Political proteges and pushing progressive policies part of Sanders’ legacy

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders leaves without taking questions after speaking at a press conference in Burlington on March 11, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Tim Ashe still remembers the summer day in 2001 when he told Bernie Sanders he was leaving to sprout his own political wings.

Ashe, then 24, had worked for the congressman since 1999. He started at the bottom — his first job was answering the phones at the front desk, where the edict was to never let it ring more than twice, a strict policy Sanders put in place so constituents felt heard.

When he decided to leave, Ashe told Sanders how much he had learned and been inspired to help others. Then Ashe, who is currently the leader of the state Senate and a candidate for lieutenant governor, told Sanders it was time for him to forge his own political path.

Almost two decades later, Sanders has ended his second presidential bid in five years, and despite failing to win the White House either time, he has, much like with Ashe, energized a new generation of political newcomers across the country. 

Experts say it is this ability to inspire his followers which may give the Vermont independent a lasting legacy long after he has left the national political spotlight.

After a series of bruising primary losses compounded by the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Sanders bowed out of the presidential race earlier this month.  While the 78-year-old’s chance to win the White House has closed, the momentum he’s built — by inspiring swaths of young people and forcing progressive policy proposals into the mainstream political debate — mean his influence is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

“Those two things are — when you think of them together — exactly the two staunchest assets you want if you are trying to have a long lasting impact,” Patricia Siplon, a professor of political science at Saint Michael’s College, said of Sanders’ impact. 

Siplon said that while Sanders “caught on fire with people who are millennials and younger,” she sees Sanders as a pathbreaker who will have to leave the completion of his goals to those who will come after him.

“Bernie is Moses and he led people to the desert but he’s not going to be the one who sees the promised land,” she said.

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Sanders’ ability to inspire young people to become politically active and to run for public office dates back decades before his presidential run. Ashe reflected that his two years in Sanders’ office changed him.

“It definitely kind of clarified my sense of what government is all about and made me far less interested in cozying up to wealthy donors or lobbyists, and much more focused on getting the job done for people,” said Ashe.

Ashe Zuckerman
Two politicians inspired by Bernie Sanders include ​Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, left, conferring with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Democrat/Progressive. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

In 2004, Ashe began his own political ascent, winning a seat on the Burlington City Council before going on to win a state Senate seat in 2008. Since 2017 he has served as the body’s leader, the Senate pro tempore.

“It’s pretty safe to say I would have never run for office had I not worked for Bernie and been influenced by him,” Ashe said.

For Ashe, Sanders’ ability to inspire young people across the country is the Vermont independent’s legacy “at its best.” And, he emphasized, that while Sanders can be the source of a political awakening, his proteges should not necessarily be carbon copies.

“It’s not that the millions of people who have been inspired have to be 100% just like Bernie or there is no occasion for the kinds of disagreements — which are natural,” Ashe said. “It’s to take the broader themes and inspiration and then set out on our own, to be our own people.” 

In addition to inspiring others to run, experts speculate that the other legacy the Vermont senator leaves behind is the Democratic Party’s marked shift to the left as a result of his presidential bids in 2016 and 2020 in which Sanders broadened the national political debate to include universal health care, taxing the wealthiest Americans and student debt forgiveness.

“He has been warning people about global economic disparities, the rise of inequality and income inequality, and about the growing gaps between the haves and the have-nots for a long time,” said Matthew Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.

“Anyone looking back historically has got to say he has had a profound impact on the agenda the federal government is going to have to address going forward,” he said.

Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said another way to gauge Sanders’ influence on the Democratic Party will be how many progressive candidates win elections in the coming years.

“It will be interesting to see how many of Bernie’s younger supporters will decide to run for office, win contested Democratic primaries and if they can win outside of strongly Democratic cities in the Northeast,” Davis said.

For Peter Clavelle, who was the director of the Community and Economic Development Office when Sanders was mayor of Burlington — he would later become mayor himself — what Sanders did nationally in the last half decade mirrors what he did in Burlington as mayor in the 1980s.

“He’s transformed politics in this country,” Clavelle said. “This whole ‘it’s not about me, it’s about us’ has taken hold and in the same way he has led the creation of this national political movement over the past five years, he did that on a much smaller scale in Burlington 40 years ago.”

Clavelle said Sanders’ work to elevate the discussion around universal health care and free college education, as well as creating the blueprint for a Green New Deal, will be part of Sanders’ legacy. Many of the senator’s proposals, Clavelle noted, took time to become politically palatable.

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“All these ideas — five years ago — were radical and fringe and they are now part of the mainstream discussion,” he said. “I think it represents a major shift.”

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who is running for governor as a Progressive/Democrat and who volunteered for Sanders’ congressional campaigns in the 1990s, contests that in addition to creating the party’s political agenda, Sanders has also expanded the Democratic base.

“One of the big misses by mainstream party folks, nationally, with Bernie was they saw him as dividing the Democratic Party when he was the epitome of bringing new people in and they missed that opportunity,” Zuckerman said. 

“But they didn’t all have the liberal pedigree, they had the populist pedigree, and that was uncomfortable for some of the coastal parts of the party,” he added. “They couldn’t understand it.”

Continuing the fight

Though Sanders has dropped out of the race, he’s continuing to collect delegates — part of an effort to continue to shape the Democratic Party agenda.

Four years ago, Sanders had enough delegates to influence the party platform. That sway resulted in inclusion of a $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization, and stricter enforcement of environmental regulations. Warren Gunnels, a longtime Sanders adviser, told NBC at the time, that the campaign received “at least 80%” of what it wanted.

His 2016 race influenced more than policy. The enthusiasm it created helped fuel the election of progressive Democrats including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Deb Haaland, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to Congress in 2018.

Early in the 2020 race, Sanders’ influence was clear — almost all the candidates in the crowded field supported some version of Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal, tuition-free college, and marijuana legalization.

“I remember saying to myself about a year ago that he didn’t need to be a candidate again, a lot of candidates were picking up his mantle,” said Linda Fowler, a professor and political analyst at Dartmouth College. 

“But he wanted to go farther than that and actually see his policies get adopted,” she added. “That’s not going to happen.”

Green New Deal Housing
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., unveiled a bill to upgrade public housing as part of the Green New Deal. Photo by Kit Norton/VTDigger

Sanders still hopes that by winning delegates, his proposals to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, invest in public housing, forgive all college debt, and enact expansive economic climate action might become policy bedrock for the party at the convention this year.

But in a primary season that was won when the more moderate wing of the party coalesced around Biden, it remains unclear how far the former vice president will go to appease Sanders’ supporters and the progressives under the Demcocratic Party umbrella.

“I think that the biggest message the mainstream Democrat needs to hear is that its future relies on the people Bernie activated,” Siplon, of Saint Michael’s College, said. “They didn’t have the numbers to pull off the nomination, but they are the future of the party.”

However, Fowler said it will be difficult to gauge Sanders’ overall influence on the Democratic Party until years from now. She expects that the party will take what it needs from Sanders’ agenda and discard the rest. 

“The Sanders movement is a third party movement rather than a take-over movement of a major party,” she said. “Historically major parties simply co-opt third party platforms.”

Biden and Bernie

Bringing the two sides of the Democratic Party together will be easier said than done.

When Sanders endorsed Biden earlier this month, he said their campaigns had worked together to create six task forces to look at “some of the most important issues facing the country” — the economy, education, climate change, immigration, health care and criminal justice reform. 

They start out in different camps.

“It’s no great secret out there, Joe, that you and I have our differences,” Sanders said, adding he was hopeful the groups would come together to “work out real solutions.”

Biden has already moved closer to Sanders on a number of policy decisions — including raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and recently announcing he now supports making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose parents make less than $125,000 annually.

In 2016, the Democratic Party establishment derided many of his views. This year, many are praising his vision as they push his supporters to help Biden.

Robby Mook, a Vermont native who headed up Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, tweeted that it was” great to see” Biden and Sanders on a livestream together after Sanders dropped out to show “so vividly what’s at stake and why we have to come together.”

“His voice will be so important in the months ahead,” Mook said.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders
Days after dropping out of the presidential race, Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden in a campaign livestream.

Former President Barack Obama called Sanders “an American original” during his endorsement of Biden and said the Vermont senator has devoted his life to “giving voice to working people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations.”   

“The ideas he championed, the energy and enthusiasm he inspired — especially in young people — will be critical in moving America in a direction of progress and hope,” Obama said.

Sanders has encouraged voters to support him in the remaining primaries but has also been clear they should vote for Biden over Trump in the general election.

“If people want to vote for me, we’d appreciate it,” Sanders said, explaining to the Associated Press his decision to remain on the ballots. “I think you’re going to see significant movement on the part of the Biden campaign into a more progressive direction on a whole lot of issues.”

But Dickinson said Sanders’ collection of delegates holds less sway than backdoor negotiations between Biden and Sanders — particularly on Medicare for All and who is eligible for free college and student loan forgiveness.

“I think it is going to be brass knuckles knockdown negotiations behind the [scenes],” Dickinson said. “The measure of success Bernie is having will be how far Joe Biden will publicly embrace Bernie’s message.”

Some staunch Sanders supporters are so far unwilling to back Biden.

Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ campaign press secretary, tweeted progressive support “hinges on Biden making meaningful concessions to the left.” 

Sanders supporter Shaun King, writer and civil rights activist, complained of  “resenting a country that continues to force us to choose between the lesser of two evils” and vote for the former vice president.

Even Ocasio-Cortez, who has been floated as Sanders’ progressive heir apparent, has been leery of endorsing Biden unless he migrates left.

During an April interview with The New York Times, Ocasio-Cortez said the Biden campaign had not yet reached out to her and worried unifying the Democratic Party may be considered more important than making progress on policy questions.

“The whole process of coming together should be uncomfortable for everyone involved — that’s how you know it’s working,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “If Biden is only doing things he’s comfortable with, then it’s not enough.”

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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