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From outsider to Senate chair, what Sanders' incumbency means for Vermonters

A man with white hair and glasses, wearing a suit, points into the air while speaking in front of a white building
Susan Walsh
Associated Press
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., talks with reporters following a meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Last week, Bernie Sanders announced he’ll run for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate as an Independent.

The two-time presidential candidate started his political career as mayor of Burlington in 1981. He began an eight term run in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990. Then, in 2006, Vermonters elected him to the Senate.

Now, the 82 year old wants another six years in Washington.

Matthew Dickinson is an author and professor of Political Science at Middlebury College. He joined Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki to discuss the significance of this announcement, Sanders’ legacy, and why Vermonters have a real penchant for reelecting incumbents. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: I'll admit it, Matt, when I heard that Bernie Sanders was running again, I was not surprised. I know incumbency is an advantage wherever you go in the U.S., but it seems like Vermont voters really favor incumbents. Is that actually the case?

Matthew Dickinson is an author and Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College.
Matthew Dickinson
Matthew Dickinson is an author and Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College.

Matthew Dickinson: Well, recent history suggests that is. The reason why, I think, has a lot to do with the makeup of our voting public. We are a state that — at least when it comes to legislators — generally leans left, we're a Democratic or blue state. And so over time, there's been this really self-selection process. The legislators we elect to the House and to the Senate are individuals whose views, whose policy preferences, align pretty well with the majority of Vermont voters. And so, I think the reason why we've had such long-tenured legislators — our Leahys, Bernie Sanders, Peter Welch, and it may be that Becca Balint will be the next one — is because they're more or less in line in terms of what they want done with what I think the majority of Vermonters want done.

Jenn Jarecki: Matt, do those incumbency perks matter more in a small state like Vermont, which doesn't have as many lawmakers advocating for it in Congress?

Matthew Dickinson: It does. Our research says that small state senators are actually a little bit better at extracting benefits. Think about subsidies to our dairy farmers, for instance, or grants to clean up Lake Champlain. Then our senators from larger states who have a much more heterogeneous population that often has a lot of competing interests. We have a few big interests in this state, and our senators, our congressional representatives are really sensitive to serving those big interests. And they're in a position to do it, particularly somebody who has accrued the seniority that our congressional delegation has.

More from Vermont Public: Bernie Sanders is running for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate

Jenn Jarecki: Well, since arriving in Washington as a self-styled outsider in the house, Sanders has actually served longer than any congressional independent in U.S. history. How has voter perception of him changed since he was first elected to Congress?

Matthew Dickinson: Well, I think for a long time, he was viewed as our cranky uncle who would roll out at the picnic, but we wouldn't want to really get into engage in a conversation with him too long. But as he's accrued seniority, and particularly since his views have now become the views of a substantial portion of the Democratic Party, I think our perception of him has changed to somebody who's really a mover and shaker as an independent within the Democratic Party, somebody who has moved that party left through, in no small part, his two very effective runs for the presidency. Effective in the sense that he didn't win but his views, in some sense, have become mainstream views in the Democratic Party.

So, with seniority has come greater responsibility. With that responsibility has come a greater recognition of the need to be more than a gadfly, but instead to be an effective chair whose legislative priorities actually become law.
Matthew Dickinson

Jenn Jarecki: And how has Sanders' political identity shifted while in Congress?

Matthew Dickinson: Well, I think he is, despite still being an independent — and remember, he'll run as a Democrat and then switch over after he's cleared the Democratic field — he's in a position of leadership now. He's not just a cranky outsider who would hold forth on the floor or filibuster with no real chance of getting what he wanted. Now, he chairs the Senate health, education, labor and pension committee.

And as chair, he has a lot of influence on what issues get considered by that committee. He shapes that legislation so that when it reaches the floor of the Senate, it does so in a way that the legislation is likely to pass in a form that's amenable to Sanders. So, with seniority has come greater responsibility. With that responsibility has come a greater recognition of the need to be more than a gadfly, but instead to be an effective chair whose legislative priorities actually become law.

Jenn Jarecki: Well, I'm going to press on that a little bit, Matt. If Democrats hold on to the Senate, Sanders could then remain chair, as you say, of the health, education, labor and pensions committee, which dovetails with a lot of his longtime causes, like expanding access to affordable health care. What impact could he have if elected to a fourth term? Again, presuming Democrats hold on to the Senate.

Matthew Dickinson: Yeah, well, that's a big presumption. Right now, there's a lot more Democrats who are up for reelection than there are Republicans. But to go with your hypothetical, it depends on the size of the majority. The Senate is a super-majority institution in most areas, outside of, for instance, nominating to the court, in which you can just pass with a simple majority, but a lot of legislation needs 60 votes. And that's most of the legislation that Sanders wants to get through unless he can do it under something called reconciliation, which means the budgetary implications have to be really important in order to get passed on to reconciliation, which allows a simple majority vote.

It's a long way of saying, he is going to be in a position to propose a lot. How much he has to compromise to get through, things like a public option for health care, higher minimum wage, the shorter work week, all the staples of the Sanders agenda. It depends a lot on the size of the Democratic majority and how much of that majority shares his preferences.

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