I N · T H I S · I S S U E
Bernie's Independent Voice
Saturday I drove my hybrid to Brentwood for some inspiration. There, I had the chance to chat one-on-one with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. I’d met him in the late 1970s when he ran unsuccessfully for office; then at his victory celebration in 1981 as Mayor of Burlington.
How exciting it was then and now. An Independent willing to tell it like it is and unwilling to align and compromise with the party line. An accented New Yorker from Brooklyn, the son of Polish immigrants, representing the farmers and good folk of Vermont. Bernie is intense, an inspiration to many. He’s got the longest track record for an independent in Congress, sixteen years in the House and four more in the Senate. (He was mayor of Burlington 1981 – 1989.) He fired up the small group gathered on Old River Ranch Road, horse-country LA.
I’d put on my UVM – “verts monts” or green mountains – sweatshirt. They are pretty rare in LA. He smiled. I then had a chance to sit down with Bernie for a few minutes to reflect on Vermont’s energy policy. We know Vermonters in common, Beth Sachs and Blair Hamilton. We praised the work of VEIC. He is fully up-to-speed on PACE and the FHFA. And yes, he is willing to help PACE Solutions gain bipartisan and broad support in Congress for reversing the FHFA. He “gets it,” the need to fix PACE, took my card, and lined me up with his LA (legislative assistant).
His remarks to the group assembled were pointed and political. He covered the budget, the wars, education, discretionary spending, the swing to the right – and particularly the Democrats shift to center, and the upcoming election. Who’s been more supportive of maintaining social security, a FDR program that has reduced poverty among seniors from 50% to 10%? The Republicans, he reported to gasps. And with 81% of Americans favoring taxes on the rich, he continued, why has this not been adopted in the budget battles? “I guess 81% of the public is not enough,” he quipped. Bernie ripped on the tax law that often lets the biggest and profitable corporations pay none.
On energy, Bernie took off on nuclear and the Daiichi meltdowns: Vermont Yankee – now in its 38th year – is one of the same reactors, one of the 23 GE Mark 1 boiling water reactors operating in the United States. The 620 MW Yankee reactor in Vernon provides 35% of Vermont’s electricity. Ironically, just two days before the earthquake and tsunami, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a 20-year life extension for the plant through 2032, despite its share of minor releases of radioactive tritium, cracked pipes, etc.
Fortuitously for Vermonters who fear the plant’s operation, a stipulation of the plant’s sale to Entergy Nuclear (a corporation that owns 12 reactors at ten sites) was that the legislature had to approve its operation. Given the Japanese reactor crisis, that’s unlikely. He shifts to renewables and efficiency. He’s proud of Vermont’s efficiency gains, electricity consumption has been held flat now for years. Earmarks, he noted, have been a good thing for Vermont. He cited a number of solar projects.
A woman questioned Bernie on why there isn’t a stronger voice speaking the logic of renewable, clean and green power. It provides so many benefits. “All we hear is that they are expensive.” To this, Sanders retorted, “You are not talking about a sustainable energy issue, you’re talking about a media issue.” There are many voices, he explained, but they are getting little air time. Last night he did face off with Bill Maher.
At times I was listening to Ralph Nader. Bernie spoke bluntly about the power of the media. They don’t invite “socialist” voices to their shows. “It’s Lieberman on the left and McCain on the right.” Last year, after 20 in the Congress, Sanders was invited to NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His prime time appearances have been far and few between. Now he faces reelection, and the promise of huge corporate dollars trying to unseat his independent voice.
A final question was tactical: Aren’t progressives fighting on too many fronts – health care, energy, education, immigration, social security, etc? “Why can’t we just focus on the real issue which is the power of corporations in America?” Bernie saluted the young man’s logical question. Sanders acknowledged the profound power of corporate America that it is oft abused. With the Supreme Court’s decision last year on campaign financing, corporations now have far greater control over the political process as well. He thinks this is very dangerous.
But, he explained with a smile and look only a seasoned legislature can earn, everyone has an issue of utmost importance. The student that can’t get loans, the uninsured seeking health insurance, anti-war activists, gays and civil rights activists, teachers needing jobs. They won’t let go of “their” issue to come on board with another, despite the merits of the tactic. “Yes, I’m tired,” he said twice, tired from having to fight for the right on so many fronts, even to maintain our most successful programs such as Social Security. But this is the legislative process, and one in which he so clearly thrives and represents us all so well.