A Bridport Democrat who’s never run for public office says he’s mounting a “David vs. Goliath” campaign to oust Bernie Sanders from the U.S. Senate in 2018.
Jon Svitavsky, 59, says he believes that Sanders’ “divisive” politics have fractured the Democratic Party nationally, and paved the way for the rise of Republican President Donald Trump.
“I don’t have any money. I’ve never aspired for office or power,” Svitavsky said in a telephone interview Thursday. “But darn it, I think Sanders has hurt our country very badly with what he’s done.”
Svitavsky announced his campaign on social media Wednesday, though he may not be the only challenger to have entered the 2018 race for U.S. Senate in Vermont. Folasade Adeluola, a resident of Greenfield, Indiana, filed a “statement of organization” with the Federal Elections Commission on June 6, indicating she’s seeking to challenge Sanders as well.
Adeluola also has a campaign website, where she indicates she’s a candidate for the Vermont Senate post, and that she’d “be honored to work very hard in your best interest.”
While it doesn't appear that Adeluola currently resides in Vermont, candidates for federal office are required to “inhabit” the state they seek to represent at least a day prior to the election to fulfill constitutional residency requirements. Adeluola didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry Thursday.
Svitavsky and Adeluola are the early challengers to a longtime Vermont politician who rose to national prominence during his 2016 presidential campaign. Though Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary, he amassed a large and devoted following during the campaign, and has gone on to assume a more influential role in Democratic Party politics.
Svitavsky says Sanders’ new role has been a damaging one for Democrats. And he says Sanders, who isn’t officially a Democrat, despite being a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, has done the party no favors.
“So not only did Bernie divide the Democratic Party and what not, but he continues to bash them, even on the unity tour, saying that Democrats and Republicans are the same, and they’re not,” Svitavsky says.
So far Vermont Democrats haven’t shared Svitavky’s negative view of Sanders, who won more than 85 percent of the Vermont vote in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Sanders has demonstrated appeal across party lines as well, winning reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2012 with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Sanders has also seen his star rise on the national stage: a poll conducted in April showed him being “the most popular active politician” in the country.
Svitavsky says his issues with the two-term incumbent date back to the early 1980s, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington. Svitavsky says he found Sanders to be an uncooperative partner in the creation of a homeless shelter he was looking to establish at the time.
Asked to comment on Svitavsky’s announcement, an aide in Sanders’ Senate office says staff there “does not deal with campaign-related inquiries.” Michael Briggs, communications director for Sanders’ Senate office and presidential campaign, did not respond to an inquiry.
Sanders has not formally announced he’s seeking reelection, though his Senate committee has been raising money for the campaign.
If Sanders does run for reelection, he’ll do it against the backdrop of a federal probe into allegations that his wife, Jane Sanders, committed bank fraud in order to obtain a loan for Burlington College, where she formerly served as president.
Brady Toensing, a lawyer and vice-chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, alleged in a 2016 complaint to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Vermont that Jane Sanders knowingly misrepresented the college’s financial condition in order to secure a $6.5 million loan.
Jane Sanders wanted to use the loan to purchase more than 30 acres of prime lakefront land for a campus expansion. Toensing says she secured the loan by providing falsified financial records that overstated the value of contributions that donors had committed to the college.
In April, VTDigger reporter Morgan True broke the news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been probing those allegations.
Sanders has dismissed the probe as a political hit job orchestrated by a Republican operative. But Svitavsky, a 2004 graduate of Burlington College, says the origin of the allegations is irrelevant.
“We haven’t heard all the details as to what the FBI investigation has brought out, but it sure doesn’t smell right,” Svitavsky says. “The allegations are serious and we’ll see where it all goes. But I think it’s dishonest to just say it’s political bulls--- because a Republican initiated it. No, that’s not the issue Bernie. What the issue is, is what happened?”
Svitavsky has had some legal problems of his own. Last year, a federal judge ordered Svitavsky to pay more than $48,000 to the people who purchased his Ripton home from him and his then-wife in 2002. The judge found that Svitavsky knowingly failed to communicate to the buyers that an addition built onto the house encroached on government-owned land.
Svitavsky says he didn’t build the addition, and that the lawsuit and judgment were “all nonsense.”
“It’s almost a moot point, because I don’t have any money” to pay the judgment, Svitavsky says.
Svitavsky also filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Maine in 2011.
Svitavsky, who tried unsuccessfully to launch a homeless shelter in South Burlington last year, says he’s a career social worker with “no life savings.”
“Life is life,” he says. “Things will work out.”
Svitavsky says he was recruited to challenge Sanders by a group called “Organizing for Democrats - U.S.A.”
“They are absolutely fantastic. And they are behind me and working with me,” Svitavsky says. “It’s just a phenomenal resource of people and they’re helping me to set up. I want my finances to truly be impeccable. I want there to be full accountability. [They’re] helping me to set up everything right with the paperwork, and they’re advising.”
The group’s only online presence is a Facebook page. Organizing for Democrats did not respond to a media inquiry Thursday.