What Socialist Worker Got Wrong About Vermont Politics


From a reader (with minor edits).

Overall: The premise of the Socialist Worker article is that had Bernie decided to challenge Peter Shumlin for the Gubernatorial office, he could have used that position as a base to build a statewide Progressive Party analogous to the organization he built in Burlington. That’s unlikely, and here is why:

  • All Vermont politics is intensely personal. Bernie has a strong personal following (he’s not a nice guy, but he’s widely seen as honest and straightforward), rather like a fiscally conservative Republican Governor, Richard Snelling. Snelling was downright rude, abrasive and difficult to deal with. But he kept getting elected, and when he retired he was succeeded by a liberal Democrat (Madeline Kunin) who proceeded to muck up the budget. Snelling came back and fixed it again with a stunning deal between him and the powerful Democratic leader of Congress. It was Snelling’s unexpected fatal heart attack that put then Lt. Governor Howard Dean — remember him? — into the Governor position. Dean, brilliantly, immediately announced that he hadn’t been elected to anything, was going to implement Snelling’s program and leave Snelling’s people in place in the government. Vermonters thought this was pretty classy and re-elected Dean in his own right with a massive majority. So Vermont had a very fiscally conservative (and rude) Governor, followed by a Liberal (and wishy washy — she was known as “Straddlin’ Madeline”) spendthrift, followed by a “Jeezum Crow, I gotta clean up the fng mess again?” return, followed by a moderate Democrat who acted like a conservative Republican and fought tooth and nail with the progressive wing of his own party. Dean called them “kooks” and “nutcases” and “idiots” — and that was in public. Do you see strong ideologies at play here? Me neither.
    • The takeaway here is that Vermont politics is not so much ideology-based as personality-based. People like Bernie and trust him, but outside of the enclaves of the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) (notably Greater Burlington and a few other cities), the VPP doesn’t have a lot of traction.
  • On Shumlin’s failures as Governor (labeled ‘betrayal’). Shumlin did come in promising single-payer health care in Vermont. It was to be the centerpiece of his administration. Very unfortunately, the launch of the Vermont health care portal – a custom programming job for goodness sake, so that it could be unique to Vermont – was a much bigger disaster than the Federal portal. It still doesn’t work, and the Governor has said if it’s not fixed by the end of May, it’s going to be scrapped and Vermont will just use the Federal software. (Or maybe not. There’s been some hemming and hawing about this. Heads have rolled, but not Shumlin’s.)
    • We spent millions and millions on the custom site. That’s enough to piss everybody off, just to start with, and is one big reason that Shumlin came very very close to losing his seat in the last election.
    • Shumlin had already annoyed the Legislature by refusing to discuss how the single payer plan was to be financed. Various Democrats (and the exceptionally weak for now) Republicans kept asking, before the election, “How we gonna pay for this? What will it cost? We’d kinda like to know, if you don’t mind.” After the election, the administration came out and said, “Oops. Sorry. Too expensive.” The blithe statement that the cost could be covered by “taxing the rich” is just too disingenuous for words. Remember, there are only 600,000 people in the whole state and the wealthiest tend to be retirees. They can (and do) establish winter residencies in income-tax free Florida but spend summers here. There aren’t enough 1%’ers here to finance single payer. It would take a broad-based payroll tax, and few people were really eager for that.
  • Bernie as mayor of Burlington. Yes, his supporters were called Sanderistas. He did spend a lot of time and effort talking about Central America. A famous quote from a disgruntled member of the city council was, “El Salvador! El Salvador! What about El Burlington?” However — and it isn’t something you read a lot about in the hagiography of Sanders — he was very practical and actually listened to the Old Guard that had run Burlington for decades. He didn’t always agree, of course, but when he wanted to accomplish something practical for the city, he brought them in and they helped. He did a lot of good for Burlington and is one of the reasons that it still has a thriving downtown despite the Big Box stores on the perimeter. And if housing is expensive, there is still some working class housing available. (Although many people complain it’s filled with University of Vermont students pushing out the Burlingtonians. The city keeps hammering on the university to build more on campus housing; it’s an annual fight.) Bernie talked a lot about Central America but he still got things done for Burlington.
  • Sanders has “uncritically supported the Democrats in Vermont.” Um, yes, but no. Bernie is not playing on the Vermont stage, he’s playing on the D.C. stage. It’s often a bad idea for D.C. politicians to interfere in state-level politics, particularly outside of the electoral cycle. A campaign appearance or two, maybe a pancake breakfast fund-raiser here or there, sure. But Bernie directly attacking Shumlin’s policies in Vermont would be kind of offensive, even to us Sanders admirers. “Mind your own business, Bernie” would be the tart reply.
  • The Great F-35 fight. This is a local hot potato. On the one hand, you have a long-standing Air National Guard base in Burlington, Vermont (sent to patrol New York City on 9/11, no less), which provides a lot of good jobs, and gives tiny little Burlington airport really state-of-the-art avionics, runway clearing (helicopters blow light fluffy snow off sometimes — it’s fun to watch), and generally make it possible to fly in and out in frequent bad weather. The F-35s had to be located somewhere, and a mix of upper middle-class professions in South Burlington (where the airport is) went all ‘not-in-my-back-yard!’ on it, aided by the old left who just generally hate anything military. After much turmoil, South Burlington voters went with the pro F-35 crowd, as did the entire Vermont Congressional delegation. The city of Burlington bought out a strip of houses next to the airport just in case the F-35 turns out to be as loud as some shrilly say it is. I don’t know and arguments are ongoing.

TL; DR: The author of this piece misunderstands and misrepresents Vermont politics, and especially as it pertains to Bernie Sanders.

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