MARLBORO, Vt. — A few years ago, a wild-haired guy showed up in a bathing suit at my family’s farm stand in southern Vermont. He asked more questions than the average wet-bathing-suited customer: Was the unseasonably wet weather affecting our crops? Was tourism good this year? And then he asked if he could pick some blueberries, and my mom sent him off with a bucket into a field of blues.
Of course, it was Bernie, my mom realized later, our man in Washington for 20-some years. Bernie Sanders (or Bernie, as we all call him here): first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990, when I was 12, and elected to the Senate in 2006, the year I got married and returned to Vermont to live in a cabin my husband and I had built on my parents’ farm. I can’t remember a time when my dad’s pickup truck has not had a red Bernie sticker, mud-splattered, stuck to its rear bumper. I can’t remember a Vermont parade without Bernie cresting the hill at some point, looking disheveled and joyful. I can’t remember a political landscape without Bernie in it, sticking up for our farmers, working class, veterans, women, environment, minorities and disadvantaged poor.
It’s made him beloved here, among radicals, non-radicals and pretty much everyone in between — his popularity rating among constituents is 83 percent, the highest in the nation. He’s the senator not one of us is surprised to see stopping by our farm in his swim trunks after a dip in the local pond, not bothering to introduce himself but rather seeking a grasp on the economic realities of the constituents he represents. We love him for his policies but also for his personal qualities — the integrity, grit, modesty and verve that make him so very Vermont.
National media stories love to cast Bernie as a “hippie,” using as primary evidence the sugar house he transformed into a three-story cabin. An article in Bloomberg Business describes the place: “In the 1960s, he lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a few months and moved to Vermont, where he first lived in a maple sugar shack and cooked food over a coffee can filled with a roll of toilet paper soaked in lighter fluid.” A piece in Salon detailing the cabin sported the headline: “Bernie Sanders’ Hippie 20s.” An article in The Washington Post in April 2015 ran the headline: “Bernie Sanders, From Hippie Migrant to Would be President.”
Bernie did live off-grid in that cabin, splitting his own firewood and cooking over a makeshift stove, but he wasn’t a hippie. (He wasn’t into pot or psychedelic rock, preferring country music.) His cabin is a lot like the one my parents built by hand in 1968, on the far side of the creek down the road from where I live now. It’s a lot like the sugar house my grandparents lived in, too, here in Vermont in the late 1940s, and the farmhouse, without electricity, my great-grandparents bought here in the 1930s. Building a cabin in Vermont doesn’t make you a hippie; it makes you a Vermonter.
Bernie is emblematic of Vermont’s unique cultural story over the past 50 years. A rural, staunchly conservative state composed of farming and logging industries, Vermont saw a population increase of 31 percent in the 1960s and ’70s, as more than 30,000 hippies, back-to-the-landers, political idealists and left-leaning students fled here, seeking alternatives to more urban and corporatized lives. The cultural mash-up could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t. It created something whole-heartedly new. Those students and back-to-the-landers (in general) meshed with and learned from the farmers and loggers around them. Some left, but many stuck around.
The result is a place where honest rough edges are valued far more (regardless of party affiliations) than slick polished lines. Caring for your neighbors and caring for the land you reside on are fundamental and key. Stewardship, honesty and integrity are honored, and big money is shunned. Civic discourse is fostered and respected in town meetings and town halls. Our voting and volunteer rates are among the highest in the nation.
From his base in relatively urban Burlington, where he’d been mayor, Bernie won over Vermont’s farmers and transplants by defending the needs of the working class. While in Congress, he defended and increased funding for Social Security benefits, low-income home energy assistance, community health centers and benefits for veterans. Vermonters suffered more deaths per capita in the Iraq war than any other state. (My cousin served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.) Bernie not only staunchly objected to that war, but made sure those who survived had access to doctors and health services when they returned. Today, in the body and voice of Bernie, Vermont’s particular cocktail of independence and idealism and pragmatism is hitting the national stage.
And it makes this race very personal here. For many Vermonters, it’s not just Bernie’s candidacy on the line; it’s everything Vermont and its green hills represent. Our state has become a beacon of pragmatic liberalism — the first to allow civil unions. (I was there for the first one in 2000, on the streets of Brattleboro, alongside a large crowd, holding candles and crying and cheering, at 12:01 a.m.) We have progressive taxation laws, enforced GMO labeling, strict environmental protections, community-based restorative justice, high-quality public schools, accessible and affordable health care. During this campaign, I don’t see Bernie on the podium but my dead grandmother, a girl from rural Kentucky turned fiery Vermont-loving liberal. I see my farming and bus-driving mother, toiling to bring good food to the world. I see my 93-year-old environmentalist grandfather, who’s been preaching about climate change for 40 years. I see my farming and car-fixing dad, who spends one night a week at our local homeless shelter, helping those with nothing have a place to sleep and food that is warm. I see Vermont’s working class radicalism and wonder if it will play on the national stage, or if we’re too far up the creeks to touch the mainstream.
Last summer, we were waiting for a local parade celebrating agriculture to begin, pulling a wagon behind my grandfather’s 1953 International Cub tractor, when Bernie showed up. He was going to walk in the parade, too, just like he’d done for the past 25 years, even though he’d just launched a presidential campaign. The crowd was giddy at the sight of our hometown hero. “Uncle Bernie!” a group of teenagers called out. A dairy farmer shook his hand and said, “Thank you.”
Then Bernie stopped and took a photo with my daughter and her cousins and friends. I like the way Bernie is looking at my daughter with admiration, a smile on his lips. I like how fierce and joyous my daughter looks in the photo, wearing an old dress of mine. Wild and unbroken and free, heiress to four generations of idealistic and pragmatic Green Mountain dwellers, like Bernie in his cabin, writing manifestos. Like Bernie in his bathing suit, picking blueberries. Like Bernie on the campaign trail, still preaching the gospel of Vermont: that justice and equality, with enough effort and faith and collective will power, are possible, and might be.