Bernard Sanders is the new U.S. senator in Vermont. He ran as an independent, but he is the first self-described socialist to be elected to the Senate.
In a fitting matchup for a socialist, Sanders' opponent was multimillionaire businessman Republican Rich Tarrant. As Sanders said before the election, "We are running against the richest man in Vermont, who will spend more per capita than anyone in the history of the U.S. Senate." And, as he pointed out, "I don't mind really if millionaires vote against me; they probably should."
I caught up with Sanders at a Pre-Election Victory Rally in Montpelier, the state capital, on the Saturday before the election. The packed high-school cafeteria was decorated with red balloons declaring the name by which he is known across Vermont: Bernie. One attendee looked at his free dinner of chicken and pasta and said, "This is the same stuff they fed me 20 years ago when I went here."
But Bernie, the candidate the diners had gathered for, is not standard fare.
With global attention focused on the control of Congress, and the prognosticating political pundits working at a fever pitch, scant notice has been paid to this Senate socialist.
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Vermont, the small New England state known traditionally for its steady, stoic, plain-speaking farmers and pragmatic Republicanism, has also in the past 25 years proven to be an incubator for progressive politics. Vermont's congressional delegation is the only one in the country to vote unanimously against the invasion of Iraq. It's a delegation of three: retiring Sen. Jim Jeffords, whose switch from Republican to independent in 2001 briefly restored Senate control to the Democrats, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sanders. Sanders has been the point person in building Vermont's progressive politics.
Sanders is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., with an accent and irascibility to prove it, but has been in the Green Mountain State since the late '60s. He was the first Senate candidate of the upstart Liberty Union Party in the early 1970s, where he secured a solid protest vote of 2 percent. Ten years and a few unsuccessful statewide campaigns later, Sanders won the Burlington mayor's race by 10 votes, and ushered in the Progressive Era of Vermont politics. In his political autobiography, "Outsider in the House," Sanders writes of that first mayoral campaign, "The coalition we had brought together -- low-income people, hard-pressed working-class homeowners, environmentalists, renters, trade unionists, college students, professors, and now the police -- reinforced each other. I cannot emphasize enough how important it was that we developed a 'coalition politics.' " (Why the police? They were union. The Burlington Patrolmen's Association joined the coalition after Sanders vowed to bargain fairly with them, unlike the incumbent mayor.)
How do his socialist policies play with conservative Republican Vermonters? "Truth of the matter is ... conservative Republicans don't have health care, don't have money to send their kids to college; conservative Republicans are being thrown out of their jobs as our good paying jobs move to China. And if you talk about those issues, you know what those people say? 'I want someone to stand up to protect my economic well-being.' Conservative people are very worried about Bush's attacks on our constitutional rights. So the job is to say, 'We're not going to agree on every issue, but don't vote against your own interests.' "
After eight years as Burlington's mayor, and 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Sanders is heading to the Senate. Senators have longer terms, more procedural power, a more prominent bully pulpit. Sanders has policy ideas that cross the simple partisan divides, that unite people by impacting them where they live. He thumbs his nose at millionaires, yet is joining the Senate, which has more than 40 of them. With a lame-duck president and nearly evenly split Senate, where coalitions matter and every vote counts, Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, is poised to make a difference.