It’s the first time the Vermont Dems have hired a field director to focus on Queen City council races, party spokesperson Christopher Di Mezzo said.
“Time and time again, the state party maybe hasn’t tried, maybe hasn’t fielded a staff member devoted specifically to this mission, and we’re changing that,” Di Mezzo said. “We hope the resources we’re investing in the community in Burlington will bring about Democratic leadership that will support a Democratic agenda in Vermont’s largest city.”
All eight ward seats are up for reelection on Town Meeting Day this year, including those held by incumbent Democrats Chip Mason (Ward 5) and Karen Paul (Ward 6), and Democrat/Progressive Ali Dieng (Ward 7).
The city is led by a Democratic mayor, Miro Weinberger, who is up for reelection in 2021. The council is made up of four Democrats, four Progressives, two independents, one Republican and one Dem/Prog.
Already, this election cycle is shaping up to be historic: For the first time in 32 years, independent incumbent Sharon Bushor lost the Progressive endorsement at the party's caucus Wednesday night. And the council's only Republican, Council President Kurt Wright (Ward 4), announced Thursday morning that he won't seek another term.
The City Democratic Committee of Burlington has not yet announced any candidates to take on the nearly full slate of Prog-endorsed hopefuls in 2020. The field director will ideally be on the ground before the Dems caucus on January 7, Di Mezzo said.
The Burlington staffer will be the state Dems' only active field director before Town Meeting Day. The party will hire more after March to gear up for the November 2020 general election, Di Mezzo said.
The Vermont Democratic Party rarely invests such resources in city council races. It hasn’t taken a noticeable role since 2015, when it assisted would-be city councilors with phone banking and canvassing. At the time, party officials downplayed their role, but then-city councilor Dave Hartnett partially attributed his losing the Democratic endorsement that year to the party’s increased presence.
"It was a huge effort on the part of the Democratic party to win some seats on the council," he told Seven Days then, noting that at the council level, "This is the first time I've witnessed this.”
Even then, the state party didn’t make any monetary contributions to individual council campaigns and hasn’t any year since, according to campaign finance records on the Vermont Secretary of State database. Di Mezzo said the party is more likely to offer candidates occasional trainings than monetary support.
“We’re in a strong position statewide and locally,” Di Mezzo said. “We are going to flex the muscle we have, and in this case, it's putting time, energy and resources to the city council of Burlington.”
The state Dems have endured a tough year. The party's executive director resigned in April after just months on the job. And director of party operations Brandon Batham was forced out in July after staffers discovered he'd allegedly embezzled about $18,500 from party coffers. Turnover has plagued the party's ranks over the last few years.
Vermont Progressive Party executive director Josh Wronski thinks the Dems are worried about losing ground in Burlington. He’d never heard of the Vermont Dems hiring a field director for council elections and couldn’t recall a time since 2015 when the state party got so involved.
“Frankly, it’s kind of a point of pride that they’re feeling so nervous about Burlington that they feel they actually have to hire staff,” Wronski said.
Rather, Di Mezzo said, the Dems think they can win.
“This is an opportunity for Democrats to make some gains," he said.