RUTLAND — A day after Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras was defeated in his re-election bid by Alderman David Allaire, the outgoing city leader was busy cleaning off his desk at City Hall.
“I got smoked. Clearly I got smoked,” Louras said Wednesday morning inside the mayor’s office. “It was a good old-fashioned political drubbing.”
Allaire, a 19-year member of the Board of Aldermen, defeated Louras with 51 percent of the vote to 34 percent. Michael Coppinger, executive director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership, had 13 percent, and the fourth candidate in the race, Kam Johnston, tallied 1 percent.
About 43 percent, or 4,229, of the city’s 9,929 registered voters cast ballots Tuesday.
Talking Tuesday night, after results came in showing he lost his bid for a sixth two-year term to Allaire, Louras said little, other than congratulating the mayor-elect and wishing well when he takes office.
However, a few hours later, Louras opened up a bit more.
“As much as I said during the campaign that this was not a referendum on refugee resettlement … hindsight, looking back at it, absolutely a referendum on refugee resettlement,” Louras said Wednesday morning.
“I think it just demonstrates that Rutland is still, as I said during the campaign and even before the campaign, Rutland is still a microcosm for the national conversation on refugees and immigration. I think the vote reflects that.”
The mayor, in his campaign kickoff announcement earlier this year, said he didn’t believe the race was a referendum on a proposal he announced in April for Rutland to become a resettlement site for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Instead, he said at that time, it was a race about leadership and building on the progress made in the city during his tenure, from improving infrastructure to fighting drugs and crime through collaborative approaches, led by the city’s Project Vision.
He said Wednesday that while candidates did talk about other matters during the campaign, from economic development to growing the city’s declining population, the driving issue for the voters appeared to be refugee resettlement.
“I think as much as the candidates tried to make this a campaign based on issues and facts,” he said, “I think the electorate ultimately made their decisions based on emotions, tied very closely to the refugee situation.”
Louras’ announcement in April of the refugee program led to heated debate in the city over the issues, with one group, Rutland Welcomes, forming in support of the initiative, and another, Rutland First, opposing the proposal.
Criticism was also leveled at Louras for not informing the Board of Aldermen and the public about the proposal earlier, when planning had already been underway for months.
Eventually, the U.S. State Department did select the city as a refugee resettlement site in September, with 100 families expected to arrive this year. However, after two Syrian families made it to Rutland, the program was put on hold by executive orders issued by President Donald Trump.
Officials are still trying to determine what the latest executive order, issued earlier this week, will mean for Rutland. It calls for a 120-day suspension of the program.
Also, it’s the State Department that controls refugee resettlement, not the mayor or the Board of Aldermen.
Allaire campaigned on opposing resettlement, saying the process lacked transparency and that more information and input from the public was needed.
“It’s not the refugees I had a problem with, it was the process,” Allaire said during the campaign and reiterated Tuesday night.
Observers of the race say they were surprised by the margin of Allaire’s victory, but not necessarily the result.
“I thought it would be closer,” said former Rutland Mayor Jeffrey Wennberg, who served 12 years in the city’s top elected office and now is the city’s public works commissioner in Louras’ administration.
“I think it’s pretty clear that on a number of issues,” Wennberg said, “David is going to take the city in a new direction.”
Board of Aldermen President William Notte, in analyzing the city elections, pointed Wednesday to the race for six seats on the board that drew 17 candidates.
Of the six candidates winning seats, four supported refugee resettlement, and two have opposed it, he said.
Incumbent Tom Depoy topped the field with 2,060 votes. Lisa Ryan, making her first run for the board, finished second with 1,861, and Timothy Cook, also a first-time candidate, finished third with 1,852.
Incumbents Melinda Humphrey had 1,629 votes and Christopher Ettori garnered 1,561 votes, finishing fourth and fifth. Rebecca Mattis, another candidate running for the first time, took sixth place, and the final available seat, with 1,318 votes.
Depoy and Cook both have said they oppose the refugee resettlement proposal, with Cook a founding member of Rutland First.
Ryan, Humphrey, Ettori and Mattis have all expressed support for the program.
The Board of Aldermen results, Notte said, coupled with the mayoral race, show that the electorate is not of one mind on refugee resettlement.
“There’s some people who support it and want to see it start up again, other people who hope it’s gone for good. I think the choices people made really show that,” Notte said. ”I think that goes a long way to showing that the mayor lost a lot of votes that were totally unrelated to refugee resettlement.”
Notte said he believe the big issue impacting the mayor’s race was the fire department and a proposed reorganization plan by the mayor and fire chief. The proposal led to a budget standoff, and the firefighters union endorsed Allaire for mayor.
“What really did in Chris Louras at the end of the day was the fire department,” Notte said. “I think it really hurt Chris that once the reorganization, when people first became aware of it, the fire department in lockstep opposed it, and opposed it for safety reasons.”
Louras and the fire chief contended the plan did not compromise safety.
Depoy said Wednesday it was tough to conclude from the election results exactly what issues drove voters to the polls, though for many refugee resettlement was at least a factor, though maybe not the deciding one.
“There’s a lot of issues that affect this city,” he said, from the fire department reorganization to moving forward with a new city pool.
“Refugee settlement will never be completely behind us,” he said. “Right now there are some pressing issues that have to be taken care of. Refugee resettlement is going to be handled now by the feds, by the Trump administration and the Department of State.”
Ryan said Wednesday that because she was a first-time candidate, she may not have been tied to one particular issue, such as refugee resettlement.
“Louras just kind of had refugee resettlement attached to his name,” she said. “The people who didn’t like that, just didn’t vote him.”
Ryan, 28, will become the first African-American member of the Board of Aldermen.
“I’m very excited about Rutland electing me,” she said. “It gives Rutland a sense of diversity. I’m younger, I’m African-American, I’m a woman.”
Rich Clark, the director of the Castleton Polling Institute, said Wednesday that he was expecting a much closer mayoral race.
“For someone to get a majority in a four-person race is astonishing,” he said.
However, Clark said, what can be gleaned from the mayoral results is not entirely clear, especially when factoring in the Board of Aldermen’s race. “It’s kind of like reading tea leaves. Here’s where exit polls have their value,” he said.
Clark did agree with a comment made by the incumbent mayor during the campaign
“I think Christopher Louras said it well in one of the forums where he said, ‘People are watching from all over,’” Clark recalled. “This was one of those spotlight local elections.”
Tom Donahue, executive director of BROC-Community Action, is a former city alderman and co-hosted election coverage Tuesday night on PEG-TV, the local public access channel.
He said Wednesday that while refugee resettlement may have been the top issue on people’s minds in the mayor’s race, other factors were at play. Those include the issue with the fire department as well as two prominent businesses moving out of downtown within the past two months: The Coffee Exchange and Hawley’s florist.
“I think with that being right in the throes of the campaign everything was stacking up against the current administration,” Donahue said. “These things are happening one after another. It makes it very difficult, almost insurmountable.”
Allaire, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Louras in the past two elections, will now start putting together his administration, beginning with selecting a new city attorney. Current attorney Charles Romeo had earlier resigned from the post.
The new mayor takes office March 15.
In a twist, Allaire, who was in the middle of his two-year term on the board, will also get to appoint a new member to serve out the remaining year.
Meanwhile, Louras said he didn’t believe any changes in how he campaigned would have led to a different result.
“When you get whopped, when you get creamed, it’s not about tactics, it’s not about strategy,” Louras said. “I got my ass kicked.”
He added that he doesn’t know what his future will hold.
“I have no clue,” Louras said. “I’ve been out of a job for only 12 hours.”
Then he looked at his desk.
“This is the cleanest it’s ever been,” the outgoing mayor said.