William H. Meyer, Bernie Sanders, and David Zuckerman: The Progressive Movement in Vermont from the 1950s to Today
Bernie Sanders, the most notable electoral progressive and leftist in the last 50 years, got his start running on the Liberty Union ticket in the 1972 race for Governor in, of all places, Vermont. Sanders, an avowed socialist, was somehow able to beat the odds during the Cold War and get elected Mayor of Burlington; what about Vermont and Burlington made that possible?
I wanted to take a look at what regions, movements, and people in Vermont led to Bernie’s rise, the success of the Vermont Progressive Party, and hopefully, the election of David Zuckerman as Governor of Vermont this year.
The 1950s and 1960s: Origins and William H. Meyer
Before Bernie Sanders, there was William H. Meyer. A political nobody when he decided to run for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1958, Meyer was a forester who had never run for office before coming to crash the best laid plans of the Vermont Democratic machine (which had been growing its ranks despite still having little governing power). They convinced Meyer to run in an unopposed primary for the less glamorous, lone U.S. House seat allocated to Vermont.
The Republican ranks of Vermont were strong, with no Democrat holding statewide elected office since before the Civil War. There was no expectation that a Democrat would defeat a Republican, especially Meyer’s opponent, a former governor. In the triumphant reelection of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1956 election, Republicans gained ground around the country and the election for Vermont’s House seat was not competitive; the Democrat lost by over 35 points. But something happened on that night that changed Vermont. Meyer won by 3 points in a Democratic wave year that saw low turnout for Republicans, especially in the Northeast.
The result wasn’t just a Democrat beating a Republican. Meyer was the House member furthest to the left on economic issues during his time in Congress, according to his DW-Nominate score, a metric that measures ideology based on voting record. He also voted for the 1960 Civil Rights Act and was aligned with most of his Northern Democrat colleagues on issues of race.
On foreign policy, Meyer was more radical. He voted to recognize The People’s Republic of China in the U.N., end the peacetime draft, and reject the military budget both years. He was an adamant anti-nuclear advocate, never failing to speak up even in the face of harsh criticism from his own party.
In an article for the Harvard Crimson, Frederick Gardner says this about Meyer’s reelection strategy: “His campaign has again been a give-and-take with the voters, wherein he tries to do as much listening as talking. Apparently his major objective is to reach a maximum number of people personally, to counteract the effects of a generally hostile press. The factors working for him are the tremendous degree to which Vermonters believe in his honesty, and the growing acceptance of his views.” The Democratic establishment was fed up with Meyer in 1959 and decided to put up a primary challenger against him, who was swiftly put down by over 40 points. However, Meyer lost reelection to a Republican in the general by a wide margin in a year when Republicans solidified their hold on the Northeast, winning back 5 seats and ultimately controlling 14 out of the 28 seats allocated to New England. Meyer continued to run for statewide office during the 1960s as a champion of peace, civil liberties, and left-wing economic ideas. After seeing the failings of the Democratic Party to advocate for working class voters and losing these following elections, Meyer set out to start his own party in Vermont.
The 1970s: Liberty Union Party and the Beginnings of Bernie
Meyer, alongside Peter Diamondstone and Richard Clarke, founded the Liberty Union Party in 1970 not to win elections, but to act as a thorn in the side of the two-party system. Meyer wanted Democrats and Republicans challenged from the left in debates and in the public discourse. Candidates garnered just over 5% of the vote consistently, ensuring the Liberty Union “major-party status” in Vermont.
Enter Bernie Sanders who, potentially inspired by Meyer, moved to Vermont and quickly fell into the Liberty Union ranks, running for 4 statewide offices in 4 years under their banner. Sanders branded himself to left-leaning, anti-establishment voters across the state, but most importantly, in Burlington, where small third parties were beginning to challenge the entrenched Republican-Democrat coalition government.
In his last run with the Liberty Union Party, this time for governor in 1976, The Queen City and the rest of vote-rich Chittenden County, came out strong for the Brooklyn-born socialist. About 15% of Sanders’ entire vote in the state came from Burlington at a time when Burlington only constituted about 8.6% of Vermont’s population. Towns bolded and underlined are major population hubs.
The geographical coalition that would eventually power his statewide success was shaping up. Win the most rural parts of the Green Mountains, win Chittenden County, specifically Burlington, in huge numbers, and remain competitive along the Connecticut River in the east. Sanders’ campaigns with the Liberty Union Party laid the groundwork for his run for Mayor of Burlington in 1980, but also clarified the path to become a statewide elected official in the future.
Sanders knew that in such a small state, his name recognition was important and that if he could build his own brand, eventually there might be a Representative Bernie or even a Senator Bernie. Once Vermont voters knew Sanders, he became a fixture in state politics and he was ready to put up a real, serious challenge to the system. Not as a protest, but to win.
The 1980s: Mayor Bernie and A Challenge to the Two Party System
In “The People’s Republic,” Greg Guma, a Vermont journalist and activist who had a firsthand look at the progressive movement in Burlington in the 1980s, analyzes the Sanders Revolution and Bernie’s time as mayor. One of Guma’s biggest takeaways is that Sanders dictated the progressive movement more than the progressive movement drove Bernie.
Sanders got elected in Burlington in 1980 after only having lived in the city for a few years; he wasn’t well-read on the local issues and while he had supporters in the city, he had already made enemies with both the Republicans and Democrats. Sanders admitted to Guma that he was more focused on national issues but that this was the best way to get elected. This was the first sign of Bernie’s practicality, a contrast to what we usually think of when we think of Bernie: the uncompromising, gruff ideologue who refuses to bend on anything. In fact, this was the very opposite of Sanders’ time as mayor.
Sanders ran on: “Burlington is Not For Sale.” A new waterfront project threatened to raise rents and leave Burlingtonians homeless in 1980. Sanders saw this as the perfect opportunity to activate his anti-rich rhetoric and rally young, working-class, and disenfranchised people to his campaign. His coalition included college students from University of Vermont, activists on behalf of tenants’ rights, environmentalists, the police union, the working class, the elderly, and those sick of the two-party system in Burlington. That initial coalition helped secure a victory for Sanders in 1981 by 10 votes, and each successive run was more successful than the last. However, not everything was perfect in the People’s Republic.
Sanders had a habit of upsetting people in his coalition. Environmentalists were upset when he favored the building of a factory near Burlington; anti-war activists were upset when he didn’t support their sit-in at a local factory that made firearms for the military; womens’ rights groups were frustrated with the lack of women’s voices in his administration; leftists worried that his budget cut corners for some public services and never invested in better public transit. There is this notion in popular culture that Sanders was beloved by all corners of lefty Burlington, but Guma makes it clear in his book that this was not the case.
Sanders had a dogged work ethic for the working class, the poor, and organized labor. His loyalties were with those who constituted the greatest part of his coalition; Sanders, like many other politicians, understood that there were some people (in Bernie’s case, leftists and progressives) that would vote for them because the alternative was far worse. Gordie Paquette, the mayor before Bernie, and the successive candidates that ran against Sanders in the 1980s were all cut from the same cloth in the eyes of the activist and left community in Burlington and Chittenden County. They were corporate, moderate, and far worse than Sanders, even if Sanders didn’t always take the activists’ concerns as seriously as they would like. This allowed Sanders to focus on expanding voter participation in the lower-class wards of the inner city, where his base was strongest. This strategy of coalition building while staking out the furthest-left flank would be Sanders’ bread and butter for the rest of his political career.
He put that strategy to the test in 1986, when he ran more seriously for governor as an independent. He garnered 14% of the vote, more than third-party candidates had ever gotten in Vermont to that point. Sanders sought to capitalize on his success in the governors’ race by running for U.S. House of Representatives in 1988. Like the 1986 race, there was a serious Republican and a serious Democrat, the last time this would happen because of Sanders’ ability to play spoiler for any potential Democrat.
The 1988 race was hard-fought, with all three candidates fundraising well and the state paying close attention. Ultimately, Sanders took 37.5% of the vote with the Republican taking 41.2% and the Democrat taking 18.9%. The map looked like this:
Major Population Centers
Sanders: Burlington, Winooski and Middlebury
Republican: Colchester, Essex, Williston, Shelburne, Milton, South Burlington, Saint Johnsbury, Bennington, Brattleboro, and Hartland
The map here is really fascinating. While Sanders has a strong hold on Burlington, the surrounding towns broke slightly Republican. This area is where much of the wealth in the state is held and before political realignment came in Vermont in the 1990s, the outlying towns voted Republican consistently. Much of the vote for Carroll came from there, the Northeast Kingdom, and what I call the “Solid South.” Just as the American South had become a Democratic stronghold for a hundred years, the Vermont South was a solid Republican stronghold for a hundred years. Carroll dominated there, albeit in mostly small towns.
Sanders did well in most other areas, largely rural and less wealthy. He was able to rack up big margins in the Green Mountains, which kept him close but there are not enough votes just in the rural areas to win, especially when the South is red. Sanders also only captured 3 towns on the Connecticut River to the east, another population and economic hub. Perhaps the resounding message from this map is that the rural areas of Vermont have a unique political culture; they would vote for outsiders like Reagan and Sanders, but corporate Democrats and Republicans were unwelcome.
After Sanders’ loss in 1988, he immediately began to prepare for a rematch against Carroll in 1990. Sanders easily bested him with no serious Democrat in the race and after 20 years of politics in Vermont, Sanders was finally going to represent his revolution in the U.S. Congress.
The 1990s and the 2000s: The Rise of the Progressive Party and One Last Challenge for Sanders
After securing the sole U.S. House seat in Vermont, Sanders entered Congress. Sanders had to build relationships over time, but ultimately became successful at passing parts of his vision into law. His alliances with Republicans and Democrats were similar to his style of governing in Burlington; he would rather see his own agenda passed than maintain a perfect left stance on every issue. Sanders even failed to endorse several progressives in the 1980s running for the Burlington Board of Aldermen, sometimes favoring those Republicans and Democrats who had been loyal to him.
This image of Sanders can be surprising because traditional media outlets fixate on the “socialist” label. In Vermont, Sanders wanted this. He knew that a solid base, something like 20–25% of Burlington wanted a socialist, or at least someone to the left of a traditional Democrat. Sanders only won his first election in Burlington with 43% of the vote, nowhere near a majority because there were 4 candidates in the race. Sanders knew that with the left secured, he could expand his base with his charismatic personality and tireless effort on behalf of the working class. That’s ultimately what he did statewide as well and he won his seat in 1990 beating the Republican by over 16%. His strategy of working with Republicans and Democrats served him well in 1992 when he won by over 25%. However, in 1994, he was challenged seriously for the last time in Vermont during Newt Gingrinch’s Republican Revolution and won by only 3%. Here’s the map:
Major Population Centers
Sanders: Burlington, Winooski, Middlebury, Bennington, Brattleboro, and Hartland
Republican: Colchester, Essex, Williston, Shelburne, Milton, South Burlington, and Saint Johnsbury
Here, the Republicans’ grip on the Solid South slipped significantly. Not only was Brattleboro strongly in the Sanders camp, but so was Bennington, which was solidly Republican in 1988. The towns along the St. Lawrence on the west coast of the state broke almost exclusively for the Republican, baring Burlington, which helped carry Sanders over the finish line. Sanders’ dominance in Chittenden County and the northern rural areas of the state also played a big role in his victory, along with his improvements on the Connecticut River. This more even split shows that Sanders gained ground in places with greater density, while holding most of his ground in rural turf. This has become the standard strategy for progressives statewide: win the rural areas, win Burlington, and do well enough in denser areas to hold on.
The Vermont Progressive Party has been perfecting this strategy since 1990, when it began running candidates for the state house. Below is a chart showing where Progressive state representatives came from and how their numbers have grown over time. In Vermont, it is possible to cross list parties, which is what Dave Zuckerman is doing today as a Progressive running also as a Democrat in the Democratic primary. These numbers include candidates cross listed as both Democrat/Progressive and those who ran on the Dem/Prog ticket.
Chittenden County is the birthplace of the Progressive Party, with Burlington being the base of operations. Dave Zuckerman, our candidate for Governor today, was once one of the few Progressive state representatives during the 1990s. As the Progressive base grew across the state, Chittenden County Progressives lost many of their seats, falling as low as one. At the same time, Windham County, home to Brattleboro and Marlboro, elected its first Progressive in 2002. From there, it has been a slow build over time. The Progressive Party has even begun to capture state senate seats, taking their first in 2008 with Tim Ashe, now the Senate President pro tempore and a candidate for Lieutenant Governor today. Zuckerman joined him in the Vermont Senate in 2012 and today there are six Progressive senators, with half coming from Chittenden County (only four counties have elected Progressive senators). With the House and Senate in play, the next logical step was running for seats statewide.
The 2010s: Taking the Party to the Executive Branch
In 2012, Doug Hoffer, a Progressive/Democrat, was elected Auditor statewide in Vermont. He took an interesting path there that looks different to Sanders in 1994. Hoffer won by just over 6%:
Major Population Centers
Hoffer: Burlington, Winooski, Bennington, Middlebury, Essex, South Burlington, Shelburne, Williston, Brattleboro, and Hartland
Republican: St. Johnsbury, Colchester, and Milton
Hoffer lost big in the Northeast Kingdom, like Sanders, but he also lost parts of the north that Sanders didn’t, especially areas directly north of Chittenden County. The areas near Rutland and Barre also were built up over the past twenty years and have grown to be more Republican, which is apparent on Hoffer’s map. It’s not all bad news though; the Solid South is no more. Hoffer dominated in the southern parts of the state, and coupled that with a very strong performance in the towns near Burlington. The Connecticut River Valley also fell for Hoffer. A Republican needs to do well in one of those three areas to win and it simply didn’t happen this year.
With Hoffer’s election, the Progressive Party geared up for the Lieutenant Governor’s race in 2014, where they fielded a competitive candidate who ended up losing by a lot in the general election. Then, in 2016, Dave Zuckerman ran to become Lieutenant Governor and made it through a crowded Demcoratic field for the opportunity to win the open seat. He won the general election and became the second Progressive elected statewide. His Democratic primary opponent was a more establishment, moderate Democrat and his map shows where he will need to win tonight for a chance to become Governor.
Major Population Centers
Zuckerman: Burlington, Winooski, Essex, South Burlington, Williston, Brattleboro, Milton, and Hartland
Establishment Democrat: St. Johnsbury, Colchester, Shelburne, Middlebury, and Bennington
Zuckerman ended up winning by just over 6% and taking 8 out of the 13 major population centers. That said, he lost areas around Rutland badly, as well as several towns east of Chittenden County. Zuckerman carried many of the rural areas, secured the Connecticut River Valley, took Burlington and the surrounding areas, and split the southern areas. This is likely what will happen tonight. The biggest battleground areas are the Connecticut River Valley and the south. If they break Zuckerman’s way, he’ll win tonight. However, if he gets blown out in the south or stumbles on the river, it could prove fatal unless he racks up big margins in the Burlington area.
Zuckerman is well-positioned to win, having already been elected as a statewide official. He has a strong foothold in Burlington and endorsements from Bernie Sanders and several other local officials. Zuckerman is a name in Vermont and I believe his name recognition and ground game will put him over the top in a close election tonight.
William H. Meyer started something special in Vermont. Over 60 years of progressive politics in this small state have culminated in a third wave of the movement from Meyer to Sanders to Zuckerman and the Progressives. A win tonight would mean the chance to bring the Progressive platform to both a statewide stage and a national stage. The notion that a third party candidate can become governor is laughable in some states. But Vermont is different. Vermont is a place where you can run on your values and talk to enough voters and win. That’s what the Sanders Revolution showed; we’ll have to see if Zuckerman can recreate that soon.