Eric Davis: Bernie Sanders seeks change from within

In recent weeks, Sen. Bernie Sanders has sent e-mails to his millions of supporters seeking small donations on behalf of Democratic candidates for Congress and state legislatures all over the country. 
Sanders is raising money for incumbent House Democrats seeking re-election, such as Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Rick Nolan of Minnesota, for former colleagues seeking to return to Capitol Hill, such as Wisconsin Senate candidate Russ Feingold, and for congressional candidates such as Zephyr Teachout in New York’s Hudson Valley, who are running in competitive primaries to challenge Republican House incumbents in winnable districts.
Sanders is also raising money for state legislative candidates, including Burlington Rep. Chris Pearson, the long-time Progressive leader in the Vermont House.  Pearson has entered the Democratic primary and hopes to win one of the two open seats in the Chittenden Senate delegation.  Sanders has raised about $60,000 for Pearson, which should make him the best-funded candidate in the Chittenden Senate race.
Sanders’ involvement in this fund-raising is important on several levels.  First, the candidates he is supporting are all Democrats; none are independents or third-party candidates.  Readers with long memories will remember that early in his career, as Mayor of Burlington and as a statewide candidate in the 1980s, Sanders spent as much time criticizing Democrats as he did Republicans.  In his first years in Congress, Sanders was nominally a member of the Democratic caucus, but was only loosely affiliated with the party.
In his later years in the House, and especially after he was elected to the Senate, Sanders became more integrated with, and supportive of, Democratic efforts on Capitol Hill.  In turn, he was named to committee leadership positions by the Democratic caucus.  However, until this year, Sanders never actively raised money for Democratic candidates for the House and Senate, especially candidates who were running in competitive races and could use the money.
Second, Sanders’ fund-raising efforts show that he recognizes the importance of having allies on Capitol Hill if his policies are to get serious consideration in the legislative process.  Again, this represents a shift from the lone-wolf style that characterized his early congressional career.  If the Democrats can pick up four Senate seats and retain the presidency and vice presidency, there will be a Democratic majority in the Senate in January.  Sanders would then likely become chair of the Senate Budget Committee.
The Budget Committee would provide Sanders an excellent vehicle for his proposals on tax policy, health care, higher education and other issues that he has advocated as a presidential candidate.  It would also allow him to make the case against Republican policies such as those associated with House Speaker Paul Ryan.  But in order to become chair of the Budget Committee, Sanders needs to see Democratic candidates such as Russ Feingold, and others for whom he may raise money later in the year, win competitive Senate elections.
Closer to home, Sanders’ help for Chris Pearson is another sign that the Vermont Progressive Party is becoming less of an independent political party, and more of an organized tendency within the Vermont Democratic Party.  Pearson is seeking one of Chittenden’s Senate seats as a Democrat, not as a Progressive.  Democratic Sen. Tim Ashe, formerly a Progressive alderman in Burlington, will be either Senate President Pro Tem, or an important committee chair in 2017.  Another Chittenden Senator, David Zuckerman, also once a Progressive, is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. 
No high-profile Progressives are running for statewide office, in part because Ashe, Pearson and Zuckerman are running as Democrats, and in part because Progressives appear to have realized—along with Sanders—that they can have more influence by working through the Democratic Party than as an independent third party.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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