When it comes to politics, very little is more dangerous than making predictions, especially about the future. Something bizarre can always happen.
With that caveat in mind, consider two potentially significant ramifications of last weekend’s political caucuses in Burlington:
- State Sen. Tim Ashe, who lost his bid to become the Democratic candidate for mayor, nonetheless is now effectively a Democrat. Oh, he may continue to run for his Senate seat as a “fusion” candidate supported by both the Democrats and his original political family, the Progressive Party. But should he seek higher office again – and he will – he made his bed as a Democrat by promising to back Democratic nominee Miro Weinberger “every step of the way,” even against a Progressive candidate. Having made that bed, Ashe will have to lie in it.
- The next mayor of Burlington is almost surely going to be either Democrat Weinberger or Republican City Councilor Kurt Wright. The Progressives may field a nominee, but whoever he or she is won’t be as well-known, won’t be as well-financed, will obviously by the party’s second choice (after Ashe), and will bear the burden of a discredited incumbent Progressive administration. And there’s no more of this “instant runoff voting” that enabled Progressive Bob Kiss to win last time. While not impossible, a Progressive win would seem highly unlikely.
That’s a big change for Burlington, which has had a Progressive mayor for 18 of the last 20 years, and maybe even a bigger one for the Progressive Party. Burlington’s City Hall is the party’s power base.
Its only real power base, actually, and already not as firm a stronghold as it was. The Progs, as the late Peter Freyne indelibly called them, are down to two members of the City Council, both from Ward 3 (roughly downtown along the lake and mostly north of Main Street). For the moment, though, the Progressives still hold the mayor’s office. If they lose that, what else do they have?
Not much. One state representative – Christopher Pearson of Burlington – is elected solely as a Progressive. Four other House members are, like Ashe (who could not be reached for this story), “fusion” winners, running on both the Progressive and Democratic lines. So is Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina, a one-time Progressive candidate for statewide office, who remains probably the best-known Progressive in the state.
But even adding in the “fusion” members, seven legislators – about 4 percent of the total – doesn’t qualify as a power base, especially considering that their districts are scattered around the state. It’s true, as Progressive Party Chair Martha Abbot said, that no other state has anything close to seven third-party legislators. But that’s setting a low bar. Without Burlington’s City Hall, might the Progressives be on the cusp of withering away?
No, said Pollina.
“Obviously, Burlington is important. But most of the core of the Progressive Party really has set its sights on trying to win more local races,” he said. “This is not the first time we’ve heard people surmise about the demise of the Progressive Party, but it has never has come to pass because the party is tenacious and really does have the support of lot of Vermonters.”
It does, as Weinberger appeared to understand, saying, “I intend to be a mayor that is in that tradition of Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle: a mayor focused on getting things done, and a mayor who is focused on a community that is tolerant and leaves no one behind.”
Clavelle was the Progressive mayor for most of the 1990s. Sanders, mayor for most the 1980s, ran as an independent, but inspired the Burlington political movement that evolved into the Progressive Party. Both the outlooks and the attitudes underlying that movement – left-of-center policy positions, disinclination to compromise, distrust of any established organization (especially, but not only, political parties) – remain attractive to many Vermont voters.
Difficult elections for Progressives are nothing new. But is it more difficult right now? No doubt about it.”
-Rep. David Zuckerman
One question is how badly the party’s image was damaged by Kiss and his administration. Part of the appeal of the Progs was their insistence that they were “not like other politicians,” who, in the view of many, are contentious, devious and more loyal to their party than to the public interest.
But in the matter of the improper $17 million city loan to Burlington Telcom, the Kiss administration was contentious, devious and more loyal to its party than to the public interest. How badly that will hurt the party’s image – and for how long – is one of the problems Progressive leaders will have to ponder.
They’re not denying that their immediate prospects are dim.
“This is a very difficult political climate for a Progressive running for mayor of Burlington,” said former Rep. David Zuckerman. “Difficult elections for Progressives are nothing new. But is it more difficult right now? No doubt about it.”
The immediate dilemma facing party leaders is whether to field a candidate for mayor. To decline risks consigning the party, at least for the nonce, to irrelevance. To join the race risks not only a probably embarrassing defeat, but, by possibly draining away enough votes from Weinberger to elect Wright, opening the party once again to the “spoiler” accusation.
It is an accusation that party chair Abbott does not entirely reject. In fact, she claimed that Progressives have used their “spoiler” threat productively. In explaining why, she also replies to those who contend that Progressives could accomplish their goals more effectively by becoming Democrats so they could vote and run in Democratic primaries.
“By and large, Progressive Party members are people who tried that (being Democrats) for years and years,” she said. “Our strategy has developed into working with and sometimes running against Democrats.”
Last year, Abbott said, the Progressives effectively told Democrats, “If you will put somebody up for governor who will fight really hard for (a single-payer health care system) and to close Vermont Yankee,” Progressives would back that candidate and not put up one of their own.
It worked. Peter Shumlin, who backed both positions, won the Democratic Primary and the election. The Legislature created an apparatus to create a universal (if perhaps not single-payer) health care system, and unless a federal court intervenes, Vermont Yankee will be closed within months (through decisions made before Shumlin became governor, but with his backing).
“That would never have happened if there wasn’t a Progressive Party,” Abbott said. “You can promote and lobby all you want, but the only thing politicians understand is somebody who’s going to stand in their way of winning. We want to work with Democrats. But just the carrot has not been enough. We need the stick.”
An interesting and unusually candid retort in what will no doubt be a continuing debate.