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Bernie Sanders cut his teeth as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Now he's running for US president

On a clear spring day in Burlington, a crowd gathered in a local park to welcome back a hometown hero: former mayor of the city and current US senator for Vermont, Bernard “Bernie” Sanders.

Spirits were high, and it wasn’t just because the snow and ice of a bitter winter was beginning to thaw. Bernie had an important announcement to make, and one that they, along with others across the country, were eager to hear: he would be running for president.

In his speech, Sanders laid out a number of issues that struck a chord with the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party: income inequality, job creation, and the out-of-control campaign spending created by the Supreme’s Court “Citizens United” ruling.

He also made a number of bold proposals, including a plan to build Obamacare into true national healthcare system, and tax hikes for the wealthy. The crowd loved it. At one point during his speech, a sailboat floated by on Lake Champlain behind him, flying an outsized American flag.

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But perhaps the most revealing moment about how Sanders might govern came at the end of the speech. “This beautiful place was once an unsightly rail yard that served no public purpose and was an eyesore,” he told the crowd. “As mayor, I worked with the people of Burlington to help turn this waterfront into the beautiful people-oriented public space it is today. We took the fight to the courts, to the legislature and to the people. And we won.”

The message was clear: Bernie Sanders’s approach to politics, which he intends to bring to the White House, had been forged during his time as a mayor.

Sanders was born in 1941, and became mayor of Burlington in 1981. It was the first political office he had held, but he was no stranger to politics. By that time he was elected had already managed a political party, campaigned for state offices in Vermont four times (he lost), and produced a documentary about noted early 20th century socialist Eugene Debs.

These and other formative experiences had given him a firm grasp on what he wanted to do politically. But he would still have to figure out how to work the levers of politics to get it done. And once he took office as mayor, he would do just that. With the city’s political establishment dead set against him on his arrival, he wouldn’t have much of a choice.

Sanders famously won his first mayoral election by only 10 votes. He had run as a socialist, which upset the party establishment in Burlington. Shocked at the idea of a socialist mayor, the Democrats in the 13-member council of aldermen retaliated by blocking all his cabinet appointments, leaving him without any cabinet members to work with. Refusing to give in, Sanders hit back, mobilising campaigns against the aldermen in the elections the following year. Friendlier candidates were elected, and Sanders finally got his cabinet.

Sanders had plenty other opportunities to prove himself a fighter. The waterfront park, where he would make his campaign announcement decades later, was a perfect example. When Sanders took office, local business leaders wanted to turn the lakeshore, formerly an industrial area, the into a luxury resort. Sanders instead envisioned a “people’s waterfront”, including open space, affordable housing, and some commercial development. Though the project had to clear several hurdles, it eventually came to pass. As Michael Monte, a member of Sanders’ staff, told The Nation magazine, “It was Bernie who set the tone that the waterfront wasn’t for sale.”


But Sanders’ hardball tactics were tempered by a respect for the will of the people. And, more importantly, he worked to foster that will through public dialogue that went beyond the cryptic binary of simply voting on candidates.

He created new councils, including a women’s council and a youth office, whose community initiatives are credited for, among other things, bolstering Burlington’s punk rock scene. He also fostered the growth of neighborhood planning assemblies in each of the six wards of the city, encouraging everyday Burlingtonians to take part in the future of their city.

These measures proved immensely popular. Sander’s next mayoral election in 1983 was won with a 52 per cent share of the vote in a three-way race – a much better showing than his last election. His legacy in Burlington remains largely in place today, and helped to propel him to his current seat in the US Senate in 2006.

Since he entered the race, a lot has been made of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. In the time since he declared, he has managed to draw impressive crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire, key states in the US primary race, and climb in the polls to nearly tie Hillary Clinton – despite the fact that she vastly outpaces him in fundraising.

What has made Sanders’s strategy so successful so far? Both he and Hillary Clinton, whose campaign announcement led off strongly from the left, are saying the right things to fire up their base. But Sanders brings a certain authenticity that Clinton just can’t match.

Part of this has to do with an innate scepticism some have for Clinton; her husband was the first to employ the concept of political triangulation, and as recently as 2013, she was taking in six-figure paycheques for giving speeches at Goldman Sachs.

But it’s hard not to believe that Sanders’ time as mayor has helped him to earn voters’ trust. Whereas Clinton has risen to prominence by being a consummate insider, Sanders has earned through decades of meeting with city dwellers, whether powerful real estate interests or blue collar workers, face to face.

This background has given his interactions with constituents a certain earnestness, and at times bluntness, that politicians like Hillary simply can’t recreate. And clearly, it seems to be playing well with US voters.

But only time will tell if Sanders can hold on to this advantage. And a critical weakness is becoming clear: he is having trouble gaining support from African Americans, a key contingent in the Democratic voting bloc. 

Last weekend at a presidential forum in Phoenix, black voters protested Sanders’ appearance, upset that he hadn’t made responding to police violence in black communities more of a priority. Similar outcry has not been made against Clinton, though there’s little to indicate any significant difference in her stance on the issue.  

If Sanders did manage to overcome these objections and win the presidency, he would be only the fourth US president to have ever served as a mayor. And having a former mayor in office might bring welcome changes to the executive branch. Leading a city gives politicians a much more real view of the effects their policies have on average citizens. And Richard Florida, of “creative class” fame, has convincingly asked the rhetorical question of “what if mayors ruled the world?”

Truth be told, that might not be such a good thing – if the mayors in question were Michael Bloomberg or Boris Johnson, many of us might reconsider. But for Bernie Sanders, there’s a lot in his legacy as mayor to be hopeful about. 
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.