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Political Revolution: Bernie Sanders' Wild Ride

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Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks last week at Dartmouth College - PAUL HEINTZ
  • paul heintz
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks last week at Dartmouth College

Standing before an adoring crowd of Vermonters last May on the shores of Lake Champlain, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made a vow few thought he could keep.

"We're going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back," he pledged as a warm sun hovered over the Adirondacks.

Eight months later, Sanders seems on the verge of delivering the "political revolution" he promised at his presidential campaign kickoff.

After catching up to rival Hillary Clinton in Iowa, Sanders now leads her in New Hampshire by a margin of 60 to 33 percent, according to a poll released Tuesday by CNN and WMUR-TV. He turned in his strongest debate performance to date Sunday night in Charleston, S.C. And, in perhaps the clearest validation of his growing momentum, he has succeeding in rattling Clinton's campaign, which has reacted with a mix of fear, anger and surprise reminiscent of her early losses to Barack Obama in 2008.

Speaking last Thursday at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Sanders reflected on how much had changed since his May announcement.

"We were running against a candidate who was deemed by the media and the establishment as the inevitable — inevitable — nominee of the Democratic Party," he told a capacity crowd at the college's Spaulding Auditorium. "Well, a lot has changed! It turned out that what was considered to be inevitable may not be quite so inevitable."

Half an hour earlier, Sanders' motley crew of senior aides — campaign manager Jeff Weaver, consultants Tad Devine and Mark Longabaugh, Senate chief of staff Michaeleen Crowell, and spokesman Michael Briggs — lingered upstairs, outside a faculty lounge where their candidate had just finished a press conference. Devine mused about the Clinton campaign's reaction to Sanders' tough new television ad implying that the former secretary of state was beholden to Wall Street.

"It seems like every day they want to have a conference call to attack us," the veteran strategist said. "I think they're deeply concerned about what's happening in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere."

They should be.

Sure, the early states are littered with Clinton's high-priced consultants and high-profile surrogates — not to mention the lower-profile ones, such as Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who stumped for her last week in Iowa. Clinton continues to dominate traditional campaign metrics, such as congressional and institutional endorsements: On Tuesday, she added the LGBT group Human Rights Campaign to her long list of supporters.

But Clinton is suffering from a palpable enthusiasm gap. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that while the two candidates are statistically tied in Iowa, nearly twice as many Sanders fans said they were excited to take part in the February 1 caucuses as did Clinton backers.

"Bernie Sanders certainly has more enthusiastic supporters than Clinton does," says University of New Hampshire Survey Center director Andrew Smith, who conducted the CNN/WMUR poll. "He's winning the battle of ideas within the party and within the primary electorate, so far. I think the Clinton campaign has to be nervous and concerned about that."

Nowhere was that dynamic more evident than in Sunday's debate, the fourth and final engagement between Sanders, Clinton and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley before voting begins. Sanders kept the focus on Clinton's Wall Street ties and turned her attacks on his single-payer health care plan to his own advantage, calling it "a Republican criticism."

After largely ignoring Sanders at last month's New Hampshire debate, Clinton changed tack Sunday and accused him of disloyalty to Obama.

"Sen. Sanders called him 'weak,' 'disappointing,'" she said with righteous indignation. "He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama." (She neglected to mention that she was the only one on the stage who had actually run against the guy.)

Clinton's course correction made sense, particularly in a debate hall filled with South Carolina Democrats who remain loyal to the man they chose over her in 2008. But as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that night, "Hillary Clinton is eminently knowledgeable, but she's in effect calling for continuity at a time when lots of people want discontinuity."

Indeed, says veteran Iowa observer David Yepsen, "It's pretty clear that activists at both ends of the political spectrum are angry and are looking for a candidate to champion."

You might say they're looking for a political revolution.

Yepsen spent 34 years covering nine presidential caucuses for the Des Moines Register — and even he's surprised by the state of play fewer than two weeks before Iowans pick their candidate.

"I don't know anybody in America who had predicted this scenario: of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump having credible chances of winning the Iowa caucuses," he says, referring to the front-running Republican real estate mogul.

After a disappointing third-place finish in Iowa in 2008, Team Clinton is leaving little to chance. Citing an unnamed source, the Times reported Tuesday that "as much as 90 percent of the campaign's resources are now split between Iowa and [Clinton's] Brooklyn headquarters."

The campaign clearly recognizes that in America's strange and prolonged presidential primary system, which extends from February through June, success builds on success and failure builds on failure.

Sanders, it seems, is prepared for the long haul. His campaign has deployed staffers in each of the 11 states that, like Vermont, vote March 1. And Devine, the senior strategist, says he expects the flow of small-dollar contributions to sustain the campaign far longer than those of previous insurgents.

Though pundits continue to write Sanders off as appealing only to northern, white liberals, Sanders hasn't been shy about campaigning outside his comfort zone. He visited the Super Tuesday state of Alabama on Monday and managed to fill a Birmingham arena with 5,700 supporters — not including the 1,400 who watched the rally on a screen outside.

"There must be a mistake," Sanders told his audience. "Somebody told me Alabama is a conservative state."

Of course, it's foolish to speculate about Sanders' chances in a place like Alabama when the earliest-voting states remain so unsettled.

"If he loses in Iowa and New Hampshire, I think it's pretty much over," says Smith, the UNH pollster and professor. "If he wins those two states, I think he very well could be the nominee."

Much may depend on the organizational prowess of the Sanders campaign, which must corral those enthusiastic supporters into 1,681 individual caucuses and ensure they understand Iowa's byzantine candidate-selection process. According to that same Quinnipiac poll, 66 percent of Sanders supporters said they had never attended a caucus before, while only 26 percent of Clinton voters said the same.

"Will they show up at a caucus on a cold night and go to a neighborhood meeting and spend a couple hours? That's the big question," Yepsen says. "I think they will."

Win or lose, Sanders has already succeeded at two things: He has established himself as the preeminent voice of the progressive movement, eclipsing even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

And, far more importantly, he has ignited a serious policy debate over the issues he cares most about: income inequality, campaign finance reform, trade, climate change and universal health care, to name just a few.

Back in September 2014 — well before he joined the race — Sanders hinted that inspiring such a debate might be reason enough to run.

"Obviously, if I got into it, I wouldn't get into it unless I thought I could win," he told Seven Days at the time. "But your point is, 'Can you win even if you don't win?' And the answer is 'yeah.' You know, if you're educating tens of millions of Americans, if you're electing delegates — you know, if I chose to run as a Democrat — are you raising political consciousness at the time? Political consciousness in America is very low. So the answer is: That is an interesting point."

Patt Down

For two years, the Vermont Senate resisted calls to establish an internal ethics panel empowered to investigate complaints against sitting senators. But after the suspension two weeks ago of Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) for alleged sex crimes, Senate leaders reversed course.

At a meeting of the five-member Rules Committee last Thursday, Senate Secretary John Bloomer jr. presented a trio of proposals that would, in addition to creating such a panel, require members to publicly identify their employers and the boards on which they serve.

One problem: The employment disclosure measure is based on one adopted by the House in May 2014 — and it's riddled with loopholes.

As Seven Days reported last year, the House measure was intended to increase transparency by highlighting potential conflicts of interest. But the paper disclosure forms filled out by members were never digitized and are available only in the House clerk's office.

The forms themselves fail to shed much light. Thirty-eight of 150 House members identified themselves as "self-employed." Few of those elaborated on what they actually do for a living or whether they derive income from entities with business before the state.

Case in point: Rep. Avram Patt (D-Worcester). The retired Washington Electric Co-Op general manager disclosed last January that he served on three boards without pay, including Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and worked as a "self-employed consultant."

Patt did not volunteer the identities of his clients, nor was he asked to.

Five months after he submitted the form, he was hired as interim executive director of VBSR, which is heavily involved in the legislative process and employs a Statehouse lobbyist. Patt, who left the job in October, said he "made clear to everybody" at the organization that he could not get involved in its public advocacy.

"I think, in a citizens' legislature, it's OK, because pretty much anybody may be working at a job that at some point or another may be directly impacted by the work the legislature does," he says. "The biggest thing is disclosure."

But Patt never officially disclosed his new gig. That's not his fault. House members are required to fill out the form only once every two years.

"If we were asked to do one annually, that would certainly be on it," he says.

Patt says he recognizes the system's failings and would support additional disclosure measures.

"We need to find the right balance for a citizens' legislature that encourages people to participate but at the same time lets us know what their interests are and how they make a living," he says.

We'll see if the Senate Rules Committee, which meets again this Wednesday, can find that balance.

Media Notes

After 36 years at Vermont PBS, senior executive producer Joe Merone plans to retire in April, he announced last week over social media.

A behind-the-scenes player, Merone is best known in media circles for his role producing "Vermont This Week," the Friday news roundtable featuring state reporters. He has worked for the program since directing its debut episode in 1982.

"Joe Merone has been a part of Vermont PBS for as long as I've been watching Vermont PBS," says host Stewart Ledbetter. "I mean, he is 'Vermont This Week.'"

The circumstances surrounding Merone's departure aren't entirely clear.

"It was a big surprise," Ledbetter says.

Merone declined an interview request, but Vermont PBS CEO Holly Groschner said Merone's retirement was "his personal decision."

"We're working collegially together on how to transition," she said.

Groschner said it was too soon to say whether "Vermont This Week" would make any changes to its format.

Disclosure: Paul Heintz is an occasional paid guest on "Vermont This Week."


The original print version of this article was headlined "Political Revolution"

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