By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
He's a billionaire or close to it, and he's spending $7 million of his own money to run commercials accusing Sanders of all manner of derelictions. Tarrant gave college kids free laptops to staff his headquarters. He tools around in a $158,000 Bentley, swapping jokes about taking out this "Red" from New York.
Tarrant might more profitably have used his cash to build bonfires along Lake Champlain this summer. Depending on the poll, he trails Sanders -- who drives a beat-up old Saturn -- by between 20 and 25 percentage points.
John McClaughry, a plainspoken Vermonter, is a libertarian and former Reagan administration official. He'd dearly love to see Tarrant whomp Sanders, but c'mon . . .
"Rich Tarrant is like a dream for Bernie: He's big, rich and the personification of the running dogs of capitalist imperialism," McClaughry says. "I'll say this for Bernie, and I really detest the guy, he has a perfect feel for politics."People's Mayor
Bernie's curly hair used to take off in semi-random directions, a perfect accompaniment to his rhetorical flights. Now the curls scallop around the base of a balding pate. But age applies few other brakes.
Bernie clomps up to the podium at his eighth debate with Tarrant wearing an old blue blazer and corduroy pants. A sturdy man, he opens by giving the audience a gruff nod. "I want to thank many of you for voting for me." Loud boos. Sanders shrugs and holds his hands up. "Okay, I'm not thanking all of you."
Call him a red, he calls you a red-baiter. Tell him to pipe down and he pipes up. Accuse him, as Tarrant does, of wanting to soak the rich and he'll detail how the Republicans cut taxes for the rich and multinational corporations for two decades even as median family income declined. "The major untold story of our time," he calls it.
He has never run a negative TV commercial. But verbal fisticuffs? That 's democracy.
"If I kick you in the [crotch] and you push me back, a reporter would write, 'Gee, there's tension in the room and both sides are pushing,' " he explains. "The Republicans lie a lot and the corporate media is very weak and completely biased and has a hard time calling someone a liar."
Sanders first ran for Senate in 1972. He was the candidate of the socialist Liberty Union Party and got just 2.2 percent of the vote. Did he think he'd one day be measuring drapes for a Senate office?
The laugh comes from deep inside his chest. "There are very few members of the Senate who can say that they once got 2 percent," he says with mock solemnity.
Sanders came out of the University of Chicago, an itinerant carpenter and inveterate reader of history books. He accumulated the collected works of Freud. But he didn't have a "proper" political career until a conversation in 1980 with a friend, University of Vermont theologian Richard Sugarman. "One day I suggested to Bernie that instead of running for these offices, governor, senator, why don't we look for something you could actually win?" Sugarman recalls.
They settled on mayor of Burlington. Sanders took on a five-term old pol, worked 15-hour days, drew huge margins in working-class precincts and damned if he didn't win by 10 votes. It looked like a fluke until Sanders won three more terms. Critics called it the People's Republic of Burlington; his followers dubbed themselves Sanderistas.No Fancy Folks
Bernie Sanders ran a tight ship. He balanced budgets, picked top-drawer appointees and showed up at 2 a.m. to ride fire engines and snowplows until services improved. He had a listed phone number and answered it. He denounced the depredations of capitalism until a cable company agreed to wire the city -- and to repair sliced-up streets on its own dime. He kept his campaign promise and obtained a minor league baseball team.
They named it the Vermont Reds.
Moody's Investor Service gave him a thumbs-up. Sanders, who is married and has four grown children, road-tested his show in a 1986 run for governor. He got just 14 percent of the vote, but he carried the French Catholic farm belt. The farmers didn't agree with or understand him. But they liked his manner, which was as plain as theirs.
In 1990 he won in a landslide against an incumbent Republican congressman, carrying Burlington but also Hardwick, a hardtack bit of outback Vermont. The state's median income is the second lowest in New England, and poverty is rising. "There are no fancy folks there -- it's the no-gun-control and snowmobile crowd," said McClaughry, who ran for the state Senate that year. "Bernie and I were the leading vote-getters in Hardwick. It really annoyed me."
Bernie favors abortion rights and civil unions for gays, but economic justice is what drives him. In his view, workers are invariably right; he boasts a 100 percent AFL-CIO rating. Business leaders complain that when it's a labor dispute, he doesn't really listen.
After a rough patch in the early 1990s, when his scorn of Democrats got on the liberal nerves in Washington, the congressman calmed down. He befriended Sen. Patrick Leahy, the state's senior Democrat, formed a progressive caucus and even corralled Western representatives from the "black helicopter" faction of the GOP and deleted a section in the Patriot Act that would have required librarians to report which books patrons checked out.
Sanders annoys some to his left (admittedly a rather small neighborhood). Peter Diamondstone -- who founded the Liberty Union and is running for the Senate this year -- has had more doctrinal splits with Bernie than they have fingers. Now 72, he recalls spending the night at Sanders's Burlington apartment in 1981. They argued over dinner, they argued over dessert, they argued deep into the night. After turning in, Diamondstone says, "there was a few minutes of silence and we began yelling at each other up and down the stairs."
Still, if you're a beat-up war veteran or an old mill hand looking for food stamps, you want to wash up at Sanders's constituent offices. He brings home millions of dollars for veterans and the usual fat subsidies to quaint Vermont dairy farmers. It pays off for him every Election Day.
You nose up the rutted dirt roads north of Lyndonville and brake by a log cabin with three cords of fresh-split wood under the porch. Two political signs are in the grass -- for Jim Douglas, the Republican governor, and for "Bernie," the socialist.
Frankie Paquette, 63, asks you to sit in his kitchen while his wife, Millie, knits. He's a wiry millworker whose mill moved south of the border three years ago. He subsists on odd jobs and no health insurance, hoping to limp to 65 and Medicare. He's talked with Sanders twice and the congressman's office helped him obtain college loans for his sons.
"Bernie's got really crazy ideas," Paquette says. "But he's for the little guy who ain't got three dollars for gasoline in February. That's me and I'm for him."