Infinite Culcleasure, Carina Driscoll and Miro Weinberger
Burlington mayoral contenders Infinite Culcleasure and Carina Driscoll painted themselves as candidates who would bring the voice of the people back to City Hall during the first debate of the campaign season.
Inside a packed Burlington City Hall Auditorium on Monday evening, the two independents took jabs at Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger, criticizing the incumbent for his management of the Burlington Telecom sale process, the long-languishing Moran Plant and the diminished power of Neighborhood Planning Assemblies.
Weinberger defended his record. "This administration believes that nothing is more important than the public trust," he said.
More than 300 people turned out for the forum, which was sponsored by Seven Days, Channel 17/Town Meeting Television and the League of Women Voters of Champlain Valley. Supporters of all three contenders stood along the walls and filtered up into the balcony, holding yard signs and cheering when their chosen candidate hit home a point.
The trio opened up about bike lanes, local marijuana policy, the future of Memorial Auditorium and Pine Street potholes.
They disagreed on the future basing of the F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport, an advisory question for the city council that will appear on the ballot in March. Culcleasure said he was opposed to the jets; Weinberger said he was in favor of the current plan — and criticized Driscoll for her lack of a firm position. "Either Carina isn't being straight with us, or she's trying to have it both ways, and I think Burlingtonians expect more out of their mayors," Weinberger said.
Driscoll countered, blaming Weinberger for forging ahead with his own agenda. "If the people of Burlington speak up and ask for us to do something differently, then I'm going to listen," she shot back. "I think what I'm hearing from you is you have made up your mind despite how the ballot turns out on election day."
Meanwhile, Culcleasure distinguished himself as a man of the people, highlighting his work in community organizing. "If one is not personally struggling, it’s easy to talk about how much progress the city has made, and how inclusive it is," he said to applause.
Culcleasure was the only candidate to not wholeheartedly support safe injection sites in the city, saying he would defer to the will of the voters. "Who’s neighborhood would it wind up in — Ward 5?" he asked rhetorically, referring to the South End district where Driscoll lives. "I’m guessing it will probably wind up in my neighborhood in the Old North End. Voters should weigh in on that."
The disparate fundraising figures didn't prevent either challenger from taking shots at the incumbent Monday evening. Driscoll in particular criticized Weinberger's "highest bidder" mindset, citing the Burlington Telecom process, the sale of a city parking lot on Pearl Street, the lack of community involvement around plans for Memorial Auditorium and the uncertain future of the Moran Plant.
When development group New Moran came forward hoping to redevelop the waterfront building, "we had local investment at the table, we had creative individuals, we had businesses, we had artists, we had the farmers market," Driscoll said. She blamed Weinberger for the failed talks. "What we got was a unilateral decision to end that conversation."
She promised to reopen negotiations with the group and vowed to "decentralize power" by funding Neighborhood Planning Assemblies and increasing access to city boards and commissions. Culcleasure, too, supported a renewed focus on inclusive city governance at every level.
Weinberger and Driscoll occasionally sparred over various figures and stats, with Weinberger reminding the audience — and the other candidates — that "facts matter."
It wasn't all discord. The three candidates said they supported the school budget that will come before voters on Town Meeting Day — even though it entails a property tax increase of nearly 8 percent. Each said they wanted to take down — or at least consider replacing — the "Everyone Loves a Parade!" mural off of Church Street, which has been condemned by some as racist. All agreed on the need to fill potholed Burlington roads — and quickly.
The candidates repeatedly defended their ability to effectively represent the working class. Weinberger pointed to his work creating affordable housing, and said he helped members of Farrington's Mobile Home Park convert the property into the resident-owned North Avenue Co-op.
Driscoll vowed to eliminate waiting lists for childcare and to devote more resources to after-school programs. She told an anecdote about receiving food stamps as a child, when she would visit the public library after school because her single mother was working long hours.
Culcleasure, too, told his story, of moving to Burlington in 1991 with $20 in his pocket. The working class should be seen as current and potential leaders, he said, rather than people to be pitied. "We need to go into the low-income community and work with low-income communities and follow their lead, actually," he said.