St. Albans native leads campaign

BURLINGTON — Anyone near the Burlington Waterfront Park at 5 p.m. Tuesday would have been blasted by chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”, deafening cheers and the gruff, Brooklyn accented-words: “Today, we begin a political revolution!”

The Independent U.S. Senator and newly announced Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held his campaign kickoff in front of an estimated 5,000 supporters, local and national media and onlookers. Following free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream handouts, live music by Burlington band Mango Jam, and several speakers, Sanders spoke under a hot sun, outlining his agenda to boost middle class America and to fight economic inequality.

Someone behind the scenes yesterday – and the man who drove Sanders in and out of the park – was Jeff Weaver. Weaver was announced as Sanders’ campaign manager in mid-May. A longtime Sanders supporter, staffer, comics storeowner, and, as it happens, a St. Albans native.

Weaver stuck close to Sanders yesterday in Burlington as the presidential candidate prepared to give his kick-off speech to an enthusiastic crowd. Signs reading “Bernie for President” flashed in the air as Sanders approached the podium.

Sanders told the crowd, “Today, here in our small state, a state which has led the nation in so many ways, I am proud to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.”

Throughout his 35-minute speech, Sanders explained that he was running to challenge the status quo and to support middle class Americans.

“Today, we stand here and say loudly, enough is enough,” Sanders said. “This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, not to a handful of billionaires.”

He added, “To the billionaire class, I say that your greed has got to end.”

In outlining his agenda, Sanders promised to fight for improving roads, bridges, water systems, rail and other infrastructure as a way to provide decent-paying jobs.  He also proposed raising the nation’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised. The minimum wage must become a living wage,” said Sanders.

His other agenda items included opposing current trade policies; a progressive tax system that puts heavier responsibility on the wealthy; reforming both Wall Street and campaign financing; reversing climate change with renewable energy; providing all with health insurance through a single payer program; protecting vulnerable citizens with expanded Social Security; access to college education for all; and entering a international coalition to end conflict in the Middle East.

Sanders planned to go from Burlington, yesterday, to New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota and beyond, and bring the same message to people across the country.

“Not only will I fight to protect the working families in this country, but we’re going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back,” he said. Town meetings, door-to-doors, campaigning, talking to people on street corners and using social media were the ways Sanders proposed to get the word out.

Sanders has emphasized the grassroots nature of his campaign, meant to be a challenge to billionaire-backed candidates. According to his campaign website, Sanders has rounded up over 100,000 supporters and volunteers since April 30 and has already raised millions of dollars through donations averaging around $40.

At the end of his speech, Sanders welcomed everyone to his movement, which he called a “political revolution.”

“Thank you,” he said, “and on this beautiful day on the shore of Lake Champlain, I welcome you aboard.”

Jeff Weaver

Weaver, 49, has long been known for his political involvement in Franklin County and beyond. According to Messenger archives, Weaver grew up on Fairfield Street in St. Albans and graduated from Missisquoi Valley Union High School – where he served as the vice president of his class – before joining Sanders in his 1986 Vermont gubernatorial campaign. Weaver was just 20 years old.

“He drove Bernie to all his appointments,” said Weaver’s high school friend and current St. Albans resident Hillary Denault-Reynolds last week. “When they were in the area, they used to pick me up.”

One year later, in 1987, Weaver ran for St. Albans City Ward 4 alderman. He was described by frequent letters-to-the-editor and local voice Tessie Bushey as going “door-to-door” and registering “many voters.”

In 1990, Weaver challenged incumbent city mayor Ron Firkey for his seat. Weaver, who ran as an Independent, lost with 40 percent of the vote, though he knew it wasn’t the last time he’d be involved in the political scene.

“People haven’t seen the last of Jeff Weaver, or the hundreds of other people in this city who are seeking an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties,” Weaver told the Messenger on March 7, 1990.

“You could say he always had the political leanings,” said Denault-Reynolds of Weaver. When Weaver attended Boston University as an undergraduate, Denault-Reynolds said he would often visit on the weekends, and inevitably, get roped in to one protest or another.

“I remember visiting him at BU and going to rallies,” said Denault-Reynolds. “I would go down for the weekend and he would say, ‘Great, we need some signs, we’re protesting.’”

In all of Weaver’s efforts, Sanders has backed him with his endorsement, and Weaver has returned the favor in full. Weaver acted as Sanders’ Senate campaign manager in 2006 and spent several years as his Senate chief of staff before briefly leaving the political scene to run his comics and gaming store, Victory Comics, in Falls Church, Va.

After being out for a little while, Weaver has gotten back into the game. According to his hometown friend, there’s nothing surprising about that.

“He’s always been doing this,” said Denault-Reynolds.

Franklin County faces

Sanders had many people excited to join his campaign Tuesday evening, including a number of people from Franklin County. One of his speakers, Brenda Torpy, is the Champlain Housing Trust CEO and a Franklin County native.

“Bernie is a champion for those ordinary Americans,” Torpy said.

Other local people were in the crowd. Amy Demarest, 64, of Fletcher, sat in a set of bleachers with a “Bernie for President” sign. When asked why she was there on Tuesday, Demarest said, “I’ve supported Bernie for years – he always stays true to the dream, he never falters.”

Lauren Watson, 36, of St. Albans, ate a free scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream yesterday and explained why she was at the park.

“[I wanted] just to be a part of the action,” she said. “I love how convicted he is in everything he believes – I believe in a lot of the same things he believes in.”

Another Franklin County resident, Nicole Adams, 33, who declined to share her town, expressed similar excitement and Sanders.

“He’s ready to make some change,” she said.