Bernie Sanders’ radical past: How the Vermont firebrand started wearing a suit and gave up on taking over big companies


Bernie Sanders as Burlington, Vermont’s socialist mayor (left) and as a Democratic presidential candidate speaking at Dartmouth College this year. (Photos: Craig Line/John Minchillo/AP)

In July 1985, Bernie Sanders traveled to Nicaragua, where he attended an event that one wire report dubbed an “anti-U.S. rally.”

The leftist Sandinista government was celebrating the sixth anniversary of the revolution that saw it take power from an American-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Sanders was in a crowd estimated at a half million people, many of whom were clad in the Sandinistas’ trademark red-and-black colors and chanting “Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die.”

Onstage, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused the U.S. government of “state terrorism” for supporting the rebels who were seeking to overthrow him. The Sandinistas and the CIA-backed Contras would fight into the next decade, with allegations of human rights abuses on both sides. At the 1985 rally Sanders attended, Ortega vowed the Sandinistas would “defend the revolution with guns in hand.”

Sanders was being hosted by the Sandinistas as part of a delegation of American “solidarity groups.” He told reporters their decision to show “support” for the Nicaraguan government was “patriotic.”

“We want to show support for a small country trying to be independent, and we want to tell the truth to the American people when we return,” Sanders said.

Sanders was in the midst of a revolution of his own. Four years earlier, in 1981, he won a shocking victory by only 10 votes to become mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. Sanders was elected on a socialist platform and led a mayoral administration that he boasted was “more radical” than any other in the country.

And he had a vision. Sanders believed his work in Burlington could spread socialism throughout America. In April 1985, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy interview with Sanders in which he outlined his plan to spark “radical change.”

“I think from one end of this country to the other, people are ripe for political revolution. Fifty percent of the people do not bother voting in the presidential and statewide elections,” Sanders said. “The vast majority of those not voting are low-income people who have given up on America. The whole quality of life in America is based on greed. I believe in the redistribution of wealth in this nation.”

Sanders went on to suggest his mayoral administration had demonstrated “the people’s contempt for conventional old-fashioned Democratic and Republican politics.

"The radical change in America that must come has to begin on a local level, and it is happening now in Burlington. Then it will spread to state and national levels,” Sanders said, adding, “Of all the 50 states, I believe Vermont more than any other has a good chance of electing America’s first socialist governor. Now that I have proven that I am a good mayor, perhaps the time will be ripe … for me to run for the highest office in the state.”

Sanders ran for Congress rather than governor after leaving Burlington’s City Hall in 1989. But today, his dream of bringing his values to higher office and a national audience is closer to fruition than at any time his life.

A two-term incumbent U.S. senator, Sanders is within striking distance of frontrunner Hillary Clinton in this year’s Democratic presidential primary, with recent polls in Iowa showing the two neck and neck and a Sanders lead in New Hampshire.

As Sanders journeyed from the fringes of Vermont’s political scene to the national stage, many aspects of his agenda and even rhetoric have remained remarkably consistent. However, an extensive examination of his statements and views at the beginning of his political career shows Sanders has moderated some of his positions over the years.

Among other things, during the 1970s and ’80s, Sanders regularly called for public takeovers of various businesses, including utilities and the oil industry. Sanders advocated seizing money from corporations and from one of America’s richest families. And, as a mayor, Sanders made forays into foreign policy that included meetings with representatives of hostile nations, rebel groups and Canadian separatists.

Yahoo News first reached out to Sanders’ presidential campaign to discuss this article last week. In addition to inquiring about Sanders’ past support for nationalizing various industries, Yahoo News asked about Sanders’ presence at the Sandinista rally. This included a request for the campaign to confirm whether a report in the alternative weekly Seven Days that claimed the trip to Nicaragua was paid for by the Sandinista government was correct. The campaign declined to comment. Yahoo also contacted the campaign of Sanders’ Democratic primary rival, Hillary Clinton, which has become increasingly critical of the Vermont senator as the race tightens. It declined to comment as well.

Sanders is now vying to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, but his record reflects just how far outside of the two-party system he started out. In fact, throughout his early career, Sanders expressed distaste for both Democratic and Republican politicians. His first campaigns were long shot bids as a member of the Liberty Union Party, a radical, anti-war group that he helped found.

Under the Liberty Union banner, Sanders ran for one of Vermont’s U.S. Senate seats in 1972. He ran for the state’s other Senate seat in 1974. Sanders, who served as Liberty Union’s chairman, was also the party’s candidate in Vermont’s governor’s races in 1972 and 1976. In all four campaigns, Sanders attracted support in the single digits.

In interviews at the time, Sanders was fairly open about the fact he did not expect to win any of these races. Rather, he suggested the Liberty Union Party could serve as a force to mainstream socialist ideas ahead of an eventual national shift.

During his Senate campaign in 1974, the local Bennington Banner quoted Sanders telling attendees at a Liberty Union event about what he hoped to accomplish with his long shot candidacy.

“You have a reason to knock on doors,” Sanders said. “It’s a good way to organize and educate people. … Talk the issues. People can’t see alternatives. Our job is to open their eyes and give them a vision.”

At a press conference for his second gubernatorial bid in 1976, Sanders predicted it would have a “national impact” if the Liberty Union candidates had a decent showing at the polls because it would show voters there were alternatives to the traditional party system.

“He said voters sense that Democratic politicians have similar views about such issues as rising utility rates, an unfair tax system, low wages, and high unemployment,” UPI reported.

Some of his pitch to voters was quite similar to his current platform. As a Liberty Unionite, Sanders railed against income inequality and — decades before the Occupy movement — what he described as a system that privileged “the wealthy 2 or 3 percent.” As he does now, Sanders called for progressive reforms to taxes and campaign finance.

Other parts of Sanders’ Liberty Union platform went well beyond anything he is currently advocating. In 1973, UPI reported that Sanders urged Vermont’s congressional delegation to “give serious thought to the nationalization of the oil industry.”

The following year, the Bennington Banner reported Sanders’ Senate campaign was focused on “two prime issues.” The first was rate increases for electric and telephone service, which the paper said Sanders sought to confront with “public takeover of all privately owned electric utilities in the state.” Sanders’ plan for public ownership of utility companies involved the businesses being seized from their owners.

It was a view he would carry forward into his 1976 gubernatorial bid: That year Sanders said the Liberty Union platform called for a state takeover of utilities “without compensation to the banks and wealthy individuals who own them.”

These weren’t the only assets Sanders suggested should be seized from the wealthy.

Sanders’ second main theme in his 1974 Senate race was what the Bennington Banner called his “own pet issue,” the “incredible economic power of the Rockefeller family.” As a presidential candidate and member of Congress, Sanders has assailed the influence billionaires and megadonors hold over American politics and media. However, his plan for the Rockefellers went much further, with Sanders implying he would push to have the family’s fortune used to fund government programs. In a 1974 press release, Sanders said “the incredible wealth and power of this family must be broken up.” The Rockefellers’ billions should be “used to create a decent standard of living for all people” by being redirected toward government social programs for the elderly or lower taxes.

Sanders was in the middle of running on an anti-Rockefeller platform in August 1974 when reports began to emerge that President Ford planned to nominate Nelson Rockefeller to be his vice president after the impeachment and resignation of President Nixon. Sanders was apoplectic and sent a letter to Ford urging him to pick someone else because “the Rockefellers are already the richest and most powerful family in the world.” Sanders warned that the appointment “could be the beginning of a virtual Rockefeller family dictatorship over the nation.” Rockefeller was officially nominated about a week later and went on to become vice president.

In late 1977, Sanders left the Liberty Union Party. His departure came after the group endangered its major party status by failing to hold local caucuses required by state law. Sanders said the situation showed the party failed to live up to a promise to supporters that it would remain active beyond campaigns and “would not disappear from the scene the day after the election.”

But Sanders didn’t drop out of Vermont politics — or stop advocating for private assets to become public property. In 1979, he penned an opinion column for the Vermont Vanguard Press about another industry he felt was ripe for a public takeover — television.

The editorial, titled “Social Control and the Tube,” called for people to “address the control of television as a political issue, and organize to win.” Sanders argued the owners of commercial television stations sought to “intentionally brainwash people into submission and helplessness” through “constant advertising interruptions” and “the well-tested Hitlerian principle that people should be treated as morons and bombarded over and over again with the same simple phrases and ideas.” He said the television industry was designed to “create a nation of morons who will faithfully go out and buy this or that product, vote for this or that candidate, and faithfully work for their employers for as low a wage as possible.” Sanders suggested a public takeover of the airwaves could remedy the problem.

“The potential of television democratically owned and controlled by the people is literally beyond comprehension because it is such a relatively new medium and we have no experience with it under democratic control. At the least, with the present state of technology, we could have a choice of dozens of channels of commercial-free TV,” he wrote, adding, “At the moment serious writers are, by and large, not allowed to write for commercial television for fear they might produce something that is true and hence, upsetting to the owners of the media. Under democratic control, people with all kinds of views could make their presentations, and serious artists would be encouraged to produce work for the tube.”

Sanders had a chance to pursue public control of television broadcasting, as well as his fight against utility companies, when he became mayor of Burlington in March of 1981.

Though he identified as a socialist, Sanders ran as an independent when he won his shocking upset. According to the Associated Press, Sanders made it to City Hall with the help of “a coalition of college professors, poor people, labor unions, neighborhood groups and students.”

"The decisions in this city are not going to be made in the offices of banks and big businesses any more,” Sanders warned after his victory.

Still, Sanders promised he would be “extending the olive branch” to Burlington’s business community and political establishment.

“I’m not looking for war,” Sanders said.

Sanders might not have been spoiling for a fight, but he sure got one. He began his mayoralty with only two supporters on the city’s 13-member board of aldermen. The rest were Democrats and Republicans who vehemently opposed Sanders. In his first months in office, the aldermen blocked Sanders’ appointments. He also accused city officials of firing his secretary and even opening his mail. One day Sanders’ rust-covered car was ticketed when he parked in his special mayoral spot.

“I guess now what I expect is that the Democrats on the board are going to attempt to make every day of my life as difficult as possible,” Sanders said at a June 1981 press conference about the rejection of his appointees. “That’s fine. We will reciprocate in kind and we will work vigorously to carry out in one way or the other the mandate we were elected to carry out.”


As mayor of Burlington, Bernie Sanders fought in court for the right to hire city appointees and found tickets on his car when he parked in the mayor’s spot. (Photo: Donna Light/AP)

Burlington’s new mayor was a lot for some of his constituents and colleagues to get used to. Sanders is a Brooklyn native with a decidedly confrontational and prickly demeanor. The New York Times reported on an incident that took place a little over six months after he took office when Sanders essentially insulted a room full of charity workers. Sanders had been invited to speak at the 40th annual Chittenden County United Way fundraising drive. When he stood up to speak at the banquet, Sanders let the attendees know he didn’t support their work.

“I don’t believe in charities,” Sanders said before explaining that he felt government should be responsible for social programs.

Gary De Carolis was one of Sanders’ Progressive Coalition allies on the board. De Carolis spent six years in Burlington city government during the Sanders administration and grew to be “close friends” with him, he told Yahoo News. According to De Carolis, Sanders’ initial battles with the aldermen were “brutal,” “very nasty” and “unbelievably loud.”

“Most nights you went in there and you knew it was going to be hell,” De Carolis explained. “You had to stand up for what you believed in … it was not pretty.”

De Carolis attributed the anger at Sanders to the city’s Democratic establishment losing power to an independent socialist.

“Most times he had, in a sense, the law and the statutes of the city behind him,” said De Carolis. “A lot of what was coming at him was total anger for the loss of power from the Democratic Party.”

Sanders’ appearance may have stood out almost as much as his policies. Multiple articles about the early days of his mayoral administration allude to his casual and even sloppy personal style. Sanders reportedly purchased a suit an hour before his inauguration and lived in an apartment that De Carolis described as “a mess.” In 1982, Knight-Ridder news service spoke to James Burns, one of Sanders’ rivals on the board of aldermen. Burns said he didn’t “get along too well” with the mayor and went on to mock Sanders.

“He’s quite crude,” Burns said before imitating the way he claimed Sanders would slouch at meetings. “It doesn’t put forth an executive image, when you see someone slinked in a chair.”

Still, in spite of the rocky start, Sanders eventually won over the board — literally. By 1985, six of the aldermen were members of Sanders’ Progressive Coalition. During his four terms in office, Burlington’s socialist mayor presided over a prosperous economic climate and his treasurer discovered a $1.9 million surplus that had gone unnoticed in the budget. Though Sanders installed a new tax on money spent at hotels, restaurants and bars, he pushed for lower property taxes. Sanders also audited the city’s pension fund and initiated competitive bidding for many government contracts.

‘I am a socialist,“ Sanders told the New York Times in 1987. “But what we’re doing here is not socialist. It’s just good government.”

Sanders also began dabbling in mainstream politics. He endorsed his first Democratic presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, in 1984. Sanders even wore a suit sometimes. De Carolis said Sanders would dress up for his visits to the State House in Montpelier. The Associated Press pointed out Sanders wore a suit for a debate when he was running for re-election in 1983 though the reporter said aides had to help Sanders fix his tie before he went out onstage.

“I used to dress up a little bit better than Bernie,” De Carolis recounted. “He used to say to me, ‘Gary, you got to teach me about these ties and all this nice coordinated clothing.’”

Of course, Sanders still pursued a staunchly progressive agenda while he was mayor. He continued battling with Vermont’s utility companies. He charged them new fees for excavating on city streets and pushed for them to raise commercial rates in order to lower costs for residential clients. And while he didn’t try to seize the local television industry, Sanders sought to establish a city-owned and -operated cable system to compete with the private Green Mountain Cable Television network.

Sanders was an early crusader against gentrification. During his eight years in office, Sanders fought for rent control and tenants’ rights. He also battled to secure public space on the Lake Champlain waterfront when developers wanted to use the land for high-end housing. Almost immediately after being elected in 1981, Sanders declared, “luxury condominiums will not be the priority of this administration.”

“We have a city that is trying to help a developer build $200,000 luxury waterfront condominiums with pools, and health clubs, and boutiques, and all sorts of upper-middle-class junk five blocks from an area where people are literally not eating in order to pay their rent and fuel bills,” Sanders said.

The waterfront park Sanders pushed for was eventually built. In fact, it’s where Sanders stood when he held a rally to launch his presidential campaign last year. Along with fighting development on the lakefront, Sanders also established anti-pollution programs and a community land trust. Other progressive achievements during the Sanders administration included a law requiring women to get 10 percent of city-funded trade jobs, a 1985 resolution supporting gay rights, and programs that allowed city employees to have input on personnel policies including sick leave.

Still, Sanders’ most radical actions as mayor had little to do with Burlington. While in office, Sanders pursued a foreign policy agenda independent of and at times at odds with the aims of Washington. This included engagement with controversial international political groups and countries that had hostile relationships with the United States.

Sanders found multiple ways to involve himself in the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras in Nicaragua. In addition to traveling to the country and attending Ortega’s rally, Sanders’s Progressive Coalition on the board of aldermen passed a 1985 resolution pledging Burlington would defy President Ronald Reagan’s embargo of Nicaragua. Sanders also established a sister city relationship with a Nicaraguan town, Puerto Cabezas.

His actions drew such attention that the “Doonesbury” comic strip infamously nicknamed Sanders’ city the “People’s Republic of Burlington” after he took office. Along with visiting Nicaragua, UPI reported, Sanders traveled to Cuba and the Soviet Union during his years as mayor. And on Dec. 6, 1981, Sanders went to Canada for the policy convention of the Parti Québécois, the separatist party that led the Canadian province of Quebec. At that gathering, which reportedly was also attended by representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PQ voted to push for independence from Canada even if it required breaking economic ties.

Sanders’ diplomatic efforts also included welcoming dignitaries to City Hall in Burlington. In 1985, the Los Angeles Times noted “politicians from France, England, Mexico, Scandinavian countries, visitors from the Soviet Union and China, and representatives from the Irish Republican Army have stopped by Sanders’ office during the past four years.” Sanders also told the paper about his unusual idea for confronting Cold War tensions.

“A handful of people in this country are making decisions, whipping up Cold War hysteria, making us hate the Russians. We’re spending billions on military. Why can’t we take some of that money to pay for thousands of U.S. children to go to the Soviet Union?” Sanders asked, adding, “And, why can’t the Soviets take money they’re spending on arms and use it to send thousands of Russian children to America? We’ve got to start breaking down the walls of nationalism. We’ve got to get people to know one another.”

De Carolis, Sanders’ friend and ally in city government, said Sanders was able to delve into foreign policy because he focused on Burlington first and constituents were happy with basic services.

“If you’re going to take on bigger national and international issues, you better take care of the home front first,” De Carolis said. “He was very good about making sure the streets were plowed, the sidewalks were in good repair, all those things that concern people every day of their life. He was great about that, and that afforded him the opportunity to develop relationships with various countries around the world.”

Sanders left the mayor’s office in 1989 after deciding not to run for re-election. He was followed by Peter Clavelle, whom UPI described as his “hand-picked successor.” Sanders, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1988, won a House race two years later, beginning his career in Washington. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006.


Sen. Bernie Sanders smiles as former Sen. Paul Kirk, not pictured, endorses him for the Democratic presidential nomination at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)

As a presidential candidate, Sanders has maintained the relentless focus on income inequality and tax reform that was a hallmark of his earlier career. Still, there’s no question he also has moderated some of the views he espoused at the start of his political career.

Sanders was an independent in Congress and an opponent of the two-party system. Today, his very presence in a Democratic presidential primary signals a shift in his longstanding position and a softening of his views. He also has stopped calling for the nationalization of industries. In November of last year, as his campaign gained steam, Sanders gave a landmark speech defining his “democratic socialist ideals.” In the address, he explicitly said he does not “believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.”

Washington writer Harry Jaffe, author of the new book “Why Bernie Sanders Matters,” suggested that this turn away from advocating for the public takeover of industries has been the biggest change in Sanders’ platform over the years.

“The basic socialist plank is … public control of the means of production,” Jaffe said. “He believed that because he said it and I quote him as saying that. … He’s totally changed that.”

Indeed, leftists have criticized Sanders for no longer supporting nationalization of industries and openly speculated about whether his current brand of “democratic socialism” is socialism at all.

“Once Bernie Sanders made it clear that he wasn’t a socialist in the classic terms, he’s pretty much stayed true to … his basic positions … that there’s too much of a difference between the rich and the poor,” Jaffe said. “He’s been pretty straightforward on that. I think he’s been pretty straightforward on the universal health care.”

Jaffe described the situation as a “deal with the devil” Sanders made as he sought higher office.

“Bernie Sanders is not stupid. He’s a very canny, canny political operator. He just really is smart and he’s expedient,” said Jaffe. “He made a deal with the devil. It’s a very, very slick and small deal in that, you know, he said, ‘OK, I will come off of my hardcore socialism, but I’m going to stick very tightly to the rest of my basic belief system.’ … He certainly did that.”

Sanders’ foreign policy ideas are also far more mainstream than they were when he was mayor of Burlington. Jaffe cited Sanders’ votes to approve increased defense spending — even though they came begrudgingly — as another area where his views have “moderated.” Though Sanders has heavily focused on the fact he voted against the Iraq War, Sanders has voted to authorize military force in other instances. Jaffe said this is another shift for a politician who began his career extremely “skeptical” of war.

“He voted a couple of times for troop involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Jaffe said. “He’s going to shove his first vote in front of Hillary Clinton forever because he did vote against the Iraq War, but after that, he did vote for troop engagement.”

Though his campaign has promised he would “move away from a policy of unilateral military action, and toward a policy of emphasizing diplomacy,” Sanders is not opposed to military action. In Congress, he voted to authorize NATO bombings in the Kosovo War in 1999 and in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. Since the start of the Iraq War, Sanders has voted to approve funds used to finance that conflict, leading to criticism from the left. As Sanders ran for Senate in 2006, the website of the Socialist Worker newspaper described those votes as “betrayal.”

When asked if Sanders has moderated his views since the early days, his old friend De Carolis allowed that facing past political fights may have led Sanders to temper his positions somewhat.

“Knowing what he’s been through the last 20 or 30 years, maybe to a degree but not much,” De Carolis said.

“What you hear today is very much what you heard back then,” he said.

However, Sanders’ ally has noticed one major difference. These days, Sanders generally wears a suit and tie.

“If there’s anything that’s changed, it’s that he dresses much nicer now,” De Carolis said.