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The Prog Prognosis

The future of the Progressive Party is unclear, while its relationship to Sanders remains distant but cordial.


Published April 21, 2004 at 3:44 p.m.

Vermont Progressives have managed to build the most successful third party in the United States since Bernie Sanders' first mayoral victory in Burlington nearly a quarter-century ago. But "successful" is a relative term: The Progressives have not advanced much beyond their beachhead in Burlington, have little influence on statewide politics and can muster only slim support in most Vermont communities. What's more, a few recent developments and longer-term trends suggest that the Progs' historic challenge to the two-party system may ultimately amount to a noble failure.

Peter Clavelle's decision late last year to run for governor as a Democrat shook and divided the Progressive Party. Not only had Clavelle broadened the Progressives' base in Burlington after succeeding Sanders in 1989, he aided the party-building effort in ways Sanders never has --most significantly, by aligning himself squarely with the Progressives.

Many Vermonters may identify Sanders as the top Prog, but some party members, who know better, have long resented his refusal to run on the Progressive ticket -- not in his four successful races for mayor, nor in his seven winning bids for Vermont's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Clavelle's defection to the Democrats has doubly wounded the Progs. They are left without a leader who can point to a long list of both administrative and electoral successes. And Clavelle's pragmatic move to avert a self-defeating three-way race for governor has thrown a flashing neon spotlight on the Progs' most bedeviling dilemma: Fairly or not, their candidate will be labeled the spoiler -- and will likely finish third -- in any closely contested race also involving a Republican and a Democrat.

The Progressives will probably remain cornered in this frustrating triangulation unless they can force fundamental reform of the voting system. Their great but distant hope lies in Vermont adopting instant runoff voting -- IRV -- a balloting procedure whereby voters are not limited to a single choice but can rank candidates in order of preference. Such a system would enable any third party -- not just the Progs -- to break free of the spoiler role.

It's for precisely this reason that the two established parties have no interest in initiating instant runoff voting. Clavelle, however, says he would make adoption of IRV a priority if he is elected governor.

"IRV would be a huge help to us," says Progressive Party state committee member Bill Grover. "And absent IRV, Peter Clavelle knows he would just have killed himself in a three-way race."

Anthony Pollina, the obvious choice to replace Clavelle as titular party head, agrees about Clavelle but does not draw the same conclusion. A longtime community organizer and lately a radio talk-show host as well, Pollina won 10 percent of the vote in a three-way governor's race in 2000 with Howard Dean and Ruth Dwyer. Two years later, Pollina increased his statewide vote share to nearly 25 percent, but he again finished third -- this time running behind Republican Brian Dubie (41 percent) and Democrat Peter Shumlin (32 percent) in a lieutenant governor's race.

At the time, many Progressives hailed Pollina's ability to attract one-quarter of the vote as an encouraging performance. Now, however, the 2002 results are prompting more sober assessments. "Anthony is about the strongest candidate we could have," Grover says. "But the fact remains that he was beaten two times in three-way races."

In an April 6 interview on Vermont Public Radio, Pollina suggested he might run in this year's Democratic primary for lieutenant governor against two liberal former state legislators. He appeared to acknowledge that if he were to run again with only Progressive backing, the likely outcome would be another split of the left-of-center vote, resulting in Dubie's re-election. Most intriguingly of all, Pollina hinted he would play off the Clavelle precedent by not running as a pure Prog and by seeking the Democrats' blessings.

"It doesn't really matter what label I run under because [voters] know who I am and we've built a trust over the years," Pollina told VPR's Bob Kinzel. "So I think defeating the incumbent and being a very activist, independent lieutenant governor would be one way to build a powerful political movement in the state that brings together Progressives, Democrats, independents and others to start doing the work we need to do."

But no sooner was it launched than Pollina's trial balloon came under heavy crossfire. "Totally opportunistic and cynical," lobbed Vermont Democratic Party chairman Scudder Parker. And, privately, many Progressives panicked at the prospect of losing another leader. Pollina soon backtracked, however. "I never said I'd abandon the Progressive Party," he told Seven Days last week. "I wouldn't do anything that would undermine or demoralize the Progressive Party."

While those comments make clear that Pollina won't follow Clavelle's course, they may also mean the Progressives won't be running any strong candidate for lieutenant governor this year. "I'm not necessarily hunting for a job," Pollina said by way of declining to commit himself to the lieutenant governor's race.

It's an exasperating set of circumstances for the Progressives. Claiming greater statewide name recognition than either of the two Democrats vying for that party's nomination, Pollina clearly feels he's earned the right to a clean shot at Dubie. He also expresses confidence that he'd knock off the conservative incumbent in a two-man showdown.

But the Democrats are not going to give Pollina that chance. And that's the sort of sectarian divisiveness that stokes resentment among the Progs and redoubles their determination to defy the Democratic Party.

At the same time, however, at least some Progressives point out that petulance doesn't qualify as an effective electoral strategy. It makes no political sense to challenge Democrats for the sake of challenging Democrats, these pragmatists argue, suggesting it's better to seek common ground while simultaneously nudging the Dems leftward. And for their part, more than a few Democrats are ready to negotiate a truce in the internecine liberal-leftist warfare that has raged in Burlington and elsewhere in Vermont for the past several years.

Behind-the-scenes efforts at fusing the two forces into a single party have gotten nowhere, however.

The Progressives fear the loss of their identity as well as their trademark issues should they enter into a merger with the Dems. "History shows that if you play ball with the Democrats you'll just be absorbed into their party," says Grover, a St. Michael's political science professor who has studied third-party movements in the United States. Leading Democrats, meanwhile, see no reason to make peace with the Progs when, as one political observer puts it, "they can just be squashed instead -- like bugs."

A number of ex-Progressives feel the original demarcation lines between the two parties have blurred to the point of being indecipherable. "The reasons why Bernie ran against the Burlington Democrats in 1981 don't really exist any more," says a source who worked for many years in the Progressive Coalition, the local forerunner of the Progressive Party. "It's not the case that the Democrats are a bunch of do-nothing hacks with no clue about progressive small 'p' politics. It's also true that if you can't elect more than four people to the General Assembly after almost 20 years of trying, you're never going to build a successful third party."

Even the Progs' hold on Burlington could be slipping. With Clavelle out of the mayor's office and no obvious heir apparent, the party will be hard-pressed to protect City Hall against challenges from mayoral wannabes like Democrats John Tracy and Karen Lafayette.

True-Moose Progs respond scornfully to such sentiments.

To Steven Hingtgen, a three-term Progressive state legislator from Burlington's Old North End, attempts at reading the Progs' fortunes smack of "inside baseball" -- an esoteric pursuit of interest only to political scientists and journalists writing for publications like Seven Days. Hingtgen and other Progressive Party officials and officeholders scoff at what they say are the many stories over the years forecasting doom for their party.

"People have been predicting our demise for a long time," says Burlington City Councilor Phil Fiermonte, a veteran Prog.

"The same obituaries get written over and over," adds Progressive Party director Chris Pearson.

A 31-year-old UVM grad and former bartender, Pearson serves as the Progressives' only full-time employee. The party enjoys good health apart from a few growing pains, Pearson says, noting that the Progressives achieved major-party status in Vermont only three years ago. He says the Progs plan to field between 12 and 20 candidates in Vermont House races this year, and might thereby manage to double the size of their current four-person House contingent.

Already, Pearson adds, Vermont Progressives account for half of all third-party state legislators in the U.S.

"What we've done and are doing is extremely unusual in American politics," says Pollina. "Even with all the trials and tribulations and the dilemmas we face, we're way ahead of everybody else in building a third party."

Sharp differences do continue to separate the Progressive and Democratic parties, Pearson argues. Some are matters of style and attitude; others have to do with stands on issues, he says.

Pearson cites the case of a bill requiring labeling of genetically-modified seeds, which, he says, highlights the small Progressive delegation's outsized influence in the State House. The seed bill has been successfully championed by Progressive State Rep. David Zuckerman, a 32-year-old organic farmer. Not only does this legislation show Progressives to be more willing than most Democrats to push pioneering policies, but its adoption by the House results from "Progressives' understanding of the need to exert pressure from the grassroots," Pearson says. "We understand how to organize outside the State House."

Sources of financing constitute another fundamental distinction between the two parties, Fiermonte adds. "The Democratic leadership at both the state and national levels is still beholden to big-money interests," he notes. Progressives, as a matter of principle, spurn donations from corporate heavies, though they're seldom offered.

Vermont Democratic chairman Scudder Parker doesn't deny that Dems receive some corporate contributions, but he maintains that it's not all that important. "I don't think there's any correlation between the people who contribute to the party and the stands the party takes on issues," Parker says.

Although he declines to offer his thoughts on the future of the Progressive Party, Parker does say that a significant number of former Prog voters are moving with Clavelle into the Democratic fold. "Many folks who have been supportive of a number of issues the Progressives have addressed are now working within the Democratic Party," Parker reports. "Many of them say they've voted for Progressives in the past but are going to vote for Peter Clavelle and other Democrats this time."

It's a trend also observed by Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis. Vermont Democrats have moved to the left, Davis says, and have thus made their party more attractive to less ideologically committed Progressives. "There are important differences between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in Vermont, which are probably even more important now that Howard Dean is not governor," Davis says.

Throughout his 11-year tenure as governor and prior to his political metamorphosis in the presidential race, Dean was seen by many Progressives as a Republican look-alike. Even so, some of the more vocal Progs were less quick than in the 1980s to argue that the two major parties were essentially indistinguishable. Such was the refrain recited by Sanders during most of his years as Burlington mayor. Sanders did not return phone messages requesting comment on the Progressive Party's status.

Progressive State Rep. Hingtgen, a 38-year-old community-development consultant, agrees that the Vermont Democratic Party has generally grown more liberal of late. "It would be dishonest to say they have the same mantra as when Howard Dean was leading them in Vermont."

Hingtgen isn't about to become a Democrat, however, even though he acknowledges that the political path he's chosen isn't easy. "My liberal Democratic friends say 'Why don't you do it in the Democratic Party?' I tell them, 'God bless you, but I've given up.' I feel that their party is not controlled by progressive Democrats but by those who are more cautious and fearful in their politics.

"When they're out of power they get more liberal. When they're in power they get more cautious," Hingtgen argues, pointing to the reluctance of the Democratically controlled State Senate to press for single-payer health insurance -- one of the Progressives' flagship causes.

But the day will come, Hingtgen predicts, when the political debate in Vermont pits the Progressives against the Democrats and everyone else.

For other Progs, however, there are hardly any degrees of separation between their own party and the Democrats'. Sarah Edwards, the sole Progressive House member elected outside Burlington, holds this view.

Edwards says she's aligned with the Progressives largely because they invited her to join their party while the Democrats did not. A 51-year-old grant writer and former president of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, Edwards was elected to the Legislature in 2002 as a Progressive after also winning the Democratic Party nomination as a write-in candidate.

"I'm not ideologically against the Democratic Party," Edwards says. "I find a number of Democrats in the House to be sympathetic to my ideas. There's not a lot of resistance in the [Republican-controlled] House in general to the Progressives."

But Edwards cautions that it's still important to nurture the Progressive Party, if only for the sake of promoting diversity. "I think it's important to have more than two voices heard on issues," she says.

Not many democracies other than the United States effectively impose a two-person limit on election-day choices, many Progs point out. "Some people see a third party as posing a dilemma," says Pollina. "I see it as offering opportunity and greater democracy."

Without a viable third-party option, adds Bill Grover, "most voters feel they've got to make a lesser-evil choice. There's no good reason why this should remain the case."

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