Out of the Margins: The Vermont Progressive Party

By appealing to working class voters, the Vermont Progressive Party bucks the two major political parties and fights for labor rights and local farmers.


| September/October 2012



Progressive Parade Float

A parade float supporting progressive candidates in Vermont.

JUSTIN HENRY

In this presidential election year, millions of voters find themselves caught, once again, between a Republican rock and a Democratic hard place. In many state and local elections, only major party candidates have the funding, organization and media visibility to be competitive. As a result, minor parties have had relatively little electoral success since the heyday of the Socialist Party a century ago, when many of its candidates did become municipal office holders.

One state where left-leaning voters do have greater choice today—and their own political voice—is Vermont. Thanks to several decades of persistent organizing, the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) now boasts seven members in the legislature—two senators and five representatives, some of whom affiliate with the Democratic Party as well. Since Vermonters sent the first “Prog” to Montpelier in 1990, 16 have served a total of 48 legislative terms in the state capitol. Progressives have introduced legislation, served on key committees and played a catalytic role in public policy formation.

Since 1981, more than 29 Progressives have served on the city council of Burlington, Vermont’s largest municipality. One newly-elected VPP member is Max Tracy, a 25-year-old former student activist at the University of Vermont, who is now involved in organizing campus workers. Tracy won in the city’s Old North End section by campaigning for living wage jobs, affordable housing, a sustainable transportation system and greater support for local farmers and gardeners.

In similar fashion, Progressives elected in nonpartisan races in smaller towns serve on local school committees, select boards and community planning bodies. Plus, they turn out on Town Meeting Day to help pass resolutions in favor of issues like tax reform and overturning the Supreme Court’s pro-corporate decision in Citizens United—both the subject of town meeting action in 70 Vermont communities in March.

Taking a leaf from Bernie Sanders’ singular 30-year career—as Burlington mayor, then Vermont’s lone congressman, and now independent U.S. senator—the Vermont Progressive Party has distinguished itself from the Democratic Party by focusing, in populist fashion, on economic issues. In areas of the state where working-class voters might otherwise be swayed by cultural conservatism or residual rural Republicanism, the VPP has, like Sanders, won elections by campaigning for labor rights, fair taxes and single-payer healthcare far more consistently than the Democrats. The party’s statement of principles has a distinct tinge of Occupy. “Democracy,” it declares, “requires empowering people not only in government but also in the workplace, schools, and in the overall economy. Society’s wealth should not be concentrated in the hands of a few, and a wealthy minority should not control the conditions under which we live.”

 

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