"The fungus of socialism" that Burlington Democrats said was implanted here a year ago began spreading with this week's city elections rather than being eradicated as opponents predicted.
The Socialist mayor of Vermont's largest city won the mandate he was seeking Tuesday when voters elected three of his supporters to the Board of Aldermen, ending 30 years of Democratic domination of Burlington politics.
"We interpret the vote as a mandate for change and ideas that will benefit the low-income and working people," said an elated Bernard Sanders, the city's 40-year-old mayor.
"The word 'socialism,' which has been tossed around a lot here lately, apparently has not frightened anybody," he said. "The people understand we're talking about programs and ideas."
Indeed, Sanders' "socialist" program, which he hopes the new board will embrace, consists primarily of a plan to enact a local tax on hotel rooms and restaurant meals, and to make city hall an activist on behalf of Burlington's disadvantaged in housing and recreation programs.
"We do not agree with Ronald Reagan that government has a limited function, and that private corporations should be making the initiatives," Sanders said. "Our broad agenda is to involve people and listen to any and all ideas."
But the name alone has been enough to rile the local establishment. When Sanders stunned Burlington's political establishment a year ago by upsetting five-term Democratic Mayor Gordon Paquette, Democrats labeled the Socialist's 10-vote victory a fluke.
Alderman Joyce Desautels boasted last month that the "fungus of socialism" being spread by Sanders would be eradicated during Tuesday's elections for seven seats on the 13-member board.
Instead, it was Desautels and her fellow Democrats who were wiped out.
Of the six Democratic and one Republican seats, three were won by Sanders' supporters, two by Republicans and two will be decided in run-off elections.
Following the run-offs, Sanders' sympathizers will occupy from five to seven of the 13 aldermanic seats, because two of the already seated members support him.
The victories were crucial to the Brooklyn-born Sanders because the eight Democrats on the old board had thwarted almost every program the mayor sought to initiate. They even tried, without success, to fire his secretary, and blocked his appointments to key city posts.
Recognizing that he was hamstrung by such a hostile board, Sanders promoted Tuesday's aldermanic contests as his only opportunity to bring about change. He campaigned tirelessly and from door-to-door on behalf of the six candidates who had pledged to support him.
Sanders' highly politicized confrontations with the aldermen and the immense significance he ascribed to the elections produced the largest turnout in a non-mayoral election in the history of this city of 38,000.
Two of the three victorious Sanders-backed candidates ran on the Citizens Party ticket, environmentalist Barry Commoner's party; the other ran as an independent.
"Clearly, we will be able to carry out our initiatives with far more clarity and speed than we were able to do in the past," said Sanders, who is up for reelection next year.