James Haslam: Bringing Bernie's political revolution home

Brattleboro Reformer | September 8, 2015 | Op-ed by James Haslam

Much to the shock of establishment politicians and media pundits, millions of Americans are answering Bernie Sanders' call to join a "political revolution."

We already knew that Sanders' policies had huge support from Vermonters. It says a lot about Americans' frustration with the status quo that he has become a major contender for the Democratic nomination for President. The kicker is that most of Vermont's Democratic leadership is supporting Hillary Clinton — our governor even crossed the border to stump for her. More egregiously, Vermont's political leadership has spent the past six years pushing a political agenda that does not come close to what millions of people are getting behind in supporting Sanders. It's time for Vermonters to bring the "political revolution" against inequality to Montpelier. Here are five ways Vermont can move our state forward to lead the country:

Vermonters were pioneers in calling for a livable minimum wage decades before the fight for a $15 an hour swept the nation. While we have made some advances, the minimum wage is well below what a full-time worker needs to support themselves, let alone a family. 2014 saw legislative proposals to raise the minimum ranging from $12 to $15 an hour. However, Gov. Shumlin intervened to move a proposal that was so paltry that the Legislature finally passed a slightly better Republican option of moving towards $10.50 by 2018. This leaves Vermont taxpayers subsidizing some of the most profitable companies, who pay poverty wages and whose workers must rely on social supports to survive.

Two thirds of Vermonters are unable to afford the average market rent, and Vermont has the highest rate of homelessness in New England. Sanders has proposed adopting a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour, while establishing paid sick days and paid family leave. Moving forward with these measures would dramatically reduce inequality and address huge challenges working families face. 

While health care as a human right is a core issue of Sanders' campaign, Vermont's Democratic leadership continues to undermine the implementation of the universal health care law we passed in 2011. Despite being elected on the promise to fix the healthcare crisis by making Vermont the first state to implement universal healthcare, the Shumlin administration delayed developing a financing plan, and finally last December revealed that they were unwilling to recommend a viable, equitable plan. Meanwhile they bungled the rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the market-based insurance exchange required by the Affordable Care Act. As Sanders has pointed out, the ACA (called "Obamacare" by some) has not solved the healthcare crisis, so it will be up to the next Vermont Governor and Legislature to move our state forward with universal healthcare.

As part of his comprehensive racial justice platform, Sanders has called to abolish for-profit prisons and address racial bias in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, we continue to ship overflow prisoners to for-profit, out-of-state prisons. The dangers of this practice came to light when a Vermont prisoner was beaten to death in a Kentucky for-profit prison. Shamefully, Vermont incarcerates people of color at a much higher rate than whites. While just over 1 percent of the state's population identifies as African American, the DOC listed over 10 percent of its inmates as Black in 2014. The failed "War on Drugs" is a deepening disaster. Vermont must adopt alternatives to incarceration, take bold action to address racial bias in policing and the criminal justice system, and stop sending Vermonters to for-profit prisons.

Most Americans understand that our political system is rigged to benefit big corporations and the super-wealthy while ignoring the needs and opinions of the majority. Sanders is calling for overturning Citizens' United and getting dark money out of politics. Vermont should be advancing democracy. Implementing universal voting registration will decrease barriers to voting, and encourage greater participation. Establishing public financing of elections would make more politicians accountable to constituents, not just the wealthy and well-connected. Such reforms in Vermont's political process would redirect Montpelier's policies to meeting Vermonters' needs.

Sanders has called for rapidly moving away from fossil fuels through greater efficiency, renewable energy and energy democracy. His plans would make our economy a world leader in this transformation, generating millions of good jobs building needed public infrastructure and weatherizing buildings. Vermont may be a leader in addressing these issues, however we need to go much farther. We must stop building more fossil fuel infrastructure and move towards 100 percent renewable energy for everyone. This will require greater investment in weatherization, public transit, water system infrastructure, and renewable energy solutions for all communities. But making such huge decisions requires a democratic process in the spirit of our town meetings. An energy transition of this scale must also serve to reduce inequities and advance justice. Low income families suffer most from higher prices and climate change. Sanders has introduced legislation to make ownership of solar power more affordable to low income communities while encouraging job training. Vermont, needs leadership committed to democratically arriving at a plan to foster the kinds of jobs and ownership models we need to achieve a sustainable future with renewable energy. Vermont cannot solve these issues alone, but we can be a catalyst by serving as an example for others to follow.

The most promising dynamic revealed by the upsurge in support for Sanders' campaign is the grass-roots political revolution of regular people insisting that business as usual is unacceptable; demanding a more just, equitable and sustainable world. Who wants to help make it happen?

James Haslam is a long-time community and labor organizer in Vermont. He is the co-founder and executive director of a new working families political organization called Rights & Democracy. They are having it's public launch party at the Burlington Labor Day Celebration and learn more at www.radvt.org.

http://www.reformer.com/localeditorials/ci_28779039/haslam-bringing-bernies-political-revolution-home

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