Few people outside of Vermont had heard of Bernie Sanders before he decided to run for president earlier this year. Now the self-professed socialist is running almost even with Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and packing tens of thousands into arenas all over the country. In hopes of trying to understand more about the Sanders' phenomenon, I reached out to Chris Graff, the longtime Vermont bureau chief for the Associated Press and author of "Dateline Vermont", to help fill in some of the gaps in the Sanders' story. Our interview, conducted via e-mail and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: You’ve covered Vermont politics for decades. Did you EVER expect Bernie Sanders to a) run for president or b) do as well as he has?
GRAFF: No and No!
I did think in 2003 and 2004 that Bernie must have been incredulous (and perhaps a bit envious) that Howard Dean, one of Vermont’s most fiscally conservative governors in history, vaulted to the top of the 2004 Democratic presidential race as a populist, anti-establishment candidate [by] telling voters, “You have the power!” That’s been Bernie’s role since his early political races in the 1970s as a gadfly candidate of the Liberty Union party.
I certainly did not expect Bernie to do as well as he has. There is no doubt he has a message that resonates with the times but I thought his red-hot style would not play as well on the presidential stage. Bernie lectures. He does not pamper. He does everything on his terms. But somehow the things I considered negatives are positives today.
FIX: Sanders started his political career by losing 5 straight races before getting elected mayor of Burlington in 1981. How the heck did he win that race?
GRAFF: He operated under the radar, running as an independent, weaving together a coalition of people who felt left out by the long-time Democratic incumbent. He won by 10 votes in a four-way race. No one at the time saw that win coming. One of his key issues was to oppose the mayor’s plan to raise residential property taxes. He opposed a private developer’s plan to build hotels and condos on the waterfront. He ran against the “Old Boys” network that had governed Burlington for decades.
FIX: Describe Sanders time as mayor of Burlington. Is he viewed as a successful mayor? Why or why not?
GRAFF: Incredibly successful. The origins of almost everything great in Burlington today can be traced back to Bernie’s tenure as mayor. When he was elected in 1981 many city leaders feared he would care more about foreign policy (his team and his supporters were known as "Sanderistas") than city matters. But he was laser-focused on fixing potholes and economic development and rebuilding the waterfront and saving the downtown and providing arts and developing programs for children. Today Burlington ranks as one of the most livable cities in the nation. (Editor's note: He's right!)
FIX: Sanders has been in Washington for the past 24 years straight — first in the House and now in the Senate. How do Vermonters regard him? Still as an outsider to the establishment or part of the establishment?
GRAFF: Most love him. In every parade that Bernie marches in, he gets the biggest and loudest cheers – from Vermonters across the political spectrum. He remains very popular in liberal and conservative regions of the state. That’s not to say that he is universally loved. Some business leaders, Republican leaders and even some Democrats see him as the crazy uncle in the attic.
FIX: Finish this sentence: Bernie Sanders best trait as a politician is _____.
GRAFF: .... he is not a politician.
FIX: Now, explain.
GRAFF: Bernie is the Uncola of national politics. Remember 7-Up’s masterful marketing strategy to separate it from Coke and Pepsi? The lemon-lime soft drink became the “Uncola: tart, crisp, clear” and was branded as the exact opposite of the two sweet, brown colas. Call central casting for a presidential candidate and the last person they would send you is a rumpled, mad-as-hell, impatient Brooklyn native with the air of an absent-minded professor. But today the Bernie brand is hot. His issues resonate, his anger matches the nation’s mood, his no-nonsense approach to politics is seen as a breath of fresh air. In a time when politicians are on the outs, the unpolitician is in. The UnCola.