ORDINARY HEROES: The "Lame-duck" Mayor
by John Javna, Fri Nov 10, 2006 at 08:14:51 AM EST
Watching Republicans like Tom Delay dismiss the Democratic victors as a "lame duck Congress" reminds me of one of my favorite political stories. It's an instructive tale about how "good ol' boys" who try to undercut a newcomer's power can wind up eating their words in the end.
Here's what happened: In 1970, Vermont was still a Republican stronghold. There wasn't much of a constituency for a socialist political party...but a few anti-war activists decided to form one anyway. They called it Liberty Union. During the '70s, the same 3 or 4 guys from the Liberty Union Party seemed to run in every election, for whatever office was open. I don't think any of them ever got more than 5% or 6% of the vote, and they were never a factor in the elections. But they kept running. A lot of mainstream Vermonters considered them a joke.
In 1978, one of Liberty Union's perennial candidates--a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn--quit the party and moved to Burlington, the state's biggest city (population: 37,000) and home of the University of Vermont (UVM). He gave up politics, rented an apartment and worked as a writer. But his retirement didn't last long. Burlington had been run by the same group of good ol' boys for decades. The mayor, Gordon Paquette, had been in office for 5 or 6 terms; no one stood a chance against him. However, in 1981, as the mayoral election approached, Paquette and the local police got into a dispute. If I remember correctly, the cops wanted a raise; the mayor wouldn't give it to them. (Note: anyone out there remember the details?) The socialist from Brooklyn jumped into the mayoral race as an independent, and a supporter of workers' rights, standing 100% behind the cops. And the police, as a symbolic "Screw you" to Mayor Paquette, endorsed the Socialist in return. It was as improbable an alliance as you could imagine. But the unexpected mainstream support turned Our Hero into a credible candidate--albeit a prohibitive underdog--for the first time in his career. And he took advantage of it. With a dedicated group of supporters, he went out and registered UVM students like crazy. He also reached out to people who'd become weary of Paquette's political machine. Of course, Mayor Paquette and his cronies didn't take this challenge seriously. Why should they? So on election day, they--and pretty much everyone else in town--were astonished to discover that the socialist had actually won the race...by 10 votes. (Or 12, depending on who's telling the tale).
That was just the beginning. The shell-shocked good ol' boys of the city council considered the election a fluke. They were sure there was no way the socialist would ever get elected again--he was an automatic "lame duck." So they decided to ignore him. For example, they began scheduling city council meetings without informing the mayor's office when and where they were being held. But they miscalculated--instead of making the new mayor seem irrelevant, they made him a sympathetic figure, And he fought back. He publicized the council's outrageous actions, admonishing them for violating the public trust. In the next election, the public responded--not by returning a Good Ol' Boy to the mayor's office, but by throwing city council members out. The socialist got his own council members installed, and Burlington's city government was transformed permanently. Today, the mayor has moved on, but the city government is still stocked with his allies.
And what happened to this lame duck? Well, he became a political icon in Vermont, respected for his independence and honesty, and gradually moved up the political ladder: On Tuesday, former Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders was elected to the US Senate. We can only hope all of our newly elected "lame duck" Democrats do just as well.