(This story was updated March 8 at 12:30 a.m.)RUTLAND — Mayor Christopher Louras, who put his political career on the line when he announced a plan for refugee resettlement in the city, was defeated handily Tuesday by a leading opponent of the proposal, Alderman David Allaire.
“I’m not talking. … You need to speak to the new mayor of the city of Rutland,” Louras told reporters at his post-election gathering downtown. “You need to speak to the people who voted for him. I just wish him well and congratulate him.”
As his supporters watched election coverage on PEG-TV, the local public access channel, Louras was in a back room drinking a beer.
“I think we need to look forward,” he said. “This is about the future.”
Allaire, a 19-year veteran of the city’s Board of Aldermen, garnered 2,196 votes to Louras’ 1,420. Mike Coppinger, the executive director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership, had 559, and resident Kam Johnston finished fourth in the four-way race with 54 votes.
“Here comes Mr. Mayor,” Bill Gillam, a backer of the winner, bellowed as Allaire walked into Kelvan’s restaurant in downtown Rutland to greet supporters after the results were in.
“I think people understood that the way things were going was not acceptable and they wanted change, and I think that’s what I represented,” Allaire said. “This is a turning point, I think for us, a new beginning. I’m just ready to get to work.”
Allaire, 61, who said he’s been an “over-the-road” salesman for some 30 years, takes office March 15.
Louras had been seeking his sixth two-year term. He campaigned on his record, saying the city has achieved great progress during his tenure, from combating drugs and crime to revitalizing the central business district.
He said in his campaign announcement earlier this year that he believed leadership was the key issue, terming his style bold and resolute. He dismissed the notion that the race would be decided over refugees.
Refugee resettlement has been a hot-button issue in the city for several months, well before President Donald Trump took office and issued an executive order that brought the program to a halt.
Louras started exploring the possibility of the city becoming a resettlement site for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the fall of 2015. However, most members of the Board of Aldermen and the public did not learn about it until an April news conference.
Following heated debate on the matter in the city, the U.S. State Department in September approved Rutland as a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees a year, with the families to start arriving at the beginning of this year.
Two families did arrive in January. Then, almost a week later, Trump issued the executive order suspending refugee resettlement for 120 days and indefinitely barring Syrian refugees from the country.
A federal appeals court’s ruling later rescinded nearly all of the provisions of that executive order. Just this week, Trump issued a new executive order, continuing the 120-day suspension of the refugee program, but it no longer had the provision of indefinitely barring Syrian refugees from the country.
Allaire had the backing in the mayoral campaign of Rutland First, a group that formed in opposition to refugee resettlement. While he also talked about economic development and budget restraint, he offered few specifics.
In debates and in his campaign literature, Allaire continued to use the word “transparency,” contending that Louras acted behind closed doors in planning for refugee resettlement in the city.
Louras argued that he didn’t present the idea to the Board of Aldermen sooner because he knew it would lead to a citywide vote, which he said would set a dangerous precedent of residents deciding who their neighbors would be.
Allaire said Tuesday he wanted to have discussions with officials in charge of the refugee program to map out a course for the future.
“I campaigned on not going forward with the current organization because I felt that they were not being forthcoming with information,” he said. “I think this is a chance to reset, and I think the dynamic has changed going forward from tonight.”
He added, “If they plan on continuing to go forward with refugee resettlement they are going to have to do it in a different way. They are going to have to do it in a frank and open way, or they will have a hard time getting my support.”
However, what he can do, if anything, to stop the program is unclear.
“Mayors don’t control who comes in and out of their communities,” Stacie Blake, the director of government and community relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told The Associated Press this week.
“I would certainly hope that whoever the next mayor is would want to work hand in hand with all of this community,” she said, adding that there has been a great deal of support offered for the refugee resettlement program in the city. Rutland Welcomes, a group formed after Louras’ announcement in April, has embraced the program.
Louras, in the last debate, said the state, the nation and the world would be watching the mayoral race. “This community will be defined by the election result,” he added.
Another big issue in the campaign centered on the Fire Department and a dispute over its budget and a reorganization plan by Louras and the fire chief. The union representing the city firefighters endorsed Allaire in the campaign.
Louras garnered his own backing late last week, with the Rutland Herald endorsing his candidacy.
Coppinger, who finished third in the mayor’s race, said Tuesday night that while other matters may have generated debate, the mayor’s race came down to refugee resettlement and the process getting there.
“It was pretty clear that towards the end of this race it came down to the refugee resettlement program, not necessarily whether people were for or against it, but the mayor’s handling of it,” he said.
Coppinger added that since there was little a mayor could do to stop the program, he didn’t believe initially it would become a major issue in the race.
“I thought that this campaign, because the refugee resettlement program was really out of our hands, we could focus on city issues, like infrastructure and workforce development,” he said. “But it’s clear that towards the end of the campaign and talking to people as they were coming out (from voting) that the mayor’s handling of the refugee program really weighed heavy on them.”
Coppinger said he was proud of the campaign he ran and respected the decision of the voters.
“I stuck to the issues. I put a lot of substance out there,” he said. “I talked about the issues facing the city, but more importantly, the solutions, too.”
Voters coming out of the polls voiced strong support for the candidates they backed.
“I voted for Louras. He’s a hero as far as I’m concerned, standing up for people who really need help,” Robert Gilligan said. “It takes courage to do what he did. Some complain, ‘Well, he didn’t ask.’ Well, a true leader, they don’t stand and wait for things to happen, they act.”
George Bradley had a much different view, casting his ballot for Allaire.
“It was done underhanded, and it just really leaves a bad taste in your month,” Bradley said of refugee resettlement. Allaire, he said, “was a voice of reason when he was on the Board of Aldermen.”
Steven Lahue also voted for Allaire, but for a different reason.
“I voted for Allaire because he’s pro-business,” Lahue said. “We need business in this town. We need people working.”
Stephanie Wheelock said Louras was her choice.
“I think that he is doing a really good job, and I love the idea of resettlement,” she said. “I’m originally from Burlington. I’ve seen what it’s done for the community there, and I look forward to it here.”
In other city results:
• All budgets passed, both the city and school spending plans.
• In the race for six seats for aldermen among 17 candidates, incumbent Tom Depoy was the top finisher with 2,060 votes. He was followed by first-time candidates Lisa Ryan with 1,861 and Timothy Cook, a founding member of Rutland First, with 1,852. They were followed by incumbents Melinda Humphrey with 1,629 votes and Christopher Ettori with 1,561. Another first-time candidate, Rebecca Mattis, came in sixth, securing the final seat with 1,318 votes.
Johnston, who garnered just 54 votes in the mayoral race, said he was disappointed with his showing. However, he ran for three other offices, losing two of them but winning a seat on the school board.
He said he intends to ensure that Allaire keeps his word as he takes the mayor’s office.
“I want to hold our elected officials accountable,” he said. “If he promises transparency, I will be there to say, ‘You promised this, and please do it for us in the future.’”
And, Johnston said, it may not be the last the city sees of Louras on the ballot.
“I think we’re going to have Groundhog Day in 2019,” he said. “I predict it’s going to be another Allaire and Louras competition.”