How Bernie Sanders Is Changing The Face Of Vermont's Democratic Party

May 25, 2016

It’s only been a year since Bernie Sanders stood on the waterfront in Burlington to announce his bid for the presidency. But his impact on the Democratic Party he chose to run under has already been substantial, and many left-leaning Vermonters say Sanders’ candidacy is shifting the ideological balance of the Vermont Democratic Party. 

The Vermont Democratic Convention this past Sunday was Ashley Andreas’ first. And an afternoon announcement from the elevated stage at the Barre Opera House was the moment she’d been waiting for.

“For district-level delegate on the women’s side,” convention chairman Rich Cassidy said, “Ashley Andreas. Congratulations!”

At just 23 years old, Andreas was one of 16 Vermonters elected to serve as delegates at the Democratic National Convention this July. Her 2-year-old daughter, Dahlia, toddled around barefoot at the base of the stage as her mom celebrated the big win. 

In addition to being a Democratic delegate, Andreas also happens to be running, as a Democrat, for a seat in her local House district. But the question of whether or not the Wilder resident is, in fact, a Democrat, turns out to be a complicated one.

Andreas says she does consider herself a Democrat, but that “it’s a really hard question.”

“I don’t think that it’s that black and white,” she says.

Andreas, a blue Bernie tattoo etched under her left clavicle, embodies the young blood Sanders has brought into the Democratic Party. And her ambivalence about partisan affiliation reflects the complicated but deepening relationship between Sanders’ supporters and the Democratic organization.  

"It really kind of comes down to stability and money sometimes. The Democratic Party is organized, it's strong." - Ashley Andreas, Democratic delegate and candidate for Vermont House

Andreas hasn’t always been impressed by the party’s fortitude on the progressive policy platforms she holds dear, be it universal health care, a livable wage or campaign finance reform.

But she says the party is “liberal,” and “in the right direction of where we should be going.” And just as Sanders has harnessed the power of the Democratic machinery to push the party to the left nationally, Andreas thinks Vermonters of her ideological bent can do the same here.

“It really kind of comes down to stability and money sometimes,” Andreas says. “The Democratic Party is organized, it’s strong.”

Motivated activists like Andreas represent what might be the changing face of the Democratic Party in Vermont and beyond.

“You know, it strikes me that it’s a very different Democratic Party than it was a year ago,” says Bill McKibben, a Sanders surrogate, renowned climate-change activist and founder of 350.org. 

"It strikes me that it's a very different Democratic Party than it was a year ago." - Bill McKibben

“We’re at a moment where the most popular politician in America, the most popular candidate for president, calls himself a socialist,” McKibben says. “That’s a very different place than the kind of fearful place that Democrats have been for a long time.”

Whether or not Sanders is the most popular politician in America, as McKibben asserts, is debatable. Whether or not he’s the most popular politician in Vermont is not.

Sanders won 86 percent of the vote in the March Democratic presidential primary here. And Sanders’ willingness to don himself in blue has made some liberals in Vermont more comfortable wearing the party banner.

“It’s just incredible to see the party itself kind of taking that shape, and lobbying for $15 minimum wage,” Noah Detzer says.

Detzer, 25, lives in Hartford, and belongs to a group called Upper Valley Young Liberals. He decided to run for a delegate spot this past Sunday so he could cast a vote for Sanders in Philadelphia in July. He won, and says he’s eager to remain active in the party after he comes home from the convention. 

James Haslam, one of the founders of Rights and Democracy, a group pushing for social and economic policies, says Detzer, Andreas and other young progressives on hand for the state convention in Barre on Sunday are the leading edge of a lasting movement.

Ashley Andreas, left, and Noah Detzer, right, are among the 16 Vermonters elected to serve as delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July. Andreas and Detzer are examples of the liberal voters that Sanders is bringing into the Vermont Democratic Party.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

“There’s a number of folks that are here today and increasingly are starting to pay attention to that Democratic Party process, challenge it in some ways, and try to make it more aligned with the values of our communities,” Haslam says.

Media have focused intently over the friction between Sanders, his supporters and the Democratic National Committee. And nasty skirmishes, like the one at the Nevada caucuses recently, have in many respects come to define the narrative. 

In Vermont, though, the Democratic Convention was an unabashed Sanders love fest. Town delegates voted almost unanimously to endorse his candidacy. And the legacy of the Sanders’ candidacy here might be the unification of the left, not its division. 

Haslam says establishment Democrats in Vermont so far haven’t been up to the task of delivering on things like livable wage, universal health care or substantive tax reform. Haslam says the advent of Sanders joining the Democratic Party will change that.

“I think what Bernie has done around the country, and certainly in Vermont, has really opened up the Vermont Democratic Party to be an arena for change in this country,” Haslam says.

"I think what Bernie has done around the country, and certainly in Vermont, has really opened up the Vermont Democratic Party to be an arena for change in this country." - James Haslam, Rights and Democracy co-founder

The staying power of so-called Berniecrats in the party they’re now flirting with, however, isn’t assured.

“If Bernie is not the nominee, it’s going to be challenging,” says Terje Anderson, a Sanders supporter who won election to the powerful post of Democratic National Committeeman Sunday. 

Anderson beat out longtime Patrick Leahy staffer John Tracy for the post. Tracy voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary. Leahy is one of only four Vermont superdelegates who favor Clinton. And Anderson’s victory is itself evidence of the Sanders supporters’ new influence over the internal machinery of the state party.

Anderson says he’s optimistic that the fragile union between Sanders’ followers, and the party they’re feeling out, will strengthen over time. 

“There used to be incredibly bad blood in Burlington and statewide between Bernie and Democrats, and then we look at 86 percent” of primary voters who supported Sanders, Anderson says.

And the role of that 86 percent on the Vermont Democratic Party could shift the course of politics in this state for years to come.

This post was edited at 12:55 p.m. on 5/26/16 to attribute a quote to the correct person