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Spoiler Alert: How a Burlington Restaurateur Served Bernie Sanders

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Dick Bove - COURTESY OF GRAYSON CROUNSE
  • courtesy of grayson crounse
  • Dick Bove

Bove's Café is a landmark in Burlington, and Bernie Sanders is arguably the restaurant's most recognizable regular. He has dined in the Old North End Italian joint for decades and touted its Old-World charm and reasonable prices during his presidential campaign.

But his relationship with Bove's goes well beyond heaping plates of pasta. Three decades ago, the paths of leftist politician Sanders and old-school restaurateur Dick Bove intertwined in a way that made the latter an important footnote in a chapter of Vermont political history.

"Bernie wouldn't be where he is today if it wasn't for that, I believe," Bove recently said of his own dark-horse candidacy in the 1981 Burlington mayoral race.

Bove was four when his family opened its Pearl Street restaurant in 1941. Forty years later, he was there every night, stirring tomato sauce in the cozy and unassuming Art Deco eatery.

Bove also served on the city's fire commission — a body that, back then, had a lot of power. Burlington had a decentralized system of government. Commissioners, appointed by the mayor and aldermen, supervised city departments, hired and fired staff, and set policy goals. Spots on city commissions served as stepping stones to higher office.

Bove, who said he had no grander political ambitions, cherished the role. His son, Mark Bove, remembers him jumping on fire trucks and assisting firefighters on the scene.

At city hall, Mayor Gordon Paquette, a Democrat who had been in power since 1971, reigned with a style that drew comparisons to Chicago boss Richard Daley. Paquette, known everywhere as "Gordie," was a machine-style pol who oversaw a network based on loyalty and connections. Republicans got along with him and rarely fielded candidates to oppose him.

Greg Guma, a veteran Burlington political observer who was an editor at the now-defunct Vanguard Press, said that the board of aldermen and commissions under Paquette constituted a "good old boys network." Most decisions, Guma said, were made in private, well before public meetings.

Bove said that he tried to get the fire commission to clean up its act and operate with transparency. "Everything happened downstairs," Bove said. "I kept rocking the boat. I kept voting for everything to be done upstairs. I was too controversial. I spoke up too much. They don't like that."

Bove said that Paquette and his allies were upset by his rabble-rousing. And as the 1981 election approached, Bove said, Paquette made it clear he would block the reappointment of Bove, a fellow Democrat.

Though many Burlington business people swore fealty to Paquette, Bove had a bit of a temper. It didn't take him long to determine how he would get back at Paquette. He decided to run against him for mayor. "Gordon pissed off the wrong person that time," Bove said.

Bove first tried to wrest the Democratic nomination from Paquette but, predictably, lost during the party's caucus. So Bove declared his candidacy as an independent.

Bove conceded he had little hope of winning. As owner of one of the city's most popular and oldest restaurants, he enjoyed some name recognition and was particularly well known in the Old North End. But Bove was no politician and didn't live to spend his days knocking on doors and distributing leaflets. His heart was in the restaurant.

As the race got going, Paquette didn't seem to have much reason to worry. Republicans once again decided not to field a challenger. His only opponents were three independents: Bove, Joe McGrath — an unknown who barely campaigned — and Sanders.

At that point, Sanders, who was 39, was best known for being an also-ran in statewide elections. "Nobody knew who the hell Bernie was," Bove said. "Bernie was a nobody."

Sanders had joined the leftist Liberty Union Party in 1971. He had run under the party's banner four times — twice for U.S. Senate, and twice for governor — never clearing single digits, percentagewise, on Election Day.

In 1977, sick of losing, Sanders left Liberty Union and declared the party a failure. Friends persuaded him that he might have a better chance of winning office in the Queen City, whose 40,000 residents had given him his highest vote percentages.

Despite his record, Sanders was a hardworking candidate. And unlike Bove and McGrath, he knew how to put a campaign together.

Running under the slogan "It's time for a change. Real change," Sanders began stitching together a coalition of the poor, neighborhood groups and students. Paquette, meanwhile, relied on his patronage network and base of Irish and French Canadian neighborhoods.

Sanders quickly emerged as Paquette's only significant opponent.

"If the media was going to cover the race, they couldn't just cover the mayor. They had to cover his opponent," said Burlington resident Terry Bouricius, who won a seat on the board of aldermen that year and later helped launch the Progressive Party. "Because there was no Republican, it fell to Bernie Sanders — with Bernie being far more visible and having more volunteers — as the obvious opponent. He had relatively easy access to free media."

During a February debate at the Unitarian Church at the top of Church Street, Bouricius recalled, Sanders seemed to have more supporters in the room than Paquette. The mayor had riled neighborhood groups with a proposed tax hike and his unwillingness to address concerns about housing costs. Paquette had also won enemies by supporting an "urban renewal" project in which the city seized tenement homes — many owned by Italian American families — to have them bulldozed to make way for what is now the Burlington Town Center mall. Fortuitously, Bove's was spared.

A few weeks before the election, Sanders secured an endorsement from the police union. Still, as Election Day arrived, Paquette was considered the favorite.

On March 3, 1981, Sanders won 4,030 votes — 10 more than Paquette.

Bove finished a distant third. But he got 1,091 votes, siphoning away Democratic support that could have put Paquette over the top.

"'Spoiler' is kind of a pejorative, but sure, technically he was a spoiler," Guma said. "I'm sure Paquette would have won that election if he wouldn't have been in there."

Mark Bove noted that Sanders' brand of politics was becoming popular in Burlington. "Bernie would have eventually won," Mark Bove predicted. "He just won early."

The elder Bove recalled how Democrats treated him after the election: "Boy, they were pissed."

Sanders could relate.

His victory shocked Burlington's political elite, and its members lashed out. Burlington leaders refused to cooperate with him. Aldermen fired his secretary and rejected all of his administrative appointments.

Paquette, the New York Times reported, left on vacation after losing rather than finish his term as a lame duck, and predicted the city would "go down the tubes" with Sanders in charge. He died in 1995.

The establishment assumed Sanders' tenure would be brief. But Sanders won reelection three times in the 1980s, defeating challenges from both Democrats and Republicans. His initiatives included preserving the Lake Champlain waterfront, launching the Community & Economic Development Office and defeating a landlord's plan to convert an affordable housing complex to luxury housing.

Bove mounted a losing bid for city council in 2007 but otherwise kept out of politics and focused on what he knows best — Italian food.

Until a few months ago, he could be found cooking tomato sauces in the kitchen of the restaurant. Last week, his family announced the 78-year-old Bove's retirement. They revealed other news as well: Bove's will close after December 23.

Over the years, Bove and Sanders, once strangers on the campaign trail, have become friendly.

During a recent chat on Reddit, a questioner asked Sanders to identify his favorite Burlington restaurant. He recommended Bove's.

"It's not fancy, but the food is good and the prices are reasonable," the senator said.

When they stop in, Mark Bove said, Bernie Sanders orders the pork chops and meatballs, while his wife, Jane, goes for the pasta with vodka sauce.

Like many Vermonters, Dick Bove said he has watched Sanders' presidential campaign with a sense of pride. He's eager to vote for Sanders, though he doesn't think Sanders will be able to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Bove said he looks back with a measure of satisfaction at the small role he played in the senator's rise. "I have no regrets of what I did back then," Bove told Seven Days.

And while they reminisce from time to time, Bove said, Sanders has never broached the subject of Bove's spoiler role.

"He's never come out like that," Bove said, "but I'm sure, deep down, Bernie knows."

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