Unseating City Councilor Sharon Bushor would qualify as one of the biggest upsets in Burlington's recent political history. But some civic activists in Ward 1 insist that Democratic challenger Tom Derenthal just might be able to prevent Bushor, an independent, from winning an unprecedented 13th term on the council.
In her 26 years of service, Bushor has built a reputation for diligence, responsiveness to her constituents and long-windedness. Having acquired the status of an institution, she has faced only token or write-in opposition in recent re-election bids. But Bushor did have to battle an aggressive Democratic opponent in 2005 when the hard-charging Ed Adrian came within 41 votes of ending her tenure.
Eight years later, there's talk of "Sharon fatigue" on the part of some voters. Bushor, 65, hears that herself as she makes the campaign rounds. "People say you've been around a while, but that doesn't mean you're devoid of new ideas," she said in an interview five days prior to the March 5 council election.
Peg Boyle Single, a Democrat and member of the Ward 1 Neighborhood Planning Assembly steering committee, expresses the time-for-a-change sentiment. "Sharon has been on the council quite a while and some of the issues facing the ward have persisted during that time," Single says. Derenthal, she adds, "is bringing a new perspective on those issues."
Although Bushor has never been a member of the Progressive Party, she often sides with the Progs on council votes, and is being targeted now by the Dems as part of their citywide push to secure at least an eighth seat on the 14-member council.
Adrian, who suddenly surrendered his own council seat last September, is among the local Democrats attacking aspects of Bushor's record. In a February 28 posting on Front Porch Forum, Adrian lodged five points of criticism against Bushor, including: "To the best of my knowledge, Sharon has never posted on FPF. Anything."
He also cited Bushor's 2009 council vote to refinance Burlington Telecom's debt from $50 million to $60 million, along with another Bushor vote that same year against making zoning allowances for the University of Vermont contingent on a requirement that UVM build more on-campus housing. Derenthal raised the latter point in a Channel 17 debate last month. Bushor responded that such a quid-pro-quo would have made the city vulnerable to a lawsuit.
Adrian further blasted Bushor for having endorsed Republican Kurt Wright in last year's mayoral race. Miro Weinberger, the Democratic victor, carried Ward 1 handily, but he has not endorsed Derenthal in the council race. That's because "I haven't reached out to the mayor," Derenthal, a 57-year-old electrical designer and local activist, said in an interview. "It's my first time running and I'm scrambling to keep my campaign going."
That doesn't sound like the voice of confidence. But even some Bushor supporters caution that Derenthal's bid is serious business. "This will undoubtedly be a close race — make no mistake," says Ward 1 NPA steering committee member Richard Hillyard. He's unable to vote because he's not a U.S. citizen, but Hillyard says he'd cast a ballot for Bushor if he could.
"Sharon has been very good for the neighborhoods of this ward," Hillyard comments. "She's paid close attention to those east of the university — down toward Winooski — that other politicians have neglected."
Bushor also has endorsements from two Chittenden County state senators — Tim Ashe and Dave Zuckerman — who have won office on a fused Democrat/Progressive affiliation. Fellow council independent Karen Paul is also backing Bushor. Kevin Worden, a Democrat who holds the other Ward 1 council seat, is meanwhile staying neutral in the Derenthal-Bushor contest.
All these alignments will probably count for little on Town Meeting Day, however. Fewer than 750 voters are expected to turn out, and most of them will probably be focused on concrete local concerns.
Noisy students is a big one. Both Derenthal and Bushor talk about strengthening enforcement of the city's noise code, and each says UVM should build more on-campus housing. Derenthal adds that the university should sponsor attractions that would keep more students on campus on weekend nights and thus reduce annoyances caused by boisterous pedestrians.
Even though the number of students living in Ward 1 has increased sharply due to the addition of campus housing, undergrads will have little impact on the council election. Town Meeting Day coincides with spring break.
The proposed construction of a 300-unit rental project on Grove Street is a source of controversy on the eastern edge of the ward. Both candidates say developer SD Ireland must provide more off-street parking while also ameliorating an anticipated increase in traffic on the narrow streets near the site. Bushor is calling for a scale-down to about 200 units, some of which she says should be owner-occupied.
As she goes door-to-door, Bushor says she is finding general satisfaction with the quality of life in Ward 1. She attributes that in part to her efforts to preserve open space and address residents' safety concerns.
Derenthal says he'd be more attentive than Bushor to city budget issues, specifically the BT debacle and the shortfall in municipal pension funding. He wants BT to recruit new subscribers so it can remain a city-owned utility, though he doesn't explain where the money for a marketing campaign would come from.
If given another council term, Bushor says, she will advocate for "people-oriented development on waterfront," which, she adds, should remain "predominantly publicly owned."
Derenthal will do well on Town Meeting Day, Single suggests, because "in a low turnout race, the people who vote will be those who have been paying attention and they'll have seen Tom is effective in addressing issues."
The candidate himself doesn't seem as sanguine. "It might come down to name recognition," Derenthal says. "She has it, and I don't."