The dramatic outcome of the Democratic caucus in Burlington last weekend signals a shift in the city's politics that could have statewide implications.
Onlookers from outside of Burlington may have trouble following the ins and outs of the rivalries and interests within the city. But what happens in Burlington does not necessarily stay in Burlington. It is the state's largest city, the center of our most populous county with its flagship university and high-tech industries. Burlington is not just a laboratory for quirky leftist politics and flamboyant street theater.
What better proof is there than the state's junior U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, who launched a new progressive era in the state's politics, lo, those many years ago when he defeated by all of 10 votes the good ol' boy who was his Democratic opponent in the mayoral race?
The Sanders progressive era came with a lower-case "p," because he never formally aligned himself with the Progressive Party, which grew out of the Progressive Coalition, which grew up around Sanders as mayor. Sanders has always been his own man, to whom Vermonters have turned in those periods when economic injustice has been especially visible. Sanders won his seat in Congress for the first time in the wake of the recession that occurred during the term of President George H.W. Bush.
Meanwhile, the Progressive Party became a significant force within Burlington and in state politics. In Burlington, Peter Clavelle carried on the Progressive agenda as mayor, followed by Bob Kiss, whose difficulties in office have cast a pall over future prospects for the Progressives. In state politics, Anthony Pollina loomed large as the dominant Progressive, but after repeated races in which his presence appeared to siphon votes away from Democrats and to help Republicans, Pollina decided to run for the state Senate as a Democrat.
Now the Democrats in Burlington have set their sights on the mayor's office, leading to a big turnout for the Democratic caucus on Sunday and a strange and unexpected result: a tie. Tim Ashe, a Progressive/Democrat, and Milo Weinberger each ended up after a recount with 540 votes. Now there will be a runoff.
It seems that wariness remains between Democrats and Progressives. To oversimplify, Progressives think Democrats are sell-outs, and Democrats think Progressives are flakes. Thus, wariness between the Ashe and Weinberger camps is not unexpected.
What's interesting to contemplate for its statewide implications is the new energy behind the Democratic Party. Also interesting is the degree to which the Democratic Party has taken on the rhetoric and world view of the Progressives. And that is owing in part to Sanders.
Sanders' view of the world has not changed much over the years. The speeches he gave 20 years ago about corporate power were not unlike the speeches he is making today. The difference is that events have conspired to demonstrate the perspicacity of Sanders' warnings. Thus, Sanders' role as a speaker of the unvarnished truth about corporate abuses has won him a national following. What was radical a few years ago is now an apt description of the world around us.
Sanders was able to prosper as a politician because he was able to combine his ideology with the skills of a working politician - attending to the needs of his city and his constituents. That will be the test for whoever emerges from the Democratic caucus as a candidate for mayor and for whoever ultimately wins the election.
Indeed, it is the test for any leader. We want our cities, towns and state to work, but, especially now, we want them to work for the benefit of the people, not the special interests. The Democratic Party, with an infusion of progressive energy, is riding high in Vermont and, it appears, also in Burlington.
The Occupy movement has also channeled that progressive energy and the Sanders view of economic injustice. Whether it can successfully give voice to a message that resonates with the great middle of the American electorate remains to be seen.