Burlington Council Elections: Hightower Will Run, Stromberg Won't | Off Message

Burlington Council Elections: Hightower Will Run, Stromberg Won't


Zoraya Hightower on Election Night 2020 - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Zoraya Hightower on Election Night 2020
Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) is running for reelection on Town Meeting Day while her colleague, Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8), is not.

The Prog incumbents announced their plans Wednesday evening, when two other candidates jumped in the race: Ali House is running as a Progressive for Stromberg's seat and will face Democrat-endorsed Hannah King in Ward 8. Rob Gutman, a Democrat, will challenge Hightower in Ward 1.

With Hightower in and Stromberg out, just two of the four incumbent Progs up for reelection this March are seeking another term. After serving 10 years and nearly winning the mayorship last year, City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) is not running for reelection. Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), who was elected in a special August contest, is running and will join other Prog hopefuls at the party’s nominating caucus on Tuesday, January 18.

The incumbents’ news comes amid signs of flagging enthusiasm in the Progressive caucus. Hightower had said that she was conflicted about seeking another term, saying that while her role as a “compromiser” is critical in policy debates, she struggled with the time commitment and heated rhetoric that comes with public service.
But on Wednesday evening, Hightower said she realized she was excited to serve again after trying to convince others to run for her seat.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, especially on housing and public safety,” Hightower said at the Wards 1 & 8 Neighborhood Planning Assembly meeting. “The last two years have been incredibly difficult, and I do hope [my next term is] not a repeat.”

Stromberg echoed Hightower’s comments, saying that her mental health has suffered as the council has confronted contentious issues — during a pandemic, no less.
Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) - FILE: COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8)
“I want to be able to give my 100 percent, because you all very, very much deserve that,” Stromberg told the meeting attendees on Zoom. “I wanted to take that responsible step back.”

Both councilors beat incumbents to get elected in 2020, helping usher in a new wave of Progressive politics in Burlington. With six members on the 12- person council, the caucus has successfully pushed for policies to ban no-cause evictions and reinstate ranked-choice voting.

Most notably, in summer 2020, the Progs backed a resolution that cut police department staffing by 30 percent through attrition — a vote that deeply divided the city over public safety reform. In October, both Hightower and Stromberg broke with their party and voted to hire more officers after an independent assessment recommended a larger force.
Council races are beginning to shape up with incumbents’ plans out in the open. Democrats have put up contenders in six of the eight “ward” seats up for grabs, including King, a University of Vermont student who will challenge House, a fellow newcomer.

House, a social worker who announced her candidacy during the NPA meeting, said she wants to tackle the climate crisis and will support policies to boost Burlington’s housing stock “without gentrifying our city.” Both issues are also a part of King’s platform. She's advocating for rent stabilization and for finding long-term housing options for homeless Burlingtonians.

Gutman, a Burlington resident since 2019, also said housing reforms rank highly on his agenda. Gutman previously ran a home inspection business and is currently helping build homes through Habitat for Humanity.

“[I have] a big love and affection for this community,” he said in an interview with Seven Days, noting that he enjoys community service. “Right now, it seems like this is the right time.”

Because Gutman was recruited after the Democrats’ caucus last month, his nomination is pending a vote by the party’s executive committee. Burlington Dems have also endorsed incumbents Karen Paul (Ward 6) and Sarah Carpenter (Ward 4), as well as local attorney Ben Traverse in Ward 5, who is angling for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Councilor Chip Mason. The party's pick for Ward 7, Aleczander Stith, also earned the Burlington GOP’s nomination last month.

The Republicans endorsed just one other candidate: their party chair, Christopher-Aaron Felker, in Ward 3. Progressives expect to nominate at least five contenders at their caucus next week, party director Josh Wronski said.

Candidates can file petitions for council seats until January 24.