‘Vermont Socialist Plans Mayoralty with Bias Toward Poor’ Headline

As the Iowa caucuses edged closer in January 2020, Twitter account @CANCEL_SAM shared a screenshot of a purported 1981 New York Times article ostensibly about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) bearing the headline, “Vermont Socialist Plans Mayoralty with Bias Toward Poor”:

Only the headline of the article — which was dated March 8 1981 and written by Michael Knight — was visible in the screenshot. The Twitter account quipped that Sen. Sanders had “been in the pocket of Big Poor for decades.”

A few days prior in early January 2020, a Reddit user shared the headline to r/SandersForPresident; it appeared on two related pro-Sanders subreddits in February 2019:

The same screenshot was aggregated to me.me in December 2019, and the headline was referenced by Sanders’ speechwriter David Sirota in August 2019:

Jokes about Sanders’ “bias” in favor of the economically disadvantaged were not uncommon. On October 29 2019, The Onion published a satirical piece titled “Bernie Sanders Holds Secret Campaign Meeting With 15,000 Working-Class Democratic Donors”:

Releasing bombshell evidence in the form of hundreds of cell phone videos taken during the gathering, numerous anonymous tipsters confirmed this week that Bernie Sanders recently attended a secret campaign meeting with 15,000 working-class donors from the Democratic Party. “This damning footage shows Sen. Sanders clandestinely mingling with thousands of representatives from the nursing, food service, and public education sectors, many of whom were apparently chauffeured to the event aboard city buses and enjoyed fountain drinks upon arriving,” said political strategist August Buckminster, adding that the event, which reportedly took place at a local vocational school, could prove problematic for the presidential candidate in his bid for the Democratic nomination. “Sanders can be heard promising a highly underprivileged audience everything from a minimum-wage increase to healthcare access to educational opportunities — whatever it takes to get them on his side.

Sanders himself sent a humorous tweet about the satirical bit:

In Sirota’s tweet and on two of the Reddit posts, the headline was not connected to a screenshot. However, links to the New York Times‘ archive were appended in comments, pointing at an authentic March 1981 article.

Describing an “unlikely coalition … [which] included poor people’s and tenants’ rights organizations, students and faculty members at the University of Vermont here and members of the Burlington Patrolmen’s Association and other city workers groups upset over pay and working conditions” activated by a young Sanders, the first few paragraphs of the piece underscored the headline’s claims:

Olive branches and soothing balm seemed in order, and so Bernie Sanders, a 39-year-old, self-styled Socialist from Flatbush who surprised Vermont on Tuesday by narrowly being elected Mayor of its largest city, was being careful to sound conciliatory.

”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.

And he said that he intended to run a city government marked by a distinct bias toward the poor. ”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,” he said today.

A quote from Sanders in 1981 might not be amiss during his 2020 presidential campaign:

”We have a city that is trying to help a developer build $200,000 luxury waterfront condominiums with pools and health clubs and boutiques and all sorts of upper-middle-class junk five blocks from an area where people are literally not eating in order to pay their rent and fuel bills … Building luxury condominiums will not be the priority of this administration.”

A screenshot of a March 1981 New York Times article about a young Bernie Sanders titled “Vermont Socialist Plans Mayoralty with Bias Toward Poor” was authentic, and the article in full is available in the paper’s archives. Although the reporting was was similar to some satire pieces about Sanders, it was also more in line with the political climate of the early 1980s, as well as a landscape where Sanders had not yet achieved national recognition.