Deep in the subbasement of the Rayburn House Office Building, members of the U.S. House of Representatives gather for the daily 4 p.m. basketball game.
Eleven congressmen are on hand, one too many for two starting teams of five players each. Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.), commissioner of the Members Basketball Assn., surveys the group and singles out Vermont’s Rep. Bernard Sanders to sit out the game.
It isn’t the first time Sanders has been the odd man out in Congress; in fact, he is making a career of it.
Sanders is the sole socialist in the House and the lone representative of his small state. Officially he is an independent, the only one of the 435 members not aligned with either the Democratic or Republican caucus.
It is a distinction he savors. He says it gives him a freedom no other congressman has.
“This place is not working,” said Sanders, sitting just outside the House chamber. “It is failing. Change is not going to take place until many hundreds of these people are thrown out of their offices.
“What you see, on major issue after major issue, is that the Congress does not have the courage to stand up to the powerful interests. I have the freedom to speak my mind and, ultimately, right now in American politics, we need to raise the issues these guys don’t want to, and I can do that.”
Sanders’ criticisms of his colleagues and his status as the lone independent have left him with few supporters in the House.
“He is out there wailing on his own,” said Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), chairman of the influential House Rules Committee. “He screams and hollers, but he is all alone.”
The story of how Sanders is being received in Washington has many parts. He is a socialist in a body dominated by moderates and conservatives; his style is abrasive in an institution that rewards collegiality; he is a freshman in a world that favors seniority.
It is hard for those outside the Congress to comprehend the historical and political significance of Sanders’ independent status. He is the first member of the House in more than 50 years not affiliated with either major party.
Congressional leaders say that alone makes it difficult for him to build support for legislation, to win rewards from the leadership and to have clout with the White House and government agencies.
“It is virtually impossible for an independent to be effective in the House,” Rep. Bill Richardson, (D-N.M.) said. “As an independent you are kind of a homeless waif.”
“Bernie pays a big price for retaining the independent label,” said Moakley, one of the most powerful members of the House. “I don’t say he is wrong or right, but he pays a big price.”
Sanders, 49, realizes he pays a price. He acknowledges that he can never hold a leadership position on a committee or subcommittee as an independent.
“That will be the penalty, that will be what I have to deal with,” he said.
He has no regrets. “I am extremely proud to be an independent. The fact I am not a Democrat gives me the freedom to speak out on the floor of the House, to vote against both the Democratic and Republican proposals,” he said. “You’ll find me time after time voting against both proposals. You can’t do that if you are within the caucus, because you get punished. The name of the game here is if you want to move up the ladder, you don’t criticize.”
Such statements about the Congress have cost Sanders valuable friends.
“Bernie alienates his natural allies,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). “His holier-than-thou attitude--saying in a very loud voice he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else --really undercuts his effectiveness.”
Bashing the two major political parties--and being bashed by them--is nothing new for Sanders, who for 20 years has been saying the Republicans and Democrats are pawns of the wealthy.
He makes no bones about his political beliefs. “I am proud to call myself a socialist,” he once said. And he draws a clear line between socialism and communism. “I am not a communist.”
He latched on to the philosophy as a student in the early 1960s. “When I went to the University of Chicago, I began to understand the futility of liberalism,” he said.
After college, his experiences living on an Israeli kibbutz completed his transformation.
“What I learned . . . is that you could have a community in which the people themselves actually owned the community,” Sanders said. “Seeing that type of relationship exist, and the fact that these units in the kibbutz were working well economically, made a strong impact on me.
“All that socialism means to me, to be very frank with you, is democracy with a small ‘d.’ Our goal is to create a society where you don’t have such a gross inequality in terms of wealth and power, and to provide more political equality for working people and poor people.”
It was a long and often lonely road to Congress. In the 1970s, Sanders’ was a voice crying in the wilderness; the ‘80s brought him the surprise platform of local office and the ‘90s have placed him in the U.S. Capitol.
Sanders’ quest for elective office started in the 1970s with unsuccessful campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate as a member of Vermont’s leftist political party, the Liberty Union.
His first victory came in 1981, when he ran as an independent and defeated the five-term Democratic mayor of Burlington--by 10 votes.
Voters, politicians and media weren’t the only ones caught by surprise.
“I woke up one day and was mayor of Burlington,” recalled Sanders. At the time he was an independent film producer. “Before that, the largest business I’d ever run employed two people--and not at the same time.”
If his victory in 1981 was an upset, his successes in 1983, 1985 and 1987 reelection bids were not. Sanders’ and Burlington’s reputations grew.
In 1986, he ran for governor as an independent and got just 14% of the vote. Two years later, he ran for the U.S. House and finished second, ahead of the Democratic candidate. Republican Peter Smith won the open seat with 41% of the vote. Sanders received 38% and Democrat Paul Poirier won just 19%.
Then in 1990, riding the tide of popular frustration with Congress, he ousted Smith by polling an impressive 56% to Smith’s 40%.
Sanders came to Vermont in 1968, via Brooklyn, N.Y., and Chicago. His speech is still right out of Flatbush. In appearance and style he is as far from the mythical Vermont Yankee as can be imagined.
Yet he wears well in Vermont. He has picked up support from conservatives who want to shake up the system, from the working poor who feel their needs are ignored and from progressives who embrace his socialist philosophy.
Vermont, with just 560,000 people, rates only one representative in the U.S. House. The state used to be the most Republican in the nation, but the past 20 years have brought a major shift in population and a major boost to progressive and Democratic candidates.
Although elected as an independent, Sanders did try to join the House Democratic caucus. The leadership refused to admit him unless he became a Democrat, a step he refused to take.
So he stands alone in a body that revolves around the two-party system. When House votes are tallied there is one column for the 268 Democrats, one column for the 166 Republicans and a third column for Sanders.
When the House Banking Committee votes, the 31 Democrats cast their votes first, in order of seniority. Then the 20 Republicans, again by seniority, cast their votes. Finally, Sanders votes.
“Bernie is a party of one,” said Moakley. “When you are a mayor or a governor, you can be an independent, but when you are in a legislature you need people, you need votes.”
Sanders does have his supporters on Capitol Hill. “This institution needs people who are not part of the club,” Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) said. “This place needs to be shaken up. I admire Bernie and the personal energy he brings.”
The chairman of the House Budget Committee, California’s Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) said: “It is kind of refreshing to the institution; it’s good for both parties to have a thorn in their side.”
All alone, Sanders pushes on. He says the battle is too important for him to cave in after 20 years of bashing the Democratic and Republican parties as irrelevant.
“What I have got to do is raise the issues and fight the fights that very few members are prepared to talk about,” he said.
“One of the roles I want to play is to bring forth good legislation and challenge these guys, and if they can’t do it, then expose them for not doing it.
“That is an extremely important role.”