Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) has inspired thousands of progressives to seek elected office, but few have been as successful as Vermont farmer David Zuckerman, now serving his third term as Lieutenant Governor.
Born in 1971, Zuckerman was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, where his mother served on the school board—an experience that gave him a interest in activism and issues, but left him wary of party politics and the power dynamics. initially left him with a distaste for politics. He attended the University of Vermont in Burlington, to major in chemistry with the hope of following in the footsteps of his father, a doctor who died when Zuckerman was 13.
Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman on his farm in his truck holding two of the books that accompany him on his Banned Book Tour, Beloved by Toni Morrison and the a children’s book And Tango Makes Three, the story of a baby penguin with two fathers. (Terry J. Allen, Opposable)
For decades, Zuckerman has been a leading member of the Vermont Progressive Party. He first ran for the Vermont House of Representatives in 1994 when he was a 23-year-old college student, but lost by 59 votes. Two years later, Zuckerman tried again and won, becoming the fourth Progressive Party member in the Vermont House of Representatives, where he served until 2011. In 2012, after running in and winning both the Progressive Party and Democratic Party primaries he was elected to the Vermont Senate and, in 2016, again running on both party’s tickets, he was elected lieutenant governor.
In 2022, Zuckerman was the only third-party candidate in the country to win statewide office. In his three races for Lieutenant Governor, the same electorate that picked Zuckerman chose Republican Phil Scott, Vermont’s current governor. In 2020, Zuckerman lost his bid to unseat Scott—only his second defeat in 14 campaigns for Vermont public office.
Like his U.S. Senate mentor, Zuckerman has won over rural voters by engaging with their economic concerns, from property taxes to affordable housing to more equitable healthcare access. His experience farming with his spouse Rachel, raising vegetables, chickens, pigs and hemp on Full Moon Farm, a 150-acre spread near Hinesburg in Chittenden County, informed his years of work on the agriculture committees of the Vermont House and Senate.
In addition to being an early champion of progressive issues—from marriage equality and GMO labeling to cannabis reform—Zuckerman is a staunch advocate of workers through his support for Vermont unions, minimum wage increases, public employee pensions and better working conditions.
In the wake of this summer’s disastrous flooding in Vermont, Zuckerman connected such local manifestations of extreme weather to climate change and the urgent need for fossil fuel divestment and investment in renewable energy sources. Recently, he has received some national attention with his state-wide Banned Books Tour, which seeks to organize public opposition to Moms for Liberty and other authoritarian groups that try to limit what people can read, see and hear.
Barn Raiser: How did you get your start in politics?
Zuckerman: I first got inspired to run for electoral office in the spring of 1992 when I was 20. I saw a first-term U.S. congressman speak by the name of Bernie Sanders. He was someone who could connect the dots between the activism outside of politics with the political activity within elected office.
When I ran for the Vermont House of Representatives, I ran solely with the Progressive Coalition label. The Progressive Coalition soon became the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP) and more people started running for statewide office as VPP candidates. In the early 2000s, VPP statewide candidates got more than 5% of the vote, thus qualifying the VPP as a major party under state law.
That made my races for state senate and lieutenant governor different from my run for the Vermont house. To run for the senate seat in Chittenden County, I did what Progressives were asked by Democrats to do—which is run in the Democratic Party primary to avoid a “vote splitting scenario” benefitting any Republican on the November ballot. Today, many Vermont Democrats don’t remember that and get mad at me for doing so. “You’re not a real Democrat,” they say, “but you’re running in our primaries.” Look, I win the plurality of Democratic primary voters. And I do it to avoid a three-way race in the general election. So, Democrats, what do you want us to do? Run in the primary or not?
Many efforts were made by the establishment to defeat me. But in 2012 I managed to win a state senate seat. So I’ve been doing it that way ever since, running and serving as a Progressive/Democrat, both in the senate and now as lieutenant governor..
Barn Raiser: How did you become a farmer?
Zuckerman: I grew up in the summers on a very remote hillside next to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, on property my mom had purchased during her first marriage in the 1960s. As a suburbanite from outside of Boston, I had this very different rural upbringing for two months of every year. As an environmental studies major at the University of Vermont, it became apparent that one of the biggest, most detrimental impacts to our environment in the United States was our agricultural system and the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. As a younger person infatuated with environmental issues, I saw the importance of valuing our natural world—both from its intrinsic value, as well as from a selfish perspective. I thought, as a farmer, I could have a profession where I could both enjoy what I do and live my values. Farming is a lot of work—and I probably didn’t understand that at the time—but I am a bit of an Energizer Bunny type person.
Barn Raiser: Vermont historically was both a Republican state and heavily agricultural, and I think traditionally a high percentage of the people in the state legislature were farmers. When you were chair of the Agricultural Committee did you find yourself to be of a minority of what had once been a majority, but also with a bridge to colleagues who were also farmers, but perhaps not progressive?
Zuckerman: When I got to the statehouse in the mid-1990s, there were only 5 to 10 farmers or farmer-related folks, mostly Republican. At that time, a lot of the Republican state legislators were libertarian-esque. They wanted small government, but they were also part of a “live and let live” culture and, therefore, on issues like civil liberties, they were pretty reasonable to work with.
I found common ground with a lot of farmers over our shared work ethic: the fact that you do what has to get done when it’s got to get done. And in farm communities across the country—and I would say this is true with contemporary Republicans, as well as the older version of New England Republicanism—you help out your neighbor when they need help because you know you’re going to need help someday, too.
The statehouse is a bit like high school. You’ve got one group here and another group there, and subgroups within each of these. So, in the cafeteria, Republicans tended to sit in one area and Democrats sit in another. As one of the handful of Progressives, I sort of floated around, even though I sat with Democrats more often because we have more in common.
One time, I was sitting in the Republican area and chatting with a bunch of them about maple sugaring season, how it was going and what was the forecast. We were just shooting the breeze about farming and life, you know, which is an important human side of politics that’s never really talked about anymore. And I heard that some of the more partisan Democrats—at the time I was a straight Progressive—were asking, “What is David strategizing with those Republicans about?”
This world of paranoia exists in politics on all sides. All I was doing was talking to other farmers who also had to get up at four in the morning to milk their cows or do field work before they drove up to the state house, just like I was doing.
Barn Raiser: You talk about the mutual aid that people in rural areas give each other. How can we help people understand why people other than their neighbors might also need such help?
Zuckerman: I’ve been thinking about that a fair amount. During the pandemic, we had a lot of mutual aid happening in our rural counties and towns. Some of that explains Trump’s success with the slogan, “Make America Great Again” because people, on a communal level, used to help each other out a lot. But today the financial pressures of end-stage capitalism and what’s happened over the last 50 years make that much, much harder. Minimum wage jobs and rural agricultural jobs are no longer the low end of middle class. They’re poverty. Trump taps into a nostalgia about being able to work hard and pull yourself up by the bootstraps, a reality that used to be attainable for some. The anger that resonates in these so-called red areas where Trump puts on a show is real anger. Think about it: If you’ve been raised on the idea that if you work hard, you’ll get a stable life, then when that’s not the case anymore, you’re not going to look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Dave, you’re doing poorly because you didn’t work hard enough, even though you’re working 60 hours a week.”
Instead, it’s someone else’s fault and you’ve got to figure out who that someone else is. And that’s when racial stereotypes enter the picture. The scapegoat becomes black women with too many kids who get labeled ”welfare queens.” It’s the Mexicans and the Guatemalans who Trump says are those terrible rapists and drug dealers. Or it’s “big government” that got in the way of your success. Right? And the truth is, it is someone else’s fault. However, the finger of blame is not being pointed in the right direction.
Barn Raiser: It’s the “rich men north of Richmond.”
Zuckerman: Very much so. It’s the job of Trump and the current Republican world, but also historically the Democratic Party as well, to make sure we keep as capitalistic a system as possible—a corporate capitalism that has concentrated wealth into the hands of very few people while many decent, hard-working people of every identity are left behind.
Barn Raiser: How do progressives in rural states respond to the policy challenges driven by climate change, which some continue to deny even exists?
Zuckerman: The federal government is in the midst of rewriting the farm bill, which authorizes a very big annual budget allocation, especially for farm subsidies. There are folks that greatly despise the federal government, and yet get phenomenal subsidies to keep themselves afloat.
We’re in a challenging moment because the Right has done a phenomenal job of getting people to hate a government of which they are beneficiaries. We need to point that out and de-stigmatize government support as something that goes against the grain of American individualism. Natural disasters create, unfortunately, the opportunity to have that conversation. It has been incredible to see folks coming out to muck out businesses and homes after the floods this year in Vermont.
But there has been more focus on the economic recovery of Montpelier, the state capital, than in rural communities where the average income is less. The financial assistance was not there, and the media was not there, and that fits in with the feeling of being forgotten, and makes people angry. Even in little Vermont, people contact me from the Northeast Kingdom, from all over Vermont and say, “No politicians ever come here. We are the forgotten part of Vermont.” They don’t feel like people in power acknowledge them.
Zuckerman: I’ve been a different kind of politician. Bernie broadened the scope of what politicians can say and do. Now you’ve got people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others at the national level who are not only involved with inside Beltway politics but community organizing at the local level.
What government can do is say, “We’re all in it together.” That’s what a successful liberal economy should do well. Everybody will help lift all boats and help restore areas damaged by things like bad economic policies or climate crises.
Barn Raiser: Your Banned Book Tour is not the kind of thing that statewide officials in other states spend their spare time doing. You’ve definitely become a boogeyman of Moms for Liberty. What’s that been like?
Zuckerman: The job of lieutenant governor doesn’t have a defined policy role. In my particular case, I’m a Progressive lieutenant governor with a Republican governor, but one who is not a fire-breathing partisan. Yet for some reason in 2016, Governor Scott decided we would not work together. I thought it was a shame. After Trump won, I thought we had a real opportunity as a Republican and a Progressive/Democrat to say, “Hey, everybody, democracy can work with different perspectives and people finding common ground.” But that wish of mine was not fulfilled.
I was thinking, this winter and into the spring, “Okay, what is my new thing?” Statewide political figures like Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Gov. Ron DeSantis and others were pushing this narrative around books that was really scary. And no statewide politician was pushing back. And so I thought, “Why not create the opportunity for the narrative to be more balanced?”
Most of the banned book events have had 35 or 40 people, which in Vermont on a weekday evening at 4:00 or 5:00 is a remarkable turnout. And it’s been amazing to discuss the whole issue of free speech and critical thinking. How does book banning play into the evolution of our democracy right now and movement towards authoritarianism?
Right now, people are overwhelmed. They’re overwhelmed with democracy collapsing. They’re overwhelmed with hate. They’re overwhelmed with the climate. They’re overwhelmed with their economic strife. And we’re seeing this in mental health numbers.
So these readings and thinking about whether books are going to be banned at your local school or your local library is a bite-sized battle that people feel they can fight and win. We’re, in effect, holding trainings on how to have conversations with people who don’t agree with you.
The good news is about half the Republicans are not into book banning. They’re big on free speech and can understand that a broader principle is at stake than any particular issue that you don’t want to hear about.
Barn Raiser: In Vermont that’s been a preemptive effort, right?
Zuckerman: Some people who have run for school boards and some selectboards [Vermont’s municipal governing bodies] have campaigned either directly or covertly on the issue of controversial books. But they have all lost, so far, knock on wood. It’s a bit more of, “Hey, if this is coming, let’s make sure people are well prepared with the arguments to be made.” Including, “You don’t have to read a book and you don’t have to have that book in your household. But that doesn’t mean you can tell other people they can’t have access to that book.”
Barn Raiser: It seems to us that some people who want to ban books or are otherwise falling for the MAGA message, have lost a sense of control. They’ve lost control of their economic lives, their sense of community, their connection to local manufacturing that once offered better paying jobs.
How do we convince more progressives to rethink their heavy emphasis on “white privilege,” when so many poor and working class people at the bottom of the heap in many rural states don’t feel very privileged? How do we wake up the woke about the downside of such messaging?
Zuckerman: With respect to identity politics, I think we should lead with economics first. I have brought this up with progressive colleagues, suggesting that we not lead with identity-based politics and they respond, “You pushing back fits exactly into the right-wing narrative. We shouldn’t stop talking about this. Neglecting these generational traumas is divisive politics.” They’re not acknowledging that, in this moment of time, leading with identity furthers divisions. Sadly, it shouldn’t, but it does.
But coming from a cis-gendered, white, middle-aged politician, that doesn’t really come across very well no matter how I raise it, even though it’s based on the experience of having campaigned statewide in Vermont, meeting a wide range of folks where they are, not just in its progressive enclaves. Also, while there is white privilege, it’s at different levels for different folks. The fact that my mom could help me with $12,000 for a down payment for a duplex in Burlington in 1994 and co-sign the loan—that’s an example of the additional economic privilege I’ve had. But many working class white people are insulted by terms like “white privilege” because they too feel like the system is not working for them. And they are right, it’s not.
If you want to connect with people and bring them somewhere where they aren’t at the moment—no matter where they are on the spectrum of politics—it’s important to meet them where they are, find some commonality to reduce skepticism and barriers, and then move into sharing information that might grow things.
I’m going to connect this to an agricultural analogy. You don’t bear the fruit in the first conversation you have with someone who has a very different perspective on things. You begin by planting seeds.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate