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Can Bernie Sanders take the 'Burlington Revolution' national?

Bernie Sanders called for “revolution” Tuesday evening as he kicked off his presidential campaign.

BURLINGTON, Vermont – Bernie Sanders called for “revolution” Tuesday evening as he kicked off his presidential campaign here in front of thousands of supporters at the lakefront of his hometown.

“Today, with your support and the support of millions of people throughout this country, we begin a political revolution to transform our country,” he said. “This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders. It is not about Hillary Clinton. It is not about Jeb Bush or anyone else. This campaign is about the needs of the American people, and the ideas and proposals that effectively address those needs.” 

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He was joined on stage by both Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, along with environmentalist Bill McKibben and others. 

Ahead of the event, locals and political tourists streamed down the hill toward the lakefront park, which Sanders helped build as Burlington mayor, attracted both by the politics and the festival-like atmosphere (and free ice cream).

A group of “mighty mighty student” from the University of Vermont chanted about student loan debt as they marched with placards spelling “B-E-R-N-I-E.” A small group of "Occupy" protesters met in a park before the rally. The entrepreneur behind the “Eat More Kale” line of t-shirts sold tie-dyed shirts stenciled with Sanders’ face. 

A national revolution is longer than a longshot for Sanders, but it’s not the first time he launched a “revolution” in Burlington.

In Sanders’ nearly half-century in politics, the clear turning point came in 1981 here, when he won his first term as mayor of Burlington. He had been running underfunded campaigns for a decade at that point, and with the same message he campaigns on today.

But his mayoral campaign in 1981 was a shock of a victory, even to many supporters, achieved by a margin of just 10 votes. The victory by the self-proclaimed Democratic socialist was dubbed the “Burlington Revolution” and attracted national attention and curiosity. A Doonsbury cartoon even facetiously credited it with presaging Francois Mitterrand socialist’s victory in France a few weeks later.

Sanders has been trying to expand that revolution ever since.

As he wrote in his 1997 memoir, it had to grow to succeed. “I feared that the ‘Burlington Revolution’ would suffocate if we didn’t expand beyond one city,” he wrote. 

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He ran for governor (again), and then for Congress, and before finally succeeding in 1992 when he took the state’s only House seat. In 2006, he moved up to the Senate. After securing a win with 71% of the vote in his last re-election in 2012, Sanders is trying to take the “Burlington Revolution” national. 

“He’s got a prophetic sensibility,” his longtime friend Richard Sugarman, a religion professor at the University of Vermont, told msnbc. “It’s been in the works in the long time. I think something new and different started here. Bernie was the complete fulcrum of it.”

Tuesday's crowd of more than 5,000, according to police, was a long way from that time Sugarman threw Sanders a fundraiser in the early 1980s and no one showed up except for Sanders and his campaign manager.

It was Sugarman who convinced Sanders to run for mayor in the first place after a string of unsuccessful campaigns. He took the perennial candidate to the city’s public records office and showed him voter data recording surprisingly strong support for Sanders’ earlier ill-fated bids in some of the city’s wards. 

The city had been controlled by Democrats for as long as anyone could remember, and they were not willing to give up control, figuring Sanders’ win was a fluke and he’d be out soon. 

The city council fought battle after the battle with the new socialist mayor, refusing to confirm any of his appointments or approve his budgets. So in the next election, Sanders ran progressive candidates against the Democrats on the council and took a majority.

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“When Bernie was elected, it was like Omaha beach,” recalled John Franco, another longtime friend of Sanders who served as deputy assistant attorney under him. A woman slapped Sanders for showing his face at a Democratic campaign event in 1984. “They were so furious they didn't speak with us for 10 years,” he said of the Democrats. 

“It was a turning point in political history of the state of Vermont. It totally changed the political culture of Vermont. Vermont is the bluest of blue states and that's the reason,” Franco added. 

Vermont had long been a moderate Republican stronghold. It elected its first Democratic senator only a few years earlier. But having an open socialist running the biggest city pulled the state’s politics leftwards.

It was an unexpected win, even to his friends and allies, who warn against underestimating the politician.

Terry Bouricius has known Sanders from progressive politics in the 1970s and was one of his first campaign staffers, driving Sanders around the state in a beat up Volkswagen Beetle. Bouricius was later elected to the city council the same year Sanders won city hall, and went on to serve 10 years in the state House of Representatives.

“We were running what we called symbolic campaigns,” he said. “The fact that we ended up getting elected to office was unexpected for all of us.”

On the first mayoral run, Sanders’ allies only began to realize he actually had a shot at winning late in the race, when he picked up an unlikely endorsement from the police union. The incumbent Democratic mayor had ignored their concerns, and the endorsement “gave permission” for voters to support Sanders, Bouricius explained 

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Bouricius attributes Sanders’ later successes to reality catching up to Sanders’ rhetoric. “It's not like he learned from his failures, it's like he's been doing the same thing and then they became successes,” he said. 

But Burlington is a little slice of progressive utopia, and even his closest allies acknowledge it will be nigh impossible to take the “Burlington Revolution” national.

Huck Gutman, a University of Vermont poetry professor and longtime friend and adviser, said that just because Sanders is an anti-politician doesn’t mean he’s a bad politician. 

“He’s a brilliant politician. I was his chief of staff, he was the best politician in the Senate,” said Gutman, who co-wrote Sanders’ autobiography. “He has incredible drive. He works 10 hours a day. He thinks politics 20 hours a day.” 

The biggest misconception about Sanders, according to Gutman, is that he’s running just to raise issues and influence the debate.

“I know Bernie as well as anyone, expect for his maybe his wife,” he told msnbc. “I think he wants to win. I think he thinks there’s a route to winning. The question is, are the American people ready?”