October 6, 2011
It was hard to ignore the rumblings of a political upheaval. Another election for mayor was coming up in Vermont’s largest city, a multi-million dollar Burlington Telecom lawsuit accused the administration of fraud and breach of contract, and the mayor faced widespread criticism – often from within his own Progressive Party base. The atmosphere was as volatile as it had been in three decades.
|Bob Kiss and Kurt Wright|
Four candidates to replace Mayor Bob Kiss had announced by early October, and at least three more were considering it. The official list included three Democrats – Airport Commissioner Miro Weinberger, State Representative Jason Lorber and City Councilor Bram Kranichfeld -- and one Republican, Kurt Wright, a council member and state lawmaker who had come close to beating Kiss three years earlier.
All of them were hammering Kiss about BT finances and other examples of what they considered the administration’s mismanagement, deceit and failure to communicate.
One of the possible contenders was State Senator Tim Ashe, a former City Council Progressive and now perhaps the party’s best hope for an alliance with Democrats. There was also Assistant Housing Director Brian Pine, another former member of the council, and Ward 3 Progressive Councilor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak.
Mayor Kiss was mum about his plans, even at Party meetings. But the push for someone to challenge him, along with an upsurge in local activism on issues like his attempt to forge a climate change partnership with Lockheed Martin, pointed to a tumultuous winter political season. No matter what the weather, the upcoming debates were sure to be heated, tense and well-attended.
Questions were also being raised about the election process itself, specifically about whether people should continue running with party labels. In September the City Council had narrowly rejected a resolution to look at changing the city charter to eliminate party designations for mayoral and City Council contests, but only after a debate so intense that Board President Bill Keogh had to angrily hammer his gavel and call a halt.
The discussion highlighted the unique nature of Burlington’s political landscape, three political parties uneasily sharing legislative power, and an executive branch run by Progressives for all but two of the last 30 years. It had all begun in March 1981 when Bernie Sanders unseated long-term incumbent Democrat Gordon Paquette by just 10 votes.
Three decades later, despite agreeing with Progressives on many issues, local Democrats saw a strong chance of recapturing the city’s most powerful job for the first time in decades. The reasons for their optimism: Burlington’s finances were in trouble and the mayor was unpopular, widely considered neither accountable nor transparent enough. On September 16, that view received a boost when Moody’s Investors Service warned that the city’s financial woes could lead to a further downgrade in its credit rating.
At Miro Weinberger’s campaign announcement on September 13, held next door to City Hall in a former firehouse managed by Burlington City Arts, the first-time candidate charged that Mayor Kiss had put the city in “an exceptionally poor negotiating position.” An apparent reluctance to discuss the details of Burlington Telecom finances had “left a mood of anger and anxiety about our future,” he charged. The 41-year-old housing developer also criticized the administration’s failure to secure funding before starting on a $14 million airport parking lot expansion.
|Jason Lorber was first|
Jason Lorber, the first candidate to enter the race, had a similar critique. Weighing in on the Telecom lawsuit, the state legislator and gay rights activist, who made a living as a consultant and standup comedian, said BT’s woes were a prime example of the need for change. Although promising not to assign blame, he nevertheless accused the mayor of failing to be sufficiently open about city affairs. Local residents “don’t want decisions being made behind closed doors,” he charged.
On his campaign website, Bram Kranichfeld, a criminal prosecutor at the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office, defined himself as “the people’s choice” and said he wanted to “restore trust, accountability and fiscal responsibility.” At 31, he was the youngest candidate, and counted among his backers a former Democratic mayoral candidate, Paul Lafayette. Although Kranichfeld had opposed the move to drop party designations, he frequently talked about a “non-partisan approach.”
Kurt Wright had made his official announcement on September 18 during appearances on a morning TV news program and local radio talk. Also promising to restore trust and credibility, he said, “Job No. 1 for me will be to restore fiscal responsibility to the city and restore our credit rating.” As a Republican who had run twice before, he knew that the less people thought about party allegiances the better chance he had with what had become over the years a decidedly liberal electorate.
Politics by the numbers
When Mayor Peter Clavelle decided to retire in late 2005 after 15 years in office, he and his allies didn’t believe that another Progressive could be elected, or that the local party would long survive. As a result, a number of local progressive figures decided to endorse Hinda Miller, a Democratic state legislator and entrepreneur running to succeed him.
The leaders of Burlington’s Progressive Party weren’t willing to accept that prognosis, however, and turned to Kiss, a veteran human services bureaucrat and state legislator. He ended up beating Miller by about 9 percent and became the first Burlington mayor elected using instant runoff voting. Rumors circulated that some GOP supporters were urged privately to give Kiss their second place vote rather than indirectly help the Democrat. In any case, the conclusion that the city’s progressive era was over proved to be premature.
In office Kiss continued along a pragmatic, sometimes progressive path – lean budgets, “modest growth” and innovations like BT, a municipal cable, phone and Internet service operation. Business Week called Burlington one of the best places “to raise your kids,” and the Centers for Disease Control crowned it the nation’s “healthiest city.”
In the 2009 race, despite various political affiliations, five mayoral candidates embraced a similar mixture of liberal rhetoric and practical proposals that first emerged during the Sanders era. Wright talked about leadership and Democrat Andy Montroll argued that Burlington was “coasting along.” Neither questioned how the city was being run.
During one debate, Montroll said that the best course was to focus on “what we have,” while Independent challenger Dan Smith stressed the need to “reinvent ourselves” in a “post-partisan” era. The only substantive criticism of Kiss revolved around his handling of accounting and personnel matters.
In the end, 8,980 people voted – about 1,000 less than had three years earlier – and Kiss was re-elected. In the initial IRV count, however, Wright received 2,951 votes, beating Kiss by almost 400. In the second round of the runoff, the votes of independent Dan Smith and Green Party candidate James Simpson were redistributed to the remaining three. Wright was still ahead, with 3,294 votes to 2,981 for Kiss.
But when Montroll’s votes were redistributed for a third round, Kiss pulled ahead with 4,313, beating Wright’s 4,061. The Republican’s supporters were not pleased and mounted a campaign to repeal IRV, which they succeeded in doing by 52 to 48 percent the following year.
In 2012, the race would be decided the old way, the top vote-getter over 40 percent. The question was whether Kiss would even seek a third term. He was no longer popular or even trusted with many locals, and seemed tired of the games. But even if he opted out, the Progressive Party faced an uphill battle with almost any candidate. That’s why politicians like Ashe, with ties to both Progressives and Democrats, were being recruited, and why Pine talked about reaching out beyond the base.
Burlington’s “third party” had evolved from an informal coalition after Sanders became mayor into part of a statewide electoral organization. At its height, it had almost half the seats on the City Council. But in 2011 there were only two Progressives, both representing Ward 3, heart of the city and once a Democratic stronghold.
Kiss was beleaguered from both the right and left by criticisms about openness, finances and BT, a major progressive initiative at risk of being sold or sparking a major financial crisis. Thirty years after Sanders first local victory Democrats dominated the Council, and along with Republicans, envisioned a return to executive power.
As Bernie put it back in 1981, it was time for a change – real change.
NEXT: When Lockheed Came to Town