Bianka Legrand, the Democratic candidate running for the open city council seat in Ward 7. (Her Republican opponent, Tom Treat, did not respond to a request for a photo.)
Updated March 2 to correct an earlier error in the final paragraph.
When residents in Ward 7 head to the voting booths next Tuesday, they will choose between two political fledglings — Democrat Bianka Legrand and Republican Tom Treat — to fill their open city council seat.
Treat, 47, has lived in Ward 7 for 17 years, along with his wife and three children. An engineer at Koffee Cup Bakery, Treat said he’s followed national politics more closely than local politics, but he’s “kept on ear to the ground” on issues like school spending and the city’s pension system. Treat adds that his candidacy offers a chance for voters to keep at least some GOP representation on a council dominated by Democrats and Progressives.
The Democrats’ hopes rest with Legrand, who has lived off and on in Ward 7 since moving to Burlington in 1997. She and her family came to the city as refugees, fleeing the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Legrand didn’t speak English when she arrived in Vermont as a 17-year-old. Now 33, she’s fluent, and she holds a B.A. in psychology from the University of Vermont and a master's in organizational leadership from Norwich University.
Legrand is the founder and sole employee of Red Coral Consulting, a business that provides consulting advice and employee training to local organizations. Like Treat, she’s a newcomer to the local political scene, although she does serve on the Neighborhood Planning Assembly’s (NPA) steering committee, and she worked on Mayor Miro Weinberger’s campaign in 2012.
Community ties, not political ambitions, prompted her to enter the race, Legrand said. “I have been interested not in the politics side of politics, but more in terms of helping me integrate into community. Back home in Bosnia, we had a really strong community. I knew every single neighbor,” she said. In Burlington, she continued, “My entire professional work has revolved around helping other people and building that sense of community.”
When explaining why he’s seeking a first term on the council, Treat makes the same case as Kurt Wright, a fellow Republican running for the other open seat in the New North End — traditionally a GOP stronghold but increasingly a place where newcomers are bringing more liberal political outlooks.
“I could possibly be the only Republican on the council. I think I would offer diversity to the council," Treat said. "If everyone was from the same point of view, it would be boring.”
But like Wright, Treat also deemphasizes the importance of party labels, saying, “I don’t see the place for party politics at the local level." If elected, he said, his goal would be to “make friends on the council.”
The outgoing Ward 7 councilor, Republican Paul Decelles, has endorsed Treat. “He gets the struggles that most of my constituents face,” Decelles said. He, too, raised the specter of a city council without a single Republican. “The reality is there might not be a Republican on the city council — and like anything else in life, diversity is important.”
State Sen. Phil Baruth, who hails from the New North End and supports Legrand, dismissed that pitch as the selling point of last resort for Republicans. “It’s the only one left for Republicans because they’ve made themselves the party of ‘no,’” Baruth said. “Plenty of people out in my part of town are receptive to that, but that number is shrinking.”
In this race, Councilor Dave Harnett, D-Ward 4, is falling in step with his fellow Democrats and endorsing Legrand. (Hartnett endorsed Wright in the Ward 4 race.) Hartnett said he’s known Treat for longer — “He’s a nice guy, works hard, and is fairly well known.” — but he thinks Legrand has the upper hand. “She’s young and enthusiastic and up to date on the issues that are important to the New North End residents.”
Legrand does have a leg up on fundraising. According to the campaign finance report filed February 24, she's raised $2,500 — much of it from prominent local Democrats. The sum includes $325 from the Burlington Democrats and $500 from Jake Perkinson, the former chair of the Vermont Democratic Party. Ayres, O'Sullivan, and Mayor Weinberger pitched in $100 each. Treat didn't file a report with the secretary of state, likely indicating that he hasn't hit the mandatory reporting threshold of $500.
During a candidate forum on Channel 17, Treat gave an impassioned speech against the gun control-related items on this year’s Town Meeting Day ballot and devoted his closing remarks to the subject. “The government can’t take your rights but they can coerce you to give them away voluntarily,” he told viewers.
Legrand said she’s more ambivalent. She supports the first measure, which would allow police to seize firearms when there’s a reasonable suspicion of domestic violence, but opposes the other two, which would ban guns in liquor-serving establishments and require guns to be securely stored.
She says the gun control effort is less of priority for her, and if elected, she’d focus on community initiatives like developing a bikeshare program and making streets safer. “I truly feel very strongly about making access better to both pedestrians and adding lanes for bikes.”
Both candidates support the citywide tax increase and the waterfront development projects being put up for a vote on Town Meeting Day.
And on the issue of perhaps the most pressing concern to Ward 7 residents: the school budget and the increasing burden it places on taxpayers?
Legrand is voting against the budget because, she said, "I would like to see stronger and better collaboration between the administration of the school and the city and for them to come together to deal with some of the financial concerns." The Weinberger administration and the school board recently agreed to develop "cost control measures" and Legrand said she supports that effort. (Seven Days inadvertently misstated Legrand's position on the school budget in the original version of this post.) Treat said the growing budget is a huge concern, but he hasn’t decided how he’ll vote yet.