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Bernie Sanders Has A History Of Careful Dealings With Democrats

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Bernie Sanders Has A History Of Careful Dealings With Democrats


By Sasha Issenberg, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In the first week of May in 1990, the former mayor of Vermont’s largest city met with some of the most liberal members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a body he hoped to join after that November’s election. “I look forward to working with you on my issues come next January,” he wrote to one, Colorado’s Patricia Schroeder, a week later.

There was only one thing that separated Bernie Sanders from the legislators, whose views on the need for a new national health care system, environmental protection measures, and even Cold War policies were ones he shared. They were all proud Democrats, and he just as proudly wasn’t.

But the famously socialist Sanders also knew the key to winning his three-way race for Congress was persuading Vermont Democrats that his hard-earned independence wouldn’t cripple him once elected. Two years earlier, when Sanders attended a Democratic caucus in Burlington, a number of caucus-goers he recognized as “old-time Dems” stood and turned their backs as he gave a speech in support of presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. When Sanders returned to his seat afterward, a woman slapped him in the face.

“It was an exciting evening,” Sanders recalled in his memoir, “Outsider in the House.” “I participated in a formal Democratic Party function for the first and last time in my life.”

Now Sanders aspires to participate in at least one more. He hopes to address the party’s convention next summer as the party’s nominee for president, even as he resolutely refuses to identify as a Democrat.

It’s a balancing act Sanders has been practicing for at least 25 years. The meeting with Schroeder and other Democratic legislators was one of a series of crucial secret negotiations with Washington Democrats, extending over the summer of 1990, in which he worked to get members of a club he refused to join to nonetheless announce publicly that they were willing to have him as a member.

At the time, Sanders’ entire career in Vermont had been defined in opposition to the party he accused of maintaining an unhealthy monopoly on left-of-center politics in the state. Like every Vermonter registered without party affiliation. He left no record of the party primaries for state or local office in which he chose to cast a ballot. He began his career on the anti-war Liberty Union Party’s ticket, a perennial gadfly candidate for governor and senator. Sanders’s eventual election as mayor in 1981 — by a tiny margin in a four-way race — inspired other leftists to seek election outside the two-party system, under the new banner of the Vermont Progressive Party.

When he first ran for the House of Representatives in 1988, Sanders started as the third man in a race against Democrat Paul Poirier and Republican Peter Smith, a former lieutenant governor who, like Sanders, had lost a campaign for governor in 1986. (That year, both had finished behind Democratic incumbent Madeleine Kunin.) But by November, he had moved into a close second place with 38 percent of the vote, twice the Democrat’s tally and only four points shy of the winner’s. “I would never again be called a spoiler,” Sanders would write in his memoir.

What had stopped him from consolidating enough votes on the left, Sanders concluded afterward, were suggestions from supporters of Dolores Sandoval, a black educator who had been a convention delegate for Jesse Jackson but had never held office that if elected, Sanders’ status as a man without a party would leave him (and the state) powerless in Congress. Perhaps an independent could govern a city — U.S. News and World Report had indeed ranked him one of the country’s top 20 mayors — but he would be ineffectual in a body whose entire process was constructed around an adversarial two-party system. As Vermont’s lone representative there, he would be no better than a bystander among legislators.

So, as Sanders plotted a rematch against Smith two years later, he emphatically declared that he would attempt to join the House Democratic Caucus even though he had no relationship to the party. Voters could reasonably doubt whether such a maneuver was even possible: no independent had been elected to the House in 40 years. Even as he dismissed the two parties as interchangeable — he had long called them “tweedle-dee” and “tweedle-dum” in speeches and op-eds — Sanders realized he would need to be able to tell voters he would have a home in one of them. “We would fully expect the issue to be raised again this year,” he wrote in a private letter in May 1990.

This time, the Democratic nominee looked to be the spoiler. Sanders described the election as “basically a two-person contest, since there is no strong Democrat in the race,” dismissing Sandoval. Largely unknown to voters, the Democratic candidate was barely breaking 1 percent when the three-way race was polled. Sandoval’s party effectively abandoned her: Gubernatorial nominee Peter Welch endorsed Sanders over Sandoval, while Kunin and Sen. Patrick Leahy sat out the race.

Sanders had always conspicuously refused to kowtow to elected Democrats in Vermont, but he approached those in Congress as an eager supplicant. With second-term Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio as his guide to official Washington, Sanders met with other liberal members to win their backing. DeFazio was ready to offer an endorsement, but he convinced Sanders he should use his introduction to his congressional colleagues to ask for something else.

“It would be very helpful to show that I could work within the Democratic caucus, and particularly, with progressive Democrats like you,” Sanders wrote to Schroeder, the Colorado congresswoman who in 1988 had undertaken a two-month dalliance with a presidential campaign. “Not an endorsement, but simply a statement that if I were elected, you would be glad to have me join the Democratic caucus.”

In requesting what he called a “favor,” Sanders emphasized that he had backed the Democratic nominees for president in 1984 and 1988, and Leahy for Senate in 1986. (Sanders did not mention that he had run against Leahy in 1974.) Sanders did not offer anything of his own in the spirit of goodwill — such as, for example, a pledge to back a Democrat as speaker of the House — and tried to minimize it as an act of political courage. “The plan is simply to send out a press release about these letters, to be able to neutralize any attack on the ‘effectiveness’ issue,” wrote Sanders. “We wouldn’t present these letters as any kind of endorsement, but simply as statements that if I’m elected, I’ll be able to work within the Democratic caucus.”

Ultimately the race was not even close. Sanders won a clear majority, beating Smith by 16 points. Sandoval, the Democrat, finished with only 3 percent of the vote. Summertime entreaties to congressional Democrats had yielded mixed returns for Sanders. Beyond DeFazio, he won one other endorsement, from Barney Frank; the representative from neighboring Massachusetts would in subsequent years come to Vermont to campaign alongside Sanders. Schroeder, however, dismissed Sanders’s request for a public embrace. “Considering that a Democrat is in the field, I would rather abstain from making any statements,” she informed him.

Even after Sanders decamped to Washington to set up his office, not every Democrat was eager to increase the party’s majority by welcoming a new legislator who wouldn’t fully join their club. Texan Charlie Stenholm, who led the conservative Blue Dog faction, tried to keep Sanders out of the House Democratic Caucus, circulating to members a compendium of news clippings highlighting his years of disparaging their party. (“He was of the opinion that having a socialist in the caucus would not sit well with folks back home,” Sanders said of Stenholm’s motives.)

Speaker Tom Foley and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt struck a compromise with Sanders. He would not join their caucus, but for the purposes of seniority and committee assignments they would count him as one of their own. Democratic leaders would, however, levy one penalty on Sanders for remaining an outsider: he would be treated, in perpetuity, as the most junior member of the class of 1990.

After that, Sanders quickly began to build his own political home. That year, he and DeFazio invited colleagues to join them in establishing an identity-neutral counterpart to the black, Latino, and women’s caucuses that served as an umbrella for much of the work undertaken by liberal lawmakers.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus launched in 1991 with five members. Its first chairman was Bernie Sanders. He ran unopposed.

Photo: Jen Wegmann-Gabb via Flicker



  1. 1standlastword August 21, 2015

    It’s hard to preserve one’s integrity and be a politician, Bernie Sanders has come closer than anybody I’ve ever observed: It’s as if he has too much integrity to be involved in politics.
    As for a third party, we need one badly but I can’t see logistically how that can happen when all the rules are in favor of protecting a hostile and broken two party system.
    Lastly, it’s most unfortunate that we as people have become so beholden to identifying humanity as the abstract constructs that divide us. The construct of Sanders as a “socialist” is more off-putting to the common voter than Sanders as a reformer
    * I have to stop here due to the technical problems I assume we all have when trying to post of MN: script errors, program not responding, punching my keyboard when the text doesn’t appear, or the screen scrolls up or down independent of user commands….

    1. Dominick Vila August 22, 2015

      Outstanding post! I am having the same problems posting on the NM that you described. The problems go away momentarily when I click on Stop Script. Posting on the NM is becoming a real challenge.

      1. Karen Bille-Golden August 22, 2015

        Makes you wonder doesn’t it ??

      2. 1standlastword August 22, 2015

        I called once and someone suggested a different browser but now not even that remedies…oh well.

  2. Elliot J. Stamler August 21, 2015

    It may come as a great shock to you very leftist Democrats but there are still a large majority of Democrats like me who will NOT support someone who supported Jesse Jackson for President and who is any kind of socialist, democratic or otherwise. Most Democrats like myself do agree Sen. Sanders raises some prescient and valuable issues in this race but these issues are addressed fully by all other aspirants for our party’s nomination. I as a strong capitalist don’t want “Democratic socialism” – I want DEMOCRATIC CAPITALISM which is what our party has always stood for and which has time and again rescued our economy from Republican greed, avarice and economic incompetence. Sen. Sanders should run on the Socialist Party ticket not horn in on ours. Moreover as far as you very left leftists are concerned you are political poison nationally and that was decisively proven in 1972 when your icon, McGovern, led us to our worst landslide defeat in history!!! Fortunately Bernie Sanders will neither be our nominee or president – you can bet on it. Thank God.

    1. browninghipower August 22, 2015

      And just what is DEMOCRATIC CAPITALISM? FDR style maybe? Hmmmm? Your apparent disgust with Sanders is misbegotten, ill-informed and seems to be based more on his support of Jesse Jackson rather than his policies. That speaks of a long-standing personal resentment to me. That’s your business of course. But at least be honest. Sanders’ policies in context today are quite moderate and based in a common sense reaction to the movement to the far right by the GOP and the movement to the corporate right by many of the DC/Blue Dog Dems. Sanders really speaks much more to the soul of the Democratic Party I grew up with than the shills like Schumer and others that run it nowadays. Just my take on your vitriol.

      1. Elliot J. Stamler August 22, 2015

        A- yes, FDR is a paradigm of an advocate of democratic capitalism. B- yes, Jesse Jackson is a hustler and self-promoter and no more qualified to be president than Donald Trump. C- yes, I am a Blue Dog Democrat and proud of it. Blue Dog Democrats are moderate and centrists who are proudly progressive, who do have some liberal views, but are not leftist in their orientation. D- your idea of the “soul” of the Democratic Party is YOUR leftwing soul. Like most of the Sanders supporters you share the same psyche as the Tea Partiers…you delusionally think there’s a secret electoral majority out there for your wing nut views…there ISN’T. McGovern and Dukakis certainly proved that. E-I am a New Yorker and whatever you may think of Sen. Schumer he is far from being a “shill”as anyone in American politics. He is ambitious and egotistical–all politicians are to a substantial degree–but he is a highly educated, thoughtful and informed senator. That is why HE GETS REELECTED BY LANDSLIDES AND CARRIES MANY ROCK-REPUBLICAN areas. F-My opinion is “vitriol” apparently but yours is not????? I see nothing vitriolic in my views and stick this in your leftwing ultra-liberal craw..mine are views that are held by the great majority of Democrats in this country.
        G-I want above all else to stop the Republicans from winning next year and if they do..in part because of radicals like you..you will see them seriously attempt to end political democracy and civil liberties in this country. People like you will give us a Supreme Court of 6 or 7 Antonin Scalias and if that happens you will rue the day you supported a very weak presidential candidate…like Bernie Sanders.

        1. browninghipower August 22, 2015

          Blue Dogs are basically worthless, sorry to say. They are shill for Wall Street, favor continued deregulation, are basically cowards in the face of GOP attacks, don’t give a good damn about workers or unions, love corporations, TPP, and flee from ACA. You call me a radical. So be it. I fondly recall the Golden Age of the 50s & 60s when my Dad worked for a large corporation where he was loyal to it to his core; 3 weeks paid vacation; Christmas bonuses; company picnics, sports’ teams; the CEO wasn’t reviled and often walked the factory floor and spent time with the workers; when there was a strike is was more kabuki theater than anything else. He worked 32 years; got his promotion; retired with a SS and a solid pension and a solid retirement. Our family of 3 had good health insurance. When he worked overtime he got time and a half and on weekends, double time. It was Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, pal. And you know who got that for him? The Democrats. Not the Blue Dogs of today who have thrown unions and workers under the bus like your buddy Schumer, but real Democrats like Bernie Sanders. You see, Sanders has remained consistent. Blue Dogs have followed the money and moved to the right and lost their soul. You don’t listen or even have a clue to what’s really happening beyond your little ideological bubble. I do. I write, I travel. I spend lots of time on the road, listening. I despise the GOP and the present state of America…but I also despise those in the Democratic Party who consistently rationalize selling out in order to ‘win’ elections. Being a Blue Dog worked really well in 2014 didn’t it? If a Blue Dog wins the WH, just how do you think they’ll get any kind of ‘good’ SC justices through either a Dem of GOP controlled Senate? The Dems won’t do anything to upset the filibuster rule on SCOTUS votes. Too little courage and too many Blue Dogs.

    2. Dominick Vila August 22, 2015

      The socialism practiced in Scandinavian countries, Canada, and other progressive nations with a standard of living and quality of life higher than ours, does not involve nationalization of industry, appropriation of property, or doing anything that prevents capitalism from flourishing.

      1. Elliot J. Stamler August 22, 2015

        Dominick, as you know we often think along the same line. You can be sure if Sanders were to be the nominee, the GOP will spend hundreds of millions of dollars (incl. Koch dollars) to convince in every media format that Sanders is the reincarnation of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin…and you are right, it will stick. A presidential campaign is no place for a course in political ideology from a university wherein all of the political ideologies are thoroughly taught and analyzed… a presidential campaign is unfortunately composed of sound bites, propaganda on a massive scale, simplistic explanations and to a populace which is now approaching the zenith of political laziness and forgetfulness.
        Al Gore is definitely not running. I support Hillary and have contributed to her campaign, I like her a lot but I acknowledge her campaign is faltering and it is HER OWN FAULT. By now she should have owned and put to bed the Bengazi and E-mail controversies…she demonstrably has not. She must stop being so guarded and insular and start slugging away, hard and clear, and making her points with vivid clarity.
        I personally love Joe Biden…I contributed to both of his presidential campaigns. That he is now it would seem pondering entering the race which heretofore he had no intent on doing, is in my view because of Hillary’s faltering. If he enters the race AND if Hillary does not get on the stick and fast I will support Joe Biden whom I have thought for over 30 years is one of our most wonderful public servants. (Not to mention a brother SU alumnus–Go Orange!!!)

        1. Dominick Vila August 22, 2015

          I thought Joe Biden’s decision to meet with Elizabeth Warren today, in private, was an interesting clue into what is likely to happen in the not too distant future.

  3. fortunev August 21, 2015

    Semantics, Elliot. Is that why you shout your disagreement in CAPS? Bernie Sanders represents the soul of the progressive democratic party no matter if socialist or capitalist. Socialism BTW is everywhere in the US. Consider the VA Hospital system, the military, Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, so many etcs. Who cares? You don’t want democratic socialism but you are willing to accept rethuglicon socialism that is in reality a corrupt political goal denying benefits to US citizens? Pathetic dividing name-calling words without substance or meaning do not a unified revolutionary political movement make, sir.

    1. Dominick Vila August 22, 2015

      I agree. Unfortunately, for us as a country, most Republicans equate Western European and Canadian socialism (admitting that Congress has an important role to play in our goal to improve our quality of life, and be competitive) with classic Marxism, Leninisn, or Maoism. Nothing is farther from the truth.

      1. apzzyk August 23, 2015

        Right on!

  4. John Murchison August 24, 2015

    Bernie is a socialist. That’s ok. He really is not a democrat so running for the nomination of that party really isn’t ok.


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