Vermont’s Progressive Era Turns 30

“It’s time for a change…real change.” That was Bernie Sanders’ slogan in his 1981 campaign for Burlington Mayor. The race had begun as a long shot, but Sanders had turned his shoestring operation into a real challenge. Nevertheless, even on Election Day, March 3, 1981, the incumbent and his Democratic old guard still predicted a decisive victory. After all, Ronald Reagan had been elected President only four months before. Sanders was no threat, they assumed, nothing more than an upstart leftist with a gift for attracting media attention.

Sanders wanted open government, he said, and new development priorities. He opposed an upscale Waterfront project and an Interstate access road to downtown.

He supported Rent Control. “Burlington is not for sale,” he proclaimed. “I am extremely concerned about the current trend of urban development. If present trends continue, the City of Burlington will be converted into an area in which only the wealthy and upper-middle class will be able to afford to live.”

Mayor Gordon Paquette was a working class guy from the “inner city” who had grown up delivering bread and started his political career in Vermont as a Democratic alderman in 1958. By managing a patronage-based coalition known as the Republicrats, he had reached what turned out to be the pinnacle of his power as Burlington mayor from 1971 to 1981.

People knew him as Gordie, a street-smart political operator who figured out how to satisfy the Irish and French Canadians while cutting deals with the business elite. Comparisons with Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley were not uncommon. But his willingness to demolish an old ethnic neighborhood near the Waterfront and a “master plan” to replace it with an underground mall, hotel and office complex had made him some enemies.

Throughout the 1970s cracks in the façade of public calm slowly had opened up. Speculation drove up land values and rents, deepening a chronic housing shortage. A restless youth culture emerged. Despite decent commercial growth, revenues couldn’t keep pace with the need for services. And the next steps in the city’s “urban redevelopment” vision would be disruptive – a highway into the center of the city, private waterfront development, and a pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown. The total cost, including public and private funding, was projected at more than $50 million. The local atmosphere became nervous and unsettled.

In January 1981, Paquette was nominated after a caucus fight for a fifth term. He had frequently run unopposed. Afterward, the owner of a popular local Italian restaurant whom he defeated, bolted the Democrats to run as an Independent. Since Paquette was still a Republicrat at heart Republican Party leaders decided not to oppose him and banked on his re-election.

Thus, his main opponent became Sanders, a former “third party” radical running as an Independent who opposed Paquette’s proposed 10 percent increase in property taxes and promised to work for tax reform. The recently formed Citizens Party, which had backed environmentalist Barry Commoner in the 1980 presidential election, ran three candidates for the City Council, also known as the Board of Aldermen. The incumbents generally tried to ignore them, assuming that a rag-tag bunch of activists had no chance of upsetting the status quo.

But Sanders was hard to ignore, and local leaders of both major parties had underestimated the growing influence of neighborhood groups, housing and anti-redevelopment activists, young people, the elderly, and the city’s countercultural newcomers. They also shrugged off the possibility that some of Paquette’s past supporters might want to send him a message.

By the time Sanders and the mayor finally faced each other over a folding table at the Unitarian Church tempers were hot. Sanders exploited rising local anger by linking the mayor with Antonio Pomerleau, the white-haired godfather of Vermont shopping center development. Pomerleau was leading in efforts to turn Burlington’s largely vacant waterfront into a site for commercial and condominium development.

“I’m not with the big money men” Paquette protested. Frustrated and desperate to counter-attack, he warned that if Sanders became mayor Burlington would become like Brooklyn.  He looked honestly shocked when people hissed at him. .

On March 3, with a few thousand dollars, a handful of volunteers and a relatively vague reform agenda, Sanders won the race by just ten votes. Burlington had a “radical” mayor, a self-described socialist who was determined to change the course of Vermont history. Citizens Party candidate for the City Council Terry Bouricius became the first member of the party elected anywhere in the country. In an odd twist, Bouricius won in Ward Two, the same place that had given Paquette his first term on the City Council 23 years earlier.

The next three decades proved just how much the political establishment underestimated Sanders’ appeal, not to mention the potential for a progressive movement in the city and across the state. Prior to Sanders and the Progressives, Burlington was a cultural backwater run by an aging generation, unresponsive to the changing needs of the community. If you attended a council meeting the first question was, “How long have you lived here?” Political competition was the exception. Clannish Democrats and compliant Republicans made the rules.

In 2011, the Queen City is nationally known for its radical mystique and “livability,” transformed from a provincial town into a cultural mecca, socially conscious and highly charged. Over the years Burlington’s progressives not only consolidated their base in local government, they challenged the accepted relationship between communities and the state, and helped fuel a statewide progressive surge. They also weathered the storms of succession struggle.

Burlington has had three progressive mayors in the 30 years since Town Meeting Day in 1981. Although Democrats again dominate the City Council today and a future Republican mayor is a distinct possibility, a multi-party political system has changed Vermont’s political landscape, and as Sanders himself once said, “It’s not just a one-man show, it’s a movement.”

Greg Guma has been based in Vermont since the 1960s, was a candidate for the Burlington City Council in the March 1981 election, and subsequently wrote The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution. This article is adapted from his upcoming book, The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movements. He writes about politics and culture on his blog, Maverick Media (