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The World According
To An Outsider Like Us

"Was I elected to Congress as the first Independent in forty years so that I could hire a slick Washington insider consultant who will tell me what to say and do?... Am I going to be shaped and molded by a Washington insider? Not while I have a breath in my body."

Bernie Sanders, Outsider in the House

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For those UE members who stop by the bookstore once in a while, you’ll know that members of Congress write books on a regular basis. More like it, they pay someone to write it for them. It’s a simple formula. First, hire a Washington public relations insider. Next, pay the guy to pump up your mediocre career as a member of Congress. If you’ve ever taken the plunge and shelled out more than a few bucks for any of these political autobiographies, chances are you regret it. Most won’t even sell at the yard sale.

Then Bernie Sanders decided to write a book. No stranger to UE members, the longest sitting Independent member of the U.S. House of Representative recently invaded the bookstores with his 244-page Outsider in the House. Finally, here’s a volume from one of our lawmakers worth reading.

With the help of his Vermont friend Huck Gutman, Bernie Sanders does a terrific job of weaving together several different stories at once. From the personal story of Bernie Sanders and his many political organizing and electoral efforts to the story of how Vermonters have come together to build a progressive network of working people and small farmers, this book covers lots of ground in short order. It’s also a prescription for what’s wrong with our movement, as Sanders ends with some realistic and compelling advice concerning our future in a chapter entitled "Where Do We Go From Here?"

Bernie Sanders began his "career" in politics back in 1972, when he showed up at the meeting of a minuscule Vermont third party and emerged as its nominee for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. With zero chance of winning, Sanders did manage to inject into an otherwise lackluster election campaign a new perspective, something dramatically different from the Tweedledee-Tweedledum of the Democrat and Republican candidates in the race. One theme of the "Sanders for Senate" campaign was to hammer on the fact that a relative handful of wealthy individuals control both the economy and the news media, shutting out alternative views of democracy, or of how to manage our economy and government.

HEROIC LANDSLIDE LOSSES

As Bernie tells it, the debates were a highlight of that campaign. "More often than not, the audience was sympathetic to the views I expressed — especially the call for economic justice," Bernie says. "The lesson I learned from those debates and the audience response — a lesson that remains with me today — is that the ideas I was espousing were not ‘far out’ or ‘fringe.’ Frankly, they were ‘mainstream.’"

On election day, Sanders won a whopping two percent of the vote. Not too bad after raising and spending less than a thousand dollars. Six months later he ran for Governor of Vermont. Another heroic landslide loss.

Bernie’s breakthrough came almost 10 years later, when he ran as an independent for mayor of Burlington. The outspoken candidate exposed the cozy relationship of the local business community with the incumbent Democrat administration and opposed plans by developers to fill up the beautiful Lake Champlain waterfront with luxury condos. He condemned plans for a big property tax increase and championed the plight of tenants in a city with less and less affordable housing.

Finally, in this campaign, the candidate’s consistent advocacy of unionism connected with voters. Frustrated at the constant anti-labor assaults of the incumbent mayor, a Democrat, the city workers’ and police unions gave key support to the Sanders effort.

"The coalition we had brought together — low-income people, hard-pressed working-class homeowners, environmentalists, renters, trade unionists, college students, professors, and now the police — reinforced each other in the belief that together we could win the election," Bernie writes.

THE PEOPLE’S MAYOR

In March 1981 Bernie became mayor of Vermont’s largest city by just 10 votes.

The state’s largest newspaper still refers to that election night as "the story of the decade."

Sanders served as mayor for eight years, holding on to office by continuing to speak to the working people of Burlington about the real problems they faced.

Less than two years later, the Burlington Free Press, the state’s largest newspaper, was calling on Republicans and Democrats to come together behind one candidate in order to dump Sanders. "Here I was, year after year, telling people that there wasn’t a helluva big difference between the two major parties, and the Burlington Free Press agreed with me," Bernie wryly observes.

The Sanders formula was simple: Talk about what matters. Knock on doors and offer real leadership to working people. Then work like hell to change things once you win.

Bernie Sanders and his supporters also understood that working people would have to be organized back into political life, stirred out of their electoral slumber, if the campaign was to succeed.

"In 1979, before the progressive movement was active in Burlington, 7,000 people had voted in the mayoral election... In 1983, when I was re-elected, 13,320 people voted, almost twice as many... The citizens of Burlington had seen a local government working for their interests, and they came out in large numbers to support it."

ELECTED TO CONGRESS

But would this formula work outside of Burlington? Vermont voters answered that in 1990 when they elected Bernie Sanders as an independent to represent them in Washington as their sole member in the U.S. House of Representatives. With 56 percent of the vote, Sanders carried every county in Vermont except one, defeating both a Republican and a Democrat.

Today, almost seven years later, Bernie Sanders remains the only member of the House of Representatives to have earned an unbroken, lifetime 100% pro-labor voting record, as measured by the annual UE Legislative Scorecard.

In Outsider in the House, readers will appreciate some of the inside story from Sanders on the heroic but failed struggle for national health care, the battle against the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the daily battle against corporate greed.

Bernie has been in the forefront of virtually every battle to advance or defend the interests of working people and family farmers since going to Washington, and for that he has earned himself an honored place at the top of the big business political "hit list." He is no stranger to UE members in the state, having walked our picket lines and assisted UE members with their problems in ways too numerous to count. He regularly advises unorganized workers to organize — to join a union — making him a rare commodity in the halls of Congress.

NO ‘PAYOFFS FOR LAYOFFS’

And for those who wonder if one person really can make a difference in Congress, or if voting really does matter, the case of the taxpayer-financed corporate bonus scheme provides an answer.

"One of Burlington’s largest employers was Martin Marietta. When that defense contractor merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed-Martin, I was more than usually attuned to the implications of the deal — the downsizing of 17,000 American workers... The executives of the newly-merged company decided to pay themselves $91 million in executive bonuses... as a reward for obliterating 17,000 jobs.... My legislative director discovered that fully one-third of that money... was to come from the Pentagon as "restructuring costs." Imagine: workers thrown out of their jobs paying taxes so that the bastards who fired them could stuff their pockets."

Sanders introduced an amendment to prohibit this "payoffs for layoffs" scheme, and it passed by a voice vote.

Bernie Sanders’ book Outsider in the House will make interesting reading for UE members in Vermont and all across the country. While it is the story of one man, his supporters, their movement, and their struggles, it is really much more than that. It is a guide to action. As organized labor begins to re-invigorate its political action, Bernie’s example of a progressive, principled message combined with low-tech, people-to-people campaigning shows the way forward.

OUTSIDERS NO MORE

And for the Labor Party, the Sanders experience proves that if you start small, get lots of practice, learn from your mistakes and stick to your principles, you can and will win. Educating, energizing and turning out our supporters — working people — is the formula for success in Vermont, and elsewhere. Sanders says it all: "How many times have I knocked on doors... and heard people say, with pride in their voice, ‘I don’t vote... Nobody’s going to represent my interests.’ I am sustained by the hope that one day, when millions of Americans are actively involved in the political process and are standing up for their rights and those of their children, a majority of the members of Congress will then represent the interests of ordinary people, and not the rich. When that day comes, we will no longer be outsiders in the House."

Outsider in the House by Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman is available at your local bookstore, or can be ordered for $25 dollars directly from Verso books, 180 Varick Street, New York, NY, 10014, or by calling (212) 807-9680. At $25 this hardback book may seem a little steep, but it’s worth it. If price is the problem, ask your UE local to buy a copy to pass around your workplace, or show this article to your local public librarian and ask them to buy a copy. Do what you must, but Outsider in the House is a must-read, from an "outsider" who’s just like us.

—UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend

UE News - 12/97


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