In Vermont, voters have elected Bernie Sanders to become the country’s first self-described socialist to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
Running as an independent, Sanders won 65 percent of the vote, easily beating his Republican opponent Rich Tarrant who is one Vermont’s wealthiest residents. Sanders will replace fellow independent Jim Jeffords in the Senate. For the past 16 years, Sanders has served as Vermont’s sole member in the House.
On Tuesday, voters in Vermont also elected Democrat Peter Welch to fill Sanders’ seat in Congress.
This past week I talked with Bernie Sanders in Vermont. I asked him what it meant to be the first socialist senator.
Bernie Sanders, elected to U.S. Senate in Vermont on an independent ticket.
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AMY GOODMAN: This weekend, I went to Vermont, and I spoke to Bernie Sanders in the cafeteria of the local Montpelier high school, where he was having a pre-victory rally. Hundreds turned out for the free meal. I asked him what it meant to be the first socialist senator.
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, before we worry about that, what we’re excited about is that we’ve been holding a series of rallies all over the state. And I’m guessing that right here in Montpelier, Vermont, we’re going to have 400 or 500 people way up in the Northeast Kingdom, a conservative part of our state. We had 300 people earlier today. So there is a tremendous amount of momentum, I think, in the state of Vermont, where people are going to stand up and say, “Enough of Bush, enough of Cheney, enough of rightwing Republican leadership.” And I believe that this small state may well lead, be a leader in this country, in moving us to a whole different level and a whole different set of priorities.
In terms of socialism, I think there is a lot to be learned from Scandinavia and from some of the work, very good work that people have done in Europe. In countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, poverty has almost been eliminated. All people have healthcare as a right of citizenship. College education is available to all people, regardless of income, virtually free. I have been very aggressive in trying to move to sustainable energy. They have a lot of political participation, high voter turnouts. I think there is a lot to be learned from countries that have created more egalitarian societies than has the United States of America.
AMY GOODMAN: And to be making history, in your part?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I take that less seriously. You know, we have been in — I’ve been in Congress for sixteen years. It is just very gratifying to me to have the kind of grassroots support that we have right now. We have brought together just a tremendous coalition of all of the unions, all of the women groups, all of the environmental groups, senior citizen groups, farm groups. It’s very exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: Democrats don’t manage to do what you have done, and that is, unite people across the political spectrum. You talked about the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont, very well-known to be conservative Republican. How do you have their support?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, that’s an important question. And what we have done — and we’re not the only people who have done that, it’s happening here and there around the country — is, the truth of the matter is, if you put a lot of your energy into economic issues, what you find is, you know what, conservative Republicans don’t have healthcare, conservative Republicans can’t afford to send their kids to college, conservative Republicans are being thrown out of their jobs as our good-paying jobs move to China. And if you talk about those issues, you know what people say? “I need somebody to stand up to protect my economic well-being.”
Conservative people are very worried about Bush’s attacks on our constitutional rights. So the job is to say, “Look, we’re not going to agree on every issue, that’s for sure. But don’t vote against your own interest.” I don’t mind really if millionaires vote against me. They probably should. But for working people, we’ve got to come together, healthcare for all, stop our disastrous trade policies, make sure all of our kids through college get the education that they need. On those issues, I think we can bring people together.
AMY GOODMAN: And if people ask, “What do you mean, ‘socialist’?” what would you say?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means. And we are living in an increasingly undemocratic society in which decisions are made by people who have huge sums of money. And that’s the goal that we have to achieve.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that this race is the most expensive per capita in the country and that you’re running against one of the richest men in Vermont?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: We are running against, it’s hard to say, maybe the wealthiest fellow in the state of Vermont, who is going to spend more money per votes than has ever been spent in the history of the United States Senate. We have — and I want to thank all people all over this country — we have received tens and tens of thousands of individual contributions. Some of them are $5, and some of them are $20. And we’ve been able to raise enough money to withstand what has been the most negative campaign ever run in the state of Vermont by my opponent, just distortions of my record. Very dishonest campaign. But with the help of people throughout the country, with 8,000 individual contributors in Vermont, we’ve been able to withstand that.
AMY GOODMAN: Last question, and that is, your answer for Iraq right now?
REP. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, that’s not an answer that can be given in 30 seconds. I think the bottom line is that the people of Iraq, when asked what they believe is best for their country, amidst all the violence and the chaos, what they say is they think they would be better off if American troops came home. So I think we should respect the wishes of the people of Iraq. I think we should bring our troops home soon. By that, I mean within the next year. I think we’ve got to continue to work with the Iraqi government to do our best to try to bring stability. But I think they would be better off, we would be better off, the region would be better off, if our troops came home.
AMY GOODMAN: Bernie Sanders, speaking from the kitchen of a high school cafeteria in Montpelier, Vermont this weekend. He becomes the first socialist to be elected to the US Senate. My syndicated column this week is on Bernie Sanders. You can urge your local newspapers to run it, if they haven’t already picked it up.