Exceedingly Social, But Doesn't Like Parties
Sunday, November 5, 2006
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- Are you now or have you ever been a socialist?
The white-haired candidate for the United States Senate lies propped on his elbows on top of a too-old bed in a nondescript motel awaiting yet another debate with a conservative opponent for whom he's developing a deep-seated dislike. He squints at you and hikes his eyebrows and shrugs.
He knows what the corporate media might do with his answer, but whatever . . . "Yeah. I wouldn't deny it. Not for one second. I'm a democratic socialist."
Bernie Sanders can't leave it there. No no no.
"In Norway, parents get a paid year to care for infants. Finland and Sweden have national health care, free college, affordable housing and a higher standard of living."
He juts his chin at you. "Okay. Why shouldn't that appeal to our disappearing middle class?"
Vermont, the state that zigs when the nation zags, has something up its collective sleeve. It's about to send the first avowed socialist to the Senate since . . . well . . . never.
"There have been populist senators who were pretty radical guys but never a guy who says, 'I'm a socialist,' " says Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University.
The 65-year-old known to voters simply as "Bernie" is Vermont's lone congressman, a six-term independent with a photo of Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party presidential candidate in 1912, on his congressional wall. He's perhaps the most popular pol in the state and there's nothing northern New England about him. Sanders was born in Brooklyn, raised by Jewish parents from Poland. His father's family perished in the Holocaust. He chews on each syllable in an accent as Flatbush-inflected as the day he wandered north four decades ago.
"Look," Sanders says, "you can't be afraid of the people [pronounced: pee-PULL]. A lot of progressives sit around their homes and worry about being labeled or how to talk to people. I go out, I knock on doors, and I talk about economic justice and the oligarchy and what's fair, and more people than you might guess listen to me.
"I find that absolutely encouraging."
Vermont's Democrats offered Sanders a ballot slot. No way. He runs as an independent. (The Democrats didn't put up a candidate against him.) On the Republican side, his opponent is a tall, silver-haired businessman and former college basketball star named Richard Tarrant.