Burlington's Intervale was the setting Thursday evening for an exceptionally dramatic piece of political theater. Close to 100 protestors denouncing the F-35 stealth fighter jet loudly confronted a smaller set of Democratic Party politicians, staffers and donors who had gathered nearby for an outdoor fundraising soiree.
The fired-up demonstrators had chosen this venue because every member of Vermont's elected Democratic hierarchy supports bringing the supersonic war plane to the Air Guard station at Burlington International Airport. So does Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who consistently votes in concert with Democratic liberals. None of the big-dog backers of the F-35 attended the fundraiser in person, although Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger all dispatched aides to the event, as did Sanders.
At one point, the two groups — one casually dressed and shouting slogans; the other outfitted in summertime finery and nibbling hors d'ouvres — were separated by only about 20 yards in an open field. Chants of "money for jobs and education, not for community decimation!" drowned out the amplified voices of Democratic speakers warning of the horrors to come if Mitt Romney is elected president.
It was an awkward as well as tense juxtaposition.
Among those attending the Dems' moneypalooza were Progressive former city councilor Phil Fiermonte, long a top Sanders staffer (pictured at right); Democrat/Progressive state auditor candidate Doug Hoffer; and Progressive/Democrat state senate candidate David Zuckerman. Of that left-of-liberal trio, only Zuckerman expressed unequivocal opposition to the F-35, noting he had cast one of only five votes against the BTV basing option in the Vermont House two years ago.
Hoffer said he sympathized with residents of neighborhoods near Burlington International Airport because, he agreed, the F-35 will be even louder than the F-16 that currently thunders into the skies from BTV. Hoffer added, however, that he doesn't have enough information to say whether the F-35 should replace Vermont's F-16 fleet.
Fiermonte, who also declined to take sides on the F-35 controversy, did acknowledge feeling discomfort at being on the receiving end of a protest by activists who usually praise Sanders.
With twilight approaching, demonstrators cheered as a leading anti-F-35 organizer bashed Sanders. Noting that Sanders presents himself as "a champion of income equality," South Burlington resident Juliet Buck (pictured addressing demonstrators) asked the crowd, "How can he say he cares about income equality and support this plane coming out of that corporation?" Buck was referring to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 manufacturer that had been the target of a 10-week strike by Texas-based machinists fighting against cuts in pension plans and health coverage.
According to the latest federal estimate, the cost of building the planes is estimated to total $396 billion — more than double the amount projected five years ago.
"This bloodsucking program," Buck declared, "is the reason we don't have money" for veterans' care and other services Sanders says he supports. "I don't understand how you can say you're a progressive, Bernie," Buck shouted.
Rob Skiff took direct aim at the Democrats who were trying to focus on their own speakers and ignore the protest. Democratic Attorney General William Sorrell and his Democratic challenger, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, could sue to prevent the F-35 from coming to Vermont, Skiff said. But "in being silent, they support the transfer of wealth from this community to Lockheed Martin."
Noting that he ran successfully as a Democrat for justice of the peace in South Burlington, Skiff said he will not run again "because I can't abide the hypocrisy I'm now seeing in the Democratic Party."
There is an organized alternative to the Democrats, Burlington city councilor Rachel Siegel reminded the protestors. She said the Progressive Party, of which she is a member, "stands for all the things that the F-35 does not." The city council's recent rejection of a Progressive-backed resolution opposing the F-35 basing plan marked "my most devastating moment" since winning election in March, Siegel said.
She announced an effort to add an F-35 advisory referendum to the ballot in November "so the people of Burlington can say how they feel" about bringing the plane to the city-owned airport. "I think we'll win" that vote, Siegel said.
Photos by Kevin J. Kelley and Paul Heintz