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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Watching Bernie, from way back

I first met and interviewed Bernie Sanders when I’d become a Boston Globe correspondent covering Vermont from Montpelier, and he’d just been re-elected mayor of Burlington. Over the years I’ve spoken with him a number of times and seen him many more — and like most all of us here in Vermont, I’ve always seen him in the same damn shirt.

Blue button-down, sleeves rolled up. That’s it. The late great Peter Freyne, for many years Vermont’s totally iconoclastic political columnist, once wrote that “the man has been known to wear the same pair of pants for a week.” And when Bernie first went to Washington as our Congressman, lots of us wondered if we’d ever actually see him wear a tie.

Well, now we have. And Bernie is, from my perspective, a much more important national candidate than Donald Trump. That’s not only because he’s actually honest; it’s because he is speaking to people’s hopes, aspirations and constructive ideas along with their anger. And yes, it’s amazing to Vermonters who’ve followed him for years to see our rumpled old grouch become a nationwide youth phenomenon.

But believe me. We could do a whole lot worse.

I’m still not even sure if I’m a Bernie supporter. He’s a haranguer. Hillary was more of a bridge-builder, when she was in the Senate; I have a hard time seeing how Bernie can budge the bitter polarization in D.C. Up here we’re even kind of amazed that he’s running as a Democrat! He spent years at war with the local Democratic party when he was Burlington’s mayor. His totally unexpected election, by 10 votes in 1981, overturned a tired, idea-less Democratic majority in the city, and for the first year or so the infuriated City Council wouldn’t even allot him funds for a secretary.

But — and this is an important thing to know — Bernie won everyone’s respect. Yes, he’s been haranguing anyone and everyone about the same economic-inequality issues ever since he was a fringe (and I mean fringe) Liberty Union Party candidate in the 70s; but as a city mayor he was a totally unexpected success. He lectures on the big issues, but he gets all the little things done. I mean, he expanded and revitalized Little League, pushing it into Burlington's lowest-income neighborhoods. He brought in highly talented people of diverse backgrounds, he made sure good things were done that had vision behind them — and he was so focused on city services that his wife Jane says he sometimes rode with the snowplows, late at night, to make sure they cleared every last street.

He was the same sort of congressman, and he is the same sort of senator. Bernie brings in whip-smart people and pushes them hard. Not everyone who has worked closely with him, likes him — but everyone respects him. His office’s constituent service has been second to none; Vermonters are very often amazed at Bernie’s personal attention to them, to the details that are real people with real needs and accomplishments. When my sister Sarah-Lee, an artist in Waterbury Center, won a big contract to do a historical mural at a renovated state office complex, she got a letter of congratulations from Bernie. It’s framed on her wall.

It worries me that Bernie is, as he’ll freely say, not a young man any more — but somehow he’s finding the energy to light up the country on the most grueling campaign road trip imaginable. That has to tell us something. If he should actually win, the biggest question isn’t even whether he can work with Republicans — hell, can he work with Democrats? He hasn’t done that tremendously well up till now.

But here are two stories that, back in the day, told me something. When Bernie first ran for Vermont’s one Congress seat, in 1990, he was up against a popular, camera-friendly Republican incumbent and a very well-connected Democrat. It was hard to see how he had much of a chance. But as the campaign went on, we reporters began to see an interesting thing: the polls, what Vermont had of them, were showing surprising support for Bernie in the rural farm towns.

These were Vermonters who had never even voted for a Democrat! But they were starting to line up behind Bernie. Why? Well, he speaks for working people, and he always speaks the truth. Vermont farmers saw that, and now people across the country are seeing it too.

Back in 1990, just as it began to seem as if the race might be swinging his way, I ran into Bernie outside the Grand Union in Montpelier. He was standing by a card table, handing out his literature and talking with people. We chatted. I said something like, “You might actually pull this off.”

He nodded. And in his avuncular, matter-of-fact way — Bernie has always, basically, sounded like a grouchy old guy from Brooklyn — he said, “It is possible to do.”

I’ve always remembered that. “It is possible to do.” I think he sees that now. And here’s the last thing I’ve observed: pretty much every single person, every “expert,” who has ever dismissed or discounted Bernie’s chances in a political campaign has in the end been proven wrong.

We will see what happens this time. But maybe … just maybe … it is possible to do. 

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