In November 2011, more than 1,300 people attended the largest Burlington political gathering in decades — the Democratic Caucus. It was a jubilant crowd, gathered in Memorial Auditorium, a city landmark on Main Street. Everyone was there — from Stalwart Democrats to hardcore Progressives. The Party that had elected three mayors in a row wasn’t even fielding a candidate.
Still, before the caucus happened, no one knew who would show up.
Four candidates addressed the huge crowd before the vote — which was so close between the frontrunners, Tim Ashe and Miro Weinberger, that it had to be conducted in two parts.
VTDigger, November 14, 2011
This year, both the Progressive and Democratic Parties in Vermont will hold caucuses — but they’ll be virtual. Progressives will caucus on December 1, while Democrats will gather on December 6. And so, for the first time, people will register in advance for a caucus with the party of their choice. And since the parties know in advance who is likely to participate, the candidates are reaching out to specific potential supporters. I’ve been contacted personally by two of them so far.
The mayor was not one of them. But as Miro Weinberger finishes up his third term, his re-election priorities include continuing to lead the response to the coronavirus, racial justice, and the climate crisis. His main accomplishments, he claims, are a year-round homeless shelter, transforming City Hall Park, and ending what he calls the Burlington Telecom “financial fiasco.” No doubt he will remind voters that the fiasco and other problems emerged during the last Progressive administration.
The Progressive candidate, whether it is Brian Pine or Max Tracy, will focus on racial, economic and environmental justice, an agenda that echoes Bernie Sanders’ most recent presidential run. The party has attracted a new and younger constituency, and its platform is the most progressive ever. (Update: The two progressive candidates engaged thousands of residents through virtual forums and phone calls. Then 1,420 people voted online for two days. The Progressive Party called it “the largest political caucus in the modern history of Vermont.” The winner was City Council President Tracy.)
According to media coverage, Pine is the “bridge-builder” and Tracy is the “ideologue.” But it isn’t that simple. Whatever bridges Pine has built, he seems to have done it by supporting the status quo — including redevelopment of the downtown mall (before he opposed it) and embracing some of Weinberger’s priorities. Tracy is clearly more oriented to emerging issues and constituencies. But whether that makes him more ideological, or more electable, is another question. Pine has been more loyal to the Progressive’s traditional leadership, while Tracy has sometimes broken with them.
And yet, based on the three debates between the two potential Progressive candidates, it would be difficult to tell that there are any clear and stark differences between them. And that’s no accident. They agreed in advance not to attack each other, I was told by one, and also that the Party prefer it that way. As a result, though, they have denied their own caucus voters crucial information that might have better distinguished the two. It’s the same lack of transparency that got the party into trouble a decade ago.
There is also an Independent candidate, Ali Dieng. Like Pine and Tracy, he is a member of the City Council. But his analysis is very different. Dieng thinks the big problem that thwarts local progress is...wait for it, party politics. His platform is big on broad value statements, but thin on policies. Beyond that, he is probably the most conservative candidate in the race, although his immigrant story obscures that a bit.
In 2018, there were also three major candidates — the incumbent mayor, Progressive Carina Driscoll, and Independent Infinite Culcleasure. In the end, Weinberger won just under 50% of the vote. Culcleasure got 15% and Driscoll around 36%. But since then Weinberger has faced some setbacks, most prominently the collapse of his plans to rebuild the downtown mall. A former developer himself, the mayor was suckered by conman Don Sinex and various corporate flaks.
But so far, it looks as if virtual campaigning in Covid times could result in the same election outcome — unless the Progressive candidate can attract more Independent voters, become more forthcoming about the Party’ past misteps, and make a much sharper critique of Weinberger’s nine year record.