Two Politicians Who Broke Mold in Vermont

Times Staff Writer

Madeleine Kunin, 51, is Vermont’s first woman governor and only the third Democrat to preside over the state since the Civil War.

If the mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, has his way, Kunin’s successor will be America’s first Socialist governor.

“Vermont is ripe for a third-party takeover, and I may be the one to pull it off,” said Bernard (Bernie) Sanders, 43, a Socialist, re-elected last month to his third term as mayor of Burlington.


Both Kunin and Sanders attribute their political success to the independent nature of Vermont voters. Both are Flatlanders, as Vermonters call residents not native of the state.

The low-key governor and the flamboyant mayor were born and raised outside Vermont. They both moved here when they were in their mid-20s.

Madeleine May was 24, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, when she moved to Vermont in 1957.

“I didn’t know anyone in Vermont. But I moved here because of an opportunity to work for the Burlington Free Press as a general assignment reporter,” the governor said during an interview in her Capitol office.

“Most newspapers at the time would hire women only to do society news and write for women’s pages. I wanted to cover all types of breaking news.”

Paris in Her Plans

Her plans were to work in Burlington two or three years, then go to Paris and get a job as a reporter for the Paris Herald Tribune.

She never made it to Paris.

She stayed in Burlington. Married. Raised four children.

Twenty-eight years ago she came here as a stranger. Today everyone in Vermont (population 515,000) knows who she is.

Kunin was inaugurated Jan. 10 as Vermont’s 74th governor. She is one of only two women governors currently in office; the other, Martha L. Collins, 48, is the Democratic governor of Kentucky. Unlike other governors, Kunin can never become President because she wasn’t born in the United States.

In 1940, when Hitler’s troops were marching through France, the governor’s mother, a widow, fearing the Nazis’ next invasion might be her homeland, Switzerland, packed up her belongings and sailed to America with her two children, Madeleine, 6, and Edgar, 10. Their father, a shoe importer, had died in a drowning accident in Switzerland when she was 3.

The three spoke German and knew no English when they arrived in America. To make ends meet, Kunin’s mother supported herself and her two children baby-sitting, sewing and taking in boarders.

In her inaugural speech at the granite Doric-style 1859 Vermont Statehouse, with a gold dome topped by a statue of the Roman goddess Ceres, Kunin recalled her heritage:

“It is the immigrant spirit of hope which I wish to bring to state government. A spirit which instills in our children the belief that anyone can achieve anything in this country with hard work and education and a fair chance.

“I stand here with my husband and children. I stand here with the memory of my mother, my aunt, my grandmother who could never have dreamt I would be in this place on this day, but, who, through the courage of their lives, gave me the stamina to stand as tall as they did.”

She paid tribute to the women of Vermont who made her election possible: “As first woman to take the oath of office of governor of the state of Vermont, I recognize that I was able to raise my right hand before you only because so many women had raised their voices, long before my words were spoken.”

As a high school student, she planned to become a teacher. Under her picture in her Pittsfield, Mass., high school yearbook is a rhyme: “Mady will teach the ABCs, so class, may she have your attention, please?”

Decided on Journalism

But in college she decided on journalism. She has a BA in history from the University of Massachusetts, where she worked as a waitress to pay her way. She has an MA from Columbia and later earned another MA in English literature from the University of Vermont.

The 5-foot-7, trim, friendly, easy-going governor is married to Dr. Arthur Kunin, a kidney specialist and University of Vermont professor of medicine. They have three sons, ages 22, 19 and 15, and a 23-year-old daughter. Their youngest son lives at home, the two older boys are in college and their daughter is a sculptor’s assistant.

Madeleine Kunin was one of the very few women elected to major political offices in 1984. A Democrat in a traditionally Republican state, she defeated Republican state Atty. Gen. John Easton by just 62 votes, more than the 50% that Vermont law requires for the $60,000 job as governor.

Kunin had been a typical middle-class homemaker, raising her family, before deciding to run for the state House of Representatives. The year was 1972. She won, served three two-year terms and became party whip and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. In 1978 she was elected to a two-year term as lieutenant governor and was reelected in 1980. In 1982 she ran for governor and lost. She ran again last year, this time winning.

Two Portraits

In her office hangs a framed front page from the Rutland Herald showing a large portrait of outgoing Gov. Richard A. Snelling departing after eight years, and a large portrait of herself. In huge type over the photographs are the words Hello and Goodbye .

Behind her desk on the wall are two photographs, one showing her with Geraldine Ferraro and another with President Reagan. Her priorities in her two-year term, she said, include a strong economy, a first-rate education system, property tax relief, open and responsive government and a clean, healthy environment.

Her brother, Edgar May, 57, served four terms as a state representative, and now, in his second term as a state senator, is chairman of the Appropriations Committee. A journalist, he won a 1961 Pulitzer Prize for a series about the New York state welfare system while a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News.

The traditionally Republican state, for the first time in its history, has a Democratic-controlled Senate. Another political anomaly this year is that although the House has a majority of Republicans, it elected a Democratic speaker.

“This small state is special in so many ways,” the governor said. “There is more trust in Vermont than in the rest of the nation--in both the political process and in those who carry it out.”

Different Value System

She talked about a different kind of value system at work in Vermont, the nation’s third-smallest state in population. “It conveys the idea of being genuine and honest. There is a yearning in America for this quality. You can count on Vermonters giving straight answers.”

Increasing numbers of companies are locating in Vermont, she added, because of the strong work ethic among the state’s labor force. She told of a General Electric plant manager who said he was amazed at the dedication of workers in Vermont. The absenteeism rate at his factory was the lowest of any GE facility in the country, he said.

There is an 800 action-line phone number for the governor’s office. Residents may call any time they have a question or a desire to express an opinion. Members of Kunin’s staff take the calls, try to come up with answers and take note of opinions expressed.

Bernie Sanders’ followers are called Sanderistas. In Vermont’s largest city, population 37,840, on the shores of Lake Champlain across from New York state, local stores sell T-shirts proclaiming “People’s Republic of Burlington.”

In the recently published 163-page City of Burlington Annual Report is an opening message from Mayor Sanders. It includes this paragraph:

“Efforts on the part of the city (are continuing) to protect the needs of the ordinary consumer against special interests motivated primarily by greed and the desire for excessive profits.”

Sanders was referring to what he called “outrageous” rate increases sought by local utilities. He uses every opportunity to denounce the capitalistic ethic.

“If the cities and towns of America are going to survive, working people, elderly and the poor are going to have to have a decent standard of living. There needs to be a radical shake-up in the economic and political state of this nation,” Sanders said during an interview in his office in the old red brick Burlington City Hall. Hanging on the wall behind him was a photo of Ernest E. Debs with the inscription: “Unionist. Socialist. Revolutionary.”

Rapid-Fire Delivery

Leaning back in a plain wooden chair, his shirt open without a tie, his hair disheveled, his left leg in the air resting on a table with his lunch box and peace-sign coffee cup, Sanders rattled off his thoughts in rapid-fire, staccato fashion:

“I think from one end of this country to the other people are ripe for political revolution. Fifty percent of the people do not bother voting in the presidential and statewide elections. The vast majority of those not voting are low-income people who have given up on America. The whole quality of life in America is based on greed. I believe in the redistribution of wealth in this nation.

“We are demonstrating in Burlington the peoples’ contempt for conventional old-fashioned Democratic and Republican politics. The good news here is that the two-party system and corporate establishment are not invincible.”

Sanders was born and grew up in Brooklyn. He graduated with a BA degree in political science from the University of Chicago. He came to Vermont 17 years ago when he was 26.

A social activist, radical writer and film maker, he was an unsuccessful candidate twice for governor and twice for U.S. senator in the 1970s before he was elected to his first political office March 4, 1981, as mayor of Burlington.

Elected by 10 Votes

Sanders defeated conservative Democratic Mayor Gordon H. Paquette, who had been in office 10 years. Sanders was elected by only 10 votes. The mayor and 13-member Board of Aldermen are elected for two-year terms along partisan lines.

In 1981, Sanders won with 43% of the votes. He was reelected in 1983 with 53% of the votes and again last month with 55%.

“Before I was elected there were 10 Democrats and three Republicans on the Board of Aldermen. I am part of a progressive coalition that achieved its greatest success in last month’s election,” Sanders noted. “There are now six progressives on the board plus five Republicans and two Democrats.

“The results of the elections proved my popularity increases each time, and the popularity of the progressive coalition is growing as well. It is obvious the people of Burlington are pleased with the record of their radical Socialist mayor.”

Critics say Sanders, “surprisingly,” has been a fiscally responsible mayor. Substantial savings have been made by Sanders’ decisions to change the city’s phone system and centralize buying procedures.

His administration discovered an unexpected $1.9-million surplus in the city’s budget. Insurance and fuel contracts were opened to competitive bidding for the first time in years. And the first audit of the city’s $11-million pension fund in 30 years took place.

“This is an honest administration. I make common-sense decisions beneficial to the city and to all the people of Burlington,” Sanders said.

He is opposed to property taxes. He also is trying to develop electrical rate structures in Burlington that would reduce residential costs by 28% and substantially increase the rate charged the business community. He has developed a tightly supervised program inspecting houses and apartments and demanding landlords make necessary improvements.

Sanders balked at development of luxury condos on the shoreline of Lake Champlain and is trying to achieve a $100-million waterfront development “for all the people” that would include low-cost housing, museums, bicycle paths, parks and an arts-and-crafts center.

In the city’s annual report, the mayor proudly noted: “Burlington is moving forward vigorously and is receiving national recognition as one of the most progressive, exciting and innovative communities in the United States. We were one of eight cities last year to receive an award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors for being one of the most liveable cities in the country. Burlington was the smallest city to receive the recognition and was especially praised by the Mayors Conference for its commitment to the arts and to youth.”

Many of his more radical proposals continue to be turned down by the Board of Aldermen as the progressive coalition is still outnumbered 7 to 6.

Six months ago Sanders completed arrangements for Puerto Cabezas, an Atlantic coast Nicaraguan town of 10,000 people, to be Burlington’s sister city.

“We are developing pen-pal relations between the children of both cities, bringing our cultures together so we understand each other. Several residents of Burlington have visited Puerto Cabezas, and we are looking forward to visits from citizens of that Nicaraguan town,” said the mayor, adding:

“A handful of people in this country are making decisions, whipping up Cold War hysteria, making us hate the Russians. We’re spending billions on military. Why can’t we take some of that money to pay for thousands of U.S. children to go to the Soviet Union.

“And, why can’t the Soviets take money they’re spending on arms and use it to send thousands of Russian children to America. We’ve got to start breaking down the walls of nationalism. We’ve got to get people to know one another.”

Burlington, home of the University of Vermont, is more like a small town than a city. The university’s 102-year-old student newspaper, The Cynic, in an April 1 cover, showed Sanders riding from the hatch of a tank down Burlington’s main street waving to onlookers.

He espouses traditional socialist goals--public ownership of oil companies, factories, utilities, banks, etc. Sanders said: “It is no secret one-third of the U.S. senators are millionaires. No secret Congress is manipulated every day by banks and large corporations. The voices of the average citizens are not being heard.”

His job as mayor is full-time and pays $42,000 a year, more money than he ever made. He is divorced and has a 15-year-old son.

Many articles have been written in Socialist nations about the mayor of Burlington. Politicians from France, England, Mexico, Scandanavian countries, visitors from the Soviet Union and China, and representatives from the Irish Republican Army have stopped by Sanders’ office during the past four years.

“The radical change in America that must come has to begin on a local level and it is happening now in Burlington,” Sanders said. “Then it will spread to state and national levels. The Vermont Legislature and Madeleine Kunin are out of touch with the people.

“Of all the 50 states, I believe Vermont more than any other has a good chance of electing America’s first Socialist governor. Now that I have proven that I am a good mayor, perhaps the time will be ripe in November, 1986, or November, 1988, for me to run for the highest office in the state.”

An editorial in the Rutland Herald, headlined “Gov. Sanders,” commented on a report that Mayor Sanders was considering an opinion poll to learn whether to make a bid for Vermont governor. “Think of the acclaim that would come to this state if the voters elected a Socialist governor,” read the editorial. “Burlington voters were bored with Democratic politics-as-usual. They flocked to support a fresh face and colorful personality.”