Adventures with Bernie Sanders in 1990

My adventures with Bernie began in January 1989, when I received a letter from Bernard Sanders, the socialist mayor of Burlington Vermont, directed to the "Chairperson, Sociology Department, Hamilton College." Sanders, then completing his fourth and final term as mayor, wrote that he'd like to teach at Hamilton during the coming academic year. "I believe," he wrote, "that I could offer your students an unusual academic perspective."

Hamilton hired Sanders to teach courses on cities and democratic socialism in the spring of 1990. Over many lunches that semester, I got to know and admire Bernie. And when he decided to make a second run for Vermont's Congressional seat, I, like some kid who runs away with the circus, followed him back to Vermont and became a full-time campaign worker.

The 1990 Congressional campaign would involve many of the same national issues and political problems that surround his current campaign for the presidency.

I had dual responsibilities in the campaign: polling and issue research. We found that we could do reliable polls using volunteers to call people randomly selected out of the phone book (a method I don't think would work in 2016). I would design the questionnaires and analyze the results. Our last poll, conducted shortly before the election, predicted the outcome within 1 percent. Issue research was another matter. I enjoyed researching issues from taxation to U.S. policy in the Middle East, and would produce well-supported, tightly written, three-page white papers reflecting Bernie's views on the topic of the week, issued under his name. Then Bernie would read what I'd done and insert some line where it didn't belong and messed up my graceful prose. The paper would be distributed at a press conference on the issue. Of course, the line he inserted was consistently the one quoted in the morning newspapers.

Bernie had two advantages over his opponent Peter Smith, an establishment Republican, who had narrowly beaten him in the 1988 contest for the same seat. As the very successful former mayor of Burlington, the state's largest city and major media market, Bernie was well known to most Vermonters. That matters because Vermont has just one Congressional seat and candidates must compete statewide. I saw this advantage early in the campaign. At the Franklin County Diary Fair, a big woman came out from behind her counter to give Bernie a hug. A local Democratic leader pressed $10 into his hand - "gas money," he said. In town, small kids jumped up and down screaming "Bernie! Bernie!" when he approached. Perhaps his unruly white hair reminded them of Santa Claus. People felt they knew Bernie because they saw him so often on TV. At a public forum, I heard Congressman Smith complain that it was " hard to run against a celebrity."

THE GUN ISSUE

His other advantage over Smith had to do with the issue of gun control, whose influence on the 1990 campaign is poorly understood by national reporters writing on Bernie today. In 1988, Smith had taken money from the National Rife Association and signed a pledge to oppose gun control legislation. Then he went to Washington and did just what he promised not to do. The gun guys were outraged and many of them probably voted for Bernie. But our polling showed that gun control, pro or con, was a minor issue to most Vermonters in 1990. Besides, there was no difference in the two candidates' current positions on gun policy. Nonetheless, the issue played to Bernie's great strength, according to our polls. People saw Bernie as someone who meant what he said, in contrast to Smith, whom they described as a "flip flopper," someone who couldn't be trusted, apparently because of his switch on guns.

OUR BIG BREAK

Despite these advantages, the campaign was stuck in a dead heat for months. Through the summer and into the early fall, according to our polls and the occasional media poll, the difference between Smith and Bernie fluctuated but seldom exceeded the statistical margin of error. Our big break came in early October. High level negotiations in Washington had produced a bipartisan budget proposal that was, as I noted in my campaign diary, "regressive beyond what I would have imagined possible. Its victims are the old, the sick, the farmer and the middle class; the rich are untouched." Smith immediately announced his support for the measure. We were thrilled. Here was our chance. The biggest issue was cuts to Medicare, which Bernie had been describing for weeks as endangered. Though he avoided personal attacks on his opponent, for the rest of the campaign Bernie was relentless in denouncing Smith's regressive budget votes.

On October 14, we did a statewide poll and found to our amazement that we were ten points ahead, a result we kept to ourselves, but that Smith would inevitably soon discover. Now the campaign jumped into a new orbit. The TV-radio air war had begun. An early Smith ad showed ordinary Vermonters explaining why they were not voting for Bernie. Smith warned Vermonters that Bernie would bring Swedish style socialism to the U.S. and noted that the price of bread in Sweden was $4 a loaf, which wasn't quite true. I wasted a day on the phone with the Swedish embassy and the head of Hamilton College's Swedish program, collecting information on prices and public policy in Sweden. But the price of bread in Sweden proved to be a weak issue - in fact, a laughable one in some quarters. One old lady told The Burlington Free Press that she was more concerned with the price of medical care in the U.S. and trusted Bernie to deal with that.

BERNIE AND FIDEL CASTRO

The Smith campaign was growing desperate. They released a red-baiting ad, full of distortions, that associated Bernie with Fidel Castro. The Vermont papers quoted negative reactions to the ad from around the state. Bernie faced a critical decision: how to respond. A media strategy meeting split along gender lines, with the women, including Bernie's wife Jane, favoring a soft approach and the men urging a hard counterattack. One participant later described the first position as the "estrogen tendency" and the second as the "testosterone tendency." Estrogen won. Bernie made a subdued ad in which he said that the country was facing serious problems and "it saddens me that my opponent chooses to attack me in a way that is deceptive and misleading," instead of focusing on the issues.

This was exactly right. Our last poll included an item that asked respondents if they had recently learned anything about either candidate that would affect their opinions. The answers revealed a powerful rejection of Smith's tactics, which Vermonters described as "smut," "a smear campaign - pretty disgusting," and "mudslinging." On the other hand, Bernie's measured response evoked admiration. "Not his usual, loudmouth self," ventured a middle-aged woman who said she'd be voting for Bernie.

What struck me talking to people was an attitude both admirable and self-righteous: Here in Vermont we don't do things like that. We don't like sleazy campaign ads.

Bernie beat Smith by 16 points, exactly as that last poll predicted. We carried every county in the state but one, which we lost by a hair. We took the most urban and the most rural parts of the state. We carried trailer parks, urban slums, and the wealthiest suburbs.

THE MORNING AFTER IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

One morning several days after the election and after the victory celebrations and after the many media post-mortems on the campaign, I woke up in an apartment littered with dirty clothes, old newspapers, and gigantic dustballs. There was nothing in the refrigerator and for the first time in many weeks, nothing about us in the morning paper or on TV. It was like looking in the mirror and seeing no one there. I realized that for five months we'd lived a life bigger than life. We'd won, with an unorthodox candidate, who was anxious to talk about issues like national health care, progressive taxation and radical cuts to the defense budget, backed by a campaign staff of amateurs and volunteers, who sometimes seemed like the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

I can easily imagine some campaign worker waking up in similar surroundings a few weeks from now, after Bernie wins the primary in neighboring New Hampshire.