Sharon Bushor, Burlington's Hardest-Working City Councilor, Is Asking All the Right Questions
Sharon Foley Bushor, the longest-serving member of the Burlington City Council, espouses what could be called the “trickle-up theory” of political change. “What we do here affects Washington, just as what Washington does obviously affects us,” Bushor reasons.
Similarly, the life and career of this political independent can be seen as reflecting not only Burlington’s political progression but also the evolution of American society during the past three decades.
Bushor, 65, first won election to the council 25 years ago as a representative of Ward 1, which encompasses and borders the University of Vermont campus. No one in living memory has exceeded her length of tenure. And she isn’t done yet: Over a granola breakfast at Winooski’s Sneakers Bistro & Café, Bushor revealed she’ll seek a 13th term next year.
As Bushor sees it, there’s more work to be done. She wants the University of Vermont to do more to address noise from students living off-campus in Ward 1 — a regular complaint from Bushor’s constituents. She wants the university to build more housing, enough to accommodate 70 percent of its 10,000 undergraduates; with the scheduled opening of the Redstone Lofts this fall, 60 percent of students will be living on campus.
Throughout her quarter century of council service, the diminutive and now-white-haired councilor has tenaciously maintained her non-party status. At times, it has made her a swing vote on a fiercely factionalized council. Bushor’s constituents appear to admire her autonomy and make it official every two years at the polls.
“She makes points based on her own thinking, even if her stands are unpopular,” says Richard Hillyard, a longtime member of the Ward 1 Neighborhood Planning Assembly. “Sharon’s involvement in the NPA is total, and she’s much appreciated for it.”
Ed Adrian, now Bushor’s Ward 1 seatmate and formerly her electoral opponent, takes a critical view of her political style, but expresses respect for Bushor’s unaligned standing. “I give her a lot of credit for sticking it out as an independent,” Adrian says.
Bushor has paid a price for that stick-to-it-iveness — in the form of foregone political opportunities.
In 2005, Progressive Party leaders asked Bushor, whose views are often aligned with theirs, whether she’d consider running for mayor. They were seeking a candidate to succeed Peter Clavelle, who was stepping down after seven terms.
Yes, Bushor said; she was interested.
OK, party insiders told her, but you’ve got to run as a Progressive.
Thanks, the independent responded, but no thanks.
What accounts for Bushor’s maverick streak? Her parents, for one thing.
“I bet you haven’t interviewed many politicians whose father was a chauffeur,” Bushor suggests on Independence Day at Sneakers. For decades, Daniel Foley drove for the members of a “very affluent” Republican family, and he married the daughter of the gardener on that family’s Massachusetts estate, she recounts.
“He called himself an independent because he said it was important to focus on each issue in its own light,” she explains. “He also said that sometimes you’ll agree with one side, sometimes with the other.”
Bushor’s father left the issue of class-consciousness alone. But “I come from no money,” she’s quick to point out. That background led her to “try to represent the people who are strapped and struggling.” Recently, for example, Bushor objected to Mayor Miro Weinberger’s proposed $5 increase in the fee for an after-school program. The low-income Burlingtonians asked to pay the modest increase “didn’t benefit when stocks were going up, and they’re certainly not benefiting now, particularly if they’ve lost a job,” Bushor commented.
Her own financial insecurity meant Bushor had to work to pay her tuition at UVM, where she enrolled in 1964 on the advice of a cousin studying medicine there. As a girl who was “good at science,” Bushor wanted to become a doctor, but settled for a job as a medical technician at Fletcher Allen. “It was a profession women went into,” Bushor notes, adding that UVM officials discouraged her in the mid-’70s from applying to med school because of her gender, which was much on display at the time: She was pregnant with the first of her two children.
Bushor says she remained apolitical throughout her college days in the ’60s and for the next several years, as well. “My world was Fletcher Allen and my children,” she recalls. Even Bernie Sanders’ successful insurgent campaign for mayor in 1981 “didn’t signify anything to me.”
Gradually, though, Bushor did become a civic activist, motivated in part by the fear of nuclear war that unsettled many Americans in the early ’80s. “I figured that there wasn’t much I could do about it as an individual, but at least I didn’t have to be a passive victim,” she explains. Locally, she got goosed by “the energy that came oozing in” with Sanders. “It was hard to be in Burlington in those days and not be engaged,” Bushor recounts. “The people around Bernie were some of the brightest I’ve ever met.”
Bushor got appointed to a post on the Traffic Commission, since renamed the Public Works Commission That move amused her now-ex-husband Beau Bushor, she recalls, “because I don’t have any sense of direction.”
One day, Mayor Sanders called inquiring about her stand on the Southern Connector, aka the Champlain Parkway. Bushor can’t remember what she said, but the stormy Socialist “started yelling at me,” she recalls. Sanders made her feel “completely intimidated,” Bushor says, although she did find the courage to call his office the next day to request a face-to-face meeting.
At one point, during what proved to be a “cordial” follow-up conversation, the mayor asked her, “Where do you see yourself in 20 years?”
“Sitting in your seat,” the newly feisty feminist replied.
It actually took Bushor fewer than 10 years to make her bid for city hall’s corner office. She decided to challenge Clavelle’s bid for a third term in 1993. She sought the Progs’ endorsement, but it became evident, Bushor says, that “I had more support from non-Progressives than from the Progressives.” Behind-the-scenes palavers led her in the end to nominate Clavelle at the Prog caucus.
By then, the formerly apolitical Bushor had become a passionate pol. “It’s seductive,” she confesses, likening her experience to that of the characters played by Meryl Streep and Alan Alda in the 1979 film The Seduction of Joe Tynan, who are seduced not by sexual sweet talk but by political wheedling.
Bushor clearly relishes the role she’s played for the past quarter century — and she’s certainly not in it for the money. City councilors are paid $3000 a year for a job that, in Bushor’s case, consumes at least 20 hours a week in addition to the 40 hours she spends working in the Fletcher Allen blood lab. Apart from time reserved for tending to her community garden plot, that schedule “doesn’t leave much time for Sharon,” she laments.
No one carries out a councilor’s duties more conscientiously than Bushor. “She immerses herself in details,” says Bill Keogh, who served alongside Bushor for 16 years — three of them as council president. “She studies all the documents and brings up items the council might otherwise miss.”
Her diligence was on display at a recent meeting at which Bushor verbally unpacked a seemingly obscure issue indirectly related to Weinberger’s city budget package. That lengthy exegesis appeared to tax the patience of at least a couple of her colleagues. “She comments on almost every motion before the council,” Keogh says. “She sometimes thinks out loud, and was often the only member of the council who challenged the five-minute limit on speaking.”
Asked if that proved annoying to more reticent councilors, Keogh suggests that “trying” would be a more tactful word choice. For her part, Bushor casually admits to being plagued by “verbal diarrhea.”
At the same time, most of the councilors grouped in the crescent formation in Burlington City Hall Auditorium appear to value Bushor for the institutional memory that she brings to council discussions. “I have a knowledge of the past that maybe can help us avoid going down dead ends,” she says. And it was acquired not by osmosis but through focused study. “You’ve got to do the homework,” Bushor says. “You’ve really got to do the homework.”
Her generally cordial relations with local politicos, some of whom can be pretty prickly, are facilitated by the fairness and open-mindedness Bushor exhibited during her own four-year stint as council president. She says she learned from women with whom she volunteered on a phone bank in the ’80s that “you shouldn’t only fight the opposition; you should try to understand the opposition.”
That approach has enabled her to get along with each of the four mayors who preceded Weinberger.
Republican Peter Brownell, who interrupted the Prog era for one term in the mid-’90s, “wanted to privatize everything,” Bushor recalls, “but he also helped the city a lot by pushing us to move on [information technology].”
Bushor also has fond recollections of two other Burlington Republicans of long ago: Fred Bailey, who served as council president in the mid-’80s and now holds a senior post at CitiCorp in New York; and the late Allen Gear, who used a wheelchair when he was a city councilor. His disability motivated Bushor and her colleagues to steer clear of inaccessible watering holes after city council meetings.
Accessibility issues have remained important to Bushor throughout her career, she says, citing her efforts to make Salmon Hole Park more welcoming to visitors in wheelchairs. She also points with pride to the addition of a foot path and bike path to Riverside Avenue.
Asked to specify a council vote that stands out, Bushor picks one from 2010 on which she sided with then-mayor Bob Kiss. Bushor was one of only two councilors — with Progressive Emma Mulvaney-Stanak — to oppose an electricity contract with Hydro-Québec on the grounds that it would be harmful to native peoples in northern Canada. “We put the Earth ahead of ourselves,” Bushor says. “It’s something we need to be doing more of now.”
Bushor describes the erstwhile mayor as “a good friend,” and notes he compiled a positive record during his first term, 2005-2008, for which “he doesn’t get credit now.” Adding that she’s tired of talking about the mismanagement of Burlington Telecom, she does acknowledge that “Bob tried on the suit [of being a politician] and it didn’t fit.” Kiss’ biggest liability, in Bushor’s estimation, is that “he wasn’t a good communicator.”
What about Weinberger? She’s unenthusiastic in her early assessment, likening the new mayor to “a vessel moving in an uncertain direction in uncharted waters.” She adds, “Miro is bright; he listens; he’s trying to find his voice.”
Even after so many years on the council, Bushor sometimes seems to be searching for her own voice. Keogh recollects, for example, that “Sharon was very conflicted about Kiss’ handling of BT. She was trying to work it out, looking for clear answers to a problem that didn’t have them.”
Ed Adrian says he’d prefer “a more decisive style” from his Ward 1 council colleague. “I don’t necessarily need to hear someone’s thought process on many issues that come before the council.” As an example of Bushor’s temporizing, Adrian offers the example of her shifting stand on the proposed basing of the F-35 stealth fighter at Burlington airport. “She was behind it, behind it, behind it, then suddenly she votes against it.”
Neighborhood Planning Assembly steering committee member Hillyard has a different view of Bushor’s occasionally Hamlet-like equivocating. “Yes, she can come down on both sides of a problem, but it’s refreshing for her neighbors and constituents to hear their elected representative going through a reassessment.” Bushor’s turn against the F-35 was animated, Hillyard suggests, by “the advocacy of many in the community.” And he wants to know, “What’s wrong with a politician changing her position in response to the views of her constituents?”
It might qualify as another example of Bushor’s “trickle-up” politics.