The Democratic machine that helped elect Miro Weinberger mayor of Burlington and pushed Gov. Peter Shumlin to a landslide victory last fall is humming again.
And by humming, we mean dishing out the nasty to its political enemies.
The Vermont Democratic Party has fired off two missives in the past week aimed at Ward 2 city council candidate Jane Knodell, an old-guard Progressive hoping to reclaim the seat she held for 14 years. She's facing Democrat Emily Lee, a neighborhood activist and vice president at Merrill Lynch.
Last Friday, the Dems issued a press release attacking Knodell (pictured) for voting against a symbolic resolution supporting the decriminalization of marijuana in 2009, and for saying during a recent candidate forum that she couldn't remember a single vote on which she differed from Republican former councilor Kurt Wright.
Then, on Wednesday, the party went after Knodell for what it called a "golden parachute" she's receiving during a leave of absence from the University of Vermont, where she served as provost and will return as a professor in 2014. As Seven Daysreported last week, and the Burlington Free Pressexpanded upon on Wednesday, Knodell will be paid her salary of $270,000 through June — when her contract as provost was set to expire — followed by 12 months' pay at the professor's salary of $150,000 during a year's leave of absence.
"Knodell's golden parachute sounds like an elite, big-city retirement plan, not one that comes from an organization like UVM that exists to serve Vermonters — and that receives taxpayer money to do so," Burlington Democratic Chair David Scherr said in a statement. "At a time when tuition is going up and budgets are being cut, it is hard to understand why Knodell would choose to profit from a golden parachute at the expense of workers and students."
Progressive City Councilor Max Tracy, who is managing Knodell's campaign, hadn't seen the press releases until Seven Days asked him for a reaction to them on Wednesday, but he responded forcefully.
"We had every intention of bringing a positive, issue-based campaign that emphasized Jane's unbelievable record of public service and her ability to execute for Ward 2," he said. "Unfortunately, party hacks have decided to take it in a decidedly negative direction because they realized there was no way that Emily was going to be able to match Jane's tremendous amount of service to the Old North End."
Knodell responded to the criticism by saying, "I am proud of the fact that I was able to break the glass ceiling at the University of Vermont and hold a position traditionally held by men. I worked hard over 30 years, as a teacher, researcher, and administrator, before becoming the first woman to serve as provost and senior vice president. It should not be necessary to apologize for the fact that my skills and experience have value in the academic community. "
She said the university did the right thing in honoring its contractual obligations to her, adding, "Our society is built on the principle that we honor our contracts."
She defended her UVM salary and called the Dems' "golden parachute" remark "misleading and incorrect."
"They fundamentally misunderstand the situation. I am not retiring. This is not a situation of a CEO who is leaving the organization for good," Knodell said. "I am transitioning from my administration role to my faculty role. They are obviously trying to create negative feelings. But all I can do is explain. It is an extremely demanding role with a lot of responsibility."
Knodell noted that all college faculty get sabbatical to work on research and that her paid leave of absence is "essentially the same thing, but for people going from administration to faculty."
"It's very standard, because you need time to retool yourself to get your head back into your research and your teaching so you can be a productive faculty member after having been in meetings all day," she said.
As to her six-figure compensation, Knodell said, "I think that people will understand that when you take on a big job with a lot of responsibility in any sector of the economy, those jobs pay better. I will not be making that much in the future as a faculty member. I'll certainly be well compensated."
Why are state Democrats wading into a rinky-dink city council race in Burlington? For one thing, there are few other high-profile races vying for their organizational and messaging muscle this Town Meeting Day. More importantly, though, control of the city council hangs in the balance. If Democrats win in Ward 2, they move closer to having an outright majority on the 14-member council.
Progressives, meanwhile, are bruised after losing control of the mayor's office last year and are betting on Knodell — a former council president who's well known in the Old North End — to expand their membership from three councilors to four.
VDP spokesman Ryan Emerson explained that Burlington Dems requested the state party's help in crafting the press releases, adding that's a service the VDP provides to local chapters around Vermont.
Reached Thursday, Lee (pictured) distanced herself from the Dems' attack without condemning it. "I wasn't part of this. That is separate from my campaign. I am not the party," Lee said. "I don't have a comment about Jane's compensation. I have a lot of respect for Jane and what she's accomplished during her career. She should be proud."
"I don't want to run against Jane. I want to run for Emily," Lee continued. "I've personally not been talking about Jane or her past record. I don't have a history with Jane."
Asked if she agreed with the VDP's "golden parachute" statement, Lee said, "I don't feel like I have an opinion about it. I don't want to weigh in. It's her own private issue." Lee then added, "She's a public figure, and like we saw with [former UVM president] Dan Fogel, they worked for public institutions. When that's the case, you open yourself up to be criticized."
Knodell's salary drew another comparison from the VDP's Ryan Emerson. "A lot of it has to do with the sensitivity [to] public officials being overcompensated. The Fogel thing two years ago, more recently the Deeghan thing."
Wait a second — did Emerson just equate Knodell with James Deeghan, the time-sheet-padding, corrupt ex-police sergeant who pleaded guilty in one of the biggest taxpayer ripoffs in modern memory? "I'm not equating these things at all," he said. "It really just touches a nerve for a lot of Burlington voters."
Except, he totally did equate them.
All of which raises a question: What exactly do the Democrats want Knodell to do about her UVM salary? Give it back?
"If there is an option to voluntarily give a salary back, that's a decision Jane would have to make," Emerson said. "I guess the question would be, regardless of that, is it right to take pay for work you're not doing? And that's a question voters in Ward 2 are going to answer on March 5."
Burlington Democratic Party chair David Scherr said later Thursday that Knodell's UVM salary was a legitimate issue to bring into the race.
"These are clearly issues that have been upsetting to Vermonters," Scherr said.
Asked whether he wants Knodell to voluntarily give back a portion of her salary, Scherr said, "I wouldn't want to tell her what to do with her paycheck. What we're really going after here is the broader issue about what UVM is doing with severance packages." He said Knodell was a senior member of the UVM administration that had significant say over staff salaries.
Scherr said he didn't know whether he'd consider Knodell's provost salary excessive. "I don't know what the market is for provost salaries," he said. "It's a pattern of severance packages that has been disturbing to people."
Photo of Jane Knodell by Matthew Thorsen. Photo of Emily Lee by Oliver Parini.