He won’t face the voters again until March 2015, but Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is already collecting cash for a potential reelection bid.
Last Wednesday, roughly 100 supporters packed the Bluebird Tavern for Weinberger’s first campaign fundraiser since he was elected in March 2012.
Tickets to the schmooze fest started at $250 per person. Sponsors paid $500. And members of the event’s host committee, which included several top real estate developers with business before the city, ponied up $1000.
But precisely how much Weinberger raised and from whom is unclear. The mayor, who campaigned on a pledge of government transparency, refuses to disclose the names of his host committee members. He says he won’t release any new fundraising information until next summer. And for several days last week, he declined to discuss the event with Seven Days.
When he finally consented to a five-minute interview outside a city council meeting Monday night, Weinberger wouldn’t say whether the event signaled an interest in a second term.
“I am not running for reelection yet,” he said. “I love this job. It’s a great job. I think anyone would be lucky to have it. I’m excited to serve out my time for the people of Burlington, and then we’ll see what happens.”
Why, then, did he hold a campaign fundraiser?
“We want to keep our options open if we decide to run in the future, and it seemed like this was a time when an event like this made some sense,” he said. “It’s halfway through the term and, you know, it’s part of elective office. The system we have is, you have to raise money to keep it going, so that’s what we did.”
Indeed, Weinberger’s political apparatus has remained active since he took over city hall, according to a campaign-finance report he filed in July. In the preceding 16 months, Weinberger’s campaign spent $20,195 on everything from payroll to travel expenses to volunteer food.
Footing the bill has been a handful of Burlington business leaders, along with Weinberger himself. The month after he was elected, the mayor cashed $1000 checks from local real estate tycoon Ernie Pomerleau, restaurateur Al Gobeille and two generations of the Pecor family, which owns Lake Champlain Transportation. Walmart developer Jeff Davis and V/T Commercial real estate developer Brad Worthen also cut $500 checks that month.
Weinberger, a real estate developer in his own right, has personally loaned his campaign $12,000 since he was elected, the July report shows.
Ahead of last week’s fundraiser, Weinberger was busy dialing for dollars, according to several people who participated in the event. And, sure enough, Burlington’s business elite turned out. Among those who doled out $1000 to be designated a “host” were developers, restaurateurs, executives of local tech companies — and even the city’s airport director, Gene Richards, who also controls a sprawling real estate empire.
“He’s a politician, but he’s grounded in business — and in the end you need an economic base to have a successful community,” says Pomerleau, who contributed at the host level.
Pomerleau, whose family has long dominated the Chittenden County real estate scene, backed Weinberger’s Republican opponent, Kurt Wright, in the 2012 election. But he says he’s been impressed by the Democratic mayor’s efforts to boost Burlington International Airport, reimagine the Moran Plant, build the Champlain Parkway and help the Vermont Air National Guard acquire a squadron of F-35 fighter jets.
Last year, Pomerleau flew Weinberger and other Vermont politicians to Florida to hear the jets firsthand. And he helped bankroll a campaign to support Weinberger’s so-called “fiscal stability bond,” which voters approved last November.
“He is the mayor,” Pomerleau says. “I didn’t support him in the beginning, but I’ve come to appreciate his efforts and his challenges. Therefore, when he asked me to contribute for a get-together, it was as much a thank-you for what he’s doing.”
Gobeille, who donated to both Weinberger’s and Wright’s campaigns in 2012, says he was happy to host the fundraiser when the mayor called him. Gobeille owns several waterfront restaurants and cafés and serves as chairman of the state’s Green Mountain Care Board.
“I just really like the guy,” Gobeille says of Weinberger. “He’s honest. He’s sincere. He cares about Burlington.”
Another fundraiser host, Doug Nedde, says he’s been impressed by Weinberger’s “across-the-board support for business initiatives and real estate project initiatives.”
Nedde spent 22 years as a partner at the Redstone Commercial Group before striking out on his own earlier this year. He’s currently developing the former armory building at 101 Main Street into a 139-room Hilton Garden Inn.
“Real estate is a big portion of any city’s operations, in terms of cash flow, taxes and general vitality and health of a city,” says Nedde, who supported Weinberger in 2012, too. “Having someone who understands real estate would benefit any city or town.”
Burlington developers were particularly relieved when, in September, the city eliminated a rule that capped residential development at 50 percent of any new downtown construction project. They’ve also hailed Weinberger’s plan to use tax increment financing (TIF) to revamp the Burlington waterfront.
One prominent developer vying for a piece of the waterfront action — and the TIF funding that comes with it — is Chuck Deslauriers. Through the city’s “public investment action plan” process, he and several partners have proposed using a portion of the money to build a privately held $5 million marina.
DesLauriers has also promised to contribute $10,000 to another TIF proposal: a “Cherry Street Promenade,” which would connect the Courtyard Marriott and the recently built Hotel Vermont — both of which he co-owns — to the waterfront.
DesLauriers, who did not return calls seeking comment, and Hotel Vermont partner Jay Canning both served as co-hosts of Weinberger’s fundraiser.
“The initiatives and appointments Miro has made make me feel like this is a new day for Burlington, an exciting time, a tipping point,” Canning wrote in an email.
Another fundraiser host, Dave Farrington, has proposed building up to 26 rental units on Pine Street between Main and College. At a meeting of the Ward 2 and Ward 3 Neighborhood Planning Assembly last month, he said that project would not have been possible under the city’s recently repealed residential-development cap.
Farrington contributed $1000 to Weinberger’s first mayoral campaign through four companies he owns, and donated office space to the mayor-elect’s transition team after he won. He did not return calls seeking comment.
Asked Monday whether he solicited campaign donations from anybody with business before the city, Weinberger said, “You know, listen, it’s a small community. Lots of people wear different hats. Certainly I’d have to think about that. I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Asked whether that meant he had likely made such solicitations, Weinberger said, “I’m not sure.”
“Why don’t you ask the next question,” Weinberger’s chief of staff, Mike Kanarick, interjected.
To some Progressive city councilors, the mayor’s fundraising could pose a problem.
“I think you have to be really, really careful about drawing a clear line between who you take money from and what they’re asking for from the city,” says Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2). “I do believe there’s a chance for conflicts of interest to arise with regard to that.”
The way Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3) sees it, holding a five-figure fundraiser 16 months before the next election undermines the city’s historically grassroots political process.
“As far as I know, it’s absolutely unprecedented — completely out of the ordinary,” she says. “It’s frustrating because it sets a precedent. It makes politics a more elite activity than it has been in the past and potentially disenfranchises people from being part of the political process.”
Precisely whom Weinberger might be gearing up to beat in 2015 is also unclear.
Wright, who says he won’t run for mayor again, says he knows of nobody even contemplating a challenge.
“I think he may have something close to a free ride,” the New North End state representative says. “I don’t see there being a highly competitive race.”
Wright’s fellow Republican, Councilor Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7), agrees.
“At this point, a year and a half out, I don’t see [Weinberger] having a credible opponent,” he says.
But Decelles, a constant critic of the mayor, says he sees nothing wrong with Weinberger wooing the real estate crowd.
“Miro comes from that line of work, so it’s not unrealistic to presume he has close relationships with those individuals,” he says. “In my lifetime, I’ve never been concerned that people are trying to buy the mayor’s office or a council seat.”
Of course, who bought and sold what is virtually impossible to know in Burlington elections — at least, not until the very last minute. Unlike state elections, in which candidates must disclose what they raise and spend with increasing frequency leading up to Election Day, local candidates have to do so just twice: 10 days before an election and 10 days after.
In other words, Weinberger could legally decline to disclose a thing for nearly the entirety of his three-year tenure.
Nodding to his campaign promise to bring “transparency” and “a fresh start” to Burlington politics, the mayor says he plans to go above and beyond what’s required of him. That’s why he filed a campaign finance report in July and why he plans to do so again next summer — neither of which are required.
“We believe in transparency,” he said. “In the last campaign, we released more information than was required. We’ve done that in the time I’ve been mayor. And we’ll continue doing that.”
Asked whether that commitment to transparency would prompt him to provide a full list of those who hosted last week’s fundraiser before next summer, Weinberger demurred.
“I think I’d just be repeating myself,” he said.
The online newshounds at VTDigger.org are increasing their ranks again — this time on the business side of the ledger.
Last week, Diane Zeigler joined the Montpelier-based news outlet as a part-time publisher focusing on membership, event planning and marketing. Her position will become full time early next year. Zeigler joins Seven Days alum Rick Woods, who was hired in May as a part-time copublisher.
“She’s the right person for the right task,” says Digger-in-chief Anne Galloway, who founded the nonprofit and will remain its executive director. “Plus, she’s a fabulous person to work with.”
Zeigler, an accomplished singer-songwriter, previously worked as canvass director at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and web developer at the Vermont Arts Council. For the past five years, she’s worked in web strategies and client relations at the Montpelier lobby shop KSE Partners.
Galloway says she doesn’t expect that last gig to present any conflicts with the new one.
“She wasn’t part of the lobbying team. I never saw her at the Statehouse. It’s not like we’re hiring Todd Bailey,” Galloway says, referring to the omnipresent KSE lobbyist.
Says Zeigler, “It’s a big change, but it also feels familiar at the same time.”