In November of 1988, a beaming, snaggletoothed “Bernard Sanders” landed in the pages of the Village Voice. Under the headline “Five liberals who could help make a difference on Capitol Hill,” longtime Voice writer James Ridgeway sized up Sanders’s chances in the upcoming congressional election, which at the time of publication was only days away.
While Sanders has emerged as a progressive favorite in the current Democratic primary field, running to Hillary Clinton’s left and questioning her lefty bona fides, our assessment of the Vermonter’s political career back then seems, today, a little jarring. Ridgeway argued that while Sanders had “frequently been described as Burlington’s ‘socialist’ mayor,” he had actually won four terms as that city’s leader by campaigning as a “California-style tax reform zealot.”
If that sounds strange to you, you’re in good company. Garrison Nelson, the Elliott A. Brown Green and Gold Professor of Law, Politics, and Political Behavior at the University of Vermont, has known Sanders for forty years and chafes at the notion that the senator has ever been a California-style anything.
“That is clearly the most asinine characterization of Bernie I’ve heard yet,” Nelson says. “California to me is laid-back, you know, cool. Bernie ain’t cool. Bernie is intense. Bernie is about as California as the man in the moon.”
Nelson says he’s a fan of Ridgeway’s work but adds, “I don’t know what kind of goggles he had on that day.”
The piece would eventually clarify the characterization, noting that Sanders’s main target as an anti-taxer was Vermont’s property levy — and that his critique was more good ol’-fashioned populism than Reaganesque, trickle-down billionaire-coddling.
Ridgeway quotes Sanders attacking property taxes as a regressive, one-size-fits-all approach that “taxes people on the one major asset that many working people and elderly people have managed to acquire — a home.” Certainly an argument that doesn’t seem out of place coming from a guy who has tried his hardest to establish himself as the people’s candidate.
The background to that fight, Nelson says, was Sanders’s effort to stave off the “yuppification” of Burlington as an influx of out-of-state students seeking housing began driving locals from the city’s downtown. Reducing property taxes would have helped prevent that exodus. Nelson credits
Sanders with preserving Burlington’s famous quality of life, as well as its relative absence of yuppies.
Ridgeway’s piece predicted that Sanders would fare well with Democratic-leaning rural voters but noted that he was polling in second place at press time. As it turned out, Sanders lost that year, although he would win in a second run two years later.