by Steve Early
While the former “First Lady” remains an unannounced candidate to succeed Barack Obama, she’s been hearing footsteps from a one-time Senatorial colleague who is threatening to run to the left of her. Clinton’s potential challenger is Bernie Sanders, who has, for nearly 25 years, represented Vermont in Congress, first as a member of the House of Representatives and, since 2006, the Senate. Vermont is a small, rural northeastern state with a largely white population of just 640,000.
In ten straight federal races, the 73-year old Sanders has campaigned as an anti-corporate independent, defeating both conservative Republicans and Clinton-like centrist Democrats. Sanders also has the distinction of being the only socialist on Capitol Hill and one of its most ardent supporters of collective bargaining, Social Security, and tax-financed health insurance for all Americans.
As chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sanders just helped win $15 billion in much-needed new funding for publicly-funded hospitals serving veterans of past U.S. wars, several of which—the disastrous interventions in Vietnam and Iraq–he strongly opposed. In 2007, his office helped facilitate the delivery of discounted home heating oil to hundreds of low-income families and (free of charge) to homeless shelters in Vermont, a humanitarian gesture made possible by Venezuelan-owned CITGO Petroleum.
Recently, Sanders has been barnstorming around the U.S., making stops in Iowa, Wisconsin, and several southern states. There, he has held “town meetings” with potential presidential election voters and given media interviews critical of Democrats like Clinton who favor job-killing “free trade” deals and other Wall Street-friendly policies. This has raised hopes, on the left, that the Vermont senator may enter the 2016 presidential race and liven up the debate about key foreign and domestic policy questions where the difference between Democrats and Republicans can be hard to find.
In his own state, Sanders has faced some criticism lately from a few local radicals who believe he failed to oppose Israel’s U.S.-backed assault on Gaza. Generally, however, Sanders is enormously popular in Vermont, even among those who do not agree with his past criticisms of Pentagon spending, national security state spying, and U.S. military interventions in Central America and the Middle East. Two years ago, he was reelected to the Senate with 71.2 percent of the vote. In a post-election interview with The Nation, Sanders attributed his rare electoral success, as a U.S. socialist, to “building movements, making progress on progressive issues—you have to talk to people, educate people, organize people and take their side when the big fights come.”
Sanders singular career has created political space for the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), the nation’s most influential, state-level third party, which now has eight representatives in the state legislature. Sanders has backed VPP candidates for state and local office, while the Progressives have, in turn, ardently supported his past campaigns.
Like Sanders, the Vermont Progressives have distinguished themselves from their mainstream party opponents by focusing on economic justice issues, rather than potentially divisive social questions.
In areas of Vermont where some working-class voters have remained Republican (because of issues like gun control and abortion), the Progressive Party has, like Sanders, won elections by campaigning for workers’ rights, fair taxes, a living wage, and single-payer health care. The VPP also tries to “promote cooperative, worker-owned and publicly owned enterprises,” including a proposed state-run bank.
Sanders first became prominent in Vermont when he was elected mayor of its largest city in 1981. During his four terms in Burlington city hall, Sanders championed the cause of workers, tenants, the poor, and unemployed. “I was fighting for working families,” he recalled recently. “We were paying attention to low and moderate-income neighborhoods rather than just downtown or the big-money interests. In fact, I went to war with virtually every part of the ruling class in Burlington during my years as mayor. The result was that large numbers of people who previously had not participated in the political process got involved. And that’s what we have to do for the whole country.”
Party-Crasher or Excluded Independent?
For much of this year, Sanders has been soliciting advice from his out-of-state admirers about whether and how he should run for president. His options are to campaign as a third-party independent –like consumer advocate Ralph Nader did in 2000 on behalf of the Green Party—or to participate in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries. The latter route has been taken by dissident Democrats in the past, including Reverend Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and anti-war Congressman Dennis Kucinich, in more recent presidential election years.
Sanders has never been a Democrat so his sudden appearance, as a candidate, in the party’s 2015-16 presidential primary process may not be appreciated by many party loyalists, even those who are otherwise liberal leaning. Many female Democratic donors and activists are already rallying around Clinton just on the basis of gender politics (i.e. the chance to “make history” by electing the nation’s first female president).
Participating in primary balloting within the Democratic Party would, however, give an interloper like Sanders far more media exposure. Running as an independent, in the 2016 general election, he would face great legal difficulty getting on the ballot in all fifty states. That’s because ballot access restrictions have been made worse–to hinder third party campaigning–since Nader got nearly 3 million presidential votes (or 2.74% of the total) fourteen years ago and, in view of still embittered Democrats, tipped the election in favor of Texas Republican George Bush.
Like Nader when he ran against Bush and then-Vice-President Al Gore, Sanders would probably be excluded from the national presidential debates between the Democratic and Republican nominees in 2016. For this reason, among others, even Nader has recommend that Sanders focus his challenge to Clinton within the Democratic primaries instead.
Wooing U.S. Labor (Again)
When Nader campaigned for the presidency in 2000, one of his many handicaps was little or no trade union support. Only two small independent labor organizations, with less than 100,000 members between then, backed his campaign. The AFL-CIO was extremely hostile to his challenge to Bush and Gore. If Sanders runs, he is hoping to do better than that based on his own long record of support for myriad labor causes and campaigns. These include failed efforts to secure private sector law reform and the now largely abandoned union lobbying for “economic conversion” (ie converting factories dependent on Pentagon contracts to socially-useful, civilian-oriented production).
In Vermont, over the years, Sanders has repeatedly used his House or Senate office, in highly unusual fashion, to help working class constituents get better organized. He has supported worker picket lines, strikes, or protests at big local firms like IBM and UPS. He aided unionization of the Vermont workforce of Verizon, the telecom giant. He convened annual meetings of rank-and-file activists to help them develop more successful membership recruitment and bargaining strategies. To stimulate new thinking at the local union level, Sanders also invited progressive labor leaders to Vermont for discussions of how to revive the union movement.
Now, Sanders is reaching out to local, state, and national affiliates of the AFL-CIO with an appeal for a labor-backed “political revolution that will get millions of people involved in the political process.” (See his video-taped message to trade unionists in Iowa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dn2HniSFgXk) As much as U.S. unions want to fend off corporate attacks and reduce the role of big money in politics, few of their top officials share Sanders’ interest in shaking up the two-party system. When and if his pitch gets more presidential campaign-oriented, Sanders will inevitably find some of his erstwhile union “friends” throwing their weight around on behalf of Hillary, a fitting heir to her husband’s legacy of weak support for labor.
Reposted from Telesur English by permission of the author.
Steve Early was a longtime union representative and organizer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in New England, which includes the state of Vermont. His union actively supported Vermont Progressives, including Bernie Sanders. Early is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress form Monthly Review Press.