two years of negotiations, Governor Jim Douglas signed groundbreaking legislation that makes affordable health insurance available to everyone in the state. The new universal health care law, considered the most progressive in the country, also includes a series of cost-saving reforms. It is particularly important in the Green Mountain State, which has 61,000 uninsured citizens and a growing senior population. While the bill was clearly a bipartisan effort, much of the credit goes to Douglas, 55, for refusing to give up. "This was such a key issue," he says. "The need was so great in terms of containing costs and providing coverage to uninsured Vermonters that we just couldn't fail."

Yes, indeed. There's no business like show business, is there? A few other AARP readers in the Green Mountains couldn't believe it, either. One was Bruce Cunningham of Hinesburg. Bruce has been an independent advocate and Statehouse regular for decades. His issues include antismoking and underage drinking. OK, a bit of a health nut. Nothing wrong with that, right? He gave Joe Treen a call at his New Jersey residence.

Cunningham told yours truly he politely informed the AARP freelancer that he had gotten the story on the IMPACT award-winning Vermonter terribly wrong. That anyone in Vermont could tell him Gov. Jim Douglas' real impact was as the leading opponent of health-care reform.

Cunningham later told "Inside Track" that Treen "seemed very happy to talk to me." Heck, one senior citizen to another, right? None of us is getting any younger.

"He also sounded appreciative of my pointing out that Gov. Jim Douglas was mainly an obstructionist," said Bruce. "My overall impression was that [Treen] was interested in finding the truth."


We let the weekend pass and then gave him a call on Monday. Joe Treen appears to be a successful magazine-writing pro and, indeed, sounded like a decent baby-boom-generation kind of guy when we gave him a jingle.

However, he wasn't exactly exuding enthusiasm for getting the story right. Rather, Ol' Joe was a bit defensive.

Treen told "Inside Track" that after getting the call from Cunningham he "went back and re-looked at the story to make sure it was not off the mark."

By that he meant he was not considering Gov. Douglas' veto of the landmark health-care reform bill the Democrats and Progressives passed in 2005. He was only focusing, he said, "within the narrow focus of 2006." Republican Gov. Jim Douglas may have vetoed reform in 2005, but in 2006, argued Treen, "he kept negotiators at the table."

By the way, Treen didn't come to Vermont and did not speak to the Vermont reform advocates.

One of those is "Vermont Health Care for All" activist Deb Richter M.D. Dr. Deb said she first howled in disbelief when she saw that AARP gave our guv a national award for his leadership on health-care reform.

"Is that a scream?" she asked.

But once Richter, like others, got over the initial shock, it made perfect sense to her. Perfect sense, that is, for AARP to find Jim Douglas so likable.

After all, the insurance industry has no greater friend in Vermont than our Republican governor, who, if he had his way, would open Vermont's borders to every last cherry-picking one of them. In fact, close your eyes, and Jim Douglas could turn into a friendly insurance salesman in about two seconds flat!

As it is, Americans pay the highest portion of earnings of any workforce in the modern world on health care and for-profit health insurance. That's because in the good ol' USA, there's a big fat layer of cost added to our medical bills in order to keep the insurance companies happy. It's called profit.

"Does it surprise you," asked Dr. Richter, "that AARP would endorse someone who keeps the insurance industry in good health?" Remember, she pointed out, "AARP sells health insurance." Lots of health insurance. And AARP "stands to gain billions" from the "4 percent kickback" they get from the Medicare Part D portion of every insurance policy they'll sell.

Good point, eh?

The modest, watered-down 2006 legislation that the Democrats defend as progress, and the guv won the big award and the big reelection for signing, "was a temporary solution for some folks. I wouldn't begrudge that," said Dr. Richter. "The point is, they had the opportunity to do something even bigger. The tragedy," she told "Inside Track," "is the fact that they stopped the conversation with this bill."

And that may be its greatest accomplishment of all - stopping the health-care reform conversation. Congratulations, Guv. Well done!

"For some of my patients," said Richter, "this will be a good thing. But the problem is, the other 95 percent, who have unbelievable premiums and high co-pays and deductibles, are left hanging."


Media Notes - Good news for the Times Argus. Bad news for The Burlington Free Press, as Freeps editorial writer Sue Allen has left to become the new editor at the TA.

Very talented gal. Previously in her distinguished career, she was with the Associated Press and the Freeps for 10 years as a political reporter. Sweet Sue also put in six years as Gov. Howard Dean's press secretary - back before his national political stardom kicked in.

Lots of change in newspaper land. Editor Allen tells us she's "not worried. I'm excited." Local news coverage, she says, will be big in her book. And she certainly knows the lay of the land.

Good luck, Sweet Sue!


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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.


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