SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, sounds like a guy from Brooklyn.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SEN/PRES CAND BERNIE SANDERS: When we talk about power, we talk about Wall Street.
SIMON: And, in fact, he did grow up in Brooklyn. But the 73-year-old independent senator, who's now a Democratic presidential candidate, has called Vermont home for almost his entire adult life. NPR's Tamara Keith continues our Journey Home series with Bernie Sanders' journey to Burlington.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: How did a city kid, who grew up in a three and a half room apartment in Brooklyn, end up the mayor of Burlington, Vt., and later, one of the state's two senators? It all started with a subway ride into Manhattan with his brother.
B. SANDERS: We stopped near the Radio City Music Hall, and, at that point, the state of Vermont had a storefront there, advertising Vermont land. It was a tourist.
KEITH: Sanders was maybe 13-years-old, and a fascination with the Green Mountain State was born in glossy real estate guides.
B. SANDERS: And we picked up brochures, we read them, and we saw, you know, farms were for sale and this and that.
KEITH: And then, after college, in the mid-1960s, Sanders, his brother and his wife at the time pooled some inheritance and bought a small piece of the dream.
B. SANDERS: We had never been to Vermont in our lives - we just drove up. We brought 85 acres for $2,500, how's that? But it was woodland.
KEITH: Before long, Sanders moved to Vermont full time. He did a series of odd jobs, and he got active in politics as a member of the Liberty Union Party, which defines itself as a nonviolent socialist party. That's when he met his very good friend, Huck Gutman, a poetry professor at the University of Vermont.
HUCK GUTMAN: A couple of my students said, you know, there's a guy you ought to meet, he sounds like you. And I don't think they meant that we both sounded like we came from New York, it meant that we both sounded progressive. So, I remember meeting with Bernie and talking about politics, and we've been friends ever since.
KEITH: Sanders ran for Senate twice and governor once, but Gutman says his friend never garnered more than 5 percent as a member Liberty Union Party.
GUTMAN: It was a third party of the sort that doesn't gain much traction in the United States' - anti-big business, anti-war.
KEITH: Sanders never changed his politics, but he did switch his party registration to Independent, and he set his sights a little lower. His 10-vote victory over a Democratic incumbent in the 1981 race to be mayor of Burlington is now part of the legend of Bernie Sanders. And with that win, he went from gadfly to elected official, with all that entails. Another part of the legend - the snowplows. His wife, Jane Sanders, remembers many a snowy night when Mayor Sanders obsessively monitored the progress of the city's snowplows.
JANE SANDERS: Before the end of the night, he would be out - on the trucks, on the snowplows with them to make sure things were going well. He takes his responsibilities extremely seriously.
KEITH: In the Senate recently, that meant teaming up with Arizona Republican John McCain to pass significant changes to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Or, back when he was mayor and his wife, Jane, was the head of the city's youth agency, insisting that the economically depressed Old North End neighborhood get its own children's baseball league.
J. SANDERS: He told me, we're going to start an Old North End Little League. And everybody said, oh, it can't be done, they just can't sustain it, we've tried. And he said, no, we're going to do it. Just - here, do a poster and put it out, and we'll have everybody meet.
KEITH: That first Saturday, she says 90 kids showed up, along with Bernie Sanders and two city attorneys.
J. SANDERS: So, Bernie and the two city attorneys were coaches for the Old North End Little League. We got them uniforms. And we still run into people who say, I was on your team.
KEITH: Now, there weren't actually enough children for age-appropriate teams, but that didn't stop them.
J. SANDERS: They went from 6 to 16, and we said to the kids, you older kids have to lob it in to the younger kids. So it became the most compassionate and supportive place to be.
KEITH: That pretty much sums up Burlington - a city of 40,000 Bernie Sanders led for eight years. The weekly Burlington farmers' market is a central meeting point that started shortly before Sanders became mayor. There are people doing yoga on the grass, parents pushing their kids in strollers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What do we got?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Two lettuce.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: $5.50, yep.
KEITH: Walking around, you could get the impression that this is an ideal place to pick up overpriced arugula at the heart of the People's Republic of Burlington. But the people I met here, say that stereotype is not quite right.
SEN DAVID ZUCKERMAN: I'm David Zuckerman. I'm an organic vegetable farmer, pig farmer and chicken farmer and a state senator here in Chittenden County.
KEITH: Yes, he sells arugula, but this farmers' market and this place, is really about people - about community, he says.
ZUCKERMAN: This farmers' market - with 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 people coming through today - so much of it is seeing people bump into their friends and chitchat all day long and that's part of what Burlington is. You go anywhere in Burlington - or, frankly, anywhere in Vermont - and you're going to bump into somebody that either you know or who knows someone you know.
KEITH: I met Bernie Sanders at an ice cream stand that sells a maple soft-serve called a maple creemee. I can report - it is delicious. The restaurant has ample outdoor seating and a pretty amazing view of Lake Champlain. At first, it seemed like the interview may not work as people tried to say hi to their senator or catch his eye. People walking by shot cellphone pictures. And Sanders told a story about a trip he took back to New York 10 or 15 years ago. It just didn't feel like home.
B. SANDERS: I was walking in Manhattan, and I saw that people, I'd say hello, and people had this look like I was threatening them. Here, when you walk down the street, you nod to people, you say hello. You know, rural areas - it's not uncommon for two cars going a different direction to stop. People chat.
KEITH: His friends say, for Bernie Sanders, the hardest part of running for president may be spending so much time away from Burlington. Huck Gutman says, until his friend started running for president, he came home to Vermont regularly.
GUTMAN: I don't mean to suggest he's a junkie, but I think he needs his fix of Vermont. I think he needs to get his feet on the ground in this state and in this city to feel at home with himself. And I think that's a great thing. He's grounded here.
KEITH: His wife, Jane, says Sanders came back from a recent campaign swing in Iowa, where the landscape couldn't be more different. And he told her, you're going to like Iowa - the people are a lot like Vermonters. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Burlington, Vt.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.