Editor’s note: This piece by Greg Guma is a news analysis of the Burlington mayoral race. The story is followed by video clips from the Tuesday night debate. Many thanks to Isaiah Black who shot and edited the footage.
Anyone who claims to know how the Burlington Democratic caucus will turn out on Sunday might consider hanging out a shingle to start telling fortunes. It’s impossible to predict even how many people will show up. The estimates range from around 1,100, which would match the participation in 2006, or to an unprecedented 2,000.
Based on the remarks by the four Democrats in the race during their final debate on Tuesday, it’s also a challenge to tell where they differ on most hot political issues.
All four Democrats are critical of the most radical idea floated thus far in the campaign: Republican Kurt Wright’s proposal to sell the Burlington Electric Department. They also agree that two-term Mayor Bob Kiss deserves most of the blame for the city’s current financial troubles, and often use words like transparency, inclusion, openness and accountability to describe how they would be different.
Still, there are variations in style, substance and strategy, some of which were on display during the debate held at Edmunds Middle School.
Tim Ashe entered the race last, yet is considered the favorite by several politicos. Jason Lorber has garnered the endorsement of the Burlington Free Press. Miro Weienberger is backed by Google executive and former gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne. and Bram Kranichfeld has the most support from old guard Democrats.
It’s a relatively young roster of candidates. At 44, Lorber is the oldest, followed by Weinberger, who is 41. This puts them in the same ballpark as Sanders and Peter Clavelle when they took office. Ashe is 34, and Bram Kranichfeld is 31.
Observers say Ashe has inherent advantages. He has already run county-wide for the state senate twice (in the last race he was the top vote-getter), and learned the electoral ropes from a master mentor – U.S. Senator and former mayor Bernie Sanders. American Federation of Teachers union leader Ben Johnson calls Tim a young Bernie. If Ashe wins the Democratic nod, he is also the only candidate who can get the Progressive nomination as well.
According to UVM political scientist Garrison Nelson, name recognition and fundraising ability give Ashe the edge. He also has an unprecedented pre-caucus endorsement by the union representing workers at the city’s two largest employers, UVM and Fletcher Allen Hospital. Some union members say, however, that the decision to endorse was made at the top, and they doubt there will be a major turnout of rank-and-file members.
Ashe looked relaxed, sounded conciliatory, and was well armed with details at the last debate. He began the night by complementing his rivals as “three great people” and made some news by pledging solid support for the Democratic candidate if he does not prevail. At the first debate, Ashe took a wait-and-see approach.
Based on audience applause during the 90-minute discussion, Ashe connected well with the 200 people in the school auditorium. They reacted favorably to his mixture of personal reminiscences and detailed knowledge of how government operates, particularly remarks on handling neighborhood noise and behavior problems, as well as bringing “a complete morale change” to City Hall.
Jason Lorber is an equally relaxed speaker, a professional performer who knows how to stay on message and deliver a good joke. He demonstrated both skills at the debate. Yet he received the least enthusiastic applause. In contrast with Ashe, who opted to stress points of agreement with the other candidates, Lorber continued to draw contrasts.
One of his strongest responses came during a discussion of transportation. After mentions of his legislative work and vision of Burlington as America’s urban biking capitol, people cheered when Lorber offered to “give up the mayor’s parking spot” for a car share space or a bike rack. They were with him at last. He ended his speech with a serious, almost stern note: “The mayor needs to feel the pain.”
Lorber has attempted to set himself apart with “outside the box” thinking, for example turning Burlington International Airport into a “Shareport” owned and managed by several communities in the region. He has meanwhile demonstrated his commitment to transparency by releasing campaign finance reports, and challenging the other candidates to do likewise.
His most recent report may help explain why the other candidates haven’t responded. Lorber has raised more than $24,000 from 183 contributors and spent less than $10,000, but the report also reveals that, of those totals, only 54 contributors live in Burlington, and have donated $5,553, or 23 percent. On the other hand, 74 out-of-state contributors provided almost $10,000. This leaves the impression that his campaign, despite an early launch, hasn’t attracted the depth of local support he may need.
As a Deputy Prosecutor, Kranichfeld has experience in persuading people not inclined to agree. He’s also personable, and, for someone who dove into local politics less than five years ago, he has built a solid base. Boasting around 200 endorsers, he has Democratic stalwarts like Johannah Leddy Donovan, political mavericks like Sandra Baird, and independent thinkers like Suzi Wizowaty in his corner. There has been speculation, however, that he may be under the sway of “old guard Democrats,” a description that made him laugh recently when asked about it.
At the latest debate, he started off as usual by connecting with the crowd; naming people he saw in the audience and appealed to a prevailing sense that “the election in March with be historic.” His positions have become more specific since the campaign began. Last Monday, for example, he released an economic development plan that focuses on the technology sector, public-private partnerships, and reducing childcare costs for working families.
However, Kranichfeld has not yet mastered the questionable political skill of using any question to get your own message across. Instead, he was direct, but occasionally drifted into generalizations or repetition. The strongest reactions came when he talked about neighborhood concerns and how the city should negotiate with UVM. He was both concrete and tough on town-gown relations, chiding the university, even suggesting that its internal response to noise violations should include withholding grades.
Lorber warned against “going overboard on enforcement.” But the crowd liked the get tough idea. Kranichfeld didn’t do as well on waterfront development, however. When he mentioned partnering with private businesses and imagined paid advertisements along the bike path, the reaction ranged from cool to downright uncomfortable.
Miro Weinberger has fared well in the debates, he is not as polished as Ashe but substantive and decisive. Although successful as a business leader, he is also new to electoral politics. In fact, this is his first race in Vermont. But he has developed the largest roster of local supporters and a series of detailed policy proposals. He also has been the willing to take issue with his Democratic rivals.
Immediately after Ashe entered the race, Weinberger warned that the former councilor’s close relationship with Kiss – until recent criticisms – and the administration’s handling of Burlington Telecom will make Ashe vulnerable. At the debate, Weinberger began by remarking that Burlington’s extraordinary progress over the last 30 years has slowed to a stall during the last six.
His prescriptions are clear and creative, though not so different from ideas put forward by Ashe and others. But his approach is distinctly pragmatic and, at time, less calculated to please. For example, while the other three candidates strongly suggest that outright sale of Burlington Telecom should not be considered, Weinberger insists that it can’t be ruled out. He would prefer to maintain a public stake, or at least some public participation. But he asks an uncomfortable question: How much should the city be willing to pay – or risk – to prevent a sale?
Weinberger makes some Progressives and City Hall staff uneasy, in part due to his style, business background, and desire to bring in what he calls “a new generation of civic leadership and thinking.” The influence of unions, importance of expertise and continuity, and role of the City Council in hiring mean that such a change would not be as dramatic as it sounds. Still, some staff should probably update their resumes if he wins on Sunday.
At the debate, one of his stronger audience moments came during a discussion of management style and experience. One of the questions asked about the largest organization each candidate has managed. Ashe scored by largely sidestepping that issue and talking instead about the need for a better partnership between the mayor and city council. Under the circumstance it was a smart move.
Up next, Weinberger ran down his experience supervising hundreds of workers and building 200 homes worth $40 million, then linked his background with accountability and the crucial city challenges ahead. That seemed to work as well.
Despite differing styles, strengths and a few minor arguments along the way, all four Democrats agree on most of the big questions facing the city. For instance, they say that the mayor should get tougher in negotiating with UVM over housing and other student issues. They believe that the progressive initiatives of the last three decades should be preserved and protected, but that Mayor Kiss has undermined public trust and failed as a manager and communicator.
They see some tough economic choices ahead, but think the city can certainly recover without abandoning is core values and can even make new strides in transportation, sustainability, efficiency, and quality of life.
They also agree that the Democratic Caucus, which begins at 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 13 in Memorial Auditorium, will be a most memorable event, perhaps even a defining moment in local political history. Those who attend may well choose the next mayor of Vermont largest city.
On Monday the party will hold a unity event. The real voting is more than three months away.
Kranichfeld calls the upcoming election “a golden opportunity to get over our paralysis.” The candidates also agree on that. But before seizing the moment, the largest group of Burlington residents to gather for a direct, democratic decision in living memory must answer one simple but crucial question.
Ashe summed it up this way: Who has the broadest knowledge and can be the most competitive? Put another way, who has the best shot at beating Kurt Wright and becoming the first Democratic mayor in more than 30 years?