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The Plot Against Mayor Bernie Sanders

Elected with a mandate to transform Vermont’s biggest city, Bernie Sanders had big plans to shake up local government. A united city establishment stood in his way.

Bernie Sanders during his mayoral term in 1985.

It took less than a day for the FBI to come asking about the new mayor.

On the morning of April 7, a federal agent strolled into the office of Vermont’s secretary of state, wanting information about Bernie Sanders’s past political affiliations. He was carrying out a request by an assistant US attorney in New York, then representing the government in a lawsuit launched by the Socialist Workers Party.

In context, the visit was less sinister than it appeared. Though Sanders had only ever served as an elector for the party, its national secretary had incorrectly identified him on the stand as its candidate. The defense, looking to test the secretary’s credibility as a witness, wanted to verify this. It was, as far as FBI visits went, all pretty benign. The US attorney in Vermont even called Sanders in advance to tell him he wasn’t under investigation.

“After one day in office, I am proud to announce that, like the mayors of San Francisco, California, Miami, Florida, and Montpelier, Vermont, I, too, am not under investigation by the FBI,” Sanders joked.

Sanders may have taken it in stride, but others didn’t take the air of menace suggested in his joke as lightly. The visit was “reprehensible” and went “too far,” read an April 16 editorial by the Burlington Free Press, demanding an apology and charging it called to mind the McCarthy era. The federal judge overseeing the case chided the FBI for its heavy-handed approach, reminding them that “the mere flashing of a badge in connection with some public official . . . could get very badly misinterpreted.”

In the scope of Sanders’s mayoralty, the incident was a blip, just another colorful story to add to the twists and turns of his unlikely tenure. But for someone like Sanders, keenly aware of his government’s long history of repressing people with his convictions, it could never be just a joke. It was less than a year earlier that he had commented to the Free Press about how the US left had been harassed and disrupted through job discrimination, ostracism, and, of course, FBI surveillance.

In some ways, it set the tone for Sanders’s first one hundred days as mayor of Burlington and beyond. In his first three months alone, Sanders would face resignations, a ticking fiscal time bomb, and a campaign of obstruction never seen in Burlington before or since. By the end of his term, he would be ticketed for parking in his own parking space and have his mail stolen by his own staff. Sanders and his allies were about to learn that beating the city’s establishment would take more than winning one election.

A Hard Month

Burlington’s major newspaper wasn’t optimistic about the new mayor’s tenure.

“To say that many Burlingtonians view the new administration with suspicion, apprehension, and dread is a classic example of understatement,” read one Free Press op-ed, one of two criticizing Sanders on the first day of his mayoralty on April 6. The other warned him not to be “an obstructionist” and allow the city projects that were already under construction or had been approved to go to fruition. They were swiftly disappointed when Sanders met with Vermont’s lawmakers at the statehouse in Montpelier and chewed them out for neglecting the poor and serving the interests of big business and lobbyists.

It quickly became clear where obstruction would come from. “Aldermen plan to dig in their heels and oppose Sanders’ nominations, saying city department heads are not policy-making positions and never have changed with administrations in the past,” the Free Press reported the day before he took office. Only “ten citizens decided we needed a change” in city politics, one alderman said on inauguration day, defiantly nominating an ally of former mayor Gordon Paquette to the board’s presidency.

Barely a week later, claiming the proper procedures hadn’t been followed, the board voted 8-3 to fire Linda Niedweske, Sanders’s campaign manager-turned-secretary, which Sanders called “an insult” (one Democrat voted with Sanders’s allies, deciding the issue was too small to “make it the stand” against the new mayor). City residents called both aldermen and Niedweske to, respectively, complain and express support. Aldermen made clear they would next go after Sanders’s appointment of ally and low-income advocate Richard Sartelle, who Sanders had unofficially hired and was paying out of his own mayoral salary.

“I will never forgive, and never forget, the first board of aldermen’s meeting, where my secretary was fired,” Sanders would say months later. “It kind of set the tone.” (He would eventually be allowed to rehire Niedweske.)

Several longtime city employees resigned in the days after inauguration. The press reported about the “new informality” in Sanders’s and his allies’ clothing at City Hall. After criticizing a businessman and former Medical Center Hospital trustee whose construction firm was now heading the hospital’s $64 million expansion, with Sanders charging his 1973 defeat of a union had hurt wages and therefore public health, the paper urged Sanders to “temper his remarks.”

“Whether correct or not, [they] served only to further the mistrust many in the business community have of the new mayor,” it stated.

Toward the end of April, Sanders suffered a defeat when voters rejected by four to one the fair housing commission plan he had supported. Put forward by tenants’ rights organization People Acting for Change Together (PACT), the group had stepped up its efforts after Sanders’s election, and he had endorsed, and campaigned door-to-door for, their plan, which would have allowed tenants to appeal rent increases.

This time, the establishment won: its opponents, many of them businessmen, had spent nearly $10,000 on a sophisticated campaign complete with bulk mailings, advertisements, copious manpower, and a professional consultant. Several Democratic aldermen celebrated with them at the after-party. So did treasurer F. Lee Austin, once viewed as a potential ally by the incoming administration, and city clerk Frank Wagner, who Sanders had been urged to fire by a Republican state representative.

All the while, Sanders’s fledgling administration looked for a solution to the city’s budget crunch. After winning the election by railing against Paquette’s proposed 65-cent property tax increase, on April 24 Sanders put forward his own tax hike proposal to be voted on in a special June election. After seven weeks of going through “every single line item” in department budgets, Jennie Stoler and the rest of Sanders’s advisers settled on the “politically palatable” figure of 25 cents.

The resulting budget would see no layoffs and salary raises for city workers, but would also mean no new programs, equipment, or hires, and relied on higher parking fines and city permit fees. Admitting it was “quite as regressive, in fact, as any other in the past,” Sanders urged its adoption to “allow our city to function at roughly the same level as we did last year.” He planned out a second, more austere budget in case the hike failed.

Yet even getting the proposal to a vote would prove an uphill battle. First, Republican aldermen tried halving the increase to 13 cents, eliminating the Civil Defense Department in the process. Then, when city union chiefs, department heads, Sanders’s advisers, and members of the public all gathered for a discussion of the tax raise at an aldermanic meeting, the eight Democratic aldermen voted as a bloc to delay talks.

“I honestly don’t know what’s going on,” Sanders said, calling it “an absolute insult.”

“It was no big deal,” Maurice Mahoney, one alderman then positioning himself for a mayoral run, told the Free Press.

“I’m sorry if he feels bad about it,” said William Blanchard, another Democratic critic on the board. “It’s part of the procedure. It is legal to table.”

He didn’t understand, Blanchard said, why Sanders had “vented his anger.” Though admitting he hadn’t informed Sanders about the delay, Mahoney told the press it had been a “foregone conclusion,” blaming the mayor for holding news conferences instead of talking to aldermen. The Free Press asked Sanders if he would cooperate with the board.

“It is not a proper thing to cave in on everything and do their bidding,” he said. “I will go the half mile. They have got to also.”

Sometimes, Sanders made unforced errors. At the close of May, Sanders nominated longtime resident Henry Allard for the position of fourth constable. Allard was a one-time president of the board of aldermen, and had served as city constable for fifteen years, during which he sometimes abstained from collecting fines from poor residents. He also happened to have been dead for two months.

“It was silly, just dumb,” Sanders said later.

“He doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s coming apart at the seams,” said James Burns, a Democratic alderman.

As reporters scrambled to get in touch with the mayor, Niedweske, now reinstated, informed them he’d had a “hard week” and asked to be “left alone” for the weekend.

The War Over Appointments

Determined to make Sanders a one-term mayor, the city’s Democrats dropped any pretense they would work as a responsible governing force looking for middle ground.

“The existing city council, they saw Bernie’s win as a fluke,” says Terry Bouricius. “All they had to do was outwait him for two years, and this would be over with.”

Past and present Democratic aldermen and city officials like Austin and Wagner continued to meet each morning at the restaurant Nector’s, just as they had under Paquette — only now without the new mayor present. In early May, they gathered at Alderman Joyce Desautels’s house for a birthday party, insisting they weren’t talking politics, only for family members to tell inquiring reporters they were “at an aldermen’s meeting.” Sanders would later recall he had to “whisper in the mayor’s office so the city clerk next door to us couldn’t hear me.”

Hovering around all this was former mayor Paquette, who had never publicly conceded the election, even after returning from vacation. Paquette continued meeting with his old crew at Nector’s, got involved in the successful campaign against the fair housing commission, and even attended the aldermanic budget sessions, arguing against increasing fines, and huddling with the Democrats during recesses. While Democrats insisted the Nector’s meetings were strictly social, one longtime friend of both Paquette’s and Austin’s sang a different tune.

“The Democrats still looked to Gordie for guidance,” she told the Rutland Daily Herald. “He is still the one, and naturally so, that they would continue to turn to.”

One of those Nector’s regulars, a math professor at nearby St. Michael’s College and former city Democratic Committee chair, began secretly churning out an underground newspaper attacking the new mayor. The Flea Press, a takeoff of Burlington’s largest newspaper, was delivered each week to the city’s top media and political officials, including aldermen, the pages within red-baiting and viciously mocking in highly personal terms members of the administration of Mayor “Burns A. Sunder.” One Republican alderman passed out copies of the paper at a city council meeting.

This united the city establishment to block Sanders from enacting his agenda.

“Most of the city government was actually administered and run outside the mayor’s office,” says Bouricius. “Fundamentally, they were going to make sure that Bernie couldn’t do anything.”

As Sanders prepared to shake up city government by replacing incumbents in patronage positions with his own appointments — key to exercising power in Burlington’s “weak mayor” system — he grasped for compromise. Ignoring his supporters’ calls to go further, he put forward only six names from a possible nineteen, and took care to praise those he was replacing, calling them “hardworking and competent.”

“The people that I am replacing should not think they are incompetent or have not done a good job,” he said.

The aldermen smelled blood. The board’s Democrats and Republicans had already sent Sanders a signed letter urging him to reappoint all the city officials “if they are doing a good job,” an act condemned by the Free Press as “an effort to erode the mayor’s authority and deny him the prerogative of organizing government in a way that suits him.”

“Sanders should be allowed to make his appointments,” the paper insisted.

As he put forward the names, Sanders warned he would take court action if aldermen chose to block them. He appealed to their sense of “fair play,” while warning the city would “be plunged into its most serious constitutional crisis in history” in the case of rejection. The aldermen, for their part, rattled off a litany of complaints: it was unprecedented; it was cronyism; they didn’t have enough time to look over the appointees; it would politicize the appointment process.

On June 1, Sanders, his nominees, the aldermen, and cheering, partisan crowds totaling more than two hundred packed into a city council room for what the Free Press called a “dramatic, unprecedented confrontation.” Without hearing from any of them, and even incorrectly identifying one as an attorney, the board summarily voted down each appointee 11-2. Aldermen threw Sanders’s words back at him, asking why, if the incumbents were doing a good job, he would fire them.

“It was a mistaken attempt at compromise,” concluded Bouricius at the time.

“I do not understand what these people are afraid of,” said Sanders after the meeting, as he and his allies filed into his office.

Some aldermen went further. Mahoney later called Sanders’s attempted replacement “a reign of terror for competent, dedicated city employees.” Another alderman complained of the “attitude of confrontation,” griping: “We are no longer asked ahead of time. We are told to agree or be sued.” Charging the appointments were “a method of expanding the base of the Socialist Party,” Desautels drew applause as she asserted she had been elected to carry out the city’s mandate “as a woman, a Christian, and a Democrat, so help me God.” One longtime University of Vermont political science professor called the remark antisemitic.

Days later, the Sanders administration received one last blow: after already announcing his retirement for the end of that month, the civil defense director, abruptly and without explanation, asked aldermen to extend the date to the start of October. They quickly approved it while Sanders was out of the city council chambers. It was his one last chance to make an appointment.