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Burlington's Bitter Ballot Battle

Fair Game


Published November 23, 2011 at 12:16 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Butter side up or butter side down? That the question Democratic caucus-goers may be asking one another on December 11 as they choose between two mayoral wannabes: Tim Ashe and Miro Weinberger.

Dr. Seuss fans may recall The Butter Battle Book, a story about the Yooks who eat their bread with the buttered side up and the Zooks who eat their bread with the buttered side down.

The 1984 book was a critique of the Cold War arms race, with warring Yooks and Zooks marching toward annihilation with an arsenal of fantastical weapons such as the “Triple-Sling Jigger” and the “Jigger-Rock Snatchem.”

This allegory perfectly describes Burlington politics in year 30 A.B. (After Bernie). Mounting tensions between the two dominant political parties, Democrats and Progressives, could lead to mutual assured destruction at the polls in 2012 and allow a — gasp! — Republican to become the next mayor.

Following the cliffhanger caucus on November 13, I congratulated (on Facebook) the real winner of the Democratic caucus: Republican mayoral candidate Kurt Wright. Needless to say, that assessment didn’t sit well with city Dems.

Oh, but the sense of unity and energy in the room, Dems told me. It was just like the five-way primary for governor in 2010. Democrats are fired up and ready to win!

Suuurrrre. This is Burlington, folks, not Vermont. Party politics plays out differently here. You’d have better luck brokering a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians than between Progs and Dems in Burlington.

Weinberger, a developer and airport commissioner, is a purebred Democrat. Ashe is a “fusion” candidate who won two terms in the state Senate with the endorsement of Democrats and Progressives. After three rounds of voting on November 13, the two were deadlocked at 540 votes apiece, setting up a runoff election and a one-month minicampaign.

Starting at 1 p.m. on December 11, the 1309 people who cast ballots on November 13 can reconvene at Memorial Auditorium. This time, voters can cast ballots immediately after registering, anytime between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Once the last ballot is cast, the tallying will begin and — voila! — Burlington Democrats will, presumably, have a candidate. The party is tentatively scheduling a unity rally for 7 p.m. that evening.

Across town at 5 p.m. on the same day, Burlington’s Progressives will gather for a potluck dinner at the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler, followed by a 6 p.m. caucus to pick mayoral and city council candidates.

The Democrats’ decision to hold their caucus at the same time certainly steals the Progs’ thunder and makes any “unity” event a one-party fête. Perhaps it’s one more “purity” test for Ashe, who is seen by some Democratic Party stalwarts as an interloper.

Two of Ashe’s Senate colleagues — Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Carris (D-Rutland) — recently held a press conference to attest to the young pol’s Democratic bonafides.

“The main reason I spoke up is because people kept saying Tim isn’t really a Democrat, he’s a Progressive. That’s not been my experience,” Campbell told Fair Game this week. Campbell considers Ashe “part of my inner sanctum of policy advisers. He’s one of my go-to guys.”

Campbell’s endorsement hasn’t swayed establishment Democrats in Burlington, who are largely circling the wagons around Weinberger.

The last time establishment Dems were asked to pick between “fusion” and “purity” was when former mayor Peter Clavelle — a Democrat-turned-Progressive-turned-Democrat again — won the nomination of both parties in 2002. And as it happened, the Progs and Dems also held their caucuses on the same night that year. Clavelle was uncontested among the Progressives and narrowly defeated Democrat Andy Montroll, thanks to the support of Democratic stalwarts such as former governor Madeleine Kunin and Sen. Hinda Miller. In this year’s contest, Kunin and Miller are backing Weinberger.

Another Democratic bigwig, former governor Howard Dean, was on WDEV-FM’s “Mark Johnson Show” on Monday and was asked by host Mark Johnson who he’s supporting. Dean expressed agreement with Weinberger’s call for a “clean break” from the past, noting Ashe has previously supported Mayor Bob Kiss.

“The city is in the worst trouble I’ve ever seen, and there’s a reason for that, and I think we don’t want the same people in charge,” said Dean.

So Dean’s endorsing Weinberger? Not exactly, he told Johnson.

“The reason I may not endorse in this race is because I think it’s an opportunity for Democrats and Progressives to heal 30 years of wounds,” said Dean, “and I don’t want to exacerbate those wounds.”

Weinberger told Fair Game he’s trying to walk a fine line between anger at the current administration and upholding 30 years of progressive values as a city.

“I want to see a change from the last six years, not the last 30,” said Weinberger. “We have made remarkable progress as a city over the past 30 years. I think we’ve gotten away from that in the past six years, and I want to get the city back on track.”

Ashe is working hard to answer his critics and prove himself someone who can build a governing coalition that upholds the city’s progressive traditions but cleans up some of the recent messes.

“I have never been into tribal politics, and for the last month people who have had a party purity test have raised concerns about my candidacy,” said Ashe. “I will likely not satisfy people who have a purity test, but I think most people in this city have an interest in putting issues before tribal politics.”

I guess that notion will be put to the test when the tribes reconvene next month — and the candidates find out where their bread is buttered.

Bob’s Job

As November comes to a close, Queen City politicos are awaiting word from Mayor Bob Kiss on whether he’ll seek a third term in office.

Count on it.

That was the takeaway after a brief one-on-one interview with Fair Game last week. Kiss had just announced the completion of a nearly three-year, $10 million paving effort.

“I feel like we’ve made a lot of accomplishments in the past six years in terms of keeping the budget down, investing in infrastructure and preserving affordable housing,” Kiss said. “At the same time there is a lot I’d like to see move further along: I’d like to see Moran finished, the Champlain Parkway started and a solution for Burlington Telecom.”

Doesn’t sound like a guy who’s backing down, even though his odds of winning reelection at this point hover between slim and none. He still hopes to announce his plans by month’s end, and his decision isn’t dependent on who Democrats or Progressives nominate. That’s good, because it’s looking more likely that he’ll have to run as an independent.

How so?

The Progressives have put the words “No Candidate” as a choice on their party ballots to preserve the option of endorsing no one in the next election, said Elijah Bergman, vice chairman of the city Progs.

Hint, hint.

Belaboring Labor

If state employees were looking for a party that supports them unconditionally, the Progressive Party may be it.

At their annual state convention on Saturday, more than 100 members of the party unanimously adopted a resolution supporting state employees’ effort to file a grievance against Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration. The resolution calls on state officials to “desist from the castigation of the efforts of working Vermonters to see an adjudication of contractual grievances.”

Shumlin angered state workers after calling a group of them “greedy in a time of crisis” for seeking emergency pay for work they did in the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.

Democrats in Washington and Lamoille counties passed similar resolutions in October and tried — unsuccessfully — to get the Democratic State Committee to vote on the measure at the party’s annual meeting earlier this month.

The author of the Democratic resolution — Lamoille County Democratic Committee chairman Peter Burgess — was on hand Saturday to watch the Progressives pass the resolution.

“I’m glad it got out there,” Burgess told Fair Game as he left the Statehouse. “I think it will be a lot harder for the Democrats to push it away now that another major party has passed it.”

Burgess will try again to persuade Democrats to pass the resolution at their January meeting.

Book Notes

Watching the crash-and-burn candidates in the Republican presidential primary evokes memories of the 2004 Democratic primary, when former governor Howard Dean soared to front-runner status before a spectacular crash to Earth.

Now you can relive that chapter in a new book by one of the gov’s longtime political and policy aides, Kate O’Connor. The 471-page book —Do the Impossible: My Crash Course on Presidential Politics Inside the Howard Dean Campaign — is O’Connor’s personal, almost diary-like, day-by-day account of Dean’s three-year, 500,000-mile journey from political long shot to punch line.

The book is published by Shires Press, operated by the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester.

“Like the Dean campaign, this book is a grassroots, Green Mountain product,” O’Connor said in a recent email to friends. To order the book or read an excerpt, go to kateocconnorvt.com.

I’ll offer a more detailed review in the coming weeks, but at first glance this is going to be a must-buy holiday gift for the Vermont political junkie on your shopping list.

(Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. See disclosure in Letters to the Editor.)