Politics

For Bernie Sanders, the path to power began in a public-housing laundry room

The future presidential candidate didn’t want to run for mayor of Burlington, Vt. Then he got talked into it.

Bernie Sanders, left, in Burlington, Vt., in an undated photo. (Burlington Free Press/USA Today Network)

BURLINGTON, Vt. — On Halloween night in 1980, in a dank laundry room of a public-housing project here in his adopted hometown, Bernie Sanders’s friends sat him down for a serious talk about his future. He had none.

Not if he kept going as he had for the previous decade. Sanders readily conceded that, having run for Vermont governor, twice, and for U.S. Senate, twice, never winning more than 6 percent of the vote, he risked getting stuck on the fringe, perceived as a joke.

The future presidential candidate was 39 years old and lacked even the beginnings of a career. He drifted from apartment to apartment and ended up having to leave one place because he was so behind on his rent. He had trouble connecting with the people around him. Without a steady job, he drove around the state in his Volkswagen Bug trying to sell teachers the films he had cobbled together about socialist Eugene V. Debs and other radicals.

What brought him satisfaction was diving into the battlefield of ideas. He loved to talk about how to improve life in America, and he was good at it. People left his speeches fired up, affirmed.

As he entered a second decade of campaigning, Sanders wanted another shot at running for governor.

The Pursuit
The second in a series on the 2020 presidential candidates.
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No, his closest political pals said. Richard Sugarman, a philosopher who taught existentialism and Jewish thought at the University of Vermont, joined with three other allies and urged Sanders to give up on fruitless statewide races and target instead a place where he might actually win — Burlington.

Sugarman had run the numbers. Although Sanders never came close in any of his 1970s campaigns, he had pulled double digits — well, 12 percent — in the state’s largest city. He had done well in Burlington’s lower-middle-class neighborhoods. People there liked what he had to say.

Sanders was blunt: He knew little about city issues, couldn’t see himself as the guy in charge of snow removal.

But the others insisted that a mayor could focus on matters Sanders cared about: City residents were struggling to make their rent, and nothing was closer to Sanders’s heart than the plight of the ordinary worker. A mayoral campaign could tap Sanders’s passion for preaching about how the rich and powerful were the main obstacle to equality. He could battle the city’s Democratic political machine and big-business leaders.

They talked through the night. As dawn neared and the workers who lived in the Franklin Square project began trickling in to wash their clothes, the men in the laundry room pressed for an answer. Sanders repeatedly said he wanted to focus on big, systemic change. But he also wanted to break out of his identity as a perennial also-ran.

He would run for mayor.

He had one last question for his friends.

“What the hell would I do if by some miracle I won?”


Bernie Sanders shooting hoops in Burlington, Vt., in an undated photo. (Burlington Free Press/USA Today Network)

‘He never changed’

Sanders, a Jewish New Yorker with a thick Brooklyn accent, stood out in a state where many people could trace their roots back hundreds of years. It didn’t help that he was a combative, longhaired intellectual.

“It took a very long time for Vermonters to accept Bernie,” said Martha Abbott, a longtime friend who ran for governor in 1974 on a ticket with Sanders as a Senate candidate. “He was such an outsider. For one thing, he was talking too fast. But he never changed. He was so genuine that they eventually accepted him for who he is.”

Nearly half a century later, as he mounts his second run for president, Sanders is presenting himself to Democratic voters as a plain-speaking, unpolished change agent whose radical message can connect with frustrated voters — maybe even those voters who supported Barack Obama but then went for Donald Trump, people who had just had it with politics as usual.

[Listen on Post Reports: Marc Fisher looks at how being mayor of Burlington, Vt. shaped Bernie Sanders’s political career]

Sanders declined to speak to The Washington Post for this report. But his history of steering a course between his socialist philosophy and his desire to win — as well as his record of creating surprising alliances — suggest that a President Sanders would be less radical than some of his rhetoric may imply.

In the 1970s, just as today, Sanders wanted to be part of the system he so sharply criticized. Yet even as he moved from an itinerant life among fellow radicals and intellectuals to a position of power working with real estate developers and bureaucrats, Sanders remained an outsider, passionate about ideas but straining to connect with people in the way that comes naturally to many politicians.

“There’s never been a change that I’ve detected in Bernie,” said Terry Bouricius, a longtime Burlington lawyer who lived with Sanders for a time in the late ’70s and later served on the city council. “He’s used the same line about millionaires and billionaires for 30 years. It failed, it failed, it failed, and then it just suddenly started working. If the political landscape hadn’t changed under his feet, he’d still be baying at the wind.”


Mayor Bernie Sanders, right, greets voters at a Burlington polling place with Alderman Terry Bouricius in 1983. (Donna Light/AP)

‘I don’t follow those rules’

In 1964, fresh out of the University of Chicago, Sanders and his first wife bought 85 acres of backcountry Vermont woods and a cabin that was off the grid.

Within a few years, Sanders made the North Country his permanent home, devoting himself to the state’s burgeoning protest movement, centered around opposition to the Vietnam War.

It was a time of communes, of living off the land, of fighting the powers that were. “It was like, ‘We are going to change the world,’ ” Bouricius said.

Some Vermont leftists coalesced in 1970 in a nascent third party called Liberty Union. They chose the name, said Abbott, who attended the group’s founding, “because it sounded patriotic.”

In 1971, Sanders showed up at a Liberty Union meeting at which the party was choosing its candidate for U.S. Senate. Nobody else seemed to want to take on the task. Sanders did. He got the nod, simple as that.


Sanders in 1972, when he was running for Vermont governor on the Liberty Union ticket. (AP)

Off he went, making the case against a rigged system, railing against big companies, Wall Street and the political parties that served as their enablers.

The purpose of that campaign and those that followed was “mainly educational,” said John Franco, who ran for lieutenant governor on the Sanders Liberty Union ticket in 1976. “Nobody knew who we were. Standing outside a GE plant in Rutland at shift change, Bernie was introducing me to the workers and nobody knew who he was either.”

Sanders slammed Democrats and Republicans alike, telling audiences that major-party candidates “can’t talk about this, because the people with the money will punish them.”

“I don’t follow those rules,” Sanders would say.

Or many others. The first time fellow activist Greg Guma met Sanders, at a meet-the-candidates event in 1971, Guma asked what in Sanders’s background made him the right man to be senator.

“Obviously, you haven’t been listening to me,” Sanders replied, as Guma recalled it. “Do you know what the movement is? Have you read the books? Are you against the war in Vietnam?”

Of course, Guma said, “but you’re a person, not a movement.”

“It’s the movement that’s important,” Sanders insisted. “Are you for it?”

It’s not only about policy, Guma said: “You have to prove you’re a basically good person if you want my vote.”

Sanders had heard enough: “I don’t want your vote,” he said.

“We used to say, ‘He’s a jerk, but he’s our jerk,’ ” Guma said.

Liberty Union members couldn’t decide between being a debate society and dedicating themselves to winning elections.

Some members were acolytes of a political philosopher named Murray Bookchin, an anarchist who lived in Burlington and was a pioneer in the U.S. ecology movement. Bookchin saw Sanders as an accommodator — far too willing to work within the existing system.


Sanders helps clean up trash in Burlington during his time as mayor. (Sanders Mayoral Papers/Silver Special Collections Library/University of Vermont)

Sanders, left, and city arborist Warren Spinner, right, plant a honey locust tree in Burlington in 1983. (Rob Swanson/Burlington Free Press/USA Today Network)

“If socialist he be, he is of the ‘bread-and-butter’ kind whose preference [is] for ‘realism’ over ideals,” he wrote in a slashing critique in 1986. Bookchin, who died in 2006, dismissed Sanders’s “unadorned speech and macho manner” and “the surprising conventionality of his values.”

In hours-long arguments about Murray vs. Bernie, Bookchin would say, “You have to break with Bernie because he is a pragmatist,” Guma recalled. “He felt Bernie was selling out.”

By 1977, Sanders and some of his friends had had it. They left Liberty Union. “People got tired,” Abbott said, “of sitting in meetings debating ideas over and over again.”

In the years before his mayoral campaign, Sanders seemed to drop out of the political scene, according to several people who were close to him. He spent time on friends’ couches, made films, wrote for leftist papers, taught a bit, did some carpentry and house painting.

“I don’t remember him ever having a job,” Guma said. “Bernie felt like a lost soul in that time, a person who didn’t fit in exactly.”

But Sanders never seemed terribly concerned about his tenuous existence. “He’d say, ‘That’s just the way the world is,’ ” Bouricius recalled.

On lazy afternoons in the house they shared on Maple Street, Bouricius would watch “Star Trek” reruns with Sanders’s son, Levi. (Sanders shared custody with the boy’s mother.) Sanders would be in the other room, editing his films, fiddling with his son’s walkie-talkie to find the right sound effect.

Sanders once called selling his films a frustrating ordeal. The Debs film was “technologically very poor … but it defended Debs’s life, it defended socialism,” Sanders said. “I took it over to Vermont Educational Television. … I said: ‘I’m reasonably well known. I’ve run for office 47 times. I hope you will put this on the air.' ”

The station rejected the film as biased, but Sanders kept pushing and prevailed. The story became part of his stump speech, a lesson in doing an end run around the news media, which Sanders saw as fatally addicted to stories of personalities rather than policies.

Friends said Sanders’s aversion to talking about personal matters went well beyond mistrust of reporters.

“I sort of forget that what people see most of the time is someone who is extremely serious, even stern,” Abbott said. “He’s really fun, self-deprecating. Bernie believes the personal, and especially the way the media personalizes everything, takes away from the power struggle.”

Even people who worked with him for years learned little about Sanders’s family or how he made a living. “I’m on a first-name relationship with him, but it took me 20 years to get there,” said Pat Robins, a Burlington businessman.

When he lived with Sanders, Bouricius said, “we would talk politics. I don’t think he knows anything about my life history.”


Sanders, right, before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Vermont Reds' inaugural game at Centennial Field in 1984. With him are Reds booster-club head Thomas Racine, left, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). (Toby Talbot/AP)

A crucial endorsement

In March 1980, Guma wrote a memo urging fellow members of the Citizens Party, a third party that was considering running candidates in Vermont, to focus on Burlington.

The city “can be extremely fertile ground,” Guma wrote. Financial woes, cronyism between the Democratic mayor and business leaders, unrest among youths, soaring rents — the city’s troubles made it ripe for political upheaval.

“In a three-way race, even a mayoral candidate might be elected,” he wrote.

Sanders was organizing low-income residents of Burlington’s Franklin Square housing project, bringing college students, the elderly and the poor together to press for affordable housing and tenants’ rights.

Guma, then editing an alternative newspaper, planned to run for mayor, but he realized that if leftists had any chance of pulling off an upset, only one of them could be on the ballot.

Some activists urged Guma to be that candidate. They considered Sanders great at reducing complicated topics to plain English, but they saw him as a pragmatist — and that was no compliment.

Guma and Sanders met to suss out each other’s plans. “Bernie said, ‘I’m running,’ ” Bouricius remembered. “ ‘This is not an educational campaign.’ ” He was in it to win it, and he needed a clear field.

Guma figured that “if I ran, I’d probably lose my job. The owner of my paper didn’t want me in politics. Bernie didn’t have anything to lose — no job. And he’s 6-2 and I’m 5-5, and that makes a difference.”

Guma stood down. But his theory about Burlington proved right.

Going up against the city’s five-term Democratic mayor and a local restaurateur, Sanders won the endorsement of the city police union. His door-to-door campaign — always telling residents, “We’re here to listen to complaints” — got its big boost after he promised a pay raise to the city’s police officers, whose income had been frozen by Burlington’s mayor.

“That turned him from a fringe candidate to somebody who could actually be mayor,” Guma said. “Once the police supported him, he couldn’t be a real red.”

Sanders slipped into office by 10 votes. He would go on to spend nearly three decades in Congress, in the House and then the Senate, but his four terms at city hall remain his only executive experience.


Rep. Bernie Sanders, left, and his son Levi Sanders at a birthday party hosted by Sen. Paul Wellstone, right, of Minnesota in 1995. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call/AP)

‘Who is this?’

When Sanders took office, Burlington’s government and business elites were still dominated by Irish and French Catholic families who had run the city of 38,000 for generations.

“In the ’70s, we had free run,” said Robins, who helped shape the city in that time, turning its main shopping street into a pedestrian mall. “Three or four of us ran the place. We were running around buying land. I didn’t pay any attention to Bernie.”

Then came the election of 1981.

“We wake up and boom — knock me off a chair,” Robins recalled. “Who is this? What are we talking about here?”

Burlington’s leaders had dismissed Sanders as a flake, an outsider — “a guy who didn’t even have a job, supported by all these people on communes,” Robins said.

Sanders’s win shocked the power brokers into a campaign of obstruction, paralyzing the new mayor. The city council rejected his appointments, down to his choice for personal secretary.

“The Democrats and Republicans did everything they could to smother Bernie’s administration in the crib,” said Franco, who worked with volunteer economics professors and neighborhood activists to craft a city budget.

That shadow cabinet of Sanderistas met on Sunday nights at each other’s houses to plan end runs around the bureaucrats who were freezing Sanders out.

“Bernie was strongly anti-business-establishment,” said Robins, now 80. “He had a real chip on his shoulder about it. I was assigned to go after him. We had really difficult meetings with very harsh language.”


Sanders in Burlington with his wife, Jane, in an undated photo. (Burlington Free Press/USA Today Network)

But Sanders and his volunteer crew forged an unlikely alliance with the Republicans, the minority party on the council. Sanders and the Republicans believed government tended to be corrupt and wasteful. They agreed on lower taxes and more-efficient spending.

The mayor hung a Soviet flag in his office (to honor Burlington’s sister city in Russia), but “our slogan was to out-Republican the Republicans,” Franco said. “When you’re a socialist, you had to plow the streets and keep the taxes down or you’re going to be out on your ear. People were shocked by the number of voters who were for Reagan and Bernie.”

When Sanders learned that Burlington had allowed a small group of local insurance agents to rotate the city’s business among themselves, he opened the contracts to competitive bidding. The mayor even spoke about transforming Burlington from “a very inefficient government … into a modern corporation.”

“The Republicans said, ‘Well, yeah!’ ” Bouricius recalled. “It wasn’t like Bernie transformed from being an ideologue into being practical. He still sent nasty letters to President Reagan. But he adapted.”

In that first year, Sanders entered any number of debates thinking he knew who the enemy was. Then he found himself in league with that enemy.

“It was an education,” Bouricius said, “because Bernie had never had personal conversations with millionaires before.”

Sanders and the Republicans joined forces to oppose increases in property taxes. When Sanders, an avid baseball fan, brought a minor league team to Burlington, the Republicans couldn’t complain, just as when he recruited People Express airline to fly a Burlington-Newark route, with $19 fares, leading to a boom at the city’s airport.

Over time, Sanders persuaded business leaders to work with him.

“He got that you had to take care of the potholes,” Robins said. “He had an agenda, the left equity agenda, but not at the cost of wrecking the city financially.”

“The correct label for Bernie Sanders,” concluded political scientist W.J. Conroy, author of “Bernie Sanders and the Boundaries of Reform,” “may be pragmatic socialist.”


Sanders in his office at City Hall in 1985. (Donna Light/Newsday/Getty Images)

‘Sellout’ or ‘starry-eyed dreamer’?

Sanders gained more leverage after leftists won council seats in 1982. He could finally push his own agenda, a local version of socialism in which the city provided free concerts, subsidized day care and altered zoning rules to require that units be set aside for low-income families.

But the leftists who had been his base were not necessarily on board with his approach. While he joined them in opposing a waterfront development proposal as a land grab by and for the rich, Sanders then embraced a plan that included a luxury hotel and high-end housing as well as generous park space.

“The more pure-left people said no, all of the land should be open to all,” Bouricius said. “Bernie said we have to make it a wonderful place people can enjoy. Bernie was okay with making it good enough.”

His old philosophical nemesis, Bookchin, said Sanders had “out-Republicaned the Republicans.”

In 1983, tensions with some of his longtime supporters intensified when protesters blocked the entrance to a General Electric plant in the city that made Gatling guns, a type of machine gun built for the military.

The mayor refused to join the protest, arguing that shutting the plant might make protesters feel good but killing union jobs would hurt working people.

When Bookchin accused him of being “a publicity man for GE,” Sanders replied that he was standing up for working people: “Not everybody has the luxury of choosing where they are going to work.”

“He came and supervised the police arresting us,” said Robin Lloyd, a protest organizer. “He was really about the blossoming of Burlington, making it seem fun to be here.”

Sanders had devoted a decade of his life to idealistic but hopeless campaigns. In the 1979 film he made about his socialist hero Debs, actors provide much of the voice-over. But at the end of the film, Sanders takes over the narration to deliver a final quotation from Debs, who ran for president of the United States five times, including once from prison:

“The little that I am, the little that I am hoping to be, I owe to the Socialist movement. It has given me my ideas and ideals, my principles and convictions, and I would not exchange one of them for all of Rockefeller’s bloodstained dollars.”

Sanders would always look like “a starry-eyed dreamer” to many in Burlington, Franco said, even if “the stalwarts on the ultra-left called him a sellout.

“But he proved that you can quote Marx and change a tire.”


Then-congressional candidate Bernie Sanders in 1990 in front of a photo of socialist labor organizer Eugene V. Debs. (Steve Liss/Life Images Collection/Getty Images)
Credits: Marc Fisher