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Bernie Sanders

Truant Story: His Presidential Run Is Done, But Sanders Is Still Playing Hooky


Published June 29, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 10, 2016 at 3:30 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at a campaign rally Monday in Queens - AP PHOTO/MARY ALTAFFER
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking at a campaign rally Monday in Queens

Like a warrior returning from battle, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) reappeared in the Capitol last Monday to cast his first roll-call votes in more than five months. They were symbolically significant ones: on a series of proposals to change the nation's gun laws in response to the recent mass shooting in Orlando, Fla.

Two days later, Sanders was met with applause when he dropped by the House chamber to express solidarity with dozens of Democratic members staging a sit-in to demand tougher gun laws. By Thursday, the Senate was ready to vote on one of the measures the House members had sought: a compromise, drafted by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), to prevent those on terrorist watch lists from purchasing firearms.

But by 2:01 p.m. that day, when Senate leaders called for a test vote on Collins' proposal, Sanders was long gone. It failed, with just 52 senators voting in favor — short of the 60 necessary to avoid a filibuster. 

Where'd Sanders go? To New York City — to tape an episode of CBS' "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" and deliver a speech about his zombie presidential campaign entitled, "Where we go from here."

Sanders didn't exactly reveal his direction in either appearance, telling Colbert that he would continue running for president and had no immediate plans to endorse Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. But the next morning, he kinda sorta did.

"Yes," Sanders said Friday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" when asked directly whether he would vote for Clinton in November. "Yeah, I think the issue right here is, I'm going to do everything I can to defeat Donald Trump."

By Sunday, Sanders had dropped the niceties once more, telling CNN's Jake Tapper that he wasn't ready to endorse his opponent — and that the "responsibility [for] winning the American people over to her side is going to rest with Secretary Clinton."

"What we are doing is trying to say to the Clinton campaign: Stand up. Be bolder than you have been," the senator from Vermont said. "And then many of those voters, in fact, may come on board."

It's a reasonable point. And Sanders' fears are valid. Now that Clinton has quelled his insurgent uprising, it would be natural — Clintonian, in fact — for her to pivot to the center. Perhaps his presence in the race — and the threat of convention chaos — could keep her in line, for at least a few more weeks.

But Sanders' insistence that he's still running for president — when he himself has admitted that he won't be on the ballot in November — is not without cost. And we're not talking about the more than $38,000-a-day price tag of his U.S. Secret Service detail — or the carbon emissions spewing from his chartered jet.

Sanders risks fracturing the impressive progressive coalition he's spent 14 months building — and losing the credibility he'll need to hold Clinton accountable. He also risks contributing to an unlikely, but entirely possible, Trump victory. As Tapper pointed out, many Sanderistas continue to "feel very negatively" toward Clinton. If the senator is serious about doing everything he can to defeat Trump, he'll need to guide his supporters through the stages of grief — all the way to acceptance — and make clear to them the consequences of denial.

There's one more cost: to Sanders' constituents. Vermonters have been rightfully proud of their senator throughout his candidacy. They've been willing to ignore the 126 votes he's missed over the past year — 55 percent of those cast — making him the Senate's most truant member. But there comes a time when it's more important to vote on the nation's gun laws than it is to hang out with Colbert.

Speaking this Tuesday to NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Sanders said, "My job right now is to make the Democratic Party as open, as inclusive, as progressive as it possibly can be, and that's what we're working on as we speak."

No, senator. That's your goal. Your job is to show up and vote.

Backer Tracker

Welcome to Endorsement Season, that magical moment when seemingly every labor union, special interest group and newspaper in Vermont bestows their blessing on one candidate or another. For the most part, such endorsements aren't worth a bucket of warm piss, to borrow a phrase. They may earn a candidate a headline and a small donation, but few organizations can reliably deliver votes anymore.

In a close race, a series of endorsements may have some cumulative effect — at least, from a messaging perspective. In the past few weeks, three progressive outfits have all endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne and Democratic/Progressive lieutenant gubernatorial candidate David Zuckerman: the Vermont State Employees' Association, the Vermont AFL-CIO and the activist group Rights & Democracy.

That surely sends a signal.

Other groups have decided to sit out the primary season. Leaders of the Vermont-National Education Association and the Vermont Conservation Voters tell Seven Days they won't endorse until the general election. The Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont met with candidates Monday but haven't yet made a move.

Some endorsements are just plain silly.

Last Friday, House Speaker Shap Smith's (D-Morristown) lieutenant gubernatorial campaign announced that nearly his entire House leadership team had endorsed him. What a shocker!

There was a kernel of news there: Some, such as Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) and Rep. Bill Botzow (D-Pownal), had previously endorsed a Smith opponent, Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) — and even spoke at her campaign kickoff last October. But does anybody really care whom the chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee supports?

Other endorsements are more meaningful. Emily's List, the national group dedicated to electing pro-choice women, has steered serious financial and organizational resources toward Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter's campaign.

Some endorsements are potential liabilities. The Vermont Right to Life Committee has gotten behind Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott for governor and former state auditor Randy Brock for LG, even though both men consider themselves pro-choice. You can be sure their Democratic opponents will bring that up this fall.

Perhaps the most coveted endorsement in the state is Sanders'. A single email to his national list last month generated more than $60,000 for Rep. Chris Pearson's (P-Burlington) state Senate campaign. But it's unclear whether Sanders will weigh in on Vermont's top races. All three gubernatorial candidates endorsed his presidential campaign. And while Sanders and Zuckerman have been allies for years, Ram also supported the senator's bid. Only Smith has endorsed Clinton.

Here's one that definitely doesn't matter: that of the Vermont Democratic Party. The organization's state committee "endorsed" all six gubernatorial and LG candidates on Saturday — including Zuckerman. But the party still hasn't agreed to give him access to its valuable voter list. According to VDP executive director Conor Casey, it only does so for "bona fide Democrats" — and Zuckerman isn't one, Casey says, endorsement or not.

Bucket of warm piss, indeed.

Nasty Pants

Retired Wall Street banker Bruce Lisman continues to crank up the nasty. For weeks, the long-shot gubernatorial candidate has been trashing Lt. Gov. Scott, his Republican rival, as Gov. Peter Shumlin's tax-and-spend sidekick. Last week, he moved his attacks from direct mail to television, accusing Scott in a new ad of supporting Shumlin's "reckless budgets" and — wait for it — standing next to Shumlin at a Vermont Health Connect press conference.

The horrors!

Lisman also "challenged" Scott to three head-to-head debates — a classic gambit of a losing campaign. He didn't mention that the two already have four such debates on the books, hosted by the Washington County GOP, WCAX-TV, Vermont PBS and Vermont Public Radio.

On Thursday, Lisman really went off the rails. His campaign manager, Shawn Shouldice, called on Scott to "stop plagiarizing and hijacking Bruce Lisman's public policy ideas." The day before, she noted, Scott told VPR that he'd seek to exempt veterans' benefits and Social Security payments from taxation — proposals Lisman pitched at an April 18 press conference.

"Yesterday's blatant plagiarism follows a pattern of Mr. Scott often echoing Bruce's policy ideas regarding the management of state government, his approach to spending, ending the health insurance and health care chaos and other issues," Shouldice wrote in a press release.

Lisman's charge is pretty rich, given that his campaign has routinely pilfered copyrighted photographs from Vermont news organizations to use in its attack ads. It's even richer that Lisman thinks he came up with the tax exemption idea. A simple search of the legislature's website shows that Vermont Republicans have introduced at least 14 such bills in the past 15 years.

Asked what other specific ideas Scott had stolen, Shouldice didn't respond. Scott's campaign, meanwhile, dismissed the charge as "a desperate smear tactic from a guy whose Wall Street firm went belly up."

Oof. Guess Scott's plagiarizing the tone of the Lisman campaign now, too.

Donald Duck, Pt. 3

Each week in Fair Game, we ask a simple question: Have Lisman and Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Milne figured out yet whether they'll support their party's racist, sexist, xenophobic presidential nominee?

This week's answer? No, it seems they haven't.

Speaking last Thursday on VPR's "Vermont Edition," Lisman said he's watching what Trump "does and what he says and who he surrounds himself [with] and who he might choose as a vice presidential nominee." Then, a few seconds later, the gubernatorial candidate claimed he didn't "spend a lot of time" listening to Trump.

"I'm in the car a lot, so I don't hear or certainly don't see the things that you're probably seeing on all those cable shows," Lisman told a caller.

And while "there are some things he has said that I find repulsive," the ex-banker continued, "He has appealed, clearly, to some kind of need in our country."

I'll say!

For his part, Milne lamented Trump's comment last week that the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union would drive golfers to his Scottish resort, Trump Turnberry.

"He missed an opportunity to pivot into being a statesman and continued to be sort-of-head of Trump Enterprises," observed Milne, who is challenging Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "Which is unfortunate."

But Milne says he hasn't made up his mind as to whether he'll support the orange-hued demagogue — and is still hoping Trump "improves as a candidate."

Good luck with that!

Media Notes

If you haven't tuned out VPR's endless pledge drive (Yes, Mitch Wertlieb, I donated), you may have noticed that it and seven other public radio stations have launched what they're calling the New England News Collaborative.

Funded with a $626,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NENC has hired additional reporters at each of the stations — from Connecticut to Maine — to cover issues at a regional level for the partners. VPR has tapped former "Morning Edition" producer Kathleen Masterson to report stories for NENC, focusing on energy, the environment, infrastructure and labor.

According to VPR news director John Dillon, the collaborative also plans to launch a weekly program called "NEXT," which is scheduled to debut August 7 and run Sundays at noon. Hosted by WNPR-Connecticut's John Dankosky, who runs NENC, it'll feature more regional reporting from the posse.

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