One year after Mayor Miro Weinberger won a landslide election, ending Democrats' 30-year exile from Burlington City Hall, his party failed to win enough seats to claim a majority on the 14-member city council. Democrats picked up an open seat in the New North End, long a Republican stronghold, but Progressives recaptured a seat in the Old North End and an independent in Ward 1 hung onto her seat.
In the end, voters went for the better known candidates — and the result will be more divided government in the Queen City.
But the big story of the night was the drubbing of incumbent South Burlington city councilors Sandy Dooley and Paul Engels, who lost by two-to-one margins to challengers Chris Shaw and Patricia Nowak. The incumbents found themselves on the defensive about their vote against basing F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport, and about the firing and $140,000 severance paid out to city manager Sandy Miller.
Engles and Dooley had framed the race as business-friendly challengers against the more populist incumbents, but voters in normally quiet South Burlington may not have been ready for Burlington-style political fight. Engels lost to Nowak by 2240-1118, while Shaw beat Dooley by 2264-1110.
The other big surprise was the super-close race for Burlington school commissioner in Ward 1, where write-in candidate Kyle Dodson trailed school board chairman Keith Pillsbury by just four votes as of 9 p.m. on Tuesday. The margin was 257-253.
Dodson was buoyed by discontent among some in the minority community over Superintendent Jeanne Collins' handling of racial tensions at Burlington High School last year. Pillsbury, who has served on the school board for 22 years, attributed his near-defeat to his being a bad campaigner and his long history on the board. "I'm sure I have a lot of baggage with all the decisions I made," he said.
In Burlington's most closely watched council race, Progressive Jane Knodell defeated Democrat newcomer Emily Lee in the Old North End to reclaim the Ward 2 seat she held for 14 years. The UVM administrator beat her younger opponent by 269-243, giving Progs a fourth member on the council.
"Both sides wanted it bad," said Knodell, who came under attack in the campaign by state Democrats for a six-figure salary and severance payment she's receiving from UVM. "Our campaign was a little more grassroots. They had the state party behind them."
In the New North End, Democrats picked up the open Ward 7 seat being vacated by Republican Councilor Vince Dober. Making his second run, Tom Ayers (pictured above) comfortably beat Republican Jim Robert by 542-479. The outcome leaves Republicans with just one seat on the 14-member council.
"We were both playing to the middle," said Ayers, who attributed his victory, in part, to shifting demographics in the Burlington's GOP-heavy 'hood. "The differences never emerged."
Republican Kurt Wright, who lost the 2012 mayor's race to Weinberger and represented Ward 7 on the council for years, said he's worried about the Republicans' decline on the council. At one time, Wright said he was one of five R's on the council. Come next month, Ward 7 Councilor Paul Decelles will be the last R standing.
"We need to regroup," Wright said Tuesday. "We didn't do a good enough job, frankly, on organization. I can't downplay the disappointment of being down to one councilor."
In the third closely contested Burlington council race, independent Sharon Bushor won a record-setting 13th term representing Ward 1. She easily beat Democrat Tom Derenthal by a margin of 381-165. Unlike other Democratic council candidates, Derenthal did not receive Weinberger's endorsement.
"I really worked hard. I went to every single door. I reconnected with people," Bushor said Tuesday. Asked whether this could be her last term, the white-haired councilor said, "I don't look to the future. I only look to the present. And right now I'm going to get a hamburger."
Incumbent councilors Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5), Norm Blais (D-Ward 6), Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4) and Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3) comfortably won reelection in their races.