For the second time in as many years, Burlington’s North District has an open city council seat on Town Meeting Day.
All four city council district seats, which represent two wards apiece, are up for election on March 2. Franklin Paulino, a Democrat and one-term councilor in the North District, is the only incumbent not running for reelection.
Competing for his seat are independent Mark Barlow and Progressive/Democrat Kienan Christianson.
While some of their policies differ, the candidates both said the hyper-partisan dynamic on the council motivated them to run. Both say they're best suited to temper the political divide — Barlow because he hasn't aligned himself with either party and Christianson because he's able to work with both.
“I wouldn't caucus with anybody, but I would talk to everybody,” Barlow said. “The people that I would probably seek out most frequently are the people that I disagreed most strenuously with and tried to find common ground.”
Said Christianson: “When people get backed into their corners … it’s hard to find a path forward.” After he earned endorsements from both parties, Christianson said, it’s clear Burlingtonians want a councilor “who can work with both sides.”
Neither Barlow nor Christianson are newcomers to the Burlington political scene. Barlow, 58, served on the Burlington School Board from 2015-19 and is on the city’s Parks & Recreation Commission. Christianson, 32, has served on the city’s Development Review Board for two years. He previously ran for city council in 2019 but was bested by Paulino.
Barlow, who runs an online marketing company, grew up in the New North End and has lived there most of his adult life. He said he's noticed the council become more ideologically divided — with six Progressives, five Democrats and one independent — and thinks partisanship is an obstacle to forming sound public policy.
Barlow pointed to recent votes on policing as an example. He said the council shouldn’t have cut the maximum police roster to 74 last summer without first studying the correct staffing numbers, as Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) proposed at the time. Nearly a dozen officers have left since then, putting proactive overnight coverage at risk, according to police leadership. Earlier this month, a council majority voted down Mayor Miro Weinberger’s request to increase the officer cap to 84.
“We’ve demoralized the city employees that work at the police department,” Barlow told Seven Days in a recent interview. “We didn’t need to be in that position.”
Barlow has since been endorsed by the Burlington Police Officers’ Association. “During a period of particularly heightened partisanship and turmoil both at the local and national levels,” the union posted on Facebook, “we at the BPOA welcome a steadfast commitment to process, decency, and fairness above all else.”
Barlow has also earned endorsements from people across the political spectrum, including former Progressive mayor Peter Clavelle and former councilors Jane Knodell and Kurt Wright, a Progressive and Republican, respectively. Former police commission chair Michele Asch is supporting Barlow, as is current commissioner Kerin Durfee, who also ran for the North District seat but dropped out when Christianson won the Democrats’ endorsement.
Barlow has criticized Christianson for declining “to give a clear answer” on whether the council should have cut the police force. Christianson has also not disclosed who he’s supporting for mayor, whereas Barlow is vocally supporting Weinberger. He says the three-term incumbent has managed the city's finances well and has provided steady leadership through the pandemic.
“Voters may agree or disagree with me on positions, but you’ll always know where I stand,” Barlow wrote in a recent Facebook post. “Candidates and elected officials owe that to their voters and constituents.”
For his part, Christianson admits he’s unsure whether he would have voted to reduce the police force last summer. He said it’s difficult to judge the situation in hindsight, especially given the “unintended consequence” of the present-day staffing crisis.
Like Barlow, Christianson said he would have supported the mayor’s request to increase the cap to 84 officers. Both candidates say that the city should increase police oversight by giving more investigatory powers to the citizen-led police commission.
“The staffing issue I don't think precludes us from still trying to figure out how we address some of the issues that many of our neighbors have expressed about not feeling safe around police officers and not feeling safe in the community,” Christianson said. “We've got to address that.”
Christianson moved from New York City to Burlington's New North End seven years ago and knew he'd found home when his neighbor dropped off a housewarming gift of chocolate cake and a pack of Heady Topper. Since then, Christianson has been involved in neighborhood book clubs and community dinners. An attorney with a local firm, he also hosts free legal clinics for incarcerated women.
Like Barlow, he's earned wide-ranging support in his campaign. School commissioner Monika Ivancic and state Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P/D-Chittenden 6-2), both Tracy supporters, are backing him, as are Dieng supporter Carina Driscoll and Dieng himself. City Councilor Sarah Carpenter (Ward 4) and Rep. Bob Hooper (Chittenden 6-1), both Democrats, are also on board.
Christianson said the range of endorsements shows he can work with people who don’t agree on every issue. He said he honed this skill by practicing civil and family litigation, which can often be complicated and emotionally wrought work.
“I always say if I can get two people to agree on a parenting plan, or in a really contentious divorce, there is no way that we can’t find a path forward” on political issues, Christianson said.
He and Barlow differ greatly on some of those issues. For one, Christianson is voting for Question 5 on this year’s ballot, which would require landlords to have a “just cause” before evicting a residential tenant. He says the proposal strikes the right balance between tenants’ and property owners’ rights. He’s also supporting an effort to introduce ranked-choice voting for city council elections.
Barlow opposes both of those ballot items, saying that neither proposal was properly vetted. On the eviction item, Barlow said the city should first investigate whether “there is actually a problem to address” since there’s limited data on the number of Burlington leases that have been terminated for no cause.
As for ranked-choice voting, Barlow questions why the city should bring it back when voters repealed the voting system in 2010. He suggested that the city should have a broader discussion about voting methods after the pandemic.
With just days to go until the election, Barlow leads the fundraising game, but Christianson has more overall support. Barlow has raked in just over $15,000 from 63 donors, whereas Christianson has brought in $9,170 from 75 people.
Christianson said Barlow's acceptance of campaign cash from big donors — such as real estate magnate Ernie Pomerleau and rental property owner Bill Bissonnette, who each gave Barlow $1,000 — "tells me really where his loyalties lie."
"What really separates me is that I have bold ideas for getting things done," he said. "I have this unique ability to bring people together."
Barlow, however, says that Christianson's campaign is buoyed by "interest groups" such as Rights & Democracy and the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America. He sees himself as a more centrist candidate who won't let biases creep into his decision-making.
"I'm trying to do what's best for Burlington," he said.
In other races, Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) is trying to fend off challenges from Democrat-endorsed independent Tiki Archambeau and independent Peggy Luhrs. Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) is facing off against Progressive-endorsed independent candidate Grace Ahmed, while Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) is running unopposed.