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Patten: The Sanders Effect

There's a lot of chatter these days about whether Bernie Sanders' bid for the Presidency will pull other candidates to the left. Already it's had an effect on Hillary Clinton, who's beginning to address issues she might prefer not to debate - like campaign finance, corporate influence in Washington, and the shrinking of the middle class.

And if this becomes a trend with all major candidates, it could get really interesting - since most of them are dependent on the flow of big money from just a handful of sources.

But Bernie's influence may do more than just shift the debate.

Some pundits are suggesting that he may re-engage young voters in a way that candidate Obama, and, before him, Howard Dean were able to do. And if that happens, it could be a major game-changer.

In recent years, entrenched, establishment candidates for office in both the state and federal government have become the rule - not the exception. And Vermont, perhaps more than any other state, tends to strongly favor incumbents.

But Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers never intended to create an assembly of career politicians. They envisioned farmers and regular people taking public service as a duty, or, at most, as an opportunity, but never as the means for ascension to unchecked wealth and power.

Beyond just the principle belief that we are best represented by our brethren, our system of government was designed to function is short bursts of activity, between which we're supposed to rest and reconnect with constituents.

Bernie Sanders himself is hardly a pauper. Nor is he necessarily the antidote to a system overflowing with career politicians. He has served in public office since 1981 and reports a six-figure net income, but he still ranks as one of the least wealthy members of the Senate. And I'm glad he's rattling the cage of a political system that's wandered far from the ideal this nation's founders had in mind. To keep our democracy healthy, it's important to question the status quo and routinely challenge incumbent office holders.

Bernie's presence in the campaign may provide the catalyst we need to inspire new debate on what it really means to serve the public trust.

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson himself wrote proudly to a friend, "I have the consolation of having added nothing to my private fortune during my public service and of retiring with hands as clean as they are empty."

Cyrus Patten is Executive Director of a political action committee that seeks to reform our campaign finance laws. He lives and writes in Williston with his wife and two children.
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