As presidential primary election results stormed in from icy New Hampshire on Tuesday, my thoughts drifted back to a similarly wintry evening 35 years ago. Along with fellow journalists, clerks, and city officials, I crowded into the drafty basement of City Hall in Burlington, Vermont, as that day’s election results were counted.
The local Irish and French Catholic politicos who tried to push me away from the election counters’ table knew Burlington so well, they could project final results from reading the totals on individual voting machines. Their normally ruddy complexions faded first to pink, then white, and then a sickly gray, as they realized that their Democratic Party, whose grip on Burlington’s levers of power rivaled that of storied political machines in Chicago and Albany, NY, was being voted out of office.
To them, the unthinkable and unimaginable had happened. Bernie Sanders, not only a “Flatlander,” Vermont parlance for a non-native, but a newcomer to Burlington, a New Yorker, a socialist — and a Jew — had won election as mayor by one-tenth of a percent.
The shocking outcome wasn’t as much of a surprise to me as it was to the city’s veteran political operatives. Perhaps my own status as an outsider made it easier to see the changes under way in that Rust Belt city, changes in demographics and attitudes that Sanders capitalized on to forge a winning coalition — the kind he is building today on a vastly larger scale.
I was new to Burlington, also a New Yorker, and also a Jew. I had spent only a year as the City Hall reporter for the Burlington Free Press. But in the preceding months, I had spent more time with Bernie than anyone outside his small circle of friends. I was usually Bernie’s only escort as he campaigned on Burlington’s snow-covered streets and knocked on hundreds of doors.
Virtually without exception, I saw warmth and smiles emerge as Bernie’s spiel unwound. He was articulating their previously unexpressed and certainly unheard gripes with a city that had let them down
Time after time, I saw the same result, especially in the city’s working-class Old North End. The home’s resident, standing in the small vestibule known in Vermont as a mud room, eyed the visitor warily. Bernie’s otherness was obvious. The stentorian tone of his Brooklyn accent was decidedly unlike the soft, French-inflected Vermont twang of native Burlingtonians. His rumpled clothes, mop of unruly hair, and tilted eyeglasses gave him the appearance of an absent-minded professor.
With only a gruff introduction and hunched into his cloth coat against the biting cold, Bernie would launch into a short speech: Burlington’s corrupt politicians helped only their friends. They were in the pockets of local millionaires.
Virtually without exception, I saw warmth and smiles emerge as Bernie’s spiel unwound. He was articulating their previously unexpressed and certainly unheard gripes with a city that had let them down.
The ice broken, Bernie listened as residents told him of rising taxes, poor city services, and favoritism in government circles. They felt powerless to stop a plan to build high-priced condominiums on the city’s Lake Champlain waterfront. Sanders, a producer of educational filmstrips without a pre-existing political base or experience in the city, had found unlikely allies.
When I reported to my editors what I was seeing, I was met with the same dismissals that today’s purveyors of Conventional Wisdom have been peddling for the last year. Bernie can’t win, they said. The Democratic machine – the Establishment – was too entrenched. The city’s working class wouldn’t abandon its fellow Burlingtonian for an outsider.
I reported on how Bernie won the city policemen’s union endorsement, how University of Vermont students were preparing to vote in a local election, how the university’s academics were helping with organizing and strategizing. Campaign events became more boisterous. A debate among the candidates roused the newly faithful. Despite pressure on the paper’s editor and publisher from local leaders, my stories about Bernie’s campaign moved from the inside to the front page.
Burlington’s inner circle began to worry. In the downtown diner I frequented, where photos of Jimmy Carter, John Kennedy, and other Democrats lined the walls, the owner berated me so loudly one morning that the waitress was afraid to take my order.
As the vote count continued throughout the evening of Election Day, Bernie’s tally kept rising
Then, about a week before the election, an anonymous flier appeared in that diner, in City Hall, and elsewhere in the city’s corridors of power. Titled the “Flea Press” and adorned with childish caricatures, the one-sheet reported the “scoop” that my parents and Bernie had gone to high school together in Brooklyn, and that because both of us were from New York, I was obviously in Bernie’s pocket.
Part of that was true. My parents and Sanders were all graduates of Brooklyn’s Madison HS, the fabled alma mater of Nobel Prize winners, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and US Senator Chuck Schumer, among others. The small point that my parents and Sanders were a decade apart and did not know each other was omitted. The fact that Bernie never warmed up to me personally and considered me a tool of the corporate media – my newspaper endorsed his opponent – was also left unmentioned.
The message being sent was that he and I were both from “New York” – then as now code for “Jew”; the frightening “Other” seeking to wrest Burlington from its true citizens.
The last-minute smear campaign may have swayed some votes, but it didn’t slow Bernie’s momentum. As the vote count continued throughout the evening of Election Day, Bernie’s tally kept rising. Mayor Gordon Paquette locked himself into his office with his cronies. By the end of the night, Bernie had eked out a 22-vote margin, later narrowed to 10 votes in a recount.
A now-famous photo shows Bernie bursting through the door of his victory party later that night, a huge smile on his face, his arms raised in triumph, his fists clenched. A young reporter from local radio station WJOY – the other Jewish journalist in Burlington of that day – is nearly crushed behind the door as it’s flung open. Does surprise show in Bernie’s eyes?
That may have been the only event of the campaign I didn’t attend. I was still at my desk, typing out my final, updated story of the night. Bernie Sanders had taken the first step on the path that today has him challenging – successfully so far – the entire US Democratic Party Establishment.
Will that political machine turn out to be as empty of vision and support as Burlington’s local version was? No one knows the answer to that. The only statement about Sanders that has stood the test of time is this: Don’t underestimate him.
Alan D. Abbey is media director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.