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Two Politicians Who Broke Mold in Vermont

Charles Hillinger's America

April 28, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

In her office hangs a framed front page from the Rutland Herald showing a large portrait of outgoing Gov. Richard A. Snelling departing after eight years, and a large portrait of herself. In huge type over the photographs are the words Hello and Goodbye .

Behind her desk on the wall are two photographs, one showing her with Geraldine Ferraro and another with President Reagan. Her priorities in her two-year term, she said, include a strong economy, a first-rate education system, property tax relief, open and responsive government and a clean, healthy environment.

Her brother, Edgar May, 57, served four terms as a state representative, and now, in his second term as a state senator, is chairman of the Appropriations Committee. A journalist, he won a 1961 Pulitzer Prize for a series about the New York state welfare system while a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News.

The traditionally Republican state, for the first time in its history, has a Democratic-controlled Senate. Another political anomaly this year is that although the House has a majority of Republicans, it elected a Democratic speaker.

"This small state is special in so many ways," the governor said. "There is more trust in Vermont than in the rest of the nation--in both the political process and in those who carry it out."

Different Value System

She talked about a different kind of value system at work in Vermont, the nation's third-smallest state in population. "It conveys the idea of being genuine and honest. There is a yearning in America for this quality. You can count on Vermonters giving straight answers."

Increasing numbers of companies are locating in Vermont, she added, because of the strong work ethic among the state's labor force. She told of a General Electric plant manager who said he was amazed at the dedication of workers in Vermont. The absenteeism rate at his factory was the lowest of any GE facility in the country, he said.

There is an 800 action-line phone number for the governor's office. Residents may call any time they have a question or a desire to express an opinion. Members of Kunin's staff take the calls, try to come up with answers and take note of opinions expressed.

Bernie Sanders' followers are called Sanderistas. In Vermont's largest city, population 37,840, on the shores of Lake Champlain across from New York state, local stores sell T-shirts proclaiming "People's Republic of Burlington."

In the recently published 163-page City of Burlington Annual Report is an opening message from Mayor Sanders. It includes this paragraph:

"Efforts on the part of the city (are continuing) to protect the needs of the ordinary consumer against special interests motivated primarily by greed and the desire for excessive profits."

Sanders was referring to what he called "outrageous" rate increases sought by local utilities. He uses every opportunity to denounce the capitalistic ethic.

"If the cities and towns of America are going to survive, working people, elderly and the poor are going to have to have a decent standard of living. There needs to be a radical shake-up in the economic and political state of this nation," Sanders said during an interview in his office in the old red brick Burlington City Hall. Hanging on the wall behind him was a photo of Ernest E. Debs with the inscription: "Unionist. Socialist. Revolutionary."

Rapid-Fire Delivery

Leaning back in a plain wooden chair, his shirt open without a tie, his hair disheveled, his left leg in the air resting on a table with his lunch box and peace-sign coffee cup, Sanders rattled off his thoughts in rapid-fire, staccato fashion:

"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. 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.

"We are demonstrating in Burlington the peoples' contempt for conventional old-fashioned Democratic and Republican politics. The good news here is that the two-party system and corporate establishment are not invincible."

Sanders was born and grew up in Brooklyn. He graduated with a BA degree in political science from the University of Chicago. He came to Vermont 17 years ago when he was 26.

A social activist, radical writer and film maker, he was an unsuccessful candidate twice for governor and twice for U.S. senator in the 1970s before he was elected to his first political office March 4, 1981, as mayor of Burlington.

Elected by 10 Votes

Sanders defeated conservative Democratic Mayor Gordon H. Paquette, who had been in office 10 years. Sanders was elected by only 10 votes. The mayor and 13-member Board of Aldermen are elected for two-year terms along partisan lines.

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