The 1972 campaign that created Bernie Sanders: Inside the losing Senate race that formed a progressive hero

It was a hopeless third-party Senate race. Sanders came in near the very bottom, but learned how to hone a message

Published December 31, 2015 10:58AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Steve Marcus)
(Reuters/Steve Marcus)

Excerpted from "Why Bernie Sanders Matters"

When Bernie Sanders visited Burlington in early 1971, his friend Jim Rader let him stay in his apartment on North Winooski Avenue for a week or two. Then he rented an apartment on Front Street, not far from the rail yards along Lake Champlain and the police station. Rader was already plugged into the radical side of Vermont politics. He invited Sanders to a political fair at Middlebury College, where they attended a workshop led by two members of Liberty Union, a new political party that was in the formative stage. “Bernie joined a debate on whether it would be better for Progressives to work within the Democratic Party or build Liberty Union as a third party,” Rader recalls. “Bernie defended Liberty Union as a separate, alternative party.”

It was Sanders’s first contact with Liberty Union. When Rader told him about a Liberty Union convention he planned to attend at Goddard College about a two hour drive east, near the town of Plainfield, Sanders said, “Let’s go.” He sat in the back of Rader’s car with Levi on his lap, next to a girlfriend and her two little girls, and Rader at the wheel.

“Why did I go?” he asked in his political memoir, Outsider in the House. “I don’t know.”

A scrum was shaping up for Vermont’s political officeholders. Senator Winston Prouty had just died, after being in office since 1959. Congressman Robert Stafford moved up temporarily to fill Prouty’s place, which opened up Stafford’s seat in the House. The race was on for the open House seat in a special election to be held in January. Stafford would have to run for the Senate seat. Vermont’s population was so small it was allotted only one congressional seat along with its two Senate seats.

Rader, Sanders, and company made their way to a large room where a group of about 25–30 Liberty Union members was putting together the party’s slate for the January special elections. Doris Lake, a newcomer to elective politics, volunteered to run for the House. But who would run for the Senate? The exchange went something like this:

“Is there anyone who can be lion bait for the Senate race?” asked John Bloch, one of the original organizers. “We need a body.”

Silence. Party members swiveled their heads to see if anyone would volunteer.

“Sure,” Sanders said, “I’ll try it. What do I have to do?”

Rader looked wide-eyed at his friend. “It was a total surprise to me, but Bernie always had chutzpah.”

Sanders stood up and spoke a bit about his views on education, the war in Vietnam, and the economy. He remained silent about his views on sexuality and health. As he says in his memoir, “I was chosen as the candidate unanimously because there was no competition.”

So, on a lark, with no particular aim, Bernard Sanders became an official candidate for the US Senate. And because he was running in Vermont—a small, quirky state with a population of fewer than 400,000—it actually mattered. Had he been nominated or volunteered to run for the Senate in New York or Ohio or California, on the ticket of a party that was less than a year old, he might have been a footnote at best. Nowhere else could a relative newcomer with a baby on his lap, Orgone Boxes on his mind, and no prior political experience be taken seriously as a candidate for federal office.

Vermont was ripe for the Liberty Union Party and its radical candidates. In the 1960s iconoclastic alternatives to the standard Democrats and Republicans, often called “people’s parties,” were making headway in California and other states. The Liberty Union Party had been founded in 1970 in a farmhouse in West Rupert. In the living room “young men and woman with long, tousled hair/anti-war activists from Marlboro College and old radicals, many of them urban dropouts,” gathered to found a new political party, according to the official history. Former congressman William Meyer, the first Democrat ever elected to represent Vermont in Congress, hosted the meeting. The new party was founded to “boldly ad- dress their issues, the war in Vietnam, the militarization of society, the problems of the poor, and the destruction of the environment,” the party’s website proclaims.

By Vermont law a political party that gains more that 5 percent of the vote gains major-party status. Vermonters immediately took the new party seriously, invited its candidates to political forums, and allowed them to tour public facilities. All the media—TV, radio, and print—covered their speeches and events.

When a Burlington Free Press reporter asked Sanders why he was running, he responded, “The concentration of power makes the average man feel irrelevant. This results in apathy. As for my qualifications, I am not a politician.”

That became abundantly clear when Sanders participated in his first call-in radio interview.

Rader recalls tuning into the program on his car radio. It sounded scratchy, but he was within range. “There was this rumble running through the whole interview,” he says. In the Burlington radio studio Sanders was sweating and his legs were shaking. His knees kept hitting the legs of the table. The microphone was picking up the rapping sound, which went out on the airwaves as a constant thumping, like interference. Sanders couldn’t figure out why the sound engineer kept frantically waving at him through the glass partition.

“Who is this guy?” one caller asked.

But Sanders soon got over his reticence to speak in public. He possessed a fundamental requirement for any prospective politician: he liked to hear himself talk. Reporters from Vermont’s daily newspapers interviewed him when he showed up in Brattleboro or Rutland, Middlebury or St. Johnsbury. His take on the issues was reported on the front page. He called press conferences, and journalists actually showed up. Debate organizers invited him to join the panels to take on the Democrat and Republican candidates.

No one was as surprised by all this as Sanders. “Here I was,” he told an interviewer in 2014, “running on this tiny party, with no money, but I was allowed to participate in the debates, I was on the radio, interviewed in the newspapers, actually taken seriously. Could you imagine that happening today?”

In the 1972 Senate race his first debate took place in the auditorium of Lyndon State College, in a small town not far from his former home in Stannard. Sanders faced off against Republican Robert Stafford and Democrat Randolph T. Major. Fewer than twenty people were in the audience. One was Rader. At one point the moderator asked the three candidates about the source of their campaign funds. When Sanders’s turn came he pointed to Rader in the audience. “One of my major contributors is right there,” he said. “He drove me here tonight.” Sanders didn’t have a car at the time.

Sylvia Manning met Sanders when he moved to Burlington and knew him as a single dad rather than a budding politician. “He wasn’t freaky like the rest of us,” she says. Manning was a Texan from the textile mill town of New Braunfels who had wandered to Vermont on a whim. “He was straight, even then. No pot. He wasn’t a hippy. He was serious already.” She had the sense that winning office wasn’t her friend’s ultimate goal: “He ran so he could get air time. Not to win but to educate people. He thought of himself as the educational candidate.”

Sanders would often team up with Doris Lake, the other Liberty Union candidate, perhaps because she had wheels. They toured the state with their young kids. Sanders would walk into state prisons or high schools with Levi on his hip. Lake carried her daughter, Paula. Their tour of the control room of the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor “spooked us both,” Lake recalls. Their visits were more fact-finding missions than campaign stops to troll for votes. “If we went to a factory, we would interview the workers about their conditions and wages instead of asking for their votes.” She adds, “People were very welcoming to having us speak. We were a legitimate party.”

Sanders often lugged around a report written in 1970 by the staff of the House Banking Committee. It documented how some large American banks exerted inordinate control over many corporations. Quoting from the report in speeches and debates, Sanders would explain how “interlocking boards”
allowed a handful of powerful men to control entire indus- tries and dominate the lives of millions of workers.“Time after time,” he writes in his memoir, “I pointed out that such disparity in the distribution of wealth and decision-making power was not just unfair economically, but that without economic democracy it was impossible to achieve genuine political democracy.”

That was a short hop from the socialism Sanders adhered to in his Chicago days, but he concluded that advocating eco- nomic and social justice was mainstream—then and now. He also advocated legalizing drugs and widening entrance ramps to highways to make it easier to pick up hitchhikers. These ideas were not so mainstream.

In January 1972 Stafford won the race with 45,888 votes to Major’s 23,842. Sanders tallied 1,571 votes, 2.2 percent of the total. But winning was far less important than imparting his views, especially on economic justice.

No one who followed Vermont politics expected Sanders, or anyone running on the Liberty Union ticket, to win a statewide election in the 1970s. The Green Mountain State had been a reliable, rock-ribbed Republican fortress since the Civil War. Before 1974 Vermonters had elected one Democrat to statewide office. They overwhelmingly supported Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. But underlying those Republican voting patterns, Vermonters believed in a flinty kind of Libertarianism; they rejected hypocrites, respected authenticity, and honored self-reliance.

Sanders loved campaigning for senator. One could say he had found his life’s purpose: to campaign, to educate, to preach. In the fall of 1972 he tossed his hat in the ring for governor. He toured Vermont with Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician, who was running for president on the People’s Party ticket. Democrat Tom Salmon became governor. Sanders barely broke 1 percent, polling 2,175 votes. He became chair of the Liberty Union Party.

In 1974 Sanders took a second whirl at the US Senate. He challenged Chittenden County prosecutor Patrick J. Leahy and Republican congressman Richard Mallary for the seat vacated when Senator George Aiken died. In his thirty-four years in the Senate, the salty Vermont farmer often broke ranks with the Republicans and favored liberal causes. At first he backed President Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam, but by 1966, as the news became grimmer and the cause less clear, Aiken suggested a way out for LBJ to “declare the United States the winner and begin de-escalation.”

Sanders launched his campaign on a note that he sounded time and again—and yet again in 2015: rapacious capitalists and imperialists had pushed American society to the edge. “I have the very frightened feeling that if fundamental and radical change does not come about in the very near future that our nation, and, in fact, our entire civilization could soon be entering an economic dark age.” In a letter to President Gerald Ford he warned that naming Nelson Rockefeller vice president would bring “a virtual Rockefeller family dictatorship over the nation.”

Leahy won the Senate seat, but a record 5,901 voters punched Sanders’s ticket, giving him more than 4 percent of the vote.

Sticking with his two-year cycle, Sanders ran for governor in 1976 against Republican Richard Snelling and Democrat Stella Hackel. By then he had his debating points down pat, and he sharpened them for what would be his last run with the Liberty Union Party. During the televised debate he cut loose. Hunched over the dais, his dark curls falling over his forehead, he stared intently through his thick glasses and blasted his rivals for avoiding the issues that he said mattered most to Vermonters: better jobs, fair wages, and radical tax reform. He advocated doubling the corporate income tax and eliminating personal income tax for Vermonters making less than $10,000 a year. “The people of the state of Vermont have got to stand up to the two or three percent who control the money,” he said.

Sanders lost, but he scored a personal best: 11,317 people cast their ballots for him, giving him 6.1 percent of the vote, and Liberty Union maintained its major-party standing. But Sanders was beginning to lose his zest for campaigning. He had run four times and lost four times. He wasn’t earning any money. He was raising Levi and living hand-to-mouth. The Vietnam War was winding down, and Liberty Union was losing its purpose, at least in his view.

Almost a year after losing the governor’s race, in October 1977 Sanders quit the Liberty Union Party, saying it had been “virtually dormant” since 1976 and calling it “a failure.” He thought his political career was over. When reporters asked about his next move, he replied, “I don’t know about my future.”


Sanders might have been sick of campaigning and coming home to a bleak, ratty apartment, but he emerged from his Liberty Union years with the essential ingredients for a successful career in elective office.

First, he had drummed the name “Bernie Sanders” into Vermont’s political and media consciousness. He had started to build the Bernie brand, based on steadfast advocacy for workers against the interests of the wealthy few.

Second, he had found a core group of friends and advisors who would stay by his side in one form or another for forty or fifty years. Jim Rader was first among them. He had helped introduce Sanders to progressive ideas and leaders back in Chicago. In Vermont he drove Sanders to the Liberty Union session where he first volunteered to run for elective office. He drove him around the state for his first campaign. Over the next decade he continued to be a friend and political ally while he pursued his own career as a social services counselor.

John Franco was an impressionable student at the University of Vermont when he first saw Sanders in action in a church basement in 1974: “He was incredibly charismatic. He was speaking at the Liberty Union Convention. I didn’t want him to stop.” Since then Franco has never stopped helping Sanders, as an advisor, lawyer, and loyal staffer.

On the train from New York to Vermont on Labor Day 1976, Sanders sat next to a tall, big-boned fellow wearing a yarmulke who introduced himself as Richard Sugarman. He had just finished his doctorate in philosophy at Yale, where he had roomed with Joseph Lieberman, who would become a senator from Connecticut and a candidate for vice president. A devout Jew, Sugarman was on his way up to Burlington to start teaching religion classes at the University of Vermont.

He and Sanders talked. And talked. They were the same age. Sanders had just come from a family reunion in Brooklyn. He told Sugarman it hadn’t gone very well. “They don’t get me,” he said.

Sugarman got Sanders. Then he got Sanders and Levi: when Sanders couldn’t pay his rent and the landlord evicted him from the house on Maple Street, he moved in with Sugarman.

For the next few years Sanders struggled to make a buck. He started an educational-film company with plenty of ideas but no cash. He couldn’t separate himself from his socialist roots. He made his first and best video about his idol, Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, who had run for president five times. The video was rough. Sanders and his partner couldn’t afford to hire anyone to do the voiceover, so Sanders had to play Debs. In his Brooklynese, workers came out as “wuhkuhs” and huge as “yoooge.” Debs was from Indiana.

Sanders drove from school to school trying to sell the Debs video and some educational slide shows. He was not finding success. He was nearing forty and had not had a regular paycheck for more than a few months. And he had a child to feed and clothe. Levi was now ten.

Still Sanders could not shake his yen for political leadership. Peter Diamondstone, one of the original Liberty Union leaders, had deep ties to the Socialist Workers Party leadership. He claims Sanders approached him in 1979 to get on the SWP ticket as the candidate for vice president. It didn’t work out.

That same year Sanders joked with Sugarman about running for president as an Independent. They went as far as getting forms to get on the ballot in New Hampshire, though they never followed through. But Sugarman believed in Sanders. They often talked about politics and Sanders’s prospects in the Green Mountain State. Sugarman knew Sanders was not done.

“You could say moving to Vermont was the best decision I ever made,” Sanders told Mark Jacobson for New York magazine in 2014. “What would have happened if I’d stayed in Brooklyn? How far could I have gotten? The State Assembly?”

Excerpted from "Why Bernie Sanders Matters" by Harry Jaffe. Published by Regan Arts. Copyright 2015 by Harry Jaffe. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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