Battle for Burlington: The 2012 Mayoral Race
Who will lead the Queen City?
With public confidence in city hall at an all-time low and the long-reigning Progressive Party bowing out, Burlington voters might have expected the race for mayor to generate a vigorous ideological debate.
Peculiarly, the two candidates who appear neck and neck as they sprint toward the finish line freely admit that their visions for the city are pretty much the same. And so the increasingly bitter campaign between them — the most expensive in Burlington’s history — has focused not on substantive policy disputes but surface distinctions: biography, partisan affiliation, geography and, perhaps most significantly, identity politics.
“There are not major differences in regard to policy,” says Kurt Wright, a city councilor, state representative and Republican candidate for mayor. “Really, then, it boils down to who do you think is ready to lead the city if we have fairly similar positions.”
Miro Weinberger — a developer, airport commissioner and the Democratic nominee — agrees. While Wright portrays himself as the steady hand of experience, Weinberger wants to be viewed as a new voice with a different skill set.
“I think the reason you’re seeing some similar positions is that I think there’s some broad consensus in these areas and I think that consensus has existed for some time,” Weinberger says. “But we haven’t seen much progress on them in years.”
The only candidate to pull away from the pack is independent Wanda Hines, who heads the city’s Social Equity Investment Project and used to run the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. But what differentiates her from the others is a puzzling acceptance of the status quo, a hazy grasp of policy and an inability to marshal a credible campaign.
And so, even before the polls close on Tuesday, March 6, the die has been cast. The next mayor of Burlington will be a business-friendly moderate focused on restoring the city’s finances, developing the downtown and the waterfront, holding the line on school and municipal taxes, and increasing Burlington’s housing stock.
The only question is: Which one will it be?
A Dearth of Ideas
There has been just one bold idea proposed in the course of the six-month race and, oddly, it came at the start: Outlining his financial plan last October, Wright floated the trial balloon of selling the Burlington Electric Department in order to shore up the city’s finances.
The balloon sank, and Wright has been walking back the proposal ever since, saying he would only proceed if the city’s deteriorating finances required it and voters approved.
The episode speaks volumes about both major candidates and the unease many voters feel toward them.
Wright’s critics see the proposal as evidence that rather than govern as a nonideological technocrat, as he says he will, once in office Wright would privatize Burlington’s public assets one by one. Weinberger’s critics, meanwhile, say the Democrat’s failure to take a decisive stance against the proposal speaks to the perception that he is a milquetoast candidate with no core convictions and an inability to differentiate himself from Wright.
“I was really the only Democrat who said I think it’s irresponsible to take this fully off the table given that we face serious financial challenges. Everything needs to be on the table given those challenges,” Weinberger says. “The only bold initiative Kurt has put out there is selling BED, whereas I’ve said selling BED would only be ‘Plan Z’ if all other plans failed.”
But Plenty of Debate
The substantive policy differences between Wright and Weinberger are few. Both oppose the school district’s proposed 9.1 percent budget increase. Both oppose Mayor Bob Kiss’ effort to raise municipal taxes by two cents, though both concede they might, in the end, go back to voters to ask for just that. Both believe they can address the city’s budget shortfall without cutting public safety services. And both say their top priority would be to develop the city’s downtown and the waterfront, while rolling back an ordinance requiring half of every new downtown building to serve a commercial purpose.
“There’s been a lot of rhetoric without too much specifics, with respect to improving the city’s overall situation,” says City Council President Bill Keogh, a Democrat and a Weinberger supporter. “It appears to me the candidates are telling the constituents really mostly what they want to hear. They’ve avoided controversy.”
Instead of debating actual ideas, the candidates have instead bickered about who has more of them. Weinberger has particularly excelled at the exercise. Like clockwork, he holds a press conference every week or so to announce a new plan to address a particular dilemma. He assembles a group of knowledgeable professionals to stand beside him as he unveils another set of bullet points, which tend to be a medley of the obvious, the unachievable and the already under way. He then posts the plans on his website and refers to them ad nauseam.
Point two of his financial plan? “Weinberger would bring a new generation of civic leadership and thinking into city hall and charge his administration with working smarter and more efficiently.” How? By “addressing 10 percent of the problem through innovation and savings.” Bam!
In his economic development plan, Weinberger says he will “unleash the potential of the west side of Pine Street.” How? By “building the proposed Champlain Parkway.” Gee, that was easy!
The notion that Weinberger is the “ideas guy” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ever since the Burlington Free Press dubbed him “the man with the plans” in an early February editorial, the candidate has taken every opportunity to trot out the badge in public forums, saying with an aw-shucks grin, “You called me the man with the plan, and it’s true!”
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Anyone But Kiss
To listen to their stump speeches, you might get the impression that both Weinberger and Wright are running against a guy named Bob Kiss. In a way, you’d be right.
A two-term Progressive mayor, Kiss is stepping down after a rocky tenure during which financial missteps led to a two-notch drop in Burlington’s credit rating. The battle over who will replace him has centered on which of the candidates is more likely to repeat his failures.
Weinberger has repeatedly characterized Wright, who served as city council president for a portion of Kiss’ tenure, as a handmaiden to the mayor. Citing votes taken by the city’s finance board, on which both Wright and Kiss served, Weinberger claims that the two voted in lockstep 473 out of 474 times.
Wright argues that the numbers are meaningless — that nearly every vote of the finance board is unanimous and that most pertain to routine matters.
“The finance board votes that Miro talks about [are] really an attempt to try to fool people,” Wright said at a debate sponsored by Seven Days. “People know that I have been critical of Bob Kiss, I ran against Bob Kiss, I almost beat Bob Kiss. So it’s not going to work to try to fool people that I am a disciple of Bob Kiss.”
Wright’s campaign, meanwhile, argues that Weinberger’s lack of experience in the public realm augurs poorly for his ability to restore the city’s financial health. They say Weinberger reminds them of a certain little-known state legislator who came from out of the blue to win city hall in 2006.
“I’ve heard a lot of folks make the association between Miro and Bob Kiss,” says City Councilor Paul Decelles, a Republican who supports Wright. “Six years ago, Bob was known by one neighborhood, and when the rest of the city met him he seemed like a great guy. Folks are apprehensive this time that they don’t know enough about [Weinberger].”
Ironically, the candidate most likely to follow Kiss’ lead is the one that neither Wright nor Weinberger talks about: Wanda Hines. A longtime Kiss ally — when she ran the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, Kiss was head of the organization that oversees it — Hines has displayed remarkable loyalty to her boss at city hall and obliviousness to his failings.
“We know that Burlington Telecom was a big ... that wasn’t okay,” Hines said at a Burlington Free Press debate. “And so I’m not going to, I don’t know that for sure. I’m not going to sit here and say that I don’t trust anything that comes out of city hall because what’s going on at city hall, although it’s happening under Bob Kiss’ administration, I can’t speak for the finance team.”
The Consummate Politician
Wright’s is a political career of winning and losing — but nearly always running. As his Democratic opponent is quick to point out, this is Wright’s 15th race in 18 years. It is his third run for mayor of Burlington and, he claims, his last.
“If I lose this, this is my last chance — my last race for mayor,” he says on a recent weekday morning over a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and home fries.
Sitting at the Handy’s Lunch counter, Wright recalls the first time he got involved in Burlington politics. It was 1992 and a Republican, Peter Brownell, was planning to challenge the Progressive incumbent, Peter Clavelle, in the next year’s mayoral election.
“I was one of the volunteers who did a ton of stuff, from writing letters to helping organize events to, I think, doing my own radio ad,” he says.
Brownell won, becoming the only Republican or Democrat to control city hall in the past 30 years. Wright was inspired and decided to challenge a 20-year incumbent state representative for a seat representing the New North End. Wright lost by five votes, but the next year he earned a seat on the Burlington City Council and his political career was launched.
Despite his lengthy career in public office, Wright doesn’t exactly give the impression that he stays up late pondering the policy problems of the world. His legislative record appears to be guided by political expediency rather than core conviction. And his concrete accomplishments in the legislature are few and far between: one of the only Wright-authored bills to be signed into law lets bar patrons purchase two drinks at a time. The issue that appears to animate him the most is Burlington’s bike path.
Wright feeds off the backslapping, horse trading and glad-handing of electoral politics. He is quick to hop up from the counter at Handy’s to buttonhole a departing customer, lest he miss out on a single vote. When his campaign manager, Democratic City Councilor Dave Hartnett, shows up and takes a seat at the counter, it doesn’t take long for the two to get going about Jimmy and Bobby and Frankie and all the guys they used to hang around with back in the day.
The two met when Hartnett worked a delivery route for Groff’s Potato Chips and Wright managed Kerry’s Kwik Stop, a convenience store on St. Paul Street.
“We just started talking politics, baseball, Burlington,” Hartnett recalls. “There was a group of friends that kind of hung together.”
It’s this sort of blue-collar shtick that has been the bread and butter of Wright’s campaign, which gives off the impression that it’s just a couple of good old boys trying to do right by the city they love. Never mind the fact that the outfit is largely funded by $1000 checks from a veritable who’s who of wealthy Republican donors, real estate magnates and developers.
“People know I’m a blue-collar person that managed a small business, that’s had a lot of different jobs, that’s moved up the political ladder in Burlington,” Wright says. “I struggle to pay my taxes just like they do. I’m middle class.”
Implicit in Wright’s pitch is that while he is a man of the people, Weinberger — a Yale- and Harvard-educated man of means from the Upper Valley — is not. While Hartnett is quick to deny that the campaign is engaging in class warfare, he can’t help but to point out a distinct other-ness he perceives in Weinberger.
“The other main rival in this campaign, you could argue, really doesn’t know Burlington, has no real ties or connections to Burlington,” Hartnett says. “I know he’s lived here four or five years, but I’ve never seen him at a city council meeting before he decided to run… He was just never involved. So it’s not class warfare. It’s more knowing people and knowing Burlington. I think that’s where the blue-collar thing comes in.”
No matter that Weinberger has lived in Burlington for a decade and, like Wright, was born and raised in Vermont.
Whither the Progs?
The other place “the blue-collar thing comes in” is in the Old North End, the heart of Burlington’s working-class community and a longtime stronghold of the city’s Progressive Party.
Since 1981, when independent Bernie Sanders won a narrow, four-way contest for mayor, Old North Enders have consistently provided a crucial boost for progressive-oriented candidates. Without a Progressive on the ballot this year, their votes are decidedly up for grabs.
A longtime resident of the Old North End herself, Hines has focused her campaign on turning out friends and neighbors — and registering new voters. Weinberger, too, has reached out to the neighborhoods, earning an endorsement this week from the Somali Bantu community. But according to four longtime Progressive Party stalwarts — none of whom was willing to speak on the record — a surprising number are leaning toward the Republican in the race. They say Weinberger’s inability to connect with working-class Burlingtonians, his less-than-full-throated support for BED and his opposition to the school budget have turned off Progressive voters.
“I think [Wright] definitely has a better hand than the Republicans have ever had in the Old North End,” says City Councilor Vince Brennan, the only elected Progressive to publicly endorse Wright. “I think we feel he has been around a while and is a proven leader.”
But Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), who narrowly lost the Democratic mayoral nomination to Weinberger, cautions that the influence of Progressive leadership on rank-and-file voters is limited.
“If by that we mean the most hard-core, partisan Progressives, the fact that only 30 or 40 attended the Progressive caucus suggests that it is unlikely to be the critical lynchpin to victory,” he says. Ashe has endorsed Weinberger.
A New New North End?
For a Republican like Wright to win in such an overwhelmingly left-of-center city, he will have to turn out the vote in Burlington’s traditional pocket of conservatism: the suburban neighborhoods of the New North End.
Decelles, the Republican city councilor who is running for reelection in Ward 7, believes turnout will be “astronomical,” owing to two heavily contested city council races. Even more compelling is the proposed school budget increase, which he predicts will motivate fiscally conservative voters who tend to support Wright.
“I would almost wager that the school budget in Ward 7 will go down almost two-to-one. It’s going to go down in Ward 4, as well,” he says. “Money questions always do out here.”
Others say the New North End is moving beyond the old naysayer stereotype.
“I think particularly in the southern end of the ward where I live, you’re seeing some changing demographics with new residents, younger families,” says Tom Ayres, a Democrat who is running for Decelles’ seat. “I think that runs counter to the perception of the New North End being a very settled community of longtime residents.”
Bryan Aubin, a Democrat who is running for a council seat on the other side of North Avenue, says he is seeing a surprising amount of support for Weinberger.
“There’s definitely a lot of support for Kurt, but I have found some support for Miro,” he says. “Honestly, from my perspective, it feels a bit 50-50.”
The Uncomfortable Candidate
In contrast to the outsider image he has cultivated, Weinberger is a longtime behind-the-scenes operative who helped the Democratic Party take over the Vermont Senate in 1996 and the Vermont House in 2004.
In his first outing as a candidate, Weinberger has run an almost comically professional campaign. He has three full-time staffers, a cadre of Burlington’s young professional class advising him, a state party pouring resources into the race, and a governor and congressional delegation raising money and campaigning beside him. Weinberger has crushed previous fundraising records, collecting $110,000 — nearly as much as the entire mayoral field combined in the 2009 race.
And yet the candidate himself suffers from a crippling inability to interact with voters.
Weinberger is unfairly criticized for failing to connect with the working class. The reality is that he simply can’t connect with anybody, aside from his core supporters. At debates, his answers are consistently on-message — you will never hear him respond without mentioning that he will bring “a fresh start” to Burlington — but his delivery is halting, awkward and defensive. The Burlington Free Press called him “the diligent student” in an editorial, but one observer, criticizing Weinberger’s depth of knowledge of city affairs, said, “He’s the guy who memorized the Cliff’s Notes, but never read the novel.”
Weinberger spent a recent rainy afternoon canvassing King and Maple streets with a college-age intern and a reporter in tow. Nearly every time he knocked on a door, a similar scenario played out:
“I’m Miro,” he says, looking expectantly at the resident who comes to the door, hoping for a glimmer of recognition.
“Weinberger,” he adds.
“I’m running for mayor,” he says, looking away, his voice trailing off.
Sometimes Weinberger’s obvious discomfort prompts the prospective voter to take the initiative and start a conversation. If not, he continues:
“Are you following the mayor’s race?” Weinberger asks. “If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them.”
The interactions bring to mind the moment in 1979 when Teddy Kennedy, asked why he wanted to be president, couldn’t quite answer the question. You get the sense from Weinberger that he really does want to be mayor, but he’s not entirely sure why — and he really can’t stand making the hard sell.
Eventually, Weinberger and the intern come upon a handful of UVM and Champlain College students who appear marginally interested in listening to the candidate — or, at least are a little more polite. Weinberger registers a number of them and even manages to articulate his vision to one: He wants to grow business, support the creative economy and make Burlington more livable, he says.
When he returns to a previously visited Champlain College apartment to drop off an absentee ballot, Weinberger is cornered by a pajama-wearing New Jerseyan, whose room is distinguished by a stolen street sign, a beer pong table, a case of mac ’n’ cheese and a three-foot bong.
“My roommate and I were wondering: What’s your stance on medical marijuana?” the student asks, suppressing a grin.
“I’m supportive of having a dispensary here in Burlington,” Weinberger responds, palpably uncomfortable. “Beyond that, I haven’t taken a position.”
“I’m open to the arguments,” he says, his voice trailing off, looking for the exit.
A Tech Superstar
If there’s one crowd that does appear to venerate Weinberger, it’s Burlington’s vibrant and growing technological and creative community.
“Who Miro is as a person, how he communicates, his own use and adoption of technology — all these things resonate with people in our industry,” says Ted Adler, founder and president of Union Street Media.
Weinberger’s campaign has a ubiquitous presence on social media platforms. A local web marketer, Nate Orshan, posted a music video called “Let’s Go Miro” on YouTube, and it has since been viewed more than 900 times. Burlington’s Thread Magazine, which caters to the techie crowd, splashed a GQ-esque shot of a sweater-clad Weinberger on its cover, accompanied by a hagiographic treatise that recalls the worshipful coverage of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I think a lot of the people in the tech community respond well to a younger, more modern entrepreneur. The fact that he has some education too is also an attractive feature,” Orshan says. “Kurt is a really nice guy, a super guy. On the other hand, he does not look like that younger, more youthful, techie demographic.”
To many in Burlington’s creative class and the city’s southern, more reliably Democratic wards, Weinberger’s education and pedigree is an asset, not a drawback.
“People say he doesn’t have the experience that needs to be brought to city hall to do the mayor’s work, but certainly he’s a pretty bright guy and I think he’d be a pretty quick study,” says Democratic City Councilor Norm Blais, who represents Weinberger’s home turf of Ward 6.
A Party Affair
One of the greater distinctions between Weinberger’s and Wright’s campaigns is the extent to which the two have relied on their respective political parties for support.
In Weinberger’s case, it is evident that the state Democratic Party is all in — and for good reason. As Vermont has turned bluer and bluer, the party has claimed nearly every significant political office in the state. One of the last golden rings eluding it is Burlington City Hall.
“Burlington was a Democratic city for a very long time, and it’s been a very long time since we’ve had a Democratic mayor,” says party chairman Jake Perkinson. “So I think it makes a lot of sense for the party to advocate for a Democratic candidate in Burlington.”
The arrangement between the party and the candidate is fairly typical. The party has financed mailers, leant the expertise of its staff, contributed opposition research and housed the campaign’s headquarters. In total, it has given $6500 in concrete, in-kind contributions, though its overall impact on the campaign — factoring in staff time — is undoubtedly far greater.
The Wright campaign and newly elected Vermont GOP chairman Jack Lindley think the coordination is inappropriate for a local election.
“It’s highly unusual that a state party would be involved in municipal politics. Heretofore, I don’t think that’s really happened,” Lindley says. “But when you’re a shark like the Democrats and you bite at everything, that’s the way it is.”
Wright claims that he has distanced his campaign entirely from the state Republican Party apparatus. And yet, the guy who sits in the corner office of Wright’s Courthouse Plaza campaign headquarters is the party’s former, two-time executive director, Tayt Brooks. Wright and Hartnett alternately describe Brooks as “just a friend,” “the office manager,” and “somebody who handles the phones and computers.” But in reality, Brooks, a paid staffer since December, appears to be running the show.
Weinberger’s campaign has worked hard, too, to maintain the illusion that it’s acting independently. But there is no real distinction between the campaign and the Democratic Party in the Battery Street office they share. The party communication director’s desk is 10 feet away from that of Weinberger’s spokesperson, Mike Kanarick. And despite the good cop/bad cop game they play — with the party serving as attack dog and the Weinberger campaign staying positive — the two entities are essentially one and the same.
When the party sent out a ham-fisted press release last week accusing Wright of “borrowing” language from a Washington State Republican in a “partisan” manner, the Weinberger campaign did not return calls for comment. Asked the next day whether he had seen the hit before it was released, Kanarick said, “Yes, I did.”
Asked whether he had approved it, Kanarick said, “It’s not our place to approve or not. The party plays a role in helping the public understand who Kurt Wright is.”
What It Takes to Win
Turning out the New North End won’t guarantee Wright a win. He’ll also have to make inroads in the Old North End and cut into Weinberger’s base in the city’s southern wards.
For Weinberger to emerge victorious, he’ll have to unite the disparate factions of the Democratic base and rally a sizable portion of the Progressive vote to his side.
Both will have to ensure that Hines fails to cut into their margins enough to prompt a runoff, which would be triggered if no candidate wins 40 percent of the vote.
It’s still unclear whether Weinberger has won over the supporters of his adversaries in the Democratic caucus. His former opponents — Ashe, City Councilor Bram Kranichfeld and Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington) — have all declared themselves pro-Miro, but none of the three have taken an active role in campaigning for him.
“I think [Weinberger] has done a good job reaching out to everyone in the party,” Kranichfeld says.
Ashe is a little more reserved in his assessment.
“I think there are many people who supported me who are strongly behind Miro, and there are probably, I’m guessing, there are some who are still trying to make up their minds,” Ashe says. “Miro and I do not agree on everything and we are very different stylistically and personality-wise, but when it comes down to it, he has progressive Democratic values. The question will be: Is he able to communicate that effectively?”
At a Weinberger rally and fundraiser last week at the historically blue-collar Saint John’s Club, Democratic office-holders, donors and volunteers came together to demonstrate their support for the party’s standard bearer. The highlight of the program came when T.J. Donovan — the Chittenden County State’s Attorney and a former Kranichfeld supporter — gave a speech exhorting his fellow party-members to bury the hatchet and come together.
“We’re Democrats and Democrats debate, Democrats argue, Democrats fight… But when we’re done fighting, we come together,” Donavan shouted. “That’s loyalty. Loyalty to each other, loyalty to this town, loyalty to the Democratic Party. It’s time to show our loyalty to our nominee, Miro.”
Surrounded by adoring supporters sipping glasses of wine and beer, Weinberger gave his strongest, most self-confident speech in weeks. Orshan was summoned to the front of the room, where he strummed “Let’s Go Miro” on his guitar. The audience sang along to the chorus and clapped their hands over their heads. Unity was at hand, at least in this room.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.