National Perspective — David Shribman — September 27, 2017

David Shribman

BURLINGTON, Vermont — Nearly a half-century ago, a young University of Vermont political scientist was rummaging through the stacks of the Howe Memorial Library when he was accosted by an agitated figure fulminating about millionaires and displaying an unsettling fixation on the Rockefeller family.

"I asked myself how I could get away from this guy," said Garrison Nelson. "I kept moving and figured I would never see or hear from him again."

The world cannot seem to get away from Bernie Sanders — and indeed the world is hearing from him again.

At the time Nelson encountered Sanders, the agitated man in the stacks already had lost three statewide elections. But Sanders persisted, eventually becoming mayor of Burlington, Vermont's only municipality of any size, and then, running as an Independent, became a member of the House and eventually the Senate. He still fulminates about millionaires but, probably being one himself, he now more often aims his fire at billionaires.

"Our campaign is not just about beating Trump," he said as the returns were flowing in Tuesday. "It is about transforming this country."

But Sanders is transforming the Democratic Party without spiritually being a part of the Democratic Party. In that regard, he is the mirror image of President Donald Trump, who transformed the GOP without having been a spiritual member of the GOP.

The fire and the passion have not faded in Sanders since that confrontation in 1975. In triumph Tuesday night, the Democrats' uncrowned front-runner — a woke 21st-century version of an 18th-century Great Awakening preacher — said, "We're taking on billionaires," adding, in a barbed reference to former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, "and we are taking on candidates funded by billionaires."

Of all the presidential candidates who in past years have been described as "enigmatic" — Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, for example, or Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, or Gov. Edmund "Jerry" Brown Jr. of California — none is quite so enigmatic as Sanders, a professional politician who says he isn't one and a Democratic presidential candidate who entered the House and Senate as an Independent and is only marginally a member of the party today.

Sanders was one of the refugees from conventional life who flooded this state in the yeasty year of 1968, like the others moving to the hills determined to create a new kind of life. He lived in a sugar shack on a dirt road before moving to a one-bedroom apartment in Burlington's Old North End, an area of the city that, once he became mayor, would become a test tube for many of his ideas. He ran for the Senate and for the governor's chair twice, each on the Liberty Union Party ticket, finally winning the mayoral race by 10 votes, though he was opposed by 11 of the 13 aldermen. "If 12 people in Florida had sent in their absentee ballots," Nelson said, "Bernie would have spent the rest of his life driving around Burlington in a cab."

As mayor he offered free concerts, planted trees, fixed up decaying property and made housing available to low-income residents. He won the support of Ben and Jerry, drove a decade-old Chevy Aero, irritated the political establishment and continued to win elections. He did so with a style not so much different than the one he displayed last week, when in the gymnasium of Stevens High School in Claremont, New Hampshire, he spoke of legalizing marijuana, criticized "the crooks on Wall Street," said the nation's drug manufacturers were guilty of a "criminal offense," and vowed to tell the leaders of the country's fossil-fuels industry that "their short-term profits are not more important than the future of our planet."

Through it all, the stooped figure — an echo of the Social Gospel movement bouncing into contemporary politics — jabbed at the air with his fingers and constantly moved his right hand in a circle. Sanders has been doing this for years. The country only noticed it four years ago. But there is nothing subtle, nor measured, in the Sanders stump speech, which includes this riff:

"There is a debate about which — Wall Street or pharmaceuticals — is more corrupt. The pharmaceutical industry is even worse than Wall Street."

For all the certainties in the Sanders rhetoric, there remain great uncertainties in the Democratic race.

Nobody expected Sanders, who spent $5.32 million in television ads in New Hampshire, to have Buttigieg, who spent a hefty $3.62 million himself on advertisements in the Granite State, at his heels. In his triumphal appearance Tuesday night, Buttigieg said the two men were on "the same team," but few young people are on the Buttigieg team; a Tufts University study found that fully half the New Hampshire voters aged 18 to 29 voted for Sanders, as opposed to the 20 percent who voted for Buttigieg.

There are vast differences — generational, ideological, personal— between the two front-runners, and New Hampshire portends a titanic struggle between them, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota a strong new factor in the race.

Klobuchar, whose New Hampshire debate performance boosted her into third place in the Granite State, is an unexpected formidable force in this campaign. She eclipsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in a campaign in New England and now has a fresh infusion of cash that will allow her to move swiftly in Nevada and South Carolina, the next two places where she will be a distinct underdog.

And yet Sanders is in a strong position today, bolstered by the inability of members of the Democratic establishment to stop him, though they ardently wish they could. So far, no organized effort to derail his candidacy has emerged. There is little prospect of one developing, because the nomination process is so decentralized and because it would be unseemly for the party elders, who tipped the process toward Hillary Clinton and away from Sanders in 2016, to try to do it again. Sanders isn't the only one watching. Trump would feast on such an effort.

One factor looms large. The party elders who most fear the nomination of Sanders can weigh in on a second ballot at the party's national convention. For that reason, it is a first ballot victory or defeat for Sanders.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at, or follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has a vacation home in Kearsarge.

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