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Socialist in Congress Goes Where Democrats, Republicans Fear to Tread : Government: A transplanted New Yorker represents Vermont. Affiliated with neither major party, he sees both as failing and says so--often and loudly.

September 08, 1991|CHRISTOPHER GRAFF | ASSOCIATED PRESS

It was a long and often lonely road to Congress. In the 1970s, Sanders' was a voice crying in the wilderness; the '80s brought him the surprise platform of local office and the '90s have placed him in the U.S. Capitol.

Sanders' quest for elective office started in the 1970s with unsuccessful campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate as a member of Vermont's leftist political party, the Liberty Union.

His first victory came in 1981, when he ran as an independent and defeated the five-term Democratic mayor of Burlington--by 10 votes.

Voters, politicians and media weren't the only ones caught by surprise.

"I woke up one day and was mayor of Burlington," recalled Sanders. At the time he was an independent film producer. "Before that, the largest business I'd ever run employed two people--and not at the same time."

If his victory in 1981 was an upset, his successes in 1983, 1985 and 1987 reelection bids were not. Sanders' and Burlington's reputations grew.

In 1986, he ran for governor as an independent and got just 14% of the vote. Two years later, he ran for the U.S. House and finished second, ahead of the Democratic candidate. Republican Peter Smith won the open seat with 41% of the vote. Sanders received 38% and Democrat Paul Poirier won just 19%.

Then in 1990, riding the tide of popular frustration with Congress, he ousted Smith by polling an impressive 56% to Smith's 40%.

Sanders came to Vermont in 1968, via Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chicago. His speech is still right out of Flatbush. In appearance and style he is as far from the mythical Vermont Yankee as can be imagined.

Yet he wears well in Vermont. He has picked up support from conservatives who want to shake up the system, from the working poor who feel their needs are ignored and from progressives who embrace his socialist philosophy.

Vermont, with just 560,000 people, rates only one representative in the U.S. House. The state used to be the most Republican in the nation, but the past 20 years have brought a major shift in population and a major boost to progressive and Democratic candidates.

Although elected as an independent, Sanders did try to join the House Democratic caucus. The leadership refused to admit him unless he became a Democrat, a step he refused to take.

So he stands alone in a body that revolves around the two-party system. When House votes are tallied there is one column for the 268 Democrats, one column for the 166 Republicans and a third column for Sanders.

When the House Banking Committee votes, the 31 Democrats cast their votes first, in order of seniority. Then the 20 Republicans, again by seniority, cast their votes. Finally, Sanders votes.

"Bernie is a party of one," said Moakley. "When you are a mayor or a governor, you can be an independent, but when you are in a legislature you need people, you need votes."

Sanders does have his supporters on Capitol Hill. "This institution needs people who are not part of the club," Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) said. "This place needs to be shaken up. I admire Bernie and the personal energy he brings."

The chairman of the House Budget Committee, California's Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) said: "It is kind of refreshing to the institution; it's good for both parties to have a thorn in their side."

All alone, Sanders pushes on. He says the battle is too important for him to cave in after 20 years of bashing the Democratic and Republican parties as irrelevant.

"What I have got to do is raise the issues and fight the fights that very few members are prepared to talk about," he said.

"One of the roles I want to play is to bring forth good legislation and challenge these guys, and if they can't do it, then expose them for not doing it.

"That is an extremely important role."

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