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Watch the Today show interview newly elected Mayor Bernie Sanders in 1981

“Face it, you don’t find too many socialists in elected office in this country.”

Bernie Sanders poses in front of a picture of socialist labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, on November 25, 1990.
Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

As Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign launch video racked up millions of views on Twitter on Tuesday, another video of him percolated online as well: one from 1981, in which Today show hosts expressed surprise that a socialist had won a mayoral election in Burlington, Vermont.

Sanders in 1981 defeated Gordon Paquette, Burlington’s five-term Democratic mayor, by just 10 votes. The then-39-year-old Sanders ran as an independent and, while he didn’t campaign as a socialist, he made no secret of it, either. Elected just months after Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency, Sanders’s victory caught national attention.

The 1981 Today segment, titled “Socialism in New England,” shows journalist Jane Pauley declaring, “Face it, you don’t find too many socialists in elected office in this country.”

It then cuts to Phil Donahue, who is sitting down with the newly-elected Sanders. He says that many people were surprised at Sanders’s narrow win. “My goodness, how could this happen in good old conservative Vermont?” Donahue asked.

“Well, in Vermont, being conservative is different, perhaps, than being conservative elsewhere in the country,” Sanders said.

Sanders went on to explain that Vermont was one of the poorest states in the country and that Burlington also has its own share of problems. “I won the election, I think, because we effectively put together a coalition of low-income people, elderly people who, in Vermont, are very often up against a wall economically, in very bad shape, some of our city trade unions,” he said.

Donahue interrupted to point out that the city’s police had supported Sanders as well, which Sanders noted was because they were part of the police union who, like other workers, were earning low wages and wanted change. Donahue also said perhaps people had voted for Reagan and Sanders; Sanders replied that he didn’t know.

Today wasn’t the only news outlet expressing surprise at Sanders’s Burlington win. A New York Times headline from the time reads: “Vermont Socialist Plans Mayoralty With Bias Toward the Poor.” The story describes Sanders as a “former freelance writer, carpenter, film producer and political activist who came to Vermont in the late 1960’s like thousands of other young people upset over the Vietnam War and the plight of the nation’s cities.” It says that Sanders in an interview was trying to strike a conciliatory tone:

“I’m not going to war with the city’s financial and business community and I know that there is little I can do from City Hall to accomplish my dreams for society,” said Mr. Sanders, whose election runs counter to both this state’s native conservatism and the nation’s trend toward the political right.

Nonetheless, he plans to run the city with the aid of a steering committee of poor people, labor unions and other representatives of what he calls the “disenfranchised”; to push for enactment of some form of tenants’ rights or rent control measure; to tax or otherwise receive city revenues from the numerous tax-exempt educational and medical institutions here, and to investigate the morale problems of the city’s Police Department.

Sanders would go on to serve four terms as Burlington’s mayor.

Sanders from 1981 doesn’t sound that different from Sanders, who at 77 is an independent Vermont senator and is making his second run for the White House. But he’s had a major role in shaping the Democratic Party’s messaging in recent years.

“We’re coming in with a definite class analysis and a belief that the trickle-down theory of economic growth, the ‘what’s good for General Motors is good for America’ theory, doesn’t work,” Sanders told the Times in 1981.

In an interview with CBS News journalist John Dickerson on Tuesday, his message was similar. “You have billionaire corporations … like Amazon that make billions in profit, don’t pay a nickel in taxes. You have three people who own more wealth than the bottom half of American society. That is the issue. It’s not those three people; it is that we have allowed that to take place,” he said, later adding, “That is wrong. That’s morally wrong, in my view. That is bad economics.”


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