A Postcard from Vermont: Sanders Shows Congress How to Avoid Tar & Feathering at August Tea Parties

The Green Mountain state used to be a good place for retired union guys to get away from it all in August.  Now, thanks to “Obamacare” — with its threats to the elderly everywhere — that’s not the case this year.

I was sitting on the porch of Richmond’s On The Rise bakery last Thursday, lazily contemplating a dip in the nearby Winooski River, when a big headline in the Burlington Free Press caught my eye: “Health-care Fight Comes to Vt.”

I looked up and down the main street of this verdant, peaceful hamlet and saw nary a punch being thrown over medical benefits or any other topic.  So I read on, just in case this wasn’t a false alarm, but an actual call to duty.

In its lead graph, the Gannett-owned Freep reported that labor’s most reliable ally in New England (or anywhere), Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was holding “three town meetings on health care legislation this month, even as other public meetings erupt into red-faced shouting matches nationwide.”  Meanwhile, his two Democratic colleagues (Senator Pat Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch) were timidly avoiding such contentious forums during their August recess.

The first of Bernie’s solo events was scheduled for Saturday, August 15 in Rutland, located in the heartland of the state but hardly the epicenter of its greening over the years.  “Sanders has held hundreds of town meetings,” the newspaper noted, but this one was definitely shaping up to be different.  Inspired by events elsewhere, the Vermont Tea Party movement — a vocal opponent of “out-of-control” government spending — was targeting him with a major mobilization of its troops.

Paul Beaudry, a right-wing talk show host with ample business-funded air-time at WDEV (just a few miles away in Waterbury), had been rallying his listeners to “speak their piece” at Bernie’s meetings about why “government shouldn’t be providing health care because the Constitution is silent on the matter.”  Of more interest to me was Beaudry’s confident prediction, in the Free Press, that Sanders was “going to have his union thugs at the front door and he’s not going to let us speak, and, if we do disagree, he’s going to belittle us.”

Now I’ve been intermittently involved in Vermont labor and political activity since 1976, mainly as a non-resident organizer for a national union of telephone workers.  I’ve run into a lot of “union thugs” over the years but none in the Green Mountain state, even before it morphed into the only place in America that would elect a self-described socialist to Congress.  And, believe me, whatever one may think of Bernie, he didn’t get elected mayor of Burlington, then a congressman, and now U.S. Senator by belittling his fellow Vermonters, much less depriving them of free speech.

So this specter of thuggish labor behavior — at a Unitarian Church, no less — was indeed a wake-up call for FOBs (Friends of Bernie), both registered voters and out-of-state vacationers.  I set my alarm for 6:30 A.M. on Saturday, so I can make it down the winding mountain roads to Rutland in time for the “free brunch” promised by Bernie before the fireworks began at nine.

Pulling up to the UU’s modest place of worship in downtown Rutland, I immediately recognize it as the venue for a poorly-attended meeting I’d been invited to address in 1971, during a pre-laborite stint with the American Friends Service Committee.  The concerned host of that Vietnam-era gathering had been worried, as well, about possible disruption by local patriots, then quite enamored with “out-of-control” government spending in Southeast Asia.  As it turned out, only peaceniks came, keeping our discussion very much on the portside.

Rutland, Vermont, 15 August 2009

This was definitely not true of Bernie’s meeting on Saturday.  His (and Obama’s) conservative critics did a good job at turnout and homemade sign-making.  Fortunately, their axe-grinding efforts were countered by Sanders’ own formidable grassroots network, plus advocacy groups like the Vermont Workers Center, an affiliate of Jobs with Justice and energetic local defender of “health care as a human right.”  In the jostling for entry into the 200-seat church, one Sanders critic, wearing a blue golf shirt and tasseled loafers, insists irritably that he be admitted first because he arrived at 5 A.M.  Well before showtime, there are several hundred of us lined up with him, waiting in the hot early morning sun for a spot inside; folding chairs have already been set up on the lawn to handle the expected overflow.  Two Rutland cops stand by the door to make sure we separate our signs from the sticks they are mounted on and leave the latter outside, before going in.  By the time Bernie arrives, escorted in by his highest level of security ever — a detachment of plainclothes Vermont state troopers, whose presence was requested by the Capitol Police — the crowd is beginning to swell toward its peak of nearly 600 people.  His supporters respond like fans at a prizefight, chanting “Bernie!  Bernie!  Bernie!”

They are clearly part of the same eclectic group that polarizes in Vermont around election time.  Present to take Sanders down — and berate him publicly for the health care sins of Obama and the Democrats — are angry working-class Tories, small businessmen, retired professionals, and some not very charming right-wing ideologues.  Allied with that bunch, at times, are folks understandably concerned about the tax and budget implications of the current health care muddle in Washington.  Arrayed against all of the above, with equal fervor and lung power (and a 65 to 35 numerical edge?) are sign-waving, button-wearing pro-single payer nurses and doctors, Obama supporters, Vermont Progressive Party voters, plus labor and community activists from around the state.  But even they sometimes display their own political frustration with Congress.  In unscripted fashion, “ordinary people,” both young and old, also show up to share their painful personal stories of mistreatment and neglect under the current health care system.  As TV cameras, radio reporters, and print journalists arrive to cover the event, multi-colored signs demanding “Single Payer Now!”  — donated by the far-away California Nurses Association — compete for attention with a handful of artisanal ones favoring a ban on abortion, “No Cap & Trade,” and “Health Care Reform” but without a “Government Take-over.”

Inside the church, the dark wood walls are adorned with big Sanders-produced posters featuring Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 painting, “Freedom of Speech.”  That middle-brow masterpiece of Americana depicts an earnest Vermont farmer or mechanic, standing up and (apparently without interruption) speaking his piece in front of his neighbors, on town meeting day in Arlington, which just happens to be Bernie’s next stop of the day and Rockwell’s one-time home as well.  In his welcoming remarks, Sanders invokes this hallowed (if not always carefully observed) tradition of civility in small-town give-and-take about public policy.  “You’ve all seen on TV these ruckuses that are going on and attempts to shout other people down.  That is not what the state of Vermont is all about!” he declares to universal applause.

“I will try, uncharacteristically, to be as brief as I can,” Bernie promises, as he lays out a batting order that includes: opening remarks from a pre-arranged panel of three friendlies, follow-up commentary by him, and then an open mike session, alternating between two-minute questions and/or statements from critics of “Obamacare,” lined up on one side of the pews, and those favoring some kind of left/liberal reform on the other side.  The only “union thugs” in sight so far are both on Bernie’s panel.  First, we hear from Jen Henry, a nurse for two decades at Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington and now president of the state’s largest health care workers’ union, and then from Dave Kaczynski, an unemployed Vermont ironworker, who is short, muscular, and tattooed, but otherwise quite unthreatening as he explains the health care plight of “proud, hard-working and blue-collar Vermonters.”

In my section of the congregation, two animated Medicare recipients from Middlebury are still swapping tips about local rheumatologists and physical therapists, while the perky, pony-tailed blond in front of us is wearing a white T-shirt that declares “We Are Tea’d” and “Taxed Enuff Already.”  Billy Clark, from Fairfax in northern Vermont, has already informed one reporter that her three children are “not going to enjoy the freedoms that I’ve had if the government keeps getting involved in our lives.”  Outside the church, we can hear some of her friends chanting away, working an air horn, and showing how “Tea’d” off they are too.

Standing behind the pulpit, Bernie is just getting warmed up, in what will soon be a Protestant sweat lodge.  “Call me what you want but don’t call me some elitist from Washington, D.C.,” he shouts, citing the 300 community forums he has held, on weekends and during Congressional breaks, since he was first elected to serve on Capitol Hill nineteen years ago.  Before the question period even begins, we get a vintage Sanders overview of the sorry state of national politics and the economy.  While most Tea Party adherents sit on their hands and the progressives applaud, Bernie wallops Wall St. for its “greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior.”  He disses “Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives” alike for their “disastrous trade policies.”  He launches a preemptive strike against the mythical federal “death panel” that’s allegedly going to snuff Sarah Palin’s parents, plus her son with Down’s Syndrome.  Sanders says we should worry more about the 18,000 Americans who “die every year because they can’t get to a doctor.”  Somehow, the planetary threat of “global warming” and the necessity of creating “green jobs” also works its way into this peroration, triggering a major outbreak of Tea Party muttering and head shaking.

The first contra who hits the mike is “Paul from Pittsford.”  (In true right-wing radio style, few who try to bust Bernie’s chops have a last name.)  Paul is middle-aged and bearded, dressed in a loud flowered shirt, shorts, and crocs.  Confusingly enough, he confesses to have “voted for Bernie every time — not because I agree with him on everything, but I like him.  I think he’s a stand-up guy.”  However, Paul sees something coming from Washington that he doesn’t like in the form of an “A plan for them, and a B plan for everyone else.”

Bernie’s answer sets the tone for the day.  “I agree, ” he tells Paul.  “You make a damn good point.  Our people should have the same health care plan that Congress has.”  In any debate with conservative populists, Sanders is a master of political jujitsu.  He takes the force of a speaker’s rhetorical anger or suspicion and deftly redirects it toward his own preferred (and more appropriate) corporate or governmental targets.  As the questioning unfolds, he frequently expresses sympathy for any part of a Tea Party rant or complaint that makes the slightest bit of anti-establishment sense.

Mike, from Rutland City, has brought with him, for dramatic effect, what he claims is all 1,017 pages of a House version of the health care bill.  While his main point, based on reading this thick wad of paper three times, is that ” ‘advanced care planning’ really means euthanasia,” he also beseeches Bernie “to come up with something that’s not so wicked complex.”  Sanders asserts that he’s “not a great fan of complicated” either.  When Anne from Poultney says, “I’m disgusted with both sides of the aisle ” in Congress, Bernie follows up with his own insider critique “of the absurdities of the [health care reform] process” and the often “dysfunctional” nature of Congress.  Sanders seems to agree with UE Washington Rep. Chris Townsend‘s recent observation on Portside that “it was the worst possible strategy” in recent history “to take a half-written collection of half a dozen health care reform plans” and then have lawmakers “attempt to answer questions about them” back home in August.  Sanders supporter Deb Richter, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, takes the mike to Bernie’s left and tries to simplify things, by making the case for “Medicare for all.”  When Dr. Deb claims that a majority of Americans want single payer, the other line of waiting speakers erupts in a chorus of “No’s!”

Sanders uses this teachable moment to do a little polling about real existing “100 percent government-controlled health care.”  He asks how many of us in the church, and outside, “think we should get rid of Medicare?”  As the Free Press later reported, “about three hands went up.”  Then Bernie goes on down the list.  “How many think we should get rid of the Veterans Administration?  How many want to do away with the Doctor Dinosaur program here in Vermont?”  Hardly anyone seems willing to ditch public coverage for vets or kids either.

By now Bernie, more than the rest of us, is mopping his brow frequently and working up a real sweat.  While the crew-cut state troopers on either side of him remain impressively cool, standing at attention in their dark glasses, ties, and blazers, the Senator himself has been gesturing emphatically, as he always does, and dealing with questions at the high decibel level necessary to be heard inside the church and outside, via the PA system set up for folks on the lawn.  Bernie’s open-collared blue shirt is now stained with perspiration.  His shoulders have become stooped a bit, his khaki pants are beginning to sag, and his white hair is getting mussed.  It’s time for more questions, on an equal time basis, from the pro and con lines forming outside, so he charges down the aisle and takes up a new position, on the front steps of the church.

After further rhetorical volleys back and forth, between the Senator and his questioners outside, Bernie returns to the pulpit.  “I think I’m earning my salary today,” he says.  But wide-eyed Diane Donnolly from Essex Junction is at the right mike and she doesn’t look very sympathetic.  She brandishes a hand-written sign with a favorite quote from Ronald Reagan: “Never fall for the sweet talk of government-run health care.  It will be the END OF FREEDOM!”

She cites problems with Social Security and “lines at the DMV” as two strikes against single-payer.  Says Diane, not very sweetly: “I do not want America to turn into a socialistic country . . . with our health care becoming, government-run bull crap!”

Bernie responds in kind, with a hint of sarcasm: “I do not believe that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or Doctor Dinosaur lead to totalitarian government.”  But Diane’s is not the only reference to his personal views.  Several other Tea Partiers preface their remarks by declaring their disagreement with Sanders’ own “socialistic policies,” explaining that’s why they never vote for him.  But one such voter, John from Pawlet, did thank Sanders for the staff-written replies to his letters to the Senator’s office on various issues.  In contrast, John was displeased with the answers he had received from Bernie’s two missing-in-action Capitol Hill colleagues, finding them to be insubstantial and even condescending.  “That is not you and I appreciate it,” he told the crowd, before launching into a diatribe against tort lawyer malfeasance and blaming Bernie for “letting them [the lawyers] get away with it.”

This unexpected sword thrust soon has Bernie off and running against a better target — Ben Bernanke.  He cites the need for greater accountability and transparency in federal bailout schemes for big financial institutions, blaming the Federal Reserve chief for stonewalling the public in this area.  Earlier he had recalled his legendary jousting, as a congressman, with Alan Greenspan in House banking committee hearings.  But, for his hard-core critics, Bernie’s singular track record as an inside-the-Beltway dissenter is just not their cup of tea.  As the Rutland talkfest nears its conclusion, the questioning gets bogged down in back-and-forth arguments about whose taxes have and haven’t been raised lately.  One of Bernie’s last interlocutors, outside the church, is Fred from Fair Haven, a deeply tanned and mustachioed fellow in a muscle shirt.  Fred just keeps talking while Sanders tries to parry his complaints about deficit spending, by referencing the views of leading economists.  The bottom line, Bernie explains, is that “the only way you can extend coverage to all without raising taxes is via single payer.”

Arlington, Vermont, 15 August 2009

Back at the pulpit inside, Bernie pronounces himself pleased with “the dialogue,” reassuring us that he doesn’t “consider anyone here an enemy.”  Today, he declares proudly, “We have shown America that we can disagree with each other without being disagreeable.”  A few minutes later, he tells a reporter that he hopes “this type of display becomes a model for the rest of the country.”  As Sanders drives off in a white sedan, headed for Route 7 and his next stop thirty miles away, a Tea Party stalwart, still on the sidewalk, is droning through a bullhorn about “equal distribution of misery.  That’s what they want — and we don’t need it!”  For one of the hardest working (and most substantive) fellows in political show business, there won’t even be time for lunch, before the bell sounds again before a crowd of 500 in a recreation park in Norman Rockwell’s old hometown.  An experience that has indeed been miserable for some in Congress this August has become just another town meeting day for Bernie.

Steve Early is a Boston-based labor journalist, former union organizer, and author of Embedded with Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home, from Monthly Review Press.  He can be reached at <Lsupport@aol.com>.  For more information on the Vermont Workers Center mobilization around health care town meetings in Vermont, see <www.workerscenter.org>.  This article was first published by ZNet on 19 August 2009.