Have You Met Burlington Bernie? | The Weekly Standard

Have You Met Burlington Bernie? | The Weekly Standard.

By Alice B. Lloyd Alice Lloyd The Weekly Standard · August 14, 2017
The Democrat who’s challenging Sanders in 2018 would like you to know a few things about the most popular politician in America.
Bernie Sanders might be the most popular politician all of America, and his constituents give him the highest approval rating in the Senate—but the Vermont social worker who just announced his intention to challenge Sanders says it’s all for show. “The electorate is ready to see who Senator Sanders really is,” says Jon Svitavsky, 60, a graduate of the same college that Jane Sanders ran into the ground, who has founded and run homeless shelters in Vermont and Maine. “His popularity is overdue for a test.”
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Mayor Bernie Sanders at City Hall in Burlington, 1981 Photo credit: Donna Light / AP
Bernie Sanders might be the most popular politician all of America, and his constituents give him the highest approval rating in the Senate—but the Vermont social worker who just announced his intention to challenge Sanders says it’s all for show. “The electorate is ready to see who Senator Sanders really is,” says Jon Svitavsky, 60, a graduate of the same college that Jane Sanders ran into the ground, who has founded and run homeless shelters in Vermont and Maine. “His popularity is overdue for a test.”

To the millions who voted for him in the Democratic primary last year, “He represents somebody who’s for the little guy.” To Svitavsky, though, he’s the manipulative former mayor who neglected the needs of Burlington’s homeless. Svitavsky, who’s known Sanders since his mayoral days, says, “Everybody’s beneath him.” Now, he’s counting on the sitting senator’s surly arrogance to make him un-re-electable.

Svitavsky blames Sanders for the outcome of the 2016 election—and says he’s not just “responsible for us having Trump” but also an unaccomplished career politician, no better than those he growled about at the boisterous rallies that built up his national following, says the challenger.

Svitavsky got to know the real Bernie Sanders after evicting three men from one of his shelters—a sober house—for a drunken brawl. These men cleverly reported to then-Mayor Sanders that Svitavsky—a self-proclaimed “lefty Christian” who hosts “No Bullshit Bible Study” and denounces “Republican Jesus”—had booted them for denying the faith. (“There are some shelters that require guests to be saved. Not mine!” he insists to this day.) When the two met at City Hall to sort it out, Svitavsky found Sanders unsympathetic to the demands of managing a drug- and alcohol-free homeless shelter, and he left the office with the impression Sanders was “an anti-Christian bigot.”

The decades-old episode will ring a bell for those who followed the confirmation hearing of Deputy OMB Director Russell Vought. The Vermont senator pressed the nominee on “Islamophobia,” and quoted Vought’s past writing on the subject of exclusive salvation through Jesus Christ, a pretty standard New Testament trope. “This nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders concluded before once more butting up against the constitutional ban on “religious tests” for public office with a “no” vote.

The homeless shelter Svitavsky says Mayor Sanders supported instead was a “wet shelter”— tolerant of drinking and drug use. It was a free-for-all. The attrition (read: recovery) rate plummeted while the city’s vagrant population ballooned. (A friend told Svitavsky he saw a handmade sign in a Los Angeles bus stop during the Sanders years—“Homeless? Head to Burlington!”) Sanders should have known better, and would have, Svitavsky believes, if he’d only cared.

Knowing 1980s Burlington Bernie is key to seeing through the Vermont politician’s popular public image. “He came up with a great schtick,” Svitavsky allows. “He’s the Lorax, he’s Robin Hood. But he’s not committed to helping people.” If he were, “He would have been down there meeting the homeless and caring about them. Which, to me, is what somebody does if they’re sincere about helping the little guy.”

Getting the word out—that Goliath is a surly, selfish ideologue without the substantial achievements to back up his “schtick”—may prove too much for this longshot candidate. His campaign is a one-man outfit: Just Svitavsky at home in Bridport, Vermont, calling supporters and posting on Facebook. But when he does venture into Burlington, he gets encouraging feedback from locals. About 25 people have approached him since he declared his run last month, he says. Online, it’s dozens per day.

Meanwhile Sanders’s campaign account is burgeoning with donations—already triple the amount he raised to run for reelection six years ago. Too busy touring the country, he still hasn’t announced whether he’s running again and if so, what for.

Back in Bridport, Svitavsky has recently shed his campaign manager, a shady-sounding character who approached him online claiming to be a veteran political operative and, in his social media posts on the candidate’s behalf, “went negative” needlessly. The truth—not spin—is the best weapon against Sanders, Svitavsky believes. “Vermonters are smart enough to recognize truth when they hear it.” The 75 percent who say they’ll vote to reelect the socialist senator “support an ideal that Sanders is a man of the people.” It’s an ideal divorced from reality: “People who know him see him as an arrogant selfish bastard.”

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