Bernie Sanders Saved My Father’s Family. He Will Fight for Yours, Too.
In 1986, Bernie Sanders fought tooth and nail to stop my father’s family, and hundreds more, from being displaced by the rich.
In the North End of Burlington, Vermont live the residents of Northgate. Northgate is a vital part of our small city for low-income folks, refugees, and working-class people. For decades, it has offered people quality housing at low costs, allowing folks to raise their families and live comfortably even while the cost of living rose in our city.
My father grew up in Northgate. He, my grandparents, and his siblings lived in an apartment there. Even I, when I was an infant and my father needed a place for me to live while he got out of the Navy, stayed in Northgate with my grandparents.
I still have fond memories of the place. It’s a large community of diverse families, most of whom are living paycheck to paycheck. There’s a small playground at the center of the residences. My Dad used to play baseball there with his friends. I would use the swings, the roundabout, and the slide. Occasionally, I would run into other kids I would play with. Sometimes, when my grandparents were watching me, I would play by myself until my grandfather called me in, having made me lunch.
In 1986, my father was fourteen. Still a kid. He was fond of the Beastie Boys, was a hell of a baseball player, and never talked politics with his father. My Poppy, bless his heart, apparently wasn’t the greatest at talking about those sorts of things, even with my Dad. To this day, I don’t know how my grandfather voted, both back in the 1980s and before he died in 2011. I’d like to think he saw through the fearmongering of the Republican party (particularly in the elections that affected my lifetime: 2000, 2004, and 2008).
But in the 80s, Burlington was a bit of an odd city.
Back in 1981, Bernie Sanders beat an incumbent Democrat by just 10 votes. He was an unapologetic socialist who had harnessed the power of Burlington’s working class not just get elected as Mayor, but later, to also elect new members to the Board of Alderman (which, as the story goes, was so obstructionist it rejected all of his appointments for top city jobs). Of all ways to define Bernie Sanders, both in 1981 and in 2020, it’s defiant. He refused to give up, refused to kowtow to the Board of Alderman, and ultimately won some bargaining power thanks to the coalition of voters he brought out to the polls.
He was supposed to just be a fluke. Yet, two years later he was re-elected with over 50% of the vote. Two years after that, in 1985, he was re-elected again with 56% of the vote.
Again, I’d like to think my Poppy and Nana voted for Bernie in those elections.
So that brings us back to 1986. What’s so important about that year? Well, that’s the year Bernie Sanders saved my father’s family.
You see, Northgate had been built with federal funds, which required it to remain affordable for renters for twenty years. This requirement ended in 1989. With the real estate market booming in Burlington, the owners of Northgate saw an opportunity to make some cash. They wanted to change Northgate into luxury condos and double rent. Had they done so, my father, his family, and hundreds of other families would have been displaced. The community they had grown up in would have been torn from them.
Mayor Bernie Sanders, as defiant as ever, met with the owners of Northgate in 1986 and told them to their faces, “Over my dead body will you displace 336 working families. You are not going to convert Northgate into luxury housing.”
He fought those owners every step of the way. In 1989, the City of Burlington — with Bernie Sanders leading the charge — and the state government helped residents and another non-profit to buy Northgate. They were successful. To this day, Northgate remains a vital aspect of our city, both as a community and as an affordable housing option for low-income folks.
To me, this story is personal (obviously), but it also speaks to the lengths Bernie will go to protect working people. I often get upset when I’m on Twitter (which is often a big mistake) because folks will lob attacks at Bernie, saying he’s “selfish” or “narcissistic” or “egotistical”. It’s easy to make these attacks when you’ve never known the man when the only person you see is the one presented at the debates or on the news. But if you walk through Burlington, Vermont, or if you talk with folks up in the Northeast Kingdom — one of our poorest, most agrarian locations — you will see why people love Bernie so much.
He gives a shit, for lack of better terms. Even if he is alone, sitting in a room full of rich, powerful people, he will look them in the eye and explain how he is going to fight them every step of the way. Sure, sometimes he may lose. Not every fight is going to be a successful one. However, he will always try.
Bernie Sanders is not a perfect person, but of all the candidates he is the one I know I can trust when the cameras are off and he’s behind closed doors. I never have to doubt, when Bernie says he’s going to fight for Medicare for All, when he says he believes in canceling student debt, when he argues that the world must come together to defeat climate change, that he means it with his heart and soul. Moreover, I know that when he says those things he is going to do everything in his power to make it so.
When Bernie had his heart attack, it shook me. At the time he was sinking in the polls. I’m fond of Warren, so I was fine with seeing her face off against Biden. At the very least, that would mean the progressive wing of the party would be heard (and possibly even prevail). But when I read the news that he was being rushed to the hospital, I realized how much Bernie’s fight meant to me. I realized that this stubborn man, with his messy white hair, his jabbing finger, his booming voice, and his dry charm, knows that he will never see the changes he wants to make. More than that, he is willing to fight until his final breath to ensure folks like me, my dad, and our family have a better life.
I’ve never been the kind of person to consider the media, or centrist Democrats, or party institutions Machiavellian caricatures. However, I do think they see the world differently than most of us. The folks who get on TV every day, whether they’re on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or ABC, will never have to worry about job security. They don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. They have a retirement plan. They have healthcare. To them, and to many older, white centrist Democrats, the idea of revolution, of changing the entire system, is unnecessarily dangerous, especially with Trump in the White House. To them, tinkering with the Affordable Care Act is a more worthy effort than trying to fight for Medicare for All. To them, getting back in the Paris Climate Agreement and putting a tax on carbon is enough to combat climate change. To them, student debt and college prices are baked into the system, a “rite of passage” young people must go through to learn financial security and frugality.
But those folks don’t see the emergency room on a busy night: the way low-income folks without insurance walk in with fear, knowing they will leave with an astronomical bill. The way people beg not to be brought in an ambulance because they know it will cost them more. The grief from families, and partners, and children whose loved ones died from lack of physical or mental healthcare.
Those folks don’t see the anxiety and horror that college students feel when they compare their monthly income and their student loan bill. The way some people choose to eat boxed Macaroni and Cheese, sometimes throwing in hot dogs as a treat, because they can’t afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The way young people sign leases that require them to expend 40 to 50% of their income just to have a roof over their head.
Those folks don’t see the existential fear gripping people my age when we think about climate change, when we see the politicians we beg to fight for us pretend to listen, only to take money from fossil fuel interests. They get mad at us when we’re disruptive, when we have the gall to question their integrity, when we refuse to remain silent as our future becomes darker, more twisted, and uncertain.
Politics is a bruising system, one I never wish to enter. Yet, through every office he has held, Bernie Sanders has rarely changed. He is the one senator I can listen to and know, without the shadow of a doubt, he will fight for me. He will fight for my future. He will fight for my family, just like he fought for my dad’s. And he will fight for yours, too.
I am not blind. I know that our system of politics is designed to move slowly. The creaky bureaucracy, as Barack Obama has described it, is not meant to go from 0 to 60 in four years. But that’s false, and history has proven that such a view of governance is false. Medicare was started and implemented in a year. The New Deal was implemented over the course of six years. Hell, we went to the moon against all odds just because we wanted to. What would our world look like if Democrats fought with every ounce of their being to make universal healthcare a reality?
What if they walked into a room with a group of Republicans said over our dead bodies are you going to deny healthcare to millions of people. Over our dead bodies are you going to let our planet descend into fire and chaos. Over our dead bodies are you going to let our young people wallow away in misery and depression because they can’t afford food, or medicine, or housing.
OVER OUR DEAD BODIES.
The old adage is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I think that’s the perspective a lot of moderate folks have. But the truth is, the system is broken.
It’s about damn time we fixed it.