TWO DAYS AFTER officially becoming a candidate for mayor, Tim Ashe participated in his first debate. At the Champlain Elementary School he defined himself as the one person in the race “who can bring people together and end the partisan fighting.” His strategy was “fusion,” which would require his nomination by both the Democratic and Progressive Parties.
In an interview, Ashe, a 34-year-old state lawmaker already involved in Vermont politics for more than a decade, described how he saw things: “I’ve been forthcoming about my desire to bring Progressives and Democrats together to stop this crazy infighting that is so counter-productive.”
It wouldn’t be an easy pitch to sell. His first job after graduating from UVM was with Bernie Sanders, who'd been fighting Democrats and Republicans for years. Next, Ashe served three terms on the City Council as a Progressive. But more recently he had been elected to the House, then the Senate with the backing of both parties. Now his goal was to win a city caucus competition over Democrats with strong party connections. He would also “accept” the Progressive nomination, he explained, but only if he first won the Democratic nod.
If that didn't happen, Progressives would have a problem – scramble to find someone else, settle for Bob Kiss – the Progressive incumbent who’d alienated his base – or no candidate at all. Comfortable with Ashe, if not all the options, Party leaders decided to wait and see.
|Ashe makes a point; to his right, Lorber, Kranichfeld and Weinberger|
Of course, they also knew Ashe was in a unique spot. Under Progressive Party rules, only someone who had already run solely as a Progressive could accept the nomination of another party. No other Democratic candidate qualified. On the other hand, it was precisely Ashe’s allegiance to the Progressive Party that made some Democrats skeptical, if not hostile. While Ashe argued that his ties to both parties made him the best option for preventing a Republican victory, Weinberger’s answer was that he would nevertheless be seen by many voters as an ally of Mayor Kiss. He certainly had been in the past.
During their first debate, one audience question went straight at the point: Would the losing candidates actively support whoever wins the caucus? The other three candidates had no trouble sounding unequivocal. But Ashe suggested that his backing, while likely, was not unconditional. It would depend, he said, on “a compact that all candidates live up to. We’ll see if the high road is taken.”
Defining the dysfunction
With links to two major parties, Ashe didn’t think political labels were the real issue. “Parties would be Ok if the process was more civil,” he said. “But the response to every significant challenge is people carving out factional interests on the council – not always along party lines.”
This he called “the political dysfunction, the constant theater at City Hall,” one of two “deep sets of problems” that had prompted him to run. “Anyone who has followed the Council knows it has been dysfunctional and marred by constant sniping,” he said. But the other trouble was financial, he acknowledged, mentioning Burlington Telecom, an estimated $50 million pension fund liability, and looming budget cuts.
Ashe conveniently placed much of the blame on Kiss, charging the mayor had demonstrated “a complete lack of leadership.” His primary deficit -- failure to communicate, Ashe charged. “So much of the good will he ought to have was squandered.” He didn’t mention Peter Clavelle, the previous Progressive mayor, who had negotiated the pension benefits and pushed through the development of BT.
The problem with the argument was that his view of Kiss changed only after his re-election in 2009. Endorsing Kiss at a January 2009 press conference, Ashe had expressed “deep support” and praised the mayor’s whole team for pulling “rabbits out of hats.” Kiss had “cleaned up financial messes,” Ashe claimed. “If that’s drifting then let’s keep drifting.”
Of course, that was before the public learned that Kiss and his Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold had kept a $16.9 BT debt to the city treasury secret. As a candidate Ashe was going public with a revised, very different assessment. “He didn’t share information with the public,” Ashe said,“this hasn’t happened since Day One.” It was hard not to ask why he hadn’t mentioned it earlier.
|Mayor Kiss and Kurt Wrght|
Ashe had worked with Wright on the City Council. In fact, they'd once competed for the job of Council President. Wright won that competition in 2007 with the support of most council Democrats, who didn’t bother to nominate their own candidate. Ashe was not pleased. “Democrats have been quite concerned with this vote,” he claimed at the time. “I'm not sure it's all been fair.”
After leaving local office for the State House, however, he had kind words for Wright’s leadership on the Council and Board of Finance. The local mood had changed dramatically in a year, especially after the BT revelations surfaced. The Council put Leopold on paid leave and began to investigate. Meanwhile, Wright and others, Republicans and Democrats, backed resolutions to consider mayoral recall and impeachment as charter changes.
Now highly critical of Mayor Kiss, Ashe said he wanted to “preserve the progressive legacy” with “a mayor who reflects the values ingrained for three decades.” The key going forward would be “an inclusive approach.”
He also promised to apply the principle to Occupy Wall Street. Burlington was “in the vanguard of meeting the demands of this movement,” he said. “The first step would be to meet with representatives to better understand their local goals.” But at least publicly, neither he nor any of the other candidates did.
“An Unusual Path”
Growing up in Massachusetts, Tim Ashe moved to Burlington to attend UVM, joined Bernie Sanders’ staff shortly after graduating, and attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government before his election to the City Council. In a 2004 special election he replaced Carina Driscoll, daughter of Sanders’ wife Jane, and became the Council’s youngest member.
It was clear by then that he had a promising political future. During this period Ashe also met his partner, Paula Routly, publisher and co-editor of Seven Days. After he became a candidate for mayor, Routly announced that she would not “assign or edit stories or columns about Burlington politics for the duration of the campaign.”
Professionally, Ashe had worked with residents in mobile home parks at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, then became a Project Manager at Cathedral Square, a non-profit developer of affordable housing for seniors and people with disabilities. As a city councilor he had made affordable housing a major focus. And he wasn’t reluctant to take controversial stands at times, even if it meant an unusual alliance. In 2008, for example, he worked with Ed Adrian, frequently an administration critic, on an unsuccessful ballot item request that would have asked voters to decriminalize small quantities of marijuana possession. The proposal was defeated in a 7-6 vote.
But those were more upbeat times locally, before the financial collapse of 2008, the increased polarization following Barack Obama’s election, and the growing outrage about corporate greed and government overreach. Looking forward, Ashe saw “real financial threats” on the horizon. “Jobs and programs will be on the line,” he predicted. “To not recognize that is to be asleep at the wheel.”
His campaign pitch was that looming threats, combined with Burlington’s unique political dynamics, called for someone able to unite a “new majority.” However, his strategy of fusion wasn’t a familiar concept for most local voters. Candidates did win multiple party endorsements, and even ran as Republican/Democratic candidates at times. But this was usually due to a lack of competition or the nature of the office. A few Progressives in the legislature had run with Democratic support. But fusion as a tactic for a campaign was an urban, and often partisan, political strategy.
In New York City, for example, fusion was once the only way a Republican could become mayor; the tactic was used to bring together clean government supporters across party lines in the name of reform. The most famous fusion politician in the Big Apple was Fiorello LaGuardia. Although a Republican, nearly half his votes for New York mayor in 1933 came from Progressives and Fusionists.
|Weinberger & Ashe at the Caucus|
It was a plausible argument. But Ashe still faced two major hurdles: convincing enough Progressives – many of whom were weary of Kiss yet remained “hard-core Ps,” as a staffer put it – that attending a Democratic caucus wouldn’t undermine their Party. And, at the same time, persuading wary Democrats that this wasn’t just a Progressive takeover ploy, that he truly wanted to be more inclusive and less partisan.
To defend against Internet attacks that he was the mayor’s lackey, Ashe went on offense. “I’ve taken an unusual path," he said, "but I don’t apologize.” In fact, his successful Senate run, with the support of both Democrats and Progressives, had “changed the culture of the Senate” and created the possibility of a “new era of collaboration.”
Yet he also had a message for his base. By joining forces with past opponents, Ashe suggested, they would be in a better position to preserve “a legacy we can be proud of” – meaning the projects and achievements of three Progressive administrations.
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