Voters and politicians alike sometimes claim that party labels don't matter much. But party affiliation is one of the only things distinguishing the two candidates, Tom Ayres (D) and Jim Robert (R), in Burlington's Ward 7 city council race.
Both men say they're emphasizing fiscal responsibility — as opposed, presumably, to boasting of their fiscal irresponsibility. The two also describe themselves as socially moderate rather than, say, socially extreme.
Robert: "I want to make sure we're spending our money wisely. I see tax increases as a last resort."
Ayers: "I'm talking a lot about responsible management of taxpayers' money."
The pair also share an unenthusiastic response to the 25-unit condo complex being developed in the ward by a partnership that includes Mayor Miro Weinberger.
Ayres says he is "surprised by the size" of Packard Lofts, which is nearing completion at the northern end of Lakeview Terrace. "It's a little troubling, but there is a need for affordable housing," Ayres allows. Five of the units must meet affordability criteria under the zoning designation for the project.
In Robert's hedged opinion, "the original concept was probably a good idea, but the design isn't a good fit." He points out, however, that he does favor development in Burlington. Robert faults Weinberger for not having presented a plan for building on the so-called superblock bordered by Main Street and South Winooski Avenue.
The Republican and Democrat generally agree that the council acted inappropriately in supporting a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity ammo clips.
"That was a waste of the council's time," Robert declares, saying he would have voted against the measure because Burlington lacks the power to impose such a ban on its own. "It was nice gesture but ultimately futile."
Ayers' take is slightly different. He says he would probably have abstained had he been a member of the council when it voted 10-3 in favor of the ban. "I laud the councilors who voted for it, but that issue won't be addressed at the local level, and the city has more pressing needs," Ayres says.
Biographical details provide a few points of contrast between the candidates.
Robert, a 43-year-old lab technician at IBM, has lived in the ward for the past 20 years. Ayres, 60, runs the Humane Society of Chittenden County. He has lived in the Burlington area for the past 23 years, save for a couple years in Portland, Maine; he moved to the New North End in 2010.
Party labels do have citywide significance in this race to succeed Vince Dober, a Republican who's stepping down after four years on the council. If Ayres wins, Paul Decelles, the other Ward 7 councilor, would be the last of the council Republicans.
An Ayres' victory could give Democrats a council majority, depending on the outcome of two other contested ward races. Ayres says he thinks Weinberger has performed well as mayor, but cautions, "I'm not going to be a rubber stamp on the council."
The demographics — and thus the political complexion — of this eastern and southern slice of the New North End have been changing. Ward 7 has lost more than 650 residents during the past 20 years, though the candidates say more young families are living in the ward than previously. Several households consist of retirees, Robert points out.
"It's getting closer to 50-50 Republican-Democrat," Robert acknowledges. Ayres notes, however, that President Obama won more than 60 percent of the votes cast in Ward 7 last November.
Ayres lost to Decelles a year ago 965-868 — a result that encouraged the Democrat to try again this year. Democrat Weinberger's appeal among Ward 7 voters helped account for Ayres' showing on Town Meeting Day 2012, Dober suggests. But Ayres actually received 60 more votes than did Weinberger, who lost the ward to Republican candidate Kurt Wright.