ORDINARY HEROES: The "Lame-duck" Mayor

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.

Tags: Bernie Sanders, Ordinary Hero, Vermont (all tags)



Truly an amazing climb!

I love how Sanders' first run for office was for Senate in 1970. He got a couple of hundred votes and a fraction of a percent of the vote...and 36 years later, he won that very same seat.  Give 'em hell, Bernie!!

by RamblinDave 2006-11-10 08:53AM | 0 recs

Holy crap, that's a good story.

by Steve M 2006-11-10 09:11AM | 0 recs
Bernie's near-sweep

Looking at the town-by-town results (for some reason, CNN thinks New England towns are counties), I see that Bernie beat Tarrant in almost every one of them ... big and small, urban and rural, conservative and liberal.

Tarrant outpolled Bernie in exactly one town, Granby -- winning 55% of the vote to 42% for Bernie and 3% for the Green candidate.

That's 18 votes to 14 votes to 1 vote.

by N in Seattle 2006-11-10 09:13AM | 0 recs
When is a county not a county?

in New England, counties are an archaic political subdivision that exist for little to no reason, as most government is administered at the municipal level. that's why they list election results by town/city rather than county.

on a mostly unrelated note, I was surprised to see that Peter Welch won the usually-Republican city of Rutland.

by johnny longtorso 2006-11-10 01:31PM | 0 recs
Re: Bernie's near-sweep

Adding on about counties here in New England, I have to say that it's very different from North Carolina where I grew up. Here, in Maine, the towns really can be about the size of counties down south. Plus, at least in Maine, we have the joy of "T5 R6" for the grid lines breaking up the unorganized territories. Most people don't seem to know about that...

Irrelevant, I know, so let me be relevant for a moment: Damn, what a great story. Thank you for sharing.

by mainemc 2006-11-10 06:07PM | 0 recs
Why does VT keep electing a socialist?

Because there's no communist on the ballot.

Old joke, I know. But seriously -- great story.

by msnook 2006-11-10 09:14AM | 0 recs
And now you know...

...the rest of the story.

...Page 2...

by advisorjim 2006-11-10 09:49AM | 0 recs

As a life-long Vermonter, I knew where you were headed by the 3rd sentence... but it still brought tears to my eyes at the end, how justice can overcome corruption on the backs of ordinary people banding together.  

I'm emotional that way, but it was also really well told.  Thanks.

by bruorton 2006-11-10 10:45AM | 0 recs
A real-life "Mr. Deeds"

What a great story.

by CathiefromCanada 2006-11-10 12:03PM | 0 recs
Re: ORDINARY HEROES: The middle of the story

But it's the middle of the story that's really important.  Bernie Sanders was so effective a mayor that he won praise from people and national publications everywhere on the politcal spectrum.  Politicians should study what he did as mayor of Burlington if they want to see how to win across a broad spectrum: it's done by doing, not just talking.

by Captain Future 2006-11-10 01:59PM | 0 recs

I always worry that whenever people read the word "Socialist" they immediately discount Bernie at least in part as not quite legit. Here are some other labels that apply to Bernie instead of (or along with) Socialist:

-For working people
-Stands up to Corp. interests
-Stands up for Vets
-For Universal HC
-For decent wages

Bernie says what a lot of us think, only he says it unapologetically, forcefully and uncompromisingly. Is that what makes him a socialist? How is he different than the rest of us?

by greenvtster 2006-11-13 03:09AM | 0 recs
by 3gmobile 2008-02-26 04:56AM | 0 recs
by habibi 2008-02-28 06:19PM | 0 recs


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