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Miller Time?

Local Matters


Published February 21, 2006 at 9:31 p.m.


It's standing-room-only in the social hall at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, and Hinda Miller has the home-court advantage. More than 100 attendees take their seats or line the walls for the first of three scheduled debates among the Burlington mayoral candidates. Miller, a Democratic state senator from Chittenden County, hugs and shakes hands with her fellow congregants and supporters, many of whom are wearing green-and-white "Hinda for Mayor" stickers.

Not all five mayoral candidates were invited to participate -- Independent Louie "The Cowman" Beaudin claims he had to "twist some arms" for a seat at the table. But once the debate begins, its inclusiveness works to Miller's advantage. The candidates speak in the order in which they're seated, and Miller is sandwiched between Beaudin and Independent candidate Loyal Ploof. While Ploof rambles on about eliminating downtown parking meters, and Beaudin tosses out oddball remarks about how education is "ruining our society," Miller hammers away at the themes that have defined her candidacy: innovation, collaboration, creativity and vision. She riffs effortlessly about promoting the creative economy, encouraging job creation through small business entrepreneurship, and building new relationships with Burlington's institutions of higher learning.

Miller has made her entrepreneurial background the centerpiece of her mayoral bid. She co-founded and served as president/CEO of Jogbra, the multimillion dollar apparel company that revolutionized women's sports. Her supporters invariably cite her business credentials to suggest she's the candidate most qualified to steer the Queen City through difficult financial times.

But for all the ink she's received over the years -- as an inventor, businesswoman, state senator and multimillionaire -- Miller is tough to read politically. Although she's now a pro-choice, gun-control Democrat, throughout the 1990s she gave money to GOP candidates who ran against Bernie Sanders -- specifically, Susan Sweetser and Peter Smith -- and the Vermont Republicans Federal Elections Committee. In 2002, in her first bid for state senate, she considered running as a Republican -- just as her husband, Joel Miller, had done in 1994, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Burlington City Council against Andy Montroll.

Miller's list of political endorsements reads like a who's who of establishment Democrats: former governors Madeleine May Kunin, Phil Hoff and Howard Dean, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Mayor Peter Clavelle and City Council President Ian Carleton are all on board. Her supporters, from a broad cross-section of Burlington, include a number of prominent Republicans and members of the wealthy business elite. "It's easy to say that the big money is backing Hinda," says Yves Bradley, a moderate Republican who owns the Body Shop on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace. "My answer to that is, 'It's not the money, it's the intelligence that's backing Hinda.' We need somebody who can look at this city like the business that it is."

More interesting is who's not on the list of endorsers: City Councilor Montroll, who lost to Miller in the recent Democratic mayoral caucus; State Representative John Tracy, a staunch Burlington Democrat who also considered a run for mayor; former senate colleague Janet Munt and Republican Vince Illuzzi, who serves with Miller on the Economic Development Committee. Miller's former business partner, Lisa Lindahl, went on the record for this story saying she doesn't believe Miller has the qualifications for Burlington's top job.

Some Miller detractors are uneasy about her coziness with the business establishment, and have doubts about her liberal credentials, especially on labor issues. Others question whether Miller, whose only Burlington political experience was as an airport commissioner, has spent enough time in Queen City government to take over the reins. "I've been on the council for two years and I've never even met her," says Progressive City Council Tim Ashe. "That should tell you something."

Miller's unique background and diverse life experiences confound efforts to pigeonhole her politically or ideologically. She's a vegetarian and a yoga instructor. Becoming a millionaire at 40 didn't stop her from going into women's prisons to teach. "I'm not an easy person to put a label on, and I find in this process that everyone projects the labels on me that they feel they have to in order to understand me," Miller explains. "But they're only looking at a part of me."

Seven Days met up with Miller recently at her house on Deforest Heights -- 2005 assessed value: $611,700 -- in the leafiest section of Burlington's Hill Section. Her husband, Joel, a local psychologist and business consultant, also owns 11 rental units in five properties, assessed at about $1.3 million. A big, black poodle, Lucy, keeps watch in a large bay window overlooking a steeply sloping front yard. It's a bright, warm and spacious home with an impressive view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.

Miller's kitchen doubles as her campaign headquarters. "Dean for America" and "Kerry/Edwards" posters hang on one wall near a bulletin board packed with family photos. An artsy Chanukah menorah sits on top of a bookshelf, not far from a brass and pewter Buddha statue. A human-sized totemic wood carving from Indonesia stands in a corner of the living room; a framed Tibetan Wheel of Life hangs in the foyer.

Seated at the kitchen table is Christine Salembier, Miller's campaign manager, and Dzeneta Karabegovic, an 18-year-old intern from UVM. The Bosnian emigre moved to the United States in 1998 and volunteered on Miller's 2002 state senate race. This year, Miller has the young woman handling all of her scheduling.

We settle down for our interview in the den, which is decorated in dark wood, green leather chairs, wall-to-wall bookshelves and Joel's numerous degrees. I take a seat but Miller asks whether I mind if she stands and paces the room. She recently pulled a back muscle, she explains, so during our interview she stretches out yoga-style or sprawls on the couch with her legs up and shoes off. Her manner jives with the common perception of Miller as someone who is casual and comfortable around people.

Much of Miller's life is an open book. She was born Hinda Schreiber on April 18, 1950, in Montreal, the oldest of four children. Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and her grandfather was a self-made man who started a fur business in Montreal, then later dabbled in real estate. Miller's father was also an entrepreneur and real estate investor. After World War II he opened a discount store in Montreal, managed several hotels, and later worked on the 1967 World's Fair.

Miller was always close to her father and says he had a major influence on her life. "My father was an experiential guy," she says. "He always encouraged me to experience the world. He would say, 'Circulate and participate. If you're afraid of something, go do it.'"

The Millers were avid skiers. After a ski trip to Stowe -- Hinda's first taste of Vermont; she didn't become a U.S. citizen until 2002 -- the family started making regular visits to the resort. Years later, Miller would meet her husband at a leadership conference there.

Miller attended McGill University for one year, then transferred to the Parsons School of Design and later, New York University. She describes herself as "a child of the '60s" who protested the Vietnam War and had a voracious appetite for knowledge and new adventures. "I'm an Aries," she says, "so I have that pioneer spirit and curiosity and ability to absorb and enjoy change."

Miller moved to Burlington in the summer of 1977 to work at UVM's Lake Champlain Shakespeare Festival. It was in the Royall Tyler Theater that she met her future business partner, Lisa Lindahl, and helped invent the first women's sports bra by sewing two jockstraps together. The original prototype is now on display in the Smithsonian.

Much has been written about the meteoric rise of Jogbra. The company grew at a steady rate -- as much as 30 percent per year -- and went on to become an international brand with more than 175 employees and annual sales in excess of $75 million. In 1990, Miller and Lindahl sold Jogbra to Playtex for a price Miller still won't reveal. Playtex turned around and sold to Sara Lee. Miller stayed on as president of the division until 1995, and another two years as corporate spokesperson. When Jogbra finally left Essex Junction in 2002, 110 jobs went with it to North Carolina.

"I believe that it was my stability that allowed the company to stay here until 2002," Miller says. "I managed that transition from entrepreneurial company into corporate setting."

Less stable was the relationship between Miller and Lindahl. The two never got along. "We were complete opposites," Miller recalls. "I would be someone who runs off a cliff head-first and she would be the one holding the reins. It was a struggle."

Lindahl confirms Miller's assessment of their differing styles in a recent phone interview. "I would say, 'Well, OK, if we jump off that cliff, where are we going to land and what is it likely going to cost us?'" Lindahl says. "Hinda's management style was to get it done, cross it off her list and deal with the consequences later."

Lindahl presents a critical view of Miller's leadership abilities, and sounds unconvinced that she has what it takes to be mayor. Perhaps reflective of their abysmal personal relationship -- the two women haven't spoken for more than 15 years -- Lindahl takes credit for inventing the Jogbra herself, and claims she was more the brains behind the business. Miller's initial role, Lindahl asserts, was to put up the startup money she borrowed from her father, though she does credit Miller for getting the bras manufactured.

"I was the one who wrote the SBA business plan and I was the ideas person and was in charge of marketing, sales and new product ideas," Lindahl asserts. "Hinda's role was production. She was great because she figured out how to mass-produce the item we created. That was huge."

Lindahl now lives in Colchester, where she runs her own business and isn't involved in politics. Asked if she would endorse Miller for mayor, she says, "No. I would need evidence of what skill sets she brings that would enable her to run the city, given the problems the city is facing . . . That's my big question."

When Seven Days followed up with Miller about Lindahl's remarks, she seemed exasperated but not surprised. "We were not friends when we started and we weren't friends when we ended. It was like a bad divorce," she says. But Miller contradicts Lindahl's assessment of her role in the business, pointing out that theirs was a collaborative effort from day one, with each woman contributing equally to the company's success. "I respect Lisa for the work we did together, and we created a very successful company," she says.

Miller's pro-business platform, combined with her past flirtations with the Republican Party, have led critics to accuse her of not being a "true Democrat." It's a charge she's quick to refute. Miller asserts that her initial interest in the GOP didn't reflect shared values with the Republican Party, but was more due to her political naivete, combined with the assumption that being pro-business automatically made her a Republican.

"I don't have a political philosophy. I have a sense of the whole and I believe that there's got to be an economic engine that supports healthy communities," Miller explains. "But my deep, core values are that I'm pro-choice, pro-women, pro-worker, and for taking care of the environment."

On environmental issues, Miller's voting record in the Senate has been that of a moderate Democrat. On its 2003-04 "Legislative Scorecard," the Vermont Alliance of Conservation Voters gave Miller a 75 percent approval rating, the same as former Chittenden Senator Janet Munt. Miller scored higher than Chittenden Democratic Senator Jim Leddy (58 percent) but lower than Senate Dems Jim Condos (83 percent) and Ginny Lyons (92 percent). Miller's Progressive mayoral opponent, Representative Bob Kiss, scored a 92 percent from the environmental coalition.

Asked to name her biggest achievements in the senate, Miller cites brownfields legislation that encourages the redevelopment of former industrial sites. She also mentions a bill she sponsored with Senator Matt Dunne (D-Windsor) that promotes Vermont's creative economy, and another that provides start-up money for small-business incubators.

Miller's voting record on bills important to the business community has also been mixed. In its 2003-04 "Legislative Report Card," the Vermont Chamber of Commerce gave Miller a 56 percent approval rating, the second highest score for any Senate Democrat, but lower than all the Republican senators. In contrast, Chittenden Democratic Senators Condos and Leddy both scored a 33 percent; Munt, 44. The Chamber gave Kiss a 10 percent approval rating.

Miller was the first woman to chair the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and is fluent in corporate-speak. At the Ohavi Zedek debate, for example, she talks about maintaining a 5 percent fund balance for the city's bond rating and about "streamlining the back end to support all customer service areas." Asked later to clarify, Miller laughs and admits, "No one understood what I was talking about." She explains that it simply means consolidating similar business functions from various departments -- payroll, human resources, accounts payable, etc. -- into one office to save resources.

Does she have the experience to address Burlington's pension-funding crisis? Miller claims a strong record on labor issues, citing her role in raising the statewide minimum wage and linking it to regular cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs. She also sponsored a bill that provided whistleblower protection to health-care workers and another that made it easier for injured employees to collect workers' compensation. Another Miller initiative, signed into law last year, allows survivors of domestic violence to collect unemployment insurance if they quit their jobs and relocate in order to protect themselves from their batterers.

But several Statehouse observers claim that Miller hasn't always been a reliable labor vote. Former Democratic Senator Janet Munt says she "likes Hinda very much," but doesn't think she's liberal enough on issues such as the livable wage and raising the minimum wage for tipped employees. Munt, a Democrat, says she's endorsing Kiss.

She's not alone. Although most statewide unions such as the Vermont State Employees Association aren't issuing endorsements in the mayoral race and won't comment on Miller's record in the senate, the Champlain Valley Labor Council, an umbrella coalition of 17 labor unions in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, just announced its unanimous endorsement of Kiss for mayor. They pledged to "roll up our sleeves" on his behalf.

If elected mayor, Miller sees herself continuing Clavelle's legacy of sustainability, measured growth and responsible environmental stewardship. Of the five candidates, she says she's the most qualified to re-negotiate with Montpelier for higher impact fees and payments in lieu of taxes from Burlington's tax-exempt institutions. She points out that those rates weren't revised with last year's property-tax reappraisal.

Miller says she'd also like to see a lively dialogue on how to redevelop the rail yard, tank farms, and other industrial remnants at the southern end of the Burlington Waterfront. She emphasizes, however, that if she's elected, "I don't think that this mayor in this term will be doing anything with the North 40," referring to the undeveloped waterfront property between downtown and North Beach.

What would she do with the Moran Plant? "We've got to educate ourselves about what's possible there," Miller says. She cites the example of Seattle's Gas Works Park, a former gasification plant that was converted into a recreation area, as one example of possible adaptive reuses of that site. Whatever Burlingtonians decide, she says, "It must be open, accessible to all people, respectful of the environment and financially sound."

On the issue of neighborhood schools, Miller sounds defensive, in part because she's taken heat for trumpeting neighborhood schools while sending her own teenaged children to private schools. (Miller points out that her 17-year-old son, Noah, is returning to Vermont in the fall to play lacrosse at UVM.) Last week, after the Burlington Free Press apparently mischaracterized her position on schools, Miller issued a press release clarifying her opposition to the district's proposal to close Lawrence Barnes Elementary. Miller also says she'll vote "yes" on the ballot item to keep all six neighborhood schools open. "I believe strongly that neighborhood schools are really important, and they're the center of the community," she says.

Miller says she's ready to "give something back" to a city that's been very good to her and her family. Her campaign to become Burlington's first woman mayor is "the culmination of my business experience, my yoga practice, and my service in the senate, to really serve and share what I've learned and get the right people around the table." Miller adds, "I don't need to be mayor to put another feather in my cap."

Miller is hoping that undecided voters will look beyond whatever prejudices they may have about her wealth and social status and come around to what her supporters see -- an astute, fiscally responsible businesswoman with a strong social conscience and a passion for building consensus to get things done. Her success may depend upon who the public eventually perceives to be the "real" Hinda Miller.

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