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Burlington Progressives Are Down Two Members on the City Council


Published October 12, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

  • File: Daria Bishop
  • Ali House

Two Progressive Burlington city councilors have resigned in the last few weeks, leaving the party shorthanded until at least March 2023.

The rapid downsizing comes just seven months after the Progs pulled out enough victories on Town Meeting Day to keep six seats on the 12-person council. And it raises questions of whether the party has lost momentum amid a spike in crime that some have attributed to Prog-led decisions to cut the size of the city police force more than two years ago.

Special elections for the now-vacant seats in Ward 8 and the East District could hold the answers. Both positions have seesawed between parties since the council created them during redistricting in 2015, so fierce competitions are anticipated.

Ali House, the Progressive who most recently held the Ward 8 seat, won election in March. But the recent University of Vermont grad stepped down last week, saying that "several serious situations" made it difficult for her to serve, without elaborating. Her seat won't be filled until a special election on Town Meeting Day in March 2023.

East District councilor Jack Hanson, meanwhile, called it quits in mid-September to apply for a job with the Burlington Electric Department. Hanson had held the seat since 2019, when he defeated incumbent Democrat Richard Deane.

Dina John - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Dina John

The future of that seat will be decided on December 6, when Dina John, a Progressive, faces off against Maea Brandt, a Democrat. Jake Schumann, who unsuccessfully lobbied for both parties' nominations, plans to run as an independent. Early voting begins on October 24.

Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, pointed to John as somebody who embodies the party's values. The 22-year-old Kenyan immigrant grew up in Burlington, graduated from UVM and now works in the city. She defeated Schumann at the Progs' caucus meeting on Saturday, and Wronski said her candidacy has rallied the troops.

"Progressives are fired up and ready to get to work," Wronski said.

In her speech to members of the party on Saturday, John described the adversity her family faced when they moved to Vermont in 2004. Her father didn't know English, and her mother worked two jobs so that John and her siblings could attend private Rice Memorial High School, which John said was better equipped than public school to teach immigrant students. She said her upbringing taught her "that I had to make my own change." Her priorities include tackling the city's affordable housing crisis, homelessness and transportation.

"I'm 22 years old, and I know for a lot of people that's worrisome: 'How long would this person stay on this job? Is this person experienced enough?'" she said. "I can not only advocate for the issues, I've experienced them myself."

Wronski said John is a powerful voice for the party, which, before the recent resignations, had been enjoying a resurgence that began in 2019. That year, Hanson and Progressive newcomer Perri Freeman (Central District) defeated two moderates on the council. The momentum continued for two more years as the Progs gained members on the council and used their newfound power to reinstate ranked-choice voting. They also passed a measure to ban no-cause evictions, although it was later vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott.

In March 2021, Max Tracy, then the Progressive council president, challenged Democratic incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger — and came just 129 votes short of unseating him.

Maea Brandt - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Maea Brandt

But earlier this year, Tracy didn't run for reelection in Ward 2. Progressive Ward 8 councilor Jane Stromberg also bowed out, citing struggles with mental health. Another Prog, Zoraya Hightower, did win reelection, but only after failing to find someone else to run for her Ward 1 seat.

The pandemic certainly changed the dynamics of serving. And the caucus has faced significant backlash for leading the June 2020 vote to reduce the size of the police force through attrition. Officers left faster than anticipated, and some Burlingtonians blame the dearth of police for an increase in certain crimes. Progs and others say that's a false narrative, citing the nationwide surge in drug use and violence in the wake of the pandemic.

Prog council members have since voted to reverse the police cuts and have approved bonuses to attract and retain cops.

Yet Adam Roof, chair of the Burlington Democratic Party and a former Ward 8 councilor, thinks Burlingtonians have taken notice of Progressives' "major failures." He also thinks Progressive leaders don't thoroughly vet their candidates, pointing to the recent resignations as proof. The Dems, meanwhile, make sure people interested in running know what to expect on the campaign trail and in public office, he said.

"It is stressful. It does take a lot of time. It's hard to prepare for," Roof said of council work. "But I think it's the job of the party to communicate [that]."

Wronski doesn't think there's waning enthusiasm for his party. He compared the council turnover to what's happening in the Vermont legislature and statewide races this year, which he said "highlights just how challenging it is for anyone to be in these positions."

But Wronski also acknowledged that the party's preferred candidates — young, working-class people, particularly those from historically marginalized communities — may struggle more than others to balance their council duties.

"That's just the nature of the type of people we're recruiting, and I think that's a good thing," Wronski said. "The council role is challenging, and we haven't, as a society, totally figured out a way to fully support, especially working-class people, in these roles."

Councilors are paid a meager $5,000 annual stipend for their large workload. Then-councilor Stromberg proposed an increase, but it didn't happen; Wronski thinks the city should revisit the issue.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Progressive Predicament"

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