In 2012, Dave Eagle ran to be the Governor of Vermont. This is Part I in a series documenting his experiences and providing us with insights into the U.S. political system.
If you’ve seen clips of any of the debates that Vermont Public Television airs every other October—and which now have a tendency to go viral—you might have been left with a burning question: Do they just let anybody run for office in Vermont? I can tell you from experience that the answer is, “Yeah. Pretty much.”
Ballot access is easier here than most of the country. Part of that is a function of size, but another is a commitment to the idea of equal access. If you run as an Independent, the only requirement to get on the ballot for a statewide office is 500 signatures. If you belong to a “minor party,” you only need to be nominated in accordance with the rules set out by your party. Once you’re on the ballot, you are guaranteed a place on VPT’s televised debates—the only outlet committed to giving every candidate a voice.
In 2014, this meant a widely ridiculed gubernatorial debate that included a frail, wild-haired septuagenarian in a pair of cut-off jorts and another guy wearing a camo hat with a Duck Dynasty beard. In 2012, it was me in front of those cameras, ostensibly seeking the highest office in the state, but content to get on TV and list the sitting governor’s corporate ties and biggest donors. Before all that could happen though, I had to navigate my way through the tricky political waters of the Liberty Union Party.
In the 1970s, Liberty Union was something of a minor force in Vermont politics, winning a few local elections here and there and gaining some notoriety for its vocal criticisms of mainstream politicians. I won’t bore you with stories of its rise or fall, except to tell you that in the ’70s a guy named Bernie Sanders joined up with them. He ran for office three times with them, lost, went Independent, and promptly became mayor of Burlington. Over 30 years later, in 2012, I went to my first Liberty Union meeting and was amused to see the debate over who would oppose Bernie in the race for U.S. Senator.
Bernie is beloved in Vermont as an elected official and a person. He is now as he always was: accessible and real. He’s been singing the same populist tune since he was a nobody in Liberty Union, which isn’t the same as saying he’s rigid and unmovable on matters of political thought. The one unchanging thing in Bernie’s rhetoric is his commitment to the disadvantaged and the marginalized; he comes at policy from a human perspective, not an ideological one, and he’s earned a tremendously loyal constituency because of it. This is why, in my first meeting with Liberty Union, people started looking at me with something like hope. At first, I thought there was genuine excitement that somebody younger had joined up—they are all the most senior of citizens—but it wasn’t that. Nobody in that room wanted to oppose Bernie and so all eyes landed on me, the new guy. Hadn’t I come here looking for a nomination to some office? I had. But they’d met me all of 30 minutes ago and at that moment were wondering if I wouldn’t mind accepting the nomination for the office of United States Senator and attack my opponent, Bernie Sanders, as an entrenched member of the political elite. I politely declined.
“Well, what office would you like to go for?” Peter asked me.
Peter is Peter Diamondstone, Liberty Union’s vestigial founder and the aforementioned jorts-wearing candidate in the 2014 debate. In Brattleboro, where he and I both live, he’s something of a legend, if “legend” can be defined as a well-known irritant on a hemorrhoidal scale. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to who knew Peter had a story about him and none of them were positive—mostly it was just a collection of petty small-town gossip and grievances. There was one common thread in these tales that I did learn to be true: Peter relishes the role of provocateur. When I told him I’d be interested in a local office, something that I’d have even a tiny chance of winning, his response didn’t exactly surprise me.
“Oh, we’re not here to win,” he’d said, throwing a mischievous, ain’t-I-a-stinker kind of smile.
So much for the politics of idealism. Peter’s right eye darted around the room looking for any takers in the Senate race. His left remained still and drooped a half step lower than its counterpart. He threw his hands up in the air.
“Oh, alright,” he finally said, “I’ll do it.”
He punctuated this with a grimace and a dismissive wave of the hand, a hallmark move of first generation NYC Semites. He reminded me of my Uncle Manny cornering me at a Passover Seder and reminding me of how much I still didn’t understand in life. Peter turned his attention back to me.
“How about Attorney General?” he asked. “We don’t have anyone for that yet.”
“Don’t I have to be an attorney?”
“It helps,” he replied, followed by a silence indicating that was neither here nor there.
I understood quickly why Bernie Sanders had left these folks back in the ’70s and why his political success started from his very first campaign as an Independent. Liberty Union may have been formed to enter Democratic Socialist ideals into conversation, but in practice it seemed like Peter’s personal mouthpiece. When Bernie was there, Peter was only one of a group of leaders, but I can’t imagine him doing anything but hijack a conversation to make his points. He quizzed me on Socialism then interrupted my answer to tell me I was wrong. He tried to school me on “Bernie the Bomber’s” membership in a so-called military mafia that existed to keep Vermont under the boot-heel of the military industrial complex. And the party-faithful, the other six or seven people in the room, had placed him firmly on a pedestal. His speechifying delighted them, which in turn invigorated Peter. He smiled with delight as he droned on about—well, drones. My guess is the party operated differently back in Bernie’s day, that there was more of a feeling that they were doing something important. After three failed campaigns for offices he had no shot of winning, Bernie finally left and got realistic. There’s only so long you can play the role of spoiler if you have a real commitment to change.
As for me, I wanted to get the hell out of there and never come back after one meeting. When the meeting ended, I walked out of that building on an early March afternoon and ducked Peter Diamondstone’s phone calls for the next three months. In retrospect, I probably should have been more direct. But like a creepy guy on Tinder, Peter never took the hint nor left me alone. On a Friday in early June, I received a voicemail from Peter asking if I planned on attending Liberty Union’s nomination convention in Norwich the next day and, if I was, could I give a few of them a ride? I ignored the call, as per routine. On Sunday, I received a voicemail from my friend Ben—the one who’d suggested I meet Peter & Co. in the first place. Some people are called to service. Literally.
“Dave!” he shouted enthusiastically into his phone. “Congratulations on your nomination! You’ll make a great candidate for governor.”
So, yeah. Pretty much anyone can get on the ballot here. That’s the easy part. But if you’re even halfway earnest in your intentions to run, it gets a hell of a lot more interesting after that. And you start to understand, from an inside view, just how rigged the system is in favor of the status quo.