- Paul Heintz
- Lawrence Zupan
Lawrence Zupan stood on the lawn of the Hildene estate in Manchester and marveled at a 16-by-18-foot rectangle of brick set into the grass. As a nearby plaque explained, it represented the cramped Kentucky cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born. Looming over the brick outline was a Georgian Revival mansion that the 16th president's son, the industrialist Robert Todd Lincoln, built to serve as his summer home.
"From log cabin to this in a generation!" Zupan exclaimed with approval. "And how did it come about? Not through socialism! It came about through free enterprise."
Zupan, Vermont's long-shot Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, sees the free and unfettered market as the answer to most of society's ills. If only the government could get out of the way, he reasons, the economy would thrive, health insurance would be affordable and humankind would wean itself off fossil fuels.
Standing in the way, in Zupan's view, is the "evil system" of socialism and its chief propagandist, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who "wants to convert America into his vision of a socialist paradise."
That's why Zupan, who had never before run for public office, decided to challenge America's most popular senator in the November 6 election. "Someone has to stand up against [socialism] and remind Vermonters what has always made us great," he explained.
That someone is a 71-year-old real estate broker who jokes that he may be the only vegan Republican in Vermont. He describes himself as an ethnic Jew who believes in both the Old and New Testaments and considers Jesus Christ his savior. A former executive recruiter, wholesale fruit dealer and suburban subdivision developer, he lives six miles from the Lincoln homestead in what he frequently refers to, with a real estate salesman's shtick, as the "four-season resort town" of Manchester in southwestern Vermont.
As he hurried down a pathway on the grounds of Hildene, where he was married 25 years ago, Zupan explained his campaign's eye-catching yard signs, which defy convention by mentioning his opponent. "Zupan vs. Sanders: It's about Vermont," the signs read.
"It tells the whole story ... A large part of my campaign is that I'm the un-Bernie," he said. "Let's face it: I'm Lawrence Zupan, and I'm also the opposite of Bernie Sanders."
Ideologically, that is most certainly the case. Unlike Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, Zupan supported President Donald Trump's tax plan, favors repealing the Affordable Care Act, would have voted to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and won't say whether he believes humans are largely responsible for climate change.
But biographically and temperamentally, Zupan bears some resemblance to the senator he hopes to replace. With thinning gray hair, a craggy face and a propensity to glower, he occasionally even physically resembles his nemesis.
Just six years Sanders' junior, Zupan shares a similar working-class, New York City background and speaks with a similarly distinctive outer-borough accent, often in uninterrupted, self-assured diatribes. Zupan's father was a house painter — and, ironically, a labor unionist and socialist — while Sanders' was a paint salesman.
Like the senator, who spent time in his youth on an Israeli kibbutz, Zupan experimented with communal living. At age 21, he became executive director of the Integral Yoga Institute, the Manhattan outpost of the Indian religious guru Satchidananda Saraswati. In that role, he helped purchase a new headquarters for the yoga center in Greenwich Village and an ashram in Pomfret, Conn. During that time, Zupan became friends with the psychedelic pop artist Peter Max, whom, decades later, Zupan would work for as a business manager.
He recalled life in the ashram as a "wonderful" experience, but he recoiled at the notion that it resembled a socialist existence.
"No government told me I couldn't leave the next day and go out and get a job," he said. "I did a communitarian life out of choice. You understand the difference?"
Since buying his Manchester home in 1986 and moving to Vermont full time in 2000, Zupan has done little to engage in state politics, other than write letters to the editor supporting 2016 gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman and attend the occasional Bennington County Republican Party meeting.
"I was really surprised when he ran," said county party chair Carol Dupont, who considers herself a friend and supporter. She described him as "a very thoughtful person" and "an intellect."
Unlike other candidates, Zupan said, he has no desire to become a professional politician. "This was just a particular vacuum that needed to be filled," he said.
To say that Zupan has little chance of prevailing would be a vast understatement. At first, the Manchester Republican couldn't even persuade his party to nominate him. In the August primary, perennial candidate H. Brooke Paige, who is best known for campaigning in a top hat, defeated Zupan by 422 votes. Only after Paige withdrew did the Vermont GOP's state committee hand Zupan the nomination.
"If I had started even five or seven days earlier, I believe I would've had those 422 votes," Zupan maintained. "It was just a question of scaling the wall in the amount of time."
He's now scrambling up an even higher wall. Sanders has won 10 statewide elections in Vermont since 1990, most recently in 2012 when he claimed 71 percent of the vote to win a second term in the U.S. Senate. Since then, Sanders has run for president and become a national icon and a fundraising powerhouse. At the end of September, he had $8.8 million in his campaign account, compared to $52,000 for Zupan.
"Never say never," said former governor Jim Douglas, a Republican who has endorsed Zupan. "The odds are long without any question."
Sanders has largely ignored Zupan and the seven other candidates in the race, all of whom are running bare-bones campaigns. Six are independents, and one is a member of the Liberty Union Party.
The incumbent has campaigned sparingly in Vermont and left last Friday for a nine-state swing through more competitive regions of the country. He has agreed to just two debates, both of which are scheduled for eight days before the election, leaving Zupan and his fellow challengers few opportunities to engage their rival.
"The voters deserve to see the stark contrast between Bernie Sanders and Lawrence Zupan, and he has done everything to deny them that privilege," Zupan said, employing the third person, as he frequently does.
Zupan's main critique of his opponent, other than ideology, is that Sanders is "an absentee landlord of a senator." He notes that Sanders missed more votes than any of his peers in 2015 and 2016, when the senator sought the Democratic nomination for president. "If the taxpayers and citizens of Vermont have hired you to do a job and you don't do it, that's reason for being fired in almost any profession," Zupan said.
With the 2020 election on the horizon, Zupan argues, Sanders "is completely focused, whether he'll admit it right now or not, on running for the presidency." After winning reelection to the Senate, he contends, Sanders will be "using Vermont as a well-upholstered footstool to step into his presidential role."
Zupan also takes issue with Sanders' limited availability to Vermont reporters, arguing that "freedom of the press also includes access to the people in your government." If elected, he pledged, he would hold "free-ranging" press conferences once or twice a month.
Sanders, who has refused to be interviewed by Seven Days since May 2015, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. His staff has declined or ignored weekly interview requests from the newspaper since the August 14 primary.
The senator did respond, albeit briefly, to one Zupan charge when the former appeared earlier this month on Vermont Public Radio's "Vermont Edition." Host Jane Lindholm played a recording of Zupan insinuating that Sanders' "love and ... promulgation of socialism" suggested that he does not love the United States.
"It's, you know, absurd, silly things that this Republican is saying," Sanders said, declining to utter Zupan's name.
The challenger's low-budget campaign is based in his home and at the nearby Inn at Willow Pond. Last week, he held forth in a hot and stuffy conference room at the inn as his campaign manager, his 22-year-old son Zachary, looked on in approval.
The oldest of Zupan's three children, all of whom were homeschooled, Zachary has volunteered for several conservative Republicans, including 2013 Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli. "But the candidate I've always wanted to work for throughout all of those elections has been my father," said Zachary, who is tall and lanky with curly brown hair. "I've been waiting for the day when he would run for office."
Father and son alike can summon a decent Sanders impression — inveighing against "the millionaires and billionaires" and the "authoritarians and oligarchs" in a thick Brooklyn accent — though Zachary's is more convincing. "Now that the campaign has started, I only do it 1 percent of the time," he later quipped in his Bernie brogue.
After touring Hildene, Zupan steered the family's beige Toyota Venza through town, stopping intermittently at what he viewed as local monuments to capitalism. At Burr and Burton Academy, the prestigious independent high school, he noted that the late financier Barry Rowland and his wife, Wendy, had donated $20 million to the institution in March.
"Where did they get the $20 million to donate?" Zupan asked. "They got it through free enterprise and developing business."
At the newly rebuilt Manchester Community Library, Zupan pointed to a plaque recognizing those who made it possible by donating to its $7.2 million capital campaign. "Taxpayers were not hit upon to build that institution," Zupan said. "In a socialist world, there would've been no philanthropists with enough money to build it."
The candidate failed to mention that Burr and Burton relies on millions of public dollars each year to pay the tuition of local students, nor did he note that the town of Manchester appropriates more than $230,000 a year to the local library, about one-third of its annual budget.
Asked whether he thought all public libraries should be built with private capital, Zupan whispered in his best library voice, "I don't know about that, but I'm happy to say that this one was."
He conceded that public dollars should be "part of the mix" when funding libraries and schools — to a point.
"I grew up enjoying public institutions in New York City. I enjoyed the New York Public Library and public schools," he said. "But as a homeschool parent, why should I pay to support the education system and also pay for all of the books for my students and my home?"
"Why," Zupan demanded, "should I pay twice?"