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Bernie Sanders: The Mayor of Prosperity and his Model for Rebuilding America

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Bernie Sanders Speaking in AZ
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How would a Bernie Sanders presidency revitalize America?

His mayoral legacy in Burlington, VT, offers a host of clues. In the 1980's, Bernie's visionary leadership transformed that city from a stagnant economic and cultural backwater into an economically vibrant and culturally dynamic community.

I watched him do it.

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When I moved there in 1979, Vermont's Queen City seemed more like a downtrodden chambermaid.

The urban renewal craze struck Burlington in the 1960's. By the time the bulldozers finished leveling a 27-acre ethnic neighborhood between the downtown and the waterfront, the homes for 157 families, 67 individuals and 47 businesses were gone. The void left by the loss of this neighborhood contributed to a stagnant aura that enveloped the city and bore silent witness to the empty promises of affordable housing made by the city fathers and their developer-accomplices.

The Urban Renewal craze in the 1960's wiped out this working class neighborhood forever changing the face of Burlington
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Furthermore, the Old North End, the waterfront along Lake Champlain and other areas in the city were depressing and shabby.

1980: Burlington's waterfront - it was ugly!
(Image by Photo by Harry Orth, in the collection of Special Collections, Bailey-Howe Library, University of Vermont)
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After four terms of Bernie's leadership, the transformation of the waterfront was on its way to completion. On May 26, 2015, Bernie officially announced his candidacy for president from this park.

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1991: Burlington's Waterfront Park - on its way to beauty
(Image by Photo by Harry Orth, in the collection of Special Collections, Bailey-Howe Library, University of Vermont)
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By the time Bernie Sanders left office in 1989, the city was thriving.

Thanks in large part to Bernie Sanders' visionary leadership as mayor, Church Street, Burlington's 'Main Street' continues to flourish today.
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The 1980 census had counted 37,712 residents in Burlington. As a college town, it was home to The University of Vermont (UVM), and three small colleges, Burlington, Champlain, and Trinity. It was also home to a large working class. UVM and its adjacent medical center were the largest employers. Tourism contributed to Burlington's economy and there was light manufacturing on the outskirts of town and near the waterfront.

The U.S. Census accounting of Burlington's age structure from 1970 to 2007
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Downtown bars and businesses catered to the college students who made up 23.1% of the city's population. Burlington's close proximity to Montreal made it a restaurant and shopping mecca for Canadians in the summer. When the fall foliage colors were ablaze in autumn, tourists flocked to town. And, they shopped and ate, too.

College students represent a significant portion of the city
(Image by U.S. Census, Public domain)
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The 1980 unemployment rate, at 5.5%, was slightly below the national average.*

Nevertheless, the city's government was becoming increasingly unpopular with many of Burlington's citizens. Under the leadership of five-term Democratic mayor, Gordon Pauquette, the city's economic agenda was focused on attracting and catering to the wealthy by building corporate office buildings, shopping malls, banking centers and other monuments to Pauquette's legacy. The side-effects to this vision included land speculation, increased housing costs, and efforts by Pauquette's administration to strong-arm a vociferously unwanted highway through working class neighborhoods on the south side of the city.

This approach to governance did not make the affected citizens happy.

Mayor Pauquette, sorely lacked a coherent or imaginative vision for the city as a whole. The city's administrators, fully in step with Pauquette's self-aggrandizing style of leadership, were largely unresponsive to the needs of the local neighborhoods and they lacked empathy for the poor and senior citizens. Other than demanding a huge property tax-hike to cover spiraling costs, they exhibited little interest in enhancing the economy for working class citizens, repairing infrastructure in working class neighborhoods, or controlling wasteful spending that was draining the city's coffers.

In 1981, Pauquette ran for a sixth term. He was so confident in the power of his grip on city hall that he was blind to the fact that his constituents were tiring of his governing priorities. Two of Pauquette's fellow Democrats had also had enough. Richard Bove and Thomas McGrath, defected from Pauquette's clique and jumped into the race against him in protest of his self-serving ambitions.

After a decade of Mayor Gordon Pauquette's leadership, the power structure in entrenched in Burlington's city government begins to show signs of collapse
(Image by Vanguard Press (February 20-27, 1981, Vol. IV, NO. 5))
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Then, Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic-socialist without official governing experience, announced his run for mayor. Bernie had run in several statewide races as a third party candidate from the Liberty Union Party, but had been soundly beaten every time.

Bernie was blunt about Burlington's economic and social woes, and his plans for reviving its health. In his characteristic, no-nonsense way, he spoke passionately of the social and economic fabric of the neighborhoods, and for the needs of struggling families and small businesses. He knew that Burlington's future vitality lay in economically healing these groups of people, because when those at the bottom of the economic ladder are thriving, then the entire city thrives as well. As JFK famously put it, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Bernie Sanders' characterization of this essential truth was deeply inspirational to me.

I was in my mid-20's when I took a job at a small Burlington daycare center in 1980. My experiences there motivated me to pursue my Master's degree in Human Development and Family Studies at UVM.

This little daycare center served some of Burlington's most vulnerable citizens, including young single mothers and low income families. Many did not have proper healthcare or sufficient food, and their housing was grossly inadequate. Some of the children were sickly, their nutrition abysmal, and sometimes, their mothers couldn't afford fresh diapers, so the children stank.

These mothers were overwhelmed by working long hours at low paying jobs. Some were unable to meet their children's physical needs, let alone their emotional needs for comfort, security and connection. The spark of life that should brighten the eyes of every child was absent in many of these children. A well-known truth in the Human Development literature is that when a child's basic physical and emotional needs are not adequately met, then the future for this child is likely to be harsh and difficult.

Research affirms that grinding poverty inhibits healthy physical, mental, and emotional development in children. When parents are desperately grasping for survival, they have little, if any, energy left to cognitively and nutritionally enrich their children.

Children learn how to be human from the behaviors modeled by their parents. Overstressed or disengaged parents typically raise overstressed children who, in turn, are likely to become overstressed or disengaged adults. The cycle is likely to continue from generation to generation unless purposeful interventions are made to redirect these patterns.

As a young man, Bernie Sanders worked for Head Start. He saw the truth that research has since confirmed: children from low-income families benefit from early intervention, healthy nutrition and learning enrichment. Bernie has been consistent in his support for low income children and families ever since.

Bernie's commitment to healthy child development was shaped by his experience as a Head Start teacher
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Bernie understands a deep and basic truth about the human condition: the way we live in our society has profound effects on our health and happiness. As a result, he has always been deeply committed to breaking poverty cycles by enhancing prosperity for all economic classes. When he proposed his exciting plans in 1981 for revitalizing the city, I was inspired to campaign for him.

Bernie won that four-way race by only 10 votes and "business-as-usual" was over in Burlington's City Hall. Burlington later re-elected him to three more terms because we saw and benefited from his passion, pragmatism, innovation and commitment to fiscal responsibility as he went to bat for us.

City Hall
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However, a huge obstacle confronted Bernie when he first took office.

The old guard members of the Board of Aldermen who wielded enormous power in running the city were in shock that he'd won the election. Fully expecting that Bernie would last just one term, they considered him an unwanted anomaly and were determined to make it so. Just like Congressional Republicans in their treatment of President Obama, the Aldermen obstructed and undermined Bernie's administration in every possible way.

Despite their hostilities, Bernie found ways to work with a few of the Aldermen when he could, and worked around them when he couldn't. This experience helped him in building creative and prodigious skills as a strategist and a negotiator.

Bernie & the Board of Aldermen: In the heat of negotiation!
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Today, these hard-won skills enable him to work with people in Congress who appear to be at cross-purposes with his goals and objectives. For example, working with Republicans in the House and the Senate last year, he got The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act through Congress. It was one of the few bipartisan pieces of legislation passed in 2014. The bill did not have all of what he wanted for our veterans, but Bernie is a pragmatist. While he may not be able to get all of what he wants for his constituents, Bernie will continually do his best to get as much for them as he can.

One of Bernie's first actions as the new mayor was to audit the city's finances. And, sure enough, the auditors not only found the waste, they stopped it. For example, David Clavelle, Bernie's choice for civil defense director (who later became Burlington's mayor in the 1990's), saved the city an estimated $20,000 annually just by centralizing big purchases.

Elsewhere, the treasurer's office found $200,000 in forgotten accounts. Bernie insisted on using that found money to seed a fund for a community land trust so that the city's poorest residents could benefit from affordable housing. This innovative housing concept would be among the first of its kind in the nation.

A Community Land Trust property - an example of Bernie's vision for affordable housing
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On taxes, Bernie's administration sought to prevent tax increases through the use of fees and other innovative cost-saving measures. Bernie was so committed to fiscal thrift that he "out-Republicaned" the Republicans.

Bernie's motivations for economic thrift and limits on tax increases were two-fold. Unlike Republicans today, who create tax policies that primarily benefit their billionaire masters, Bernie was determined to protect working class families from as much financial burden as he could. And, his intention was to keep Burlington as affordable as possible for all of its citizens.

A tender moment with a constituent
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Bernie also believes that the key to democracy lies in the power of an activated citizenry, and that it is a responsibility of government to help in meeting the human needs of the people. Consequently, Burlington's neighborhood groups found a responsive ear in him. I saw that he was sensitive to their needs; he promoted open government and actively encouraged residents to sit on planning committees so their ideas could be included in his initiatives.

Bernie Sanders quotation
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In another of his first acts, Bernie established the Mayor's Task Force on the Arts (renamed Burlington City Arts (BCA) in 1990). Under its leadership, the city invested heavily in the arts and cultivated neighborly cohesion by organizing free city festivals, open-air concerts and an art gallery for local artists. In 1983, Burlington became the fourth city in the world to embrace the First Night concept, an annual city-wide, alcohol-free, day-long arts and entertainment festival that welcomes in the New Year. It was a thrill to participate in these activities! They enriched our lives and awakened a city-wide appreciation for the value of culture in a lively economy.

The city also began encouraging and supporting community gardens, and it started a little league in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. I coached in that league for two years and I saw how it enhanced neighborly relationships and empowered social participation within that community. And, in 1984, Bernie led the negotiations that brought the Vermont Reds, a minor league AA baseball farm team for the Cincinnati Reds, to Burlington. For those of us who love the game, Bernie brought us Baseball Nirvana!

Mayor Bernie plays pepper as he celebrates the Vermont Reds' move to Burlington.
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Sports and the arts add tremendous value to a city's livability and Bernie understood this. After all, residents and businesses who are happy with life in their city are more likely to participate in promoting and protecting its economic and social health. Sure enough, this new vitality ignited Burlington's identity as a community.

To further spark Burlington's economic health, Bernie sought to bring the city's business leaders together. Like the Board of Aldermen, the business community was initially angered and terrified by his election. However, as Bernie reached out to them, they found that he was very supportive of locally-owned and operated business development. Ultimately, the business community's upper echelon went to bat for him in his battle with the Board of Aldermen, and their support helped him win approval to establish his Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO).

Burlington's beautiful Wells-Richardson Building (at right): CEDO's first home
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In Bernie's vision, the economic benefits of business should stay focused in the local economy for the simple reason that vibrant local businesses with plenty of local jobs are at the heart of a healthy community. CEDO's mission is to supply the ingredients necessary to nurture a robust local economy. As long as Burlington's businesses agreed to behave responsibly toward their employees and the community, CEDO was generous with money and technical support for existing businesses and entrepreneurial startups.

Burlington implemented Bernie's vision of a "hand-up, and not a hand-out" for the poor and the working class. Just like the rest of us, struggling people are human beings who want living-wage jobs so they can comfortably pay their bills. They want clean, affordable housing in safe neighborhoods with infrastructure in good repair. They want reliable health care and good schools so their children can have bright futures. They want to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives and to know that who they are matters to their communities.

Wake up America! Sanders quotation
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As Bernie sees it, a good government passes laws and implements policies that protect local economies. A good government provides support, infrastructure and seed money to businesses that create jobs and are committed to the economic health and wellbeing of their communities.

According to Bernie, a government that represents the people should never give corporations financial incentives to export jobs. Most of all, our government should never withhold unemployment benefits, food stamps and social services from the unemployed and their families as punishment because their jobs have left town.

In 1987, US News and World Report named Bernie one of the 20 best mayors in America. By the time he left office in 1989, Bernie's pragmatic and progressive policies had created 6000 jobs in Burlington. His eight years of innovation had reduced the city's unemployment from the 1980 rate of 5.5% to a stunning low of 1.6% - the lowest in the nation for cities of comparable size.

And, thanks to Bernie's visionary solutions for affordable housing, families in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods were doing better. This healing contributed to the resurgence of economic vitality throughout the entire city and by the end of the 1980's, Burlington was flourishing.

As I witnessed this tremendous economic and social transformation in Burlington, its remarkable revitalization demonstrated to me that economic prosperity does not trickle from the top down. Despite Republican protestations to the contrary, economic prosperity bubbles from the bottom up.

Our nation's current trickle-down economic model concentrates wealth and power into the hands of a few billionaires and too-big-to-fail corporate CEOs. This model sucks the wealth out of the rest of us.

Sanders quote
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To maintain their grip on trickle-down economics, the corporate and billionaire-owned media deliberately weakens the fabric of our national unity. These media outlets relentlessly poison our humanity by mis-directing the national conversation on our social, sexual, religious, racial and ideological differences toward fear and hatred of each other. As a nation, we have been suckered into dehumanizing one another instead of solving the problems that We The People have in common.

But, this is a trick. We are being played so we won't recognize that we've been had.

As evidenced by the huge crowds attending Bernie's rallies, we are beginning to see the truth, as Bernie certainly proclaims it: the policies of the politicians, who are owned by rapacious corporations, too-big-to-fail banks and self-aggrandizing multi-billionaires, are siphoning the economic wealth and vitality out of the rest of us.

We will all benefit from recognizing that we are the ones who have allowed the toxic politics of greed and hate to trick us into blaming and despising each other. By understanding this, we are then empowered to choose differently, and we can effect a different outcome.

Bernie is not owned by corporations, by banks or by billionaires. His allegiance is to us - The American People, the 99%. In fact, Bernie even refuses to run attack ads or to engage in negative campaigning. That might be a problem for his campaign staff, but Bernie wants to keep the focus on the real issues that are facing our nation. He is solutions-oriented and he is here to serve the greater good of the people.

People like it when their leaders tell the truth.

Sanders at Mimi Kennedys June 2015 Los Angeles
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Clifford Everette is a long-time Republican, an ex-marine and a minister. He has written this about Bernie: "Have been living in Vermont for many years, have voted for Bernie every time, very proud of him, he tells us what's wrong, and how to fix it, never ran a dirty campaign, so as a Republican, Marine vet, and a Minister, I'm voting for Bernie Sanders."

Clifford Everette's testimonial is a clear indication that leaders who sincerely seek solutions earn a deep respect from their constituents that transcends ideology or party affiliation.

We will all benefit from the truth Bernie is speaking. His vision of prosperity is for all Americans. We are all in this together. And together, whether we are willing to recognize and own it, or not, we actually have the power to heal and transform the economic health and wellbeing of this country for ourselves and our future generations.

As mayor of Burlington, Bernie demonstrated his effective leadership skills and pragmatism. Not only was he creative and practical in solving problems in the economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of the city, he was also friendly to business and sought to enlist and support the business community in revitalizing the city as a whole. He is a proven friend to the 99%, he has compassion for our turmoils and he brings practical solutions to better our lives.

Thirty-five years ago, many of Bernie's initiatives for solving Burlington's problems were considered radical. Today, they are commonplace in many of the healthiest cities in our nation. And, they are still operating at the core of Burlington's government. The result? Surveys routinely award high marks to Burlington, Vermont in their rankings of the most highly livable and culturally creative small cities in America.

Burlington: Vermont's Queen City in her glory.
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I witnessed an extraordinary economic revolution in Burlington when Bernie was the mayor. As a result, I am secure in my knowledge of him as a creative and terrifically capable leader. He has the vision and leadership skills that are necessary to bring together the diverse groups of people and businesses to re-ignite the economic vitality of our nation in its entirety.

Some may say the odds are against him. But I assure you - Bernie is a master of surprises. His admonition, "Don't underestimate me", is solidly based on his long career of amazing successes. He is aware that plain-spoken, solutions-oriented truth empowers people when they hear his message. And, in fact, he is drawing bigger crowds than any other 2016 candidate.

Just consider: Bernie's performance in past elections is an indicator of what we can expect from him in the future. Bernie won that 4-way mayoral race in 1981 by just ten votes. Those ten votes brought thriving prosperity to Burlington. Every vote counts!

And, we, the appreciative citizens of Burlington, re-elected him three more times.

Campaign ad for Bernie's 4th and last term as Burlington's mayor
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In 1990, Bernie beat Peter Smith, the Republican incumbent, to win the race for Vermont's only seat in the House of Representatives. He has since represented Vermont in the House and the Senate for 25 years.

Of all the candidates in the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president, Bernie is the one who has taken on the toughest races, beaten incumbents and upset the political status quo. The result: He is the longest serving Independent member in the history of the United States Congress.

Bernie Sanders
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From his Mayoral duties up through his Congressional service in the House and the Senate, Bernie Sanders has demonstrated his deep commitment to making changes that benefit our entire society. His vision is to put our nation's economic priorities back where they belong - with us - the 99%.

Prosperity for every citizen is the key to revitalizing America.

Over 27,000 Sanders supporters at the LA Sports Center, Aug. 2015
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Special thanks:

Diana Colangelo at CEDO for ferreting out the jobs and employment data from the 1980's, and to the folks who wrote CEDO's 1989 Jobs and People report.

And, to Steve Bhaerman, Claudia Ross and Jerry V. Teplitz, and especially Meryl Ann Butler, Managing Editor OpEdNews


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Elizabeth S. Balcar, MS pioneered Quantum Field Clearing, a biological and emotional reprogramming protocol that resolves short and long-term personal issues and/or post traumatic stress. She lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia with her husband, (more...)

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Bernie Sanders: The Mayor of Prosperity and his Model for Rebuilding America