[O]n Sept. 4, 1985, then-Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders held an impromptu press conference to announce that the city’s ambitious street and sidewalk upgrades were ahead of schedule.
After a few questions about Burlington street work, reporters turned to a more contentious topic: the recent arrest and imprisonment of Sanders’ former assistant city treasurer, Barr Swennerfelt.
Earlier that year, more than 100 Vermonters had gathered in front of Burlington’s Federal Building on Elmwood Avenue to protest President Ronald Reagan’s interventionist military policy in Nicaragua. As part of the peace effort, three protesters, including Swennerfelt, scaled a fence at the General Electric plant in Burlington, just off Pine Street. According to an account by the Burlington Free Press, the protesters then “climbed atop a tank with Vulcan rapid-fire guns, and placed flowers in the barrels.”
“Guns produced at GE right now are killing people,’ Swennerfelt told the Free Press.
Sanders agreed with the protesters in spirit. In an unusual step for a mayor, Sanders had visited Nicaragua that summer to attend ceremonies marking the sixth anniversary of the Sandinista revolution that put anti-imperialist President Daniel Ortega in power. In El Salvador, U.S.-backed forces reportedly used helicopters equipped with guns made at GE. Yet Sanders took a hard line against the local protesters, and declined to criticize GE, one of the city’s biggest employers with a strong union and good-paying jobs.
Burlington police were dispatched to break up the protests, and some, including Swennerfelt, were arrested. Now 72, Swennerfelt told VTDigger that, in the wake of the protest, Sanders had demanded she pledge to cease any activism if she wanted to remain in his administration.
“I’m a Quaker, and had been led to these actions, which were part of a spiritual peace group,” Swennerfelt explained. “I told Bernie I couldn’t promise that, so I left my job.”
Swennerfelt was behind bars for a month or so, and was released from prison shortly before the 1985 road-paving press conference, and reporters pressed Sanders on whether his actions towards her had betrayed his own deeply held political beliefs.
One reporter asked Sanders whether there “may have been a contradiction on your part as someone … who talks a lot about peace and justice and yet not supporting someone who acts on it.”
“Barr is entitled to her view,” Sanders said, before defending her arrest by police as the “appropriate thing to do.” He further insisted that his administration was waging a “fight for a peaceful world and for economic justice.” Then he abruptly ended the press conference and walked away.
The incident typified Sanders’ long-held attitude to the military. While the Vermont senator routinely rips on Pentagon spending and major defense contractors, insisting in campaign speeches that “we need to take on the military industrial complex,” he has held his fire on several defense projects inside the state’s borders.
Over his decades-long political career, Sanders has helped secure millions in federal grants for the GE Aviation plant in Rutland and wooed a Lockheed Martin solar research center to Burlington. Tens of millions of dollars worth of additional military earmarks were secured through Sanders’ quiet congressional work.
He has also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the state’s political leaders as a stalwart supporter of the Vermont National Guard and its controversial and troubled new plane, the F-35 fighter jet. The first two of those planes are expected to touch down at Burlington International Airport this month, despite strong opposition from community leaders and local activists.
“The military is a very complex issue for Bernie,” said Garrison Nelson, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Vermont who has known Sanders for 40 years. “It’s not an issue he’s comfortable with because of all the pressure he gets from the hard lefties. He can’t antagonize this core progressive base, but must also not come off as radical, which could scare people away.”
Nelson joked that Sanders’ support of the F-35 was directed “almost at the point of a gun”– essentially all but mandated once the two other members of Vermont’s congressional delegation came out in favor of the planes. “If the F-35 wasn’t on the agenda he’d be a lot happier not do this juggling act,” Nelson added.
Swennerfelt, who has long supported Sanders, said the commonly held assumption of him as a protester or peacenik is a media misconception. “It isn’t Bernie’s bailiwick to go out, hold a sign, and get arrested,” she said. “Bernie believes in the military. He’s not a pacifist.”
Sanders did declare himself a pacifist when he applied for (and was later denied) conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. And when it comes to big picture military policy, Sanders has long prioritized economic sanctions and diplomacy over war, with a few high profile exceptions.
In a recent story examining Sanders’ foreign policy record, VTDigger reported that the Vermont senator was one of the few federal lawmakers who voted against the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but supported a NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo. He voted against the Iraq War resolution in 2002, but supported military action in Afghanistan the year before to track down the terrorists responsible for 9/11.
Sanders declined to speak with VTDigger for this story.
While Sanders is generally opposed to war, he appears to hold a fundamental appreciation for the strong benefits of a military job, and has pointed to two benefits in particular that he’d like to see extended to the general public — free college and socialized medicine — which already exist for the military community in the form of the G.I. Bill and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sanders, a former chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has sought to further strengthen these and other military benefits in office. In 2008, Sanders was a co-sponsor of the Post 9/11 G.I. bill, which expanded college benefits and housing stipends for those who served. In 2014, he was a key player in killing congressional efforts to slash military pensions, and he’s authored legislation aimed at strengthening the Department of Veterans Affairs and securing new health benefits, including dental care, for veterans.
This work has earned Sanders numerous awards from veterans’ service organization and, in a 2016 Military Times poll, he was the most popular Democrat among active duty service members.
Sanders is also popular with employees of the military industrial complex. According to a VTDigger analysis of federal campaign data, Sanders received more than $850,000 during his 2016 presidential campaign from employees of the 50 largest military contractors, though many came in amounts under $1,000. (So far this cycle, Sanders has taken in more than $31,000 from employees of this same group of defense companies.)
Separately, over the course of his congressional career, Sanders has received more than $85,000 in political donations from the four major contractors working on the F-35: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and United Technologies.
Moreover, Sanders’ former Senate chief of staff and senior 2016 campaign adviser, Michaeleen Earle Crowell, recently signed up as a lobbyist for Boeing, according to federal lobbying disclosures. Her work has included pushing for “funding for the F15X,” a fighter jet manufactured by the mammoth defense company. Sanders has not taken a public position on the F-15, and a spokesman for the senator said, per congressional ethics rules, no staffer has spoken to Crowell about Boeing.
Shortly before kicking off his first presidential campaign, in May 2014, Sanders was interviewed by John Nichols, a progressive columnist at The Nation magazine, before a generally friendly crowd in Northampton, Massachusetts.
However, near the end of the event, during a question-and-answer session, one attendee challenged the Vermont senator’s support for the F-35.
“In Burlington, there’s a lot of good people working hard to stop basing the F-35 — this is the military industrial complex at its strongest and you came out in favor of basing it there,” the questioner noted.
“The F-35 is the cutting edge plane, the fighter plane for the United State Air Force, Navy, and NATO,” Sanders retorted. “That’s a fact, do you deny that?”
After the questioner appeared to raise some of the plane’s significant safety concerns, Sanders interrupted him.“You may think it doesn’t work, but the Department of Defense does think it works.” Sanders then reverted to his longtime view on military projects: the economic benefits derived from the project outweigh any drawbacks.
“It employs hundreds of people, it provides a college education for hundreds of people,” Sanders said. “So for me, the question is not whether we have the F-35 or not: it is here. The question for me is whether it is located in Burlington, Vermont, or whether it is located in Florida.”
Ironically, when a small Florida community was faced with the basing of the F-35, a torrent of grassroots political action resulted in the Air Force making significant concessions to the community, including a drastic reduction in plane operations.
Opponents have raised concerns about the plane’s safety for years. The most recent problems were documented in a June multi-part series by Defense News.
Defense News found the version of plane coming to Vermont — the F-35A — risks losing both of its hydraulic brake lines when a tire is blown upon landing. Pilots have also faced obstructed views when flying at night with below-average levels of starlight.
There are also plane problems that don’t jibe with Vermont’s cold winter climate. The plane has faced battery failings in cold conditions. Its Engine Ice Protection System has also been found to be faulty. Facing problems, the military appears to have abandoned the de-icing program altogether, instead, “changing the technical orders to require pilots to shut down the aircraft if icing conditions are encountered on the ground.”
In an unprecedented move, the F-35 development and production phases are being conducted simultaneously, and some early F-35 shipments have been halted after serious concerns were identified. While the Government Accountability Office has advised that all of the F-35’s serious problems should be remediated before full-rate production is achieved later this year, no such action has taken place. (The planes coming to Vermont were built before this important metric is achieved.)
Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation has expressed no serious concerns or misgivings about their unified support of the basing despite Burlington’s shorter-than-average runway smack dab in the most densely populated part of the state.
Over the last year-and-a-half, as VTDigger has detailed significant health and safety concerns related to the plane’s impending basing, provided evidence that the selection process was improperly manipulated by political actors, and revealed a toxic culture of sexual misconduct in the Guard largely led by fighter jet pilots, Sanders has consistently declined to speak on these issues with the press, or the public.
Local stakeholders have found this unresponsiveness, which dates back many years, frustrating.
Retired Air Force Col. Rosanne Greco, a longtime opponent of the F-35, recalled inviting all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation to public forums and meetings on the potential basing as far back as 2012, when she was the chair of the South Burlington City Council.
“Neither them nor any of their staff ever showed up,” Greco said. “It was especially odd for Bernie, who has always appeared to be on the side of the common folks and against the one percent. But here he stands with the military, and his own people are being shafted. He says he’s a man of the people, but he won’t talk to the people.”
Helen Riehle, the current chair of the South Burlington City Council, echoed Greco’s frustration.
“Our concerns seem to fall on deaf ears with the congressional delegation,” Riehle said.
She added: “It’s really quite surprising, because the basing disproportionately affects people of color, new Americans, low and working class residents,” Riehle said. “Bernie – all three of them, really — have been vocal about how important those constituencies are to the economy and to this state. For them to decide that the F-35 has to come, that there couldn’t be another mission for the Guard in Burlington that would also support our economy is mind-boggling.”
“Every state is required to have a National Guard,” Riehle concluded. “Our is not going to go away.”
A Sanders adviser who asked not to be identified insisted: “We have gone pretty far out of our way to meet with anyone who has thoughts or concerns around the F-35.”
While some plane supporters view their opponents as a small group of chronic protesters, the have produced identifiable results — the three cities most impacted by the planes have repeatedly passed resolutions in opposition. They have protested in political offices, conducted civil disobedience, and organized a comment-writing campaign during the Air Force’s environment assessment. Just this week, Greco was arrested after protesting at the Burlington office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Earlier this year, the Vermont Senate passed a resolution in opposition to nuclear systems being based in Vermont; last month the Burlington City Council unanimously passed a similar resolution. (While the F-35 is nuclear capable, Sanders and other lawmakers have strenuously suggested that Vermonters need not worry about Vermont’s fleet taking up such arms.)
In recent weeks, after new noise maps were released that showed a tripling of homes impacted by dangerous F-35 noise, at least three new groups opposed to the planes have sprung up, and are planning multiple protests in the coming weeks.
Even some of Sanders’ top allies in the state have joined these efforts. Both ice cream magnate Ben Cohen, who is one of Sanders’ 2020 campaign co-chairs, and noted environmentalist Bill McKibben, a frequent Sanders surrogate, recently signed on to a group, led by Greco, that’s fighting against the planes. (Ironically enough, Sanders’ likeness was used in a pro-plane pamphlet created by the Green Ribbons for the F-35, a citizens group that supports the F-35 basing.)
Out of Sanders’ allies, Cohen has been most involved in this activism, bankrolling research, media and protest work. Last year he was arrested after blasting the sound of jet noise in downtown Burlington. During the last legislative session, he successfully lobbied on the Senate resolution opposed to nuclear bombers.
Cohen and Sanders have discussed the planes periodically over the years, but Cohen says he hasn’t been able to sway Sanders.
Cohen said he’s talked to his friend about the issue a few times, but to no avail. “That’s one thing he and I do not agree on,” he said. “And anytime I can find a politician with whom I agree 98 or 99 percent of the time, I’ll take that.”
It’s hard to track down exactly why Sanders has so vociferously supported the F-35, but it appears partially informed by the 1993 closing of Plattsburgh, New York’s Air Force base, formerly located on the western end of Lake Champlain. A Sanders adviser noted that the closing “had a significant negative impact on Plattsburgh as a city. Bernie saw that very real impact.”
In response, while he has repeatedly criticized military spending and weapons projects, Sanders has decoupled these issue from the F-35 — the biggest financial boondoggle in Pentagon history — as well as other defense projects with a Vermont connection.
As a House member in the mid-’90s, Sanders called out Lockheed Martin’s issuance of $92 billion in executive bonuses shortly after the company announced thousands of layoffs. Sanders tried to stop these bonuses through legislation, but was unsuccessful. In 2011, Sanders’ Senate office found that $300 billion was funneled over a three-year period to Pentagon contractors who had been convicted of fraud. Last year, when Congress passed a historically large Pentagon budget, Sanders was one of just 10 senators to vote against it.
Sanders has pledged to shrink the military budget if elected president, but, in an interview this year with Vox, would not commit to shutting down government or vetoing a Congressional budget should he be presented with a boosted defense budget.
Yet in 2014, when then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sought to shrink the size of the National Guard, Sanders joined Vermont’s political class in opposing the cuts.
“The Guard already makes up nearly half of the Army’s combat personnel and more than a third of that of the Air Force, but accounts for just seven percent of the total defense budget,” Sanders said in a statement at the time. “To my mind, we should be growing – rather than shrinking – the National Guard.”
Most announcements on defense grants for Vermont have come from Sanders’ Senate counterpart, Patrick Leahy, who has long served on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Yet even early in his Senate career, before so-called earmarks were banned, Sanders quietly worked to secure millions in military money for his state.
Between 2008 and 2011, Sanders helped secure more than $74 million for military and defense projects in Vermont, far more than he earmarked for types of work he prioritizes in his rhetoric, like education or the environment. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, this work included everything from $1.6 million for Darn Tough to produce socks for the Marines Corps to more than $10 million to improve the Guard’s military firing range.
Sanders’ most public work to woo defense contractors occurred in 2011, when he helped bring a firm]managed by Lockheed Martin to Burlington. While the project was for solar energy, it rubbed some of Vermont’s lefties the wrong way, and violated the spirit of a recently passed Burlington City Council resolution that called for the city not to work with weapons producers or environmental polluters. Greg Guma, the former editor of the Vanguard Press, chronicled the development on his blog:
Despite concerns about Lockheed’s consistently bad behavior Sanders didn’t think inviting a subsidiary to the state would help them get away with anything. Rather, he envisioned Vermont transformed “into a real-world lab for the entire nation” through a strategic public-private partnership. “We’re at the beginning of something that could be of extraordinary significance to Vermont and the rest of the country,” he predicted.
This dissonance is not uncommon in politics, as Sanders made note of in a classroom discussion at the University of Iowa a few months after his talk in Northampton. In his remarks, Sanders openly suggested that politicians improperly refrain from criticizing some military contractors because of the jobs these companies produce back home.
“Any member of Congress that stands up and says, ‘Well, maybe we don’t have to spend $600 billion on the military,’ they get letters from people working in the military industry in their own state,” Sanders said.
While he has been tagged as disingenuous for his simultaneous support of peace and the Vermont National Guard, Sanders has suffused progressive policies into his advocacy for military.
In 2008, Sanders ventured to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, which then boasted the largest solar array in the country. The Vermont senator subsequently spoke to Pentagon officials about making the military more energy efficient, and helped secure more than $8 million for Vermont to create one of the largest solar power projects on any National Guard base. This project led the Vermont Guard to win a national award from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
Sanders’ office has continued to advise and support the Guard on energy-saving projects, including its newly revamped maintenance shop, which was built with a state-of-the-art energy management system.
Sanders has also fought for better benefits for military members. Virtually all of the 39 bills Sanders has introduced relating to the military have been aimed at expanding or strengthening healthcare inside the Department of Veterans Affairs. Perhaps his most significant legislation to date is the 2014 VA Choice Act, which strengthened capacity at the VA while also opening up more private health care options to veterans.
This law, forged with late Republican Sen. John McCain, came in the wake of a scandal at a VA hospital in Phoenix in which administrators were doctoring wait-time data to make it appear as if veterans were accessing care much faster than was the case. Sanders was criticized for defending the VA in the wake of this scandal, and of being blind to the department’s significant problems. In countering this criticism, Sanders has pointed to Republicans’ longtime unwillingness to get on board with his comprehensive VA proposals, which he had introduced in the years before the scandal, to tepid support. (As VTDigger previously reported, the VA Choice Act created new problems for veterans across the country while doing little to ease longstanding concerns inside the agency.)
Sanders also worked earnestly to establish and support a family support network inside the Vermont National Guard that was hailed in the press as “a national model.” The web of programs includes everything proactive mental health and wellness outreach to free child care services.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, in 2004, Sanders attended a holiday party held for Vermont National Guard families that was hosted by the Pomerleau family, one of the largest developers in Chittenden County. Following a round of holiday tunes, Sanders spoke to the crowd, and pledged support and assistance.
It was classic Sanders: opposing war but supporting the soldier.
“We know that a lot of families are hurting right now, especially at this time of the year,” Sanders began. “I think I can speak for the entire delegation when I say we are going to do everything we can in Washington to make sure the men and women over there have the equipment and the training that they need — that we’re going to bring them as soon as possible and as safely as possible. And while they are over there, we’re going to do our best to make sure that the kids and the wives back home are never forgotten, not for one single day.”