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Where Bernie Sanders' political revolution has already succeeded

Burlington, Vermont invented Berniemania and supporters say it offers a preview of want Sanders’ America might look like.
The video screen shows Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders, his wife Jane and their supporters at his Super Tuesday rally in Burlington, Vt., March 1, 2016. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The video screen shows Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders, his wife Jane and their supporters at his Super Tuesday rally in Burlington, Vt., March 1, 2016.

BURLINGTON, Vermont – While Bernie Sanders’ political revolution ran into Hillary Clinton’s firewall Tuesday, it will live on here, in the place that invented Berniemania and that supporters say offers a preview of what Sanders’ America would look like.

“I am so proud,” Sanders said to more than 4,000 screaming fans at a raucous homecoming Tuesday night, “to bring Vermont Values all across this country.”

Sanders took 86 percent of the vote in his home state’s primary on Super Tuesday, denying Clinton a single delegate from Vermont even as she cleaned up in seven other states. The Burlington Free Press the next day devoted its entire front page to Sanders, declaring him the “hometown hero.”

“It’s like having Martin Luther King as your neighbor,” said Jeff Mack, of the radical “Yes We Can Be” puppet troupe, without a hint of irony. “He’s like Pope Francis, changing the paradigm of thinking.” 

Welcome to Bernie Sanders’ Vermont, where he is the most popular senator in America and wins re-election by tripling his opponent’s vote. It’s a place where local brewers make Sanders-themed beer, tattoo artists give out free tattoos of Sanders' face and, of course, local dessert moguls Ben & Jerry make Sanders-themed ice cream.

The revolution began here the same year as Ronald Reagan’s, in 1980, when the self-described Democratic socialist fought the Democratic establishment to win the mayoralty of the state’s largest city by 10 votes. Sanders has been trying to expand it ever since. 

“We are at ground zero of the political revolution,” said Rebecca Haslam, who earned a speaking slot at Sanders’ big rally by being named Vermont’s 2015 Teacher of the Year. 

For many here, a vote for Sanders on the Democratic ticket is basically a vote for Vermont. It’s local pride, but it’s also a desire to make the country a little more like the city and state often viewed as a progressive utopia.

“He put us on the map for more than just weed and Ben and Jerry’s,” said Sarah A., a 10th-generation Burlingtonian who declined to give her full last name as she waited for a bus. “And I hope it can catch on in the rest of the country.” 

At Uncommon Grounds, a coffee shop down the street from Sanders’ local Senate office, the senator is a regular and customers can pick up a “Bernie 2016” bumper sticker with their latte.

Owner Brenda Vinson and two employees took a break from meticulously taste-testing potential new beans to roast to tell a reporter that, conservatively, 90 percent of the shop’s customers support Sanders. Except for Andrew, interjected barista Nick Mitchell. Andrew, a local Democratic Party activist and the shop’s best known (only?) Clinton supporter, has not had much luck swaying voters, though he tries.

Vermont wasn’t always like this.

When Franklin Roosevelt ran for re-election in 1936 on a pro-New Deal platform, he won the biggest landslide in American history to that point, sweeping every state except for two – Vermont and Maine. In 2008, Rep. Peter Welch became the first Democrat to win re-election to the House from Vermont in more than 150 years. 

For more than a century, the state was a stronghold of a bygone strain of Republicanism, and Sanders played a key role in changing that, says his longtime confidant and former chief of staff Huck Gutman.

“Because of Bernie Sanders, every politician in Vermont now looks over their left shoulder,” said Gutman, who is also a poetry professor at the University of Vermont and co-wrote Sanders’ autobiography. “He has been dramatically important to the redefinition of the state.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. 

Former Democratic Gov. Madeleine Kunin, who beat Sanders in a gubernatorial race and now supports Clinton, said Sanders’ influence on state politics is largely limited to Burlington, and that even there he wasn’t particularly revolutionary.

“He was successful as a mayor because he did the usual things that mayors do, work hard, plow the streets, have your staff rescue kittens from trees,” she said. "He wasn't a socialist mayor in the sense of socializing things."

Still, she said Sanders has a clear impact on the national race. “There’s no doubt, even though I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter, he’s influenced her to some degree and put a spotlight on income inequality,” she said. “I don’t think it was a radical change for Hillary, but he made her move more deliberately towards the whole question of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.”

Some longtime Sanders bristle at the notion that he got into the race merely to influence Clinton or the 2016 election. “It wasn’t about shaping the platform of the Democratic Party, it was about winning the nomination,” said Gutman. “I know that for a certainty.”

But the problem for Sanders is that Vermont is a difficult place to use as model for national or global change. It’s a tiny homogeneous state, with just 626,000 nearly all white residents. Sanders' state also failed in its effort to enact a single-payer health care plan, which is a core of Sanders' national platform. Sanders has lost African-American voters overwhelmingly to Clinton, including on Tuesday when she swept the South. He even failed to win Massachusetts, which has as much in common with neighboring Vermont. 

Still, the movement around Sanders marches forward. 

“This revolution isn’t going anywhere,” said Charles Chamberlain, who runs the Burlington-based liberal group Democracy for America, which has endorsed Sanders. “Bernie’s campaign will continue in one form or another, no matter what happens.”

And it will probably always have a home in Vermont.