Indiana native Debs among heroes of candidate Sanders

Portraits of five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs hang inside the Debs Home and Museum on North Eighth Street in Terre Haute, his hometown.

That’s not surprising.

But a Debs portrait also hangs in the office of 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

That’s not typical.

An affinity for Debs would seem to be a liability for Oval Office seekers in this era, when the word “socialist” has morphed into an exaggerated and popular political insult. Sanders doesn’t shy away from it. He favors “democratic socialism,” seen in modern-day European countries where commercial industries face government regulation, provide a social safety net, and tax the wealthy at a higher percentage. He wears the label “independent” as Vermont’s two-term U.S. senator, but caucuses with the Senate Democrats, and now he’s running for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

The genuineness of his socialism has drawn cynicism from conservatives (Washington Post columnist George Will called it a “charade”) and hard-line socialists (the Socialist Worker website declared “Sanders is no Eugene Debs”). People in between are at least listening to Sanders, though.

Since announcing in May his campaign for president, Sanders has drawn large crowds in college towns. including appearances last month at Des Moines, Iowa, and July 1 at Madison, Wis. Crowds cheered his calls for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, free tuition at public colleges, broader maternity leave for women, better services for veterans, and expanded Medicare, according to news reports.

More than century ago, Debs promoted then-radical ideas such as voting rights for women, child labor laws and Social Security. All came to pass in America, yet Debs never won an election as a socialist, losing the race for president in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920. Even Debs’ own wife, Kate, opposed his socialist stances, historical accounts state.

So, could a 73-year-old, 21st-century socialist who views Debs as a hero actually challenge front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination next year?

“He’s a good debater, and he’s going to give Hillary Clinton fits,” predicted Garrison Nelson, a longtime Sanders friend and University of Vermont political science professor.

Nelson has known Sanders for 40 years. He remembers Sanders’ first campaign victory for mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981. That victory came two months after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. Worldwide media descended on the town of 40,000 because, as Nelson put it, “the most Republican state in the union had just elected a socialist mayor.” Reporters quizzed Nelson about that ironic moment, the first of thousands of interviews Nelson has given since then.

Because Sanders kept winning elections. Fourteen of them, first as Burlington’s mayor (from 1981 to ‘89), then as a congressman in Vermont’s U.S. House seat (1991-2007) and as the Green Mountain State’s U.S. senator (2007 to present).

Those victories separate Sanders from most socialist candidates in America, said Nelson.

“Bernie is committed to an electoral agenda,” Nelson said by telephone Thursday from his home in Vermont. Translation: “Bernie wants to win,” he affirmed. At various points in Sanders’ political career, his positions on certain issues have drawn support from ideologically unexpected groups such as police unions, gun rights advocates, and veterans. The latter includes his role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs from 2013 until January.

Few observers of presidential politics expect Sanders to beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination, given that fundraising for his campaign is a fraction of hers. The unenthusiastic Socialist Worker predicted Sanders “will raise some progressive demands in the primaries and then endorse the corporate Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Nothing changes.” He’ll fold by March, it stated. If so, Sanders’ campaign would be over by the Indiana primary on May 3, 2016.

In the meantime, Sanders — the son of a Polish immigrant father whose family members died in the Holocaust — is having his background scrutinized by political factions and media. If they’re looking for some scandal, they’ll likely be disappointed, Nelson said, because “Bernie doesn’t steal, he’s not a womanizer and not a drunk.” And, under thoughtful inspection, Sanders’ brand of socialism will look “pretty vanilla,” Nelson added.

Regardless, if Sanders somehow wins a spot on the Democratic ticket, count on that portrait of Debs hanging in his office to get mentioned.

“The stances Bernie has taken show he will reach out to groups show he will reach out to groups most other socialist candidates will not,” Nelson said. Reaching outside an ideological circle draws criticism. “The Left is very envious of Bernie, because he’s won elections, because to have won elections, to socialists, is to have sold out,” Nelson continued.

For Sanders, holding office is a key to making progress on causes important to him.

“That’s what makes him different than other socialist candidates,” Nelson said, who grew up in a family with “lefty” political leanings. “Bernie wants to win.”

Which brings us back to Debs. “What [Sanders] loves about Debs is that Debs ran for office, and he did well,” Nelson said.

Indeed, though Debs lost all five presidential elections, his vote totals look unimaginable today. In 1912, Debs received 6 percent of the popular vote against three candidates who served as president — William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In 1920, Debs got nearly a million votes as a socialist doing time in a federal prison.

Six years before Sanders became Burlington’s mayor, he co-produced a documentary on Debs that eventually got aired on public television in Vermont. Sanders provided the voice of Debs, according to Mother Jones magazine, an odd decision, given that Sanders speaks with a distinct New York accent as a Brooklyn native, compared to Debs’ high-pitched, Hoosier inflection. Despite that awkward bit of casting, the documentary is evidence of Sanders’ respect for the famous — and in some circles infamous — labor and social justice leader.

Few observers of presidential politics expect Sanders to beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination, given that fundraising for his campaign is a fraction of hers. The unenthusiastic Socialist Worker predicted Sanders “will raise some progressive demands in the primaries and then endorse the corporate Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Nothing changes.” He’ll fold by March, it stated. If so, Sanders’ campaign would be over by the Indiana primary on May 3, 2016.

In the meantime, Sanders — the son of a Polish immigrant father whose family members died in the Holocaust — is having his background scrutinized by political factions and media. If they’re looking for some scandal, they’ll likely be disappointed, Nelson said, because “Bernie doesn’t steal, he’s not a womanizer and not a drunk.” And, under thoughtful inspection, Sanders’ brand of socialism will look “pretty vanilla,” Nelson added.

Regardless, if Sanders somehow wins a spot on the Democratic ticket, count on that portrait of Debs hanging in his office to get mentioned.

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.