Bernie ran for mayor Burlington as an independent in 1981— and beat Democratic incumbent Gordon Paquette, albeit by just 10 votes. He was reelected 2 years later, again, as an independent, with 52.1% of the vote against a Democrat (30.7%) and a Republican (17.2%). Democrats ran against him in 1985 and 1987 as well; Bernie beat them.
The first time Bernie ran for Congress— as an independent— he took on Republican Peter Smith. He would have easily won by the Democrats ran a spoiler candidate, state Rep. Paul Poirier, who took 18.9% of the vote to Smith’s 41.2% and Bernie’s 37.5%. Two years later, the Democrats tried the same rotten trick— but this time— and every time after— failed:
Bernie (I)- 117,522 (56.0%)
Peter Smith (R)- 82,938 (39.5%)
Dolores Sandoval (D)- 6,315 (3.0%)
The corrupt Democratic establishment continued running corporate Democrats against Bernie— and Bernie continued kicking their asses until 1994 when a write-in campaign in the Democratic primary gave him the Democratic nomination. He still ran as an independent in the general. Around that time Vermont Governor Howard Dean finally raised the white flag and said Democrats should stop running against Bernie. But in 1996, the Democrats were back to their old tricks and ran a corrupt conservative Democrat— who Bernie trounced 55.2% to 9.3%.
In 2006 Bernie won the Democratic primary for the open Senate seat with 94.2% of the vote and then ran in the general as an independent and won with 65.4%. He was reelected with 71.1% in 2012 and with 67.3% in 2018. Democrats had finally stopped running their putrid corporate candidates against him. The Democratic Party is always more comfortable with a Manchin or Sinema or Gottheimer or Cuellar than with someone like Bernie. Not that there are all that many “someones” like Bernie.
Is there a “next Bernie” on the horizon— someone as dedicated to the legitimate aspirations of working families as he is? Someone as dismissive of the corrupt nature of the Democratic Party as he is? AOC? Maybe; she’s the obvious guess. Too obvious. We need dozens of people that good. I read about one this week— although not someone who can run for president since he was born in Trinidad and Tobago. Gabriel Acevero is a Democratic socialist who was first elected to the Maryland House (Montgomery County’s District 39) in 2018, with more votes than 3-term incumbent Kirill Reznik and 2 term incumbent Shane Robinson. After the general, he was sworn in (age 28) on a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. This cycle, 3 corporate shills, state Sen. Nancy King (D), state Rep. Kirill Reznik (D) and state Rep Lesley Lopez tried replacing him with Clint Sobratti (D). That didn’t work out too well for the Democratic establishment. As a member of the legislature, has been the most progressive, most inspiring and most independent-minded— across the board, for example, as the only Democrat to vote against the party’s gerrymandering plan. He also introduced a bill for universal basic income, which the Democratic majority buried. Who needs Republicans?
Peter Lucas interviewed him for Jacobin.com recently. He asked Acevero what it means to be a socialist in office. “To me,” he responded, “being a democratic socialist is about fighting for an economy that works for the many and not the few; fighting with workers for a more democratic workplace, economy, and society. Being a democratic socialist in office is also about using my platform to constantly remind people what is possible. If we’re able to build strong coalitions that are willing to fight for the entire working class, we can win a livable planet and dignity for the working class. As a democratic socialist, I also realize it’s not just me in office. The movement that I come from and that helped elect me is in office too. When I wrote the Healthy Maryland Act, which would establish a single-payer Medicare for All system in the state, that’s not just the work of me as an individual, but of all the different progressive groups and unions who have been fighting for universal health care with me.”
Lucas asked him about the Green New Deal legislation he’s working on. “Maryland, like much of the country, suffers under a private utility monopoly which uses its power to exploit building loopholes, fleece consumers with raising rates, and pollute our communities. Given the limitations of the Inflation Reduction Act on environmental action at the federal level, it’s up to the states to take the lead on climate organizing. Maryland has an opportunity to lead the way on decarbonization. I’ll be introducing legislation in the upcoming session, borne from a coalition of unions, environmental groups, and local community organizations, to do so through investments in building public power, in sectors where private, anti-union companies won’t. We have a duty to the planet and its peoples to move toward a decarbonized economy through a Green New Deal. We must end our reliance on coal and phase out the six plants where our state receives the bulk of energy, and use this opportunity to develop a robust jobs programs building public power and ending private energy monopolies in our state… Organizing is how we win the world that we know is possible, and without it, that policy doesn’t materialize. The state legislature, like any other legislative body or position of power, runs on political will. For the establishment that will comes from the ruling class and corporations, but for the Left the will of the people must always be present. In practice that looks like continuous political education, organizing around policies that are widely and deeply felt in our communities, and holding elected officials’ feet to the fire… We’re constantly engaged in political education because we believe that it’s necessary for a functioning democracy. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is something that requires the engagement of the people, literally having its roots in “power of the people.” So we have to ensure that we’re using our platform to work with and educate the people on how their government works, what we’re doing, and how we can pass policy. Whether it’s passing Anton’s Law or proposing a Green New Deal, it’s very important to me that my constituents are aware of what it is that I’m doing. That political education also doesn’t stop at the border of my district. I am not trying to just change the material conditions of my constituents, but of all of Maryland.”
Lucas noted that both times he’s run for office, the Democratic Party establishment ran a concerted opposition campaign and asked him to talk about that. “I’ve never been a darling of the establishment,” he said, “because I’ve always pushed those in power to do more and I’ve spoken out when they haven’t. Both times I have run for office, I’ve done so against a slate of establishment-backed candidates, and I did so on an unapologetically progressive platform that is not always popular with corporate America. We often hear about how deeply politicians care about the working class and low-income people, but then when it comes to policy, they are nowhere to be found. Who I am and the movement I represent is a threat to the status quo. I am an unbought and unbossed voice for the working class in Annapolis. That invites a lot of fear in folks who are happy with the status quo, and I welcome that… As a student of history we’ve always seen that the advancements we’ve gained have been the result of direct action, public pressure, and collective organizing. Those tactics are the difference between getting legislation that is incremental and not necessarily far-reaching and getting legislation that is transformative. The Democratic establishment tends to engage in the politics of the former, which I do not subscribe to. It is this politics of incrementalism and neoliberal policies that has led to the laundry list of issues that we face today. My community does not have time for politics of incrementalism. You can see that frustration in the eyes of the working-class person saddled with medical debt because we refuse to pass Medicare for All, or the worker who is late to their shift because the public transportation they rely on is underfunded. We see this approach and the disastrous policies it’s yielded in so many different ways, and I’m just not interested in subscribing to that. The change that we need is only possible when we apply pressure through organizing, and we are bold enough to hold those in power accountable. As a democratic socialist, I see progress a little differently than some of my colleagues. Some define progress as where we were and where we are right now. I define progress as where we are right now and where we ought to be. And so, the question that I ask constantly is: Are we where we ought to be on racial justice? Are we where we ought to be on environmental policy? Are we where we ought to be on LGBTQ equality? If the answer is no, then my focus has always been: How do we go further? How do we ensure that we’re strengthening legislation and putting pressure on the establishment to take the necessary action that they’ve either been too afraid or unwilling to take? My vision of society aligns with that of fellow democratic socialist Dr Martin Luther King Jr who described the ‘beloved community’ and what that looks like. For me, a beloved community looks like one where health care is free for all at the point of service. A beloved community is one without poverty of any form. A beloved community is one where we care for all people. A beloved community is one where future generations have clean air, clean water, and a livable planet. And a beloved community is one where the people, not oligarchs, hold the economic and political power. That is what a beloved community, a democratic socialist future looks like.”
Yesterday, John Nichols introduced The Nation’s readers to the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, which is taking on the state’s Uber-corrupt neoliberal Democratic establishment. “One of the most remarkable political initiatives in modern American politics— and already one of the most successful— the Co-op is addressing the great challenge of an electoral moment in which divide-and-conquer campaigning, viscerally negative television advertising funded by corporations and billionaires, and fake news stories about dubious wedge issues have left voters feeling disconnected from politics. This grassroots group in the nation’s smallest state is restoring a sense of community to elections by making a commitment that no candidate will stand alone in the fight against the most powerful political and economic interests in the state and nation. ‘There’s such
a strong, entrenched, corrupt Democratic Party machine here in Rhode Island,’ [state Senator Jeanine] Calkin explains. ‘We asked: How do we build our own machine that gives resources and knowledge and training and everything a candidate who’s never run before needs to win elections? Our answer was that we had to do it ourselves. So that’s what we did.’”
Formed in 2019 with the audacious goal of upending the historically corrupt, corporate-aligned politics of Rhode Island, the Co-op is not a traditional campaign organization, not a political action committee, and not a political party. It’s a movement with big ideas for expanding access to health care, raising wages, and tackling climate change in the Ocean State. But its biggest idea is that the Democratic Party can be moved away from its centrist and corporate moorings to become a genuinely progressive force in politics. That prospect has relevance for progressives in Rhode Island and a lot of other states. It also has relevance at the federal level of a country where the fight to make the Democratic Party a force for fundamental change is an ongoing struggle.
The Co-op is currently running more than two dozen candidates in Rhode Island’s September 13 primaries for statewide posts and legislative offices. Its goal is to build on the success of the 2020 campaign, which saw eight Democratic candidates who were endorsed by the group win hard-fought primaries, a result that led WPRI-TV, the local CBS affiliate, to report that “the progressives really came out strong with a lot of energy.”
A number of Co-op candidates are all but certain to win this year. Others face uphill battles. There are no assurances that the group will be able to deliver on its promise to provide Rhode Island with “A Whole New Government.” But if the Co-op achieves the sort of breakthroughs that candidates and organizers say are possible— particularly in legislative races— it promises to make Rhode Island the kind of “laboratory of democracy” that US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis suggested 90 years ago would position states as the generators of big ideas for how to solve national problems.
Although most of the attention on the battle for control of the nation’s 50 state houses centers on the partisan fight between Democrats and Republicans, the Rhode Island competition is a reminder that even when Democrats are in charge, they are not necessarily champions of progressive policies. That has long been an issue of concern in Rhode Island, a state that has not backed a Republican for president since 1984 and where the Democratic congressional delegation includes Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a star of the Judiciary Committee and a favorite of liberals nationwide. Despite their current domination of the state capitol, Rhode Island Democrats have a history of compromising with corporate interests and of blocking progressive social initiatives.
“There are Democrats who are anti-abortion, there are Democrats that are pro-gun in our legislature. They’ve been around forever. They call themselves Democrats, but they are really Republicans— right-wing Republicans— in everything but name,” says Ellie Wyatt, a retired high school special education teacher who has long been active in local and state Democratic politics. Wyatt, who turned out on a scorching hot Saturday morning in late July for the launch of the Co-op’s door-to-door canvas drive in North Providence, says, “Changing the legislature is the key to changing politics in Rhode Island, and the way to change the legislature is by winning these Democratic primaries for the state House and the Senate.”
Wyatt has been working for years to move her state’s Democratic Party in a progressive direction. That Saturday morning, she was surrounded by young activists who were using phone apps to identify the doors they would knock on over the next few hours. This combination of the old-school, people-powered politics of neighborhood and community with new technology is central to the Co-op’s campaigning strategy. The candidates the group endorses refuse corporate money and take positions on tax policy that are unlikely to attract contributions from wealthy donors. As Calkin, a cochair of the Co-op and one of its most successful candidates, says, “I’m fighting for Rhode Island’s working families, not corporate lobbyists or party bosses.” To wage that fight, says organizer A.J. Braverman, the Co-op has developed a model for campaigning in which dozens, sometimes hundreds, of activists show up whenever one of its candidates needs to gather signatures to get on the ballot or knock on a few thousand doors before Election Day. Or is threatened—as Rourke was on the night of June 24, shortly after the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned the protections for abortion rights established in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. “Running by yourself is not fun,” Rourke says. “But with the Co-op, you’re not running alone. You have a community that shares ideas, that shows up when you need help, that is there for you when you’re in a tough spot.”
[Gubernatorial candidate Matt] Brown is a dynamic activist with deep roots in the civil rights and peace movements— his mother went into labor while attending a protest against the Vietnam War in 1969. He was elected as Rhode Island’s secretary of state at the age of 32, and in 2018, he won a third of the vote when he mounted an underfunded but energetic progressive primary challenge to the corporate-aligned incumbent Democratic governor, Gina Raimondo. “I’ve been fighting with this party most of my life,” Brown says as he knocks on doors in a Providence precinct where he is greeted warmly by voters. “But I’m definitely not doing it alone this time.” When Brown ran for governor four years ago, one of his few supporters in the statehouse was Calkin, who, like hundreds of political figures across the country— including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)— has a political origin story linked to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Out of her two-story home on a leafy side street in Warwick, Calkin began organizing for Sanders in 2015 and played a big role in helping the senator win the state with 55 percent of the vote in April of the following year. Inspired to run for the state Senate, Calkin beat a Democratic incumbent who had served in the legislature for more than 20 years. That was the easy part. The hard part came when she joined the legislature as a progressive in a chamber controlled by conservative Democrats such as McCaffrey and current Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who was first elected in 1980 and who until recently boasted about his “A” rating from the NRA. She immediately ran into roadblocks and opposition.
…Whether Brown ends up in the governor’s mansion is an open question. Brown and [Cynthia] Mendes are being outspent in their races by candidates with ties to the party organization— which has endorsed incumbent Governor Dan McKee, who inherited the job when former governor Raimondo became President Biden’s secretary of commerce, and Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who replaced McKee— and by other contenders with sufficient personal wealth to fund free-spending television advertising campaigns. Yet they have a message that’s in tune with what pundits in Rhode Island and nationwide have identified as a populist moment. “For decades, the people in power have fought for giant corporations and the ultra-wealthy,” declares their manifesto. “Matt and Cynthia are doing things differently. They are not taking any money from corporate lobbyists, corporate PACs, or fossil fuel executives. Instead, they are running alongside dozens of candidates— nurses, teachers, social workers, people who have spent their lives fighting for their communities— to build a whole new government.”
Brown is one of a tiny handful of progressive candidates for governor endorsed by Blue America this cycle. You can contribute to his campaign here. This is the new ad that he and Cynthia are running now: