Campaign Notebook: The more than 40 percent question, choosing sides in Burlington’s latest change election

Burlington City Hall. VTD/Josh Larkin
Burlington City Hall. VTD/Josh Larkin

Once upon a time Burlington voters faced a difficult choice – between the leader of an ad hoc coalition that crossed party lines and a Democrat with solid backing from the political establishment. A third candidate, displeased with one group’s choice and unimpressed with the other’s image, entered the race late and made the decision even tougher for some voters.

The race might be won with slightly more than 40 percent and a handful of votes.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because that was the basic dynamic back in 1981, when Bernie Sanders ran an insurgent campaign to defeat Democrat Gordon Paquette, Burlington’s mayor for 10 years and de facto leader of an alliance then known as the Republicrats.

The third candidate was Richard Bove, a restaurant owner who challenged Paquette in the Democratic caucus and then ran as an independent.

Oddly enough, it also roughly describes the 2012 race. Miro Weinberger is the well-connected Democrat but also the outsider, the candidate promising – threatening, from some perspectives – the most change.

Republican Kurt Wright has created the multi-party coalition, reaching beyond his long-established base in the New North End with the support of Democrats, independents and even a Progressive official. But his alliance also looks like the return of the Republicrats.

The independent is Wanda Hines, a city employee and past ally of incumbent Mayor Bob Kiss who has publicly complimented Wright, defended the current administration’s record, and further complicated the race for local Progressives.

On March 6 voters in Vermont’s largest city will settle the matter, for three years anyway, in an election that could prove as consequential as the one that turned Sanders into a household name and launched Vermont’s modern progressive movement.

Last Wednesday Vermont’s independent U.S. senator, who is running for his second term in November, added another twist to the already convoluted race by endorsing Weinberger, an emerging leader of the party he once ousted from City Hall.

Sen. Bernie Sanders. VTD file/Josh Larkin
Sen. Bernie Sanders. VTD file/Josh Larkin

In 2009 the Progfather backed Kiss, who decided against seeking a third term in November – not that his party would have endorsed him.

Some of Sanders’ old comrades like Terry Bouricius, who joined the City Council as his ally in the same 1981 change election, are perplexed by the endorsement. Bouricius is backing Hines and considers Weinberger the worst possible choice – at least from a party survival perspective. His viewpoint, shared by other Progressive stalwarts, is that Weinberger would have too much clout with Democrats dominating – although likely not controlling – the City Council.

The same concern was not evident when Tim Ashe sought the Democratic nomination. The key difference is that Ashe was a Sanders staffer and Progressive city councilor before he became a state senator as a Democrat/Progressive. Weinberger has Democratic Party ties dating back decades.

Reinforcing that impression Weinberger has held frequent press conferences with leading Democrats who back his campaign. On the final Friday before the vote, Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has known Weinberger since he was a congressional intern 20 years ago, joined him for a campaign swing up Church Street. “I have always been impressed with his hard work, intelligence and passion for public service,” Leahy said.

For Progressives, the underlying issue is inter-party distrust. Rather than wanting to join forces with Democrats, some Progressives still see fundamental differences and, despite recent setbacks, remain hopeful about a revitalized local party.

Wright seems a safer short-term bet for some who usually vote Progressive, as well as a known quantity. Political activists, and some city employees, assume that a Republican mayor will meet more resistance if he attempts to implement major policy changes or dismantle elements of the progressive legacy. In essence, they discount one of Wright’s main arguments – that a tri-partisan administration can get more done – as well as his well-honed parliamentary skills.

Sanders, who served as mayor from 1981 to 1989 but has spent the decades since representing Vermont in Washington, D.C., views the race differently. Unlike many local Progressives, he is impressed with Weinberger’s track record as a developer and is not concerned by his association with leading Democrats such as Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch, who are Sanders’ congressional colleagues as well.

He also works with Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Weinberger backer whom the state Progressive Party chose not to challenge in 2010. As Weinberger frequently says and Sanders knows from experience, cultivating political alliances at higher levels of government can give the city an edge.

In the endorsement, Sanders specifically cited one of Weinberger’s private developments, a “beautiful project in Richford which combines a locally-owned grocery store, a rural health center, a dental clinic, a pharmacy and affordable housing – just the kind of development Vermont needs.”

He also expressed confidence that the Democrat will “push for innovative solutions to the challenges facing the low and moderate income children of our city.” Sanders concluded with an argument central to his philosophy — that Weinberger will “create an open City Hall which welcomes the ideas of people of all walks of life.”

The Press and the Progs

Openness and access have been frequent talking points during the race. Mayor Kiss stands accused of undermining the city’s financial stability, as well as the Progressive brand, by withholding information – on Burlington Telecom and other matters – and being a generally poor communicator.

But the Burlington Free Press, for whom transparency is a top editorial priority, reached a different conclusion than Sanders in its endorsement. The day following the senator’s announcement – and an online debate sponsored by the newspaper – the paper’s editors selected Wright in a statement that linked the decision to their keystone issue.

Wright, a long-term member of the City Council, has stressed the same arguments as the paper in his campaign. An “action” plan he released last week to “restore credibility to City Hall” echoes the shared priorities. The word “action” in Wright’s plan is an acronym referring to accountability, competency, transparency, innovation, and organization, plus any necessary changes that may emerge. It provides “the tools to judge our work and hold their city government accountable,” he explained.

The newspaper endorsement warns against the need for a “drastic makeover,” a suggestion not made by a candidate but most likely referring to Weinberger’s call for a “fresh start.” Burlington’s difficulties stem from a “refusal to be transparent and open,” the editorial argues, and what the city needs is “true accountability.” Although Wright “has shown himself less than fully versed in the laws and ideals of open government,” the editors see promise in his nonpartisan approach.

Kurt Wright, GOP candidate for Burlington mayor. Courtesy photo.
Kurt Wright, GOP candidate for Burlington mayor. Courtesy photo.

After months of equivocating, the Burlington Progressive Party also made a choice – not to endorse anyone. With Kiss, its most recent candidate, held in low regard due to his handling of Burlington Telecom and city finances, the Party briefly considered “fusion” – if Ashe won the Democratic caucus. Once he lost, a half-hearted and ultimately unfruitful candidate search was conducted.

Mark Montalban, a Old North End activist who supports Hines, recently assessed the local Progressive Party on Facebook. It looks like “a group in name only, having no solid conviction upon its statewide principles, embellished with political opportunism, with personal agendas leading the way. This is definitely not 1981,” he wrote.

The Progressive Party’s Feb. 22 statement clarified little about the principles or strategic considerations underlying the decision not to back a candidate. Instead, it compared them on a short list of issues — instant run-off voting, gentrification, and support for Progressives both as candidates and members of a city administration. None of the three received particularly high marks.

“The candidates did not seem to have well thought out plans on how to bring moderate- and low-income residents, particularly in the Old North End and King Street neighborhoods, into the conversation,” a press release concluded. “No candidate specifically addressed how to resist gentrification in these neighborhoods with new development.”

That assessment has not prevented one prominent party member from backing Wright, however. Progressive Vince Brennan, who joined the council in 2010, described him as a “seasoned politician” and added, “I don’t think he would do anything to hurt Burlington.”

It wasn’t the most rousing endorsement. But it did allow Wright’s campaign manager David Hartnett, who is nominally a Democrat on the City Council, to claim with justification that his candidate is the only one “with support from representatives of all three parties in the city.”

Close encounters of the virtual kind

At the peak of last Wednesday’s live-streamed Twitter debate, around 80 people were watching via burlingtonfreepress.com. It’s not an enormous number, but respectable enough and not that different from the turnout at most “live” forums.

In this case, members of the audience also had the chance to interact with the candidates in a virtual dialogue by posting comments and questions on Twitter and Facebook. The result was a fast-paced, spontaneous and revealing encounter.

The format also highlighted a cultural, possibly generational difference between Weinberger and the other two candidates – his knowledge and comfort level with new technology. Of the three, he has most actively employed social networking in his campaign and talks of employing technology to increase efficiency and public access. Hines and Wright are also open to that, but know less about it. Asked about online communication during public meetings, they sounded traditional and uncertain.

The point was driven home when the candidates were asked about their phones. Weinberger was the only one with a smart phone. He also showed a practical understanding of how digital technology can promote public access and accountability.

Sounding more comfortable than usual – though distracted at times by the live feed — Weinberger defined some new contrasts with Wright. Although the delivery remains halting at times, he has become more confident in the six months since launching his first campaign for election.

Weinberger’s opening point was characteristically blunt: The next mayor should understand technology.

Wright, who has run for the city council, state Legislature and mayor 15 times in less than 20 years, responded with a political quip. “Voters won’t cast their vote on whether or not I have an iPhone,” he said. In previous debates the tactic has worked well enough.

But the subject came up again in a question about city websites. Hines and Wright had little to contribute, while Weinberger described the city as “stuck in the past decade,” pointed to model sites elsewhere, and rhapsodized about creating a “portal” for marketing Burlington to rest of the world.

The difference went beyond familiarity with social media and new technology. In answer to a question about how each candidate would “engage” the Occupy movement, and whether it should have a role in local government, Wright gave another tried-and-true answer. He would meet with them, “as I will with every group. I’ll always protect citizens’ right to be heard.”

Hines created greater distance. She explained that her “office would be accessible, like I would to any other community partner or entity that wanted to talk.”

Weinberger’s answer was a quite different — supportive and well-informed. “They should have a voice,” he began. Not only would he engage, he might attend General Assembly sessions, and called meetings of the GA remarkable events that are creating “a new form of communication.”

To sell or not to sell

Wright and Weinberger also rehashed the most controversial “big idea” of the campaign – whether to consider selling the century-old Burlington Electric Department in response to growing city debts.

Wright’s position has shifted since he floated the proposal last September. He initially presented it as a “bold budget solution.” It is also described that way in his campaign literature. Weinberger and others have attacked the idea as “half-baked” and worse – the beginning of a push for privatization of city assets.

Wright dismisses such characterizations, and insists that it is a reasonable response prompted by financial troubles that he and others consider threatening to Burlington’s long-term economic stability.

His top priority is “putting the city’s financial house in order and creating a renewed sense of security for Burlington’s business community,” Wright’s literature says. Second on the list is “investigate the sale of BED, which has the potential to address the financial problems caused by the current administration without a tax increase.”

Miro Weinberger, an airport commissioner and developer, is the Democratic candidate for mayor of Burlington. Shayne Lynn Photography. http://www.shaynelynn.com. © 2011 Shayne Lynn. Used with permission.

In response to criticisms, however, he has recently stressed that BED is just one asset, that everything should be evaluated, and that “the issue would go before the voters to decide.”

At the Twitter debate, Wright argued again that he and Weinberger are not far apart on the issue, since the Democrat has not ruled it out. But Weinberger considers it Plan Z – a last resort in the event that current financial problems deepen and other options have been exhausted.

Wright also acknowledged that the proposal involves more than evaluating assets. During the debate he briefly described a two-step plan, beginning with a public referendum on whether to proceed in seeking a buyer. After that – if the answer from voters is yes – “then we go into details.”

A subsequent online question – How would the candidates make city government smaller? – illustrated a shift in the dynamics since the campaign began.

Hines, who has defended an administration that others call “toxic,” did not hesitate before asserting that local government is “small enough,” in fact “the perfect size.” Not one to run out the clock she left it there.

Wright’s initial instinct was to agree with the anti-government sentiment, noting there are “some things we can consider.” But he has become more cautious as Election Day nears. As he explained to VTDigger, he hopes to avoid controversial statements in the campaign’s final days. In this case, he mentioned departmental consolidation but did not bring up BED, stressing instead that “people in the trenches” are best positioned to recommend any “efficiencies.”

Weinberger began his response by rejecting the premise of the question — that government should be smaller. He defended the idea that it can help to improve life for residents. “I’d be prudent,” he added, then pivoted to say that there are “not many areas where I’d be eager to reduce government’s role. Kurt seems eager to do that.”

In past debates Wright has been able deflect such criticisms with quick verbal jabs, usually aimed at Weinberger’s inexperience or lack of familiarity with city operations. This time he looked uncomfortable and sounded almost defensive.

He is not eager to sell BED, Wright insisted, “but we may have to look at it.” And he is only talking about evaluating the option. “I want to make that clear,” he added. “I also want it clear I’m not just talking about selling assets off.”

The shape of change to come

In 1981 the implications of the political upheaval on the horizon were not apparent until after the election. Only a few people considered in advance what could happen if Sanders won. This time everyone agrees up front that some sort of change is coming.  But what kind, and the long-term impact, is as murky as ever.

The campaign has been unprecedented, the longest and most costly in local history.  Weinberger raised more than $118,000, spending almost half that to win 655 votes in a marathon party caucus that began in November and ended a month later. Wright had no competition for his nomination and raised more than $48,000, while Hines brought in less than $3,000 for a run that was supposed to stimulate enough new voter participation to catapult her past better-financed rivals.

About the same number of big donors gave the $1,000 maximum to the Wright and Weinberger campaigns. An analysis by Paul Heinz for Seven Days found that 690 individuals, enterprises and political groups have backed Weinberger, while at least 215 support Wright. Thirty people have contributed to Hines’ campaign, according to the report.

Weinberger’s biggest donors have been his parents and Sen. Leahy. But at least $25,000 came from out-of-state contributors who gave more than $100 each. He also benefited from significant state Democratic Party support and assistance.

Consistent with his nonpartisan thrust, Wright ruled out Republican Party support. He also did not seek out-of-state contributors, a distinction with Weinberger his campaign underlines. Wright’s donor list is nevertheless impressive, featuring many well-connected Republicans and influential developers.

Early contributors included Jeffrey Davis, Gary Farrell, Antonio Pomerleau and Angelo Pizzagalli, a group of development moguls Wright has since described in speeches as “some of the best.” They have been joined by Lake Champlain Transportation, owned by waterfront developer Ray Pecor. Wright frequently mentions Pecor’s vison for a hotel and convention center on private waterfront land as the type of project he hopes to support as mayor.

Aside from being the most expensive campaign, this is also first in three decades without an explicitly progressive candidate. Sanders ran four times in the 1980s. Clavelle served for 14 of the next 16 years – a record-breaking tenure interrupted by the single Republic term of Wright’s political mentor Peter Brownell.

Kiss ran in 2006 and was re-elected in 2009, both times with instant run-off voting. Wright and others are still bitter about the latter race. In the initial count, Wright had 2,951 votes, almost 400 more than Kiss. In the second round, with the votes of independent Dan Smith and Green Party candidate James Simpson redistributed, he was still ahead. But when Democrat Andy Montroll’s votes were redistributed for a third round, Kiss ended up with 4,313, which beat Wright’s 4,061.

Wright supporters were incensed and launched a campaign that succeeded in repealing IRV by 52 to 48 percent in 2010. Troubling facts about Burlington Telecom financing were meanwhile exposed, and an attempt was made to remove Kiss from office. For a while the discord produced local legislative gridlock.

The mood is more productive today. But Wright remembers the recent past, and still considers the 2009 re-election of Kiss a mistake that should not have happened, one his victory this time would begin to correct. Since he is running as a Republican in a liberal community, however, winning 50 percent seems like a stretch.

But coming out on top with over 40 percent? That is an outcome Wright and his team find easier to envision these days.

Hines meanwhile speaks as if her victory is inevitable, although the political demographics of Burlington suggest that it is unlikely – barring the radical jump in new voters she envisions. Turnout is normally lightest in the Old North End, the inner-city core that is Hines’ base. It tends to be heaviest in the geographically-separate New North End, Wright’s home turf.

Weinberger begins with a significant base of Democratic support spread across the city, and especially in the city’s South End. The issue is whether his campaign organization can deliver turnout large enough to overcome Wright’s outreach beyond his base. As the six-month marathon ends he is optimistic but not overconfident.

However this ends, change is guaranteed. On the other hand, no matter who takes charge in April, or which advisers accompany the city’s new CEO into power, the challenges  – debt, development and infrastructure, crime and quality of life, economic inequities and the impacts of social, racial and ethnic diversity — will be the same.

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  • Tom Little

    In 1981 there was a 4th candidate, last name McGrath, also a Democrat (I think) who was disaffected with Mayor Paquette’s administration and the proposed property tax hike. McGrath and Bove together probably caused the Paquette loss (among other factors).

  • Karl Riemer

    “a group in name only, having no solid conviction upon its statewide principles, embellished with political opportunism, with personal agendas leading the way. This is definitely not 1981.”
    Sad to say, but well said.
    Vince Brennan personally and publicly endorsing Kurt Wright is the clearest signal to date that he, at least, cares not a fig for the city, only for party strategy and party pique. There’s no progressive candidate in this race; Progressives have no one to whom to rally. By abstaining, or dividing, BVT Progressives may ensure the election of Republicrat Wright, the worst candidate of the three, but to actively promote his candidacy, returning control of the city to Pomerleau/Pizzagalli/Pecor, demonstrates unprincipled unbridled political opportunism, which isn’t merely “not 1981”, it’s the opposite of 1981.


    Everyone should vote for Weinberger to be Burlington’s next mayor!!! Lets keep the Left in and the Right Wing out!!!! The more Liberal’s this state elects the better off Vermont will be!!!!!

  • Michael Long

    Yes. The Progs have turned out to be . . . well . . . not progressive. Mercenary would be more accurate in certain cases. And if Wright “wouldn’t do anything to hurt” the city, some so-called Progressives are willing.

    Miro Weinberger is the only candidate who credibly offers a clean break from more of the same.