|Socialist Leads U.S. Senate Race in Vt.
By CHRISTOPHER GRAFF, Associated Press Writer Sun May 29
BARRE, Vt. - Bernie Sanders jabs at the air, his flushed face a sharp
contrast to his unruly white hair. Yet again, he pummels Washington, the
Congress and the president.
"The government that we have today in the White House, the House of
Representatives with Tom Delay, the Senate with Bill Frist, is the most
right-wing, extremist government, perhaps in the history of the United
States," he tells labor activists at a May Day celebration in the
century-old Labor Hall.
"Time after time they pass legislation that benefits the rich and the
powerful, and they pass legislation that hurts the middle class, working
people and low income people."
The crowd roars. They have come to hear this unlikely man who is likely
to be the next U.S. senator from the Green Mountain State, and they love
what they hear. This is Bernie at his best: one part revivalist preaching,
two parts theater, all served up with a biting sarcasm.
It is vintage Bernie - literally. The words and the message have not
changed in more than 30 years. Millions of times, he has decried - in a
strong Brooklyn accent - what he sees as an outrageous, growing gap
between the rich and the poor.
For half of those years, though, Sanders has been part of the Washington
he loves to attack.
In his eighth term in the U.S. House, the independent socialist has
carved out a career in Congress as a Congress-basher. Now he is setting his
sights on the Senate, and everyone agrees he is the man to beat for the seat
now held by the retiring Jim Jeffords.
"He is the front-runner. Absolutely," said Del Ali of Research 2000 of
Rockville, Md., which has conducted political polls in Vermont for many
years. "He has high favorability ratings, high name recognition and lots
This is an astonishing position for a man who spent the 1970s as a
political gadfly and the 1980s as the independent mayor of Burlington, a
man who seemed destined for disaster when he first arrived in Congress
He was the odd man out: an independent in an institution that revolves
around the two-party system; a socialist in a chamber dominated by
moderates and conservatives; a freshman in a world that favors
seniority. His style was abrasive in an institution that rewards collegiality.
Yet somehow - after some bumps at the beginning - he has made it work.
Over the years Democrats who denounced him have accepted him, and he has
caucused with their party and voted for its candidates for House
leadership. Republicans who ridiculed his socialist philosophy now sign
on as occasional co-sponsors of his legislative initiatives.
In 1991, Rep. Barney Frank (news, bio, voting record), D-Mass.,
complained of Sanders' "holier-than-thou attitude, saying in a very loud voice he
is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else." Now the two
are close allies on the House Financial Services Committee.
"Do I work better with people than I used to? Yeah, I do," said Sanders,
who is 63. "That's simply a learning curve, knowing how to reach out,
how to put together coalitions, getting to know people in a way perhaps that
I now do better than I did before."
An example, he said, was the formation of the Patriot Act Reform Caucus,
designed to ensure civil liberties are protected in the reauthorization
of the Patriot Act. The caucus will be chaired by Sanders, a Democrat and
Speaking of the two Republican co-chairs, Sanders said, "We disagree on
98 percent of the issues, but it just so happens that on the issue of civil
liberties and the USA Patriot Act, we have a lot in common."
Sanders remains a socialist, although not a member of the Socialist
"What does it mean to me? I want government to stand up for working
people, for the middle class, rather than representing, as is currently the case
in the United States, multinational corporations and wealthy people.
"I also believe that as citizens in a democratic society people are
entitled to certain inherent rights - and those rights include the right
to health care, the right to form a union, the right to breathe good air,
the right to send your child to college.
"There is something fundamentally wrong and very dangerous about a
society in which so few have so much and so many have so little," he said.
Jim Barnett, the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, is fervently
dedicated to ensuring that Sanders never arrives in the Senate. As often
as Sanders uses the word extremist to describe Republican leaders in
Washington, Barnett uses it to describe Sanders.
"The Senate race will give Vermonters a new opportunity to more closely
scrutinize Bernie Sanders' extremist record in Congress," he said.
"Extremism, futility and abrasiveness are not qualities that Vermonters
have traditionally looked for in their senators."
Sanders says his greatest value in Congress has been to highlight issues
before others even identify them: He notes he was the first congressman
to lead a bus tour to Canada to help seniors get cheap prescription drugs
and he is proud of his efforts to bring attention to a pension dispute at
Sanders is certainly one of the most visible congressmen. He is a
regular guest on Fox News, especially "The O'Reilly Factor." Once, when he
accused Fox of having a conservative slant, host Bill O'Reilly countered by
asking, "Congressman, is there any other news organization on this planet that
gives you more air time than the Fox News Channel?"
"You have been very generous to me," Sanders acknowledged.
And one of the most anticipated exchanges of any year - for its theater,
if nothing else - is Sanders' semiannual grilling of Federal Reserve Board Chairman
Alan Greenspan when Greenspan appears before the House Financial
He once asked the Fed chief if he gave "one whit of concern for the
middle class and working families of this country?"
National Democrats, including former Gov. Howard Dean, now
the party's chairman, are urging Democrats to support
Sanders. Leaders of the Vermont Democratic Party are not rushing to
endorse Sanders, though no Democrat has moved to run against him.
His most likely GOP challengers are Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie and Richard
Tarrant, chairman of IDX, a medical software company. In early May, a
poll for WCAX-TV put Sanders ahead of Dubie, 59 percent to 23 percent, and
ahead of Tarrant, 62 percent to 18 percent.
That support is evident at the Old Labor Hall in Barre.
"He is as good as they come," says Sue Lucas, a nurse in Morrisville.
"He is about everything we believe in."
"He is not afraid to stand up to either party," said Jim Genovesi, a
worker for an electric utility in Rutland. "He doesn't seem to be affected by
political pressure or lobbyist pressure. He stands his ground."
Sanders' booming voice fills the hall as he nears the end of his speech.
"We know that our opponents have hundreds and hundreds of millions of
dollars that they put into the political process. We know they control
much of the media. We know they have an attack machine that goes from Fox to
Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report and all over the place.
"We know that is what THEY have," his voice thunders.
"But there is one thing they do not have. They do not have ordinary
people prepared to knock on doors and organize all over America.
"That is what WE have.
"They have the money. We have the people.
"And when push comes to shove, the people are going to defeat the