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Burlington, Vermont, Harbinger of Change?

Photograph Source: Dour Kerr – CC BY 2.0

Burlington, Vermont saw its second snowfall of the 2020-2021 winter on January 2, 2021. The five-inch covering wasn’t much by Vermont standards and it certainly didn’t stop the city from functioning. In fact, it can even be seen as a welcome diversion in these days of quarantine and COVID-19. It did remind me of another snowfall a couple decades ago, though. That was also in Burlington. It was only a few days before the city’s mayoral election and the race was close between the Progressive candidate Peter Clavelle and the GOP incumbent Peter Brownell. Brownell’s failure to clean the streets and sidewalks of snow that day except in Burlington’s wealthier neighborhoods (including where he lived) caused his defeat. It was my introduction to snow politics.

There’s another mayoral election this March in Burlington. It will be forty years since Bernie Sanders won his first term as Burlington’s mayor in 1981. Similar to the dynamics of that year, the current Democratic mayor has proven to be a friend of developers and financiers. His network of associates and advisors is the 2020 version of a good old boys’ network. In other words, it’s not just made up of heterosexual men. His opposition includes a thirty-something Progressive and independent candidate Ali Dieng. It wasn’t more than a couple days after the Progressive candidate Max Tracy received the nomination of the Progressive Party for Burlington’s mayoral race that the local CBS affiliate WCAX-TV (known for its conservative leanings) ran a segment portraying him as too radical. Interspersing their commentary with images from local Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests, the story featured sound bites from liberal city council member Jane Knodell and the consistently conservative GOP politician Kurt Wright. The implication was that Tracy is a far-left radical whose politics are not what Burlington needs in these times. In an earlier story in Vermont’s more liberal Seven Days Vermont newspaper discussing the Progressive Party’s virtual caucus, Tracy was contrasted with his caucus opponent, longtime Progressive Brian Pine. In this article the reporter could find little difference between the two men’s politics, choosing instead to focus on style and approach. Seven Days, too, quoted GOP stalwart Kurt Wright, who more or less revealed his opinion of Tracy, stating that Tracy “is viewed as very, very far left in almost every circumstance….” Current mayor Democrat Weinberger echoed Wright in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nod in his reelection campaign, saying “As the Democratic Party has been establishing itself, both nationally and locally, as a Party committed to people through policy and progress that are based in science, data, and expertise, today’s Burlington Progressive Party has been moving in a different, rigid, ideological direction.” Not only do these remarks deny that Tracy and those to Weinberger’s left also use data, science and expertise but draw different conclusions than the Democrats, they also pretend that the Democrats are beyond ideology when, in reality, their ideology is an ideology that puts landlords, developers and banks ahead of workers, tenants and the poor. Although this piece was written in the early days of the campaign season, the remarks by Weinberger and Wright and the article by Seven Days indicate that the anti-Progressive elements in Burlington are trying to steer the campaign in a direction where perception matters more than fact. Bernie Sanders certainly knows something about that.

During Bernie Sanders’ first campaign for mayor of Burlington (and for the rest of his political life), his opponents attempted to pin a similar label on him. When Sanders first became Mayor in 1981 at thirty-nine years of age, the city of Burlington had been controlled by a good old boys’ network of establishment Democrats nominally led by Gordon Paquette. Their circle of friends were real estate developers and others who saw dollar signs instead of people. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for mayor put people—specifically working people—at the center of the campaign’s conversation. The campaign was hard fought and, in the end, it can be argued that it was the votes of less than a dozen voters who aligned themselves with anarchist and social ecologist Murray Bookchin’s politics that put Sanders over the top. Because of the success of his first term, Sanders was re-elected handily in the next mayoral election. For most of the 1980s his opponents in the Democratic/Republican establishment continued to call him a socialist. At the time it was a label Sanders proudly wore.

Jump ahead forty years to 2021. The city of Burlington has been ruled by Democrats for most of the past nine years. Democrat Miro Weinberger has been mayor since 2012 and only recently did the Progressives take back the majority on the city council. Weinberger, like his predecessor Paquette, is cozy with developers and banks. One of his biggest supporters is Councilperson Joan Shannon, who is a realtor and has made it clear throughout her tenure that she represents the landlord class in Burlington. During Weinberger’s tenure, the cost of housing in Burlington has continued to rise at alarming rates. While it is fair to argue that this would have happened anyhow, my point is that the city has done little to ameliorate this situation. In fact, they have consistently opposed rent control and other potentially helpful legislation. Indeed, I can’t recall if rent control has ever even made it to a council subcommittee. The current charter change proposal supported by the Progressives on the City Council that would require landlords to have just cause to evict tenants has a clause against unreasonable rent hikes. According to local activist Charles Winkleman’s Burlington and Vermont Politics on the Left blog, Shannon is rallying landlords to oppose this change, apparently seeing it as an attempt to sneak rent control into the city. Instead of using political power to ameliorate the rising rents in Burlington, Weinberger and the city establishment continue to argue that building more units will lower rents and costs. However, history proves that building more units does no such thing. Yet, like a bulldozer driven by a blind man, the developers continue to push their agenda and the mayor forges their way. This remains so even after a recent hoodwinking of the developer class by Wall Street players resulting in a shopping mall in Burlington’s downtown being torn down and nothing built in its stead after financing from the multinational financier Brookfield pulled out of the project. Currently, there is a giant pit surrounded by construction fencing at the site.

Meanwhile, like much of the United States, the people of Burlington face crises exacerbated by growing inequality, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a police department that thinks it runs the city. The solution to these problems does not lie in business as usual. The element of the Progressive Party who appear uneasy with Tracy’s nomination (Clavelle and Knodell are representative of that element) were instrumental in marrying the Progressives to the Vermont Democratic Party. It was a marriage that saw the Progressives as the abused spouse afraid to leave the relationship. It was also their leadership that helped create the current situation. The need for a different approach is apparent. After years of compromise with big business interests and other wrong turns, the Progressive Party has a chance to reassert itself as the party of the people. Flawed moves like that by the 2006-2012 Progressive administration of Bob Kiss to bring the arms manufacturer Lockheed into a public-private partnership with Burlington might even be forgiven, if not forgotten. Of course, the infrastructures—economic and otherwise—put in place to support these various predations are not going to dissemble merely because the mayor is not beholden to developers and banks. The power of the latter is great and protected by the legislation it helps write. At the same time, the power of people can be determined. Occasionally, it even wins. The proposed charter changes that will protect tenants and put more community control over the police department are representative of Tracy’s politics. At the same time, these changes are already fiercely opposed by those whose power they challenge. The need for the changes is obvious by the fact they have made it to the ballot with more public input and support than I can remember in the past thirty years. Tracy’s support for these issues—which will upend the way things are run should they pass—is why he’s been painted as a far-left ideologue. The fact that his candidacy represents how popular these changes actually are will be dismissed by his opponents.

In a similar manner, the other charter change supported by Tracy and the Progressives would give the city’s residents and elected officials more say in the way the police department is run. Like many municipalities in the United States, the Burlington Police Department is mostly immune from oversight outside the department. What this means is that officers who use excessive force and otherwise violate accepted codes of conduct cannot be dismissed from their jobs by non-police officials. Furthermore, any complaints about their performance on the job can only be reviewed in-house. This has created a situation where police can act with impunity and little fear of serious repercussions. The proposed charter changes would change this, making the police department and its employees subject to civilian review while giving the Mayor and City Council more power in the hiring and firing of police officers. Like similar proposals in other cities, this charter change is opposed by the police and their union (along with various pro-police groups.) As the mayoral campaign heats up, one can be sure these elements will become more vocal in their opposition. Various monied interests will amplify it. The Tracy campaign will have to knock on lots of doors to overcome the rhetoric from that corner.

Although I was not living in Vermont in the 1980s, one thing I quickly learned when I did move here in 1992 was that even when Bernie was in the Mayor’s office, the power of the monied interests in Burlington never really ebbed. Many of the achievements Sanders is credited with—the public waterfront, the housing trust programs—would not exist if it weren’t for the doggedness of Burlington residents who had no reason to compromise with banks or developers. They had no skin in the game, no power to lose, unlike the men and women in office. They had only their lives and the well-being of their families to think of. Even when Bernie might have considered backing down and letting developers build right on the lake as a bargaining chip for some other program, these citizens kept the pressure on. It was only in later years under the Clavelle and Kiss administrations that the Progressives gave in to the private interests wanting to build closer to the lake. I remain convinced that if enough Burlington residents had opposed that development, the waterfront would continue to be free of shops, condos and restaurants. It’s as if the potential represented by the 1980s Progressive city governments fell to the false charms of neoliberal capital. Instead of coming up with radical alternatives to the privatization of public space represented by the development on the waterfront, City Hall accepted the options offered by the forces of capital as the only possibilities. This approach assumes that capitalism will solve the problems it creates. That is an assumption that does not stand.

Max Tracy has been painted by his opponents as an ideologue. This implies that he is unwilling to compromise. A fairer and more honest definition would say that it means he has certain principles he will not forsake. Over the years, I have discovered that all too often the powerful in our world define compromise as surrendering to them. In Vermont and elsewhere, it’s grown increasingly clear that accepting surrender as compromise forces politicians to betray their constituents and their ideals. As the political trajectory of Bernie Sanders makes clear, this happens even to those who once identified as radical, if not revolutionary. It’s obvious that a politician must consider their ability to get elected when they make political decisions. In the case of leftists running for office, this means deflecting and ignoring everyone to your right—mainstream Democrats, right-wingers, mainstream and right-wing media, etc. Sanders weathered such attacks as mayor of Burlington, even though some of his positions changed once he sought higher office. His administration also developed programs that did what they were supposed to do; they helped working people have better lives. It is those programs which won his argument against his opponents.

Many of those programs are no longer what they were intended to be. Some do not even exist. Monied interests and the politicians they support have manipulated these programs to work for them and not for those the programs were originally intended for. This is part of the reason poverty is on the increase in Burlington: programs designed to ameliorate said poverty no longer work. Instead of lamenting this, there needs to be a way to resolve it with that reality in mind. A radical vision is required. Bernie Sanders and the Progressives had such a vision in the 1980s. The fact that today’s political successors to the long-ago Paquette administration and the region’s conservative media are painting candidate Max Tracy with the same labels Bernie Sanders was painted with in 1981 means Tracy must be doing something right.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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