There are many models for political change. There are the many issue groups that focus on the problems, define solutions, and then create the political pressure to implement those solutions. There are the “small p” progressives who work within the Democratic party to effect change from within. There are those few politicians who stay outside the party structure by running as Independents.
In Vermont, we have created another model: the Vermont Progressive Party, a people-powered party, independent of the two corporate-owned parties, engaged in grassroots organizing.
In 1981, Bernie Sanders (now Vermont’s junior Senator) was elected mayor of Burlington, beating a conservative “old boy” Democrat. Bernie brought the best and the brightest into City Hall and implemented many reforms that were simply modern good government. He empowered a range of citizens to have a direct voice in city government: from students, to the poor, to the elderly.
Progressives started running for the Burlington City Council and getting elected from the poor, student, and middle-class areas of Burlington. They cleaned up the waterfront, which had been left trashed by industry, started city-wide recycling, and established a public/private partnership with a land trust to make low- and moderate-income rental and home ownership available. The Progressive Administration started a women’s small business technical assistance program and an affirmative action ordinance for the awarding of city contracts. The city-owned public electric utility created nationally-recognized efficiency programs, developed a wood-burning electric facility, and provides Burlington residents with the lowest electric rates in the state.
Progressives began to run for the Vermont Legislature from Burlington districts which elected one, then two, then three, then four representatives. In 2000, we established a statewide party, the Vermont Progressive Party, and in our first statewide race, we attained the status of Major Party and elected our first legislator outside of Burlington, in the southernmost Vermont city of Brattleboro.
In 2002, Anthony Pollina, the Progressive candidate for Lt. Governor, received 25% of the vote in a statewide race, the largest percentage of any third party candidate for statewide office in the country at the time. Pollina is an advocate for farmers and his best showings were in rural, traditionally Republican areas.
In 2004, we elected three additional legislators, all from rural, traditionally Republican areas of Vermont. In 2008, we elected our first State Senator, in a year when Pollina made a second bid for Governor, coming in second behind the Republican incumbent. In 2010, Pollina became the second Progressive elected to the State Senate and in 2012 David Zuckerman, a former Progressive legislator from Burlington, became the third.
Also in 2012, Doug Hoffer was elected Vermont State Auditor, becoming the first Progressive elected to statewide office.
In 2014, Progressives added two more representatives to our House Caucus. The Progressive Party now has Progressive legislators representing constituents in six counties (Chittenden, Orange, Rutland, Washington, Windham, Windsor).
Until 2012, Progressives held the mayor’s office in Burlington in every election but one since Sanders was elected, and remain a strong presence on the City Council. The Burlington City Council is currently composed of four Progressives, four Democrats, three independents, and one Republican. Jane Knodell (Progressive – Central District) is now the City Council President.
A Model for Change:
The VPP is the most successful independent party in the US. We currently have eight members in the Vermont Legislature. Progressives have been elected to the Vermont Legislature, without interruption, for 20 years.
This is not a traditional third party. Our model is not Ralph Nader. We pick the races we enter strategically. We recruit candidates who are entrenched in their communities. We do not run against other “progressive” candidates.
We challenge the status quo, and this puts pressure on both of the other major parties. The Republicans and Democrats have achieved a comfort zone. They are entrenched in business-as-usual and big-money politics. They need each other and do not want competition from anyone with new ideas. They define themselves in opposition to each other, rather than articulating what they stand for.
In Vermont, our presence pushes the envelope on many fronts. As we speak out on issues and provide leadership, the voters express their support for our positions. This puts pressure on the other parties in campaigns, and in legislation. Our strong voice keeps progressive issues on the forefront and forces all the candidates to take positions on them. As our legislators speak out on the House floor, we provide cover for those progressive Democrats — and Republicans — who are unable to speak out against their party leadership.
Progressive leadership in the Vermont Legislature resulted in the opposition to utility deregulation in our state and in passage of rBGH growth hormone labeling laws and Medical Marijuana legislation. It has lead to full marriage equality, a path to universal, single-payer health care, and much more. On major issues of social justice and econimc equity, Progressives consistently lead the way.
We are strongly pro-labor and supporters of small agriculture. We have backed issues such as universal health care, opposition to No Child Left Behind, comprehensive tax reform, and many other issues which have forced the other parties to take public positions on these items and to move toward the Progressive positions.
This is not the only model for political change, but has proven viable in Vermont. As our hard work and measured pace pay off with state policies more in needs with working Vermonters, these successes point to a way forward for organizers and activists in other states unable to work within the two-party duopoly or on third parties focused on national, rather than local, races.