Politics

Burlington Dems to ‘play defense’ in 2021 races, only one council seat is contested

Perri Freeman
Burlington City Councilor Perri Freeman holds one of the four seats up for reelection. Democrats say they are focusing on keeping Mayor Miro Weinberger in office. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

With the Progressive and Democratic caucuses weeks away, only one Burlington City Council seat is being contested. 

Incumbent Franklin Paulino, D-North, announced in September that he wouldn’t run again, prompting two candidates to vie for his spot on the Burlington City Council: Kerin Durfee and Kienan Christianson. 

The lack of competition raises questions about why, after an election cycle where the Progressives flipped two City Council seats, giving them a majority, the Democratic Party isn’t pushing back harder and earlier in the election season to regain ground on Town Meeting Day in March.  

Four out of 12 council seats, split between Progressives and Democrats, are up for reelection in 2021. The seats are now held by Progressive Jack Hanson in the East District, Progressive Perri Freeman in the Central District, Democrat Joan Shannon in the South District and Paulino in the North District. 

While more Democratic challengers could emerge, the party is being cautious, according to outgoing Burlington Democratic Chair Sam Donnelly.

“With the mayoral race up, the Democrats want to make sure they’re not being too aggressive and forgetting to play defense,” Donnelly said. “I think that it’s important that we keep the mayor’s seat and Democratic control. And making sure that we defend our two council seats that are up this year.”

Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, is seeking a fourth term in March. He is the first Democrat to hold the office since Gordon Paquette, who Bernie Sanders defeated in 1981.

“That being said, I don’t think that should be translated to we’re giving up, we’re not going to attempt to make gains,” Donnelly added. “Things are still being worked out and plans are being made.” 

Donnelly resigned from his position Monday because he’s pursuing a job opportunity out of state. He said his resignation had nothing to do with the City Council campaign finance reporting violations that cost the party $2,750 in a settlement with the Vermont Attorney General. 

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Former city councilor Adam Roof will be taking over as chair for the Burlington Democrats. He said he will focus on building the party’s infrastructure, from establishing a reliable website for the party to organizing events and Democratic committees, in order to increase participation. 

“We literally don't have enough people included in the party in Burlington at the moment,” Roof said. “We need to sort of throw the doors open and give people opportunities for both access and active participation.” 

Roof said the Burlington Democratic Committee needs to “redefine the purpose of politics.” He said the party should aim to be a "big tent" that includes more people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

There is still time for Democratic contenders to emerge for the City Council races, Roof said. Caucus participants can also nominate contenders the day of the event. Candidates can’t run under the Democratic ticket after the caucus, but they can run as independents. 

As for the lack of early Democratic contenders to challenge Progressive seats, Roof said it can be hard for ordinary Burlingtonians to run for local office if they’re not independently wealthy. They’re only paid a $5,000 stipend per year, despite the demanding workload, which can be an obstacle for interested candidates, Roof said. 

When asked if there’s a lack of momentum in the party to get people excited about running as a Democrat in Burlington, Roof said the party has a “big opportunity” to build a pipeline of candidates. 

Josh Wronski, chair of the Progressive Party, said the party’s incumbent candidates — Hanson and Freeman — are prepared for strong Democratic challengers. “But maybe it’s just me being overly cautious,” he added. (Freeman has not formally announced her reelection campaign yet, but Wronski said he expects her to soon.)

Wronski said he thinks Democrats are on the defensive this election cycle because of “failed policies they’ve been promoting for the past decade.” 

“You can really feel there’s a strong enthusiasm gap,” Wronski said, among Democrats in Burlington. 

And while the North District is currently the only contested race, Wronski said the Progressive Party is also going to put up a candidate to challenge Democrat Shannon in the South District. He said this person is likely to announce in the coming days. 

Durfee, one of the Democratic contenders in the North District race, said she's not surprised her district is the only contested race because many residents are politically active. 

Durfee, who is a member of the citizen oversight Police Commission, has been endorsed by incumbent Paulino. She’s pitching herself to voters as a unifier between Democrats and Progressives, specifically around issues of racial justice, in a district known to have a more conservative tilt. 

The North District was a battleground between Democrats and Progressives in 2019. That race involved Paulino and Keinan Christianson, who ran as an independent. Christianson is now running again against Durfee and is seeking the Democratic and Progressive nomination. He said he may end up running as an independent. 

“My focus has been over the last two years to really build up our community and engage with my neighbors,” Christianson said. “What motivated me to run last time, and what’s motivating me to run this time, is that I care deeply about my neighbors.” 

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The Democratic caucus is Dec. 6. The candidate speeches will be livestreamed and then voters can cast ballots in person at three locations around the city. Roof said the party is also working to create virtual voting options. 

The Progressive caucus is Dec. 1. The candidate speeches will be livestreamed and voters will be able to cast their ballots through an online voting platform and in-person, at the parking lot of the ONE Community Center from 5 to 7 p.m. on Dec. 2 and 8:30 to 11 a.m. Dec. 3.

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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