- File: James Buck
- City Council President Max Tracy on Election Night last year
Editor's note: Shortly after publication, Zoraya Hightower said she'll run for reelection, while Jane Stromberg said she won't.
Burlington's Progressive Party was riding high after last year's Town Meeting Day election.
The Progs up for reelection held on to their seats, maintaining six members on the 12-person council, and several Progressive ballot items won with widespread support.
City Council President Max Tracy (Ward 2), the party's candidate for mayor, nearly toppled the incumbent, Democrat Miro Weinberger. His loss by just 129 votes showed an erosion of support for the longtime mayor.
"When an incumbent has a really close race like this, it can be really difficult to come out of that," Tracy said at the time.
Yet, a year later, it's the Progressives who are in a bind. Tracy announced last week that he won't run this March for the Ward 2 council seat he's held since 2012. And two Progressives who first won in 2020, Jane Stromberg (Ward 8) and Zoraya Hightower (Ward 1), have yet to say whether they'll seek second terms. Hightower said in a statement that she'd decide this week, ahead of the party's caucus on January 18. She said her role as a "compromiser" is critical in policy debates but that the time commitment, politics and heated rhetoric are wearing her down.
"I've tried to be clear that I'd prefer to take a break and step away for the right candidate, but they've been slow to materialize," Hightower said.
Of the four Progs up for election on March 1, only Joe Magee (Ward 3) — who in August won a special contest — has committed to another term.
Democrats, meanwhile, have recruited candidates for five of the eight ward seats to be filled in the upcoming election and are working to find more — a prospect that some say is brighter now that the opposition's incumbent advantage may be waning.
"It will change the conversation," said Adam Roof, chair of the Burlington Democratic Committee. He made a particular point of the council president's decision. "[Tracy] always does really well in Ward 2, but now that the seat's open, people may be rethinking."
The Progressives' rise to power started in 2019, when political newcomers Perri Freeman (Central District) and Jack Hanson (East District) ousted two centrists from the council. The ascension continued with Hightower and Stromberg's victories in 2020, which put six Progs on the 12-member council — the most during Weinberger's tenure.
The Progs can't unilaterally pass policy, but their success in attracting at least one extra vote has given the party significant sway. With Tracy at the helm, councilors have ushered through measures to ban no-cause evictions, reinstate ranked-choice voting, and regulate home and commercial heating systems, though all still require approval of the Vermont legislature.
Perhaps the Progs' most impactful vote was in summer 2020, when they led the effort to cut police department staffing by 30 percent through attrition. Activists, hundreds of whom had demanded accountability for cops accused of violence, cheered the decision. The Progs claimed it as a victory against systemic racism.
The decision has deepened the divide over public safety reform. On the campaign trail last year, Weinberger pointed to the vote as proof that a Progressive mayor wouldn't have the city's best interests in mind. The police union and acting Police Chief Jon Murad criticized the council for making cuts without another plan in place.
Progressives twice fended off efforts to raise the number of officers. But some Prog councilors relented in October after an independent consultant recommended a more robust police force. In December, NBC News recapped the drama, painting Burlington as a city with a shambolic public safety system and casting Progressives as rash decision makers who now regret their vote. Hightower, in a text message to Seven Days, said she's received "hate messages from across the country" since the national broadcast aired.
At the same time, city council meetings have become increasingly uncivil. Activists on the left lobbed profanities at councilors during several meetings after Weinberger announced the closure of a large homeless encampment in the city's South End. In December, an angry mob descended on city hall to protest a proposed mask mandate for indoor public spaces. Speakers regularly blew past their allotted time during public forums and screamed at councilors during deliberations. Longtime Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said the declining decorum is one reason he's not running again.
Tracy told Seven Days last month that the raucous meetings were also weighing on him as he considered another run. But last week, Tracy attributed the decision to a lack of time. Meetings regularly span four or five hours, wrapping up at midnight or later. Councilors, who are paid a $5,000 annual stipend, also serve on subcommittees and help constituents, which can amount to 20 hours of council work per week.
For Tracy, it's become too difficult to balance his council role with his full-time job as a health care union organizer, particularly as contract negotiations loom with the University of Vermont Medical Center.
"It's not that I don't want to do politics anymore," Tracy said. "It's that I feel like I have a lot on my plate right now, and I need to focus on the work that's in front of me."
Hoping to take his place is Gene Bergman, a 50-year resident of Burlington who fell in with progressive politics in the 1970s when Bernie Sanders was a long-shot U.S. Senate candidate in the Liberty Union Party. Bergman held the council's Ward 2 seat from 1986 to 1992 as a Progressive and worked as an assistant city attorney in Burlington for 20 years, retiring in 2018.
Bergman, 68, could be labeled an "old guard" Prog, but he favors a number of policies spearheaded by the current crop of Progressives — and has worked behind the scenes as their paid researcher. In 2020, Bergman helped craft Councilor Freeman's proposal for a citizen-led board that could discipline and investigate cops for misconduct. Progs helped pass the measure, which Weinberger later vetoed.
In an interview with Seven Days last week, Bergman said he's running to "push some really important, transformational policies." He supports building housing that working and low-income people can afford, as well as banning no-cause evictions.
"Perhaps there's a way I can bridge divides," he said, adding that he knows the players in city politics. "I'm interested, and I care. I love the city, and I love its people."
Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, said Bergman is such a strong candidate that he'd be surprised if anyone else jumps in the race. The Dems didn't nominate anyone in Wards 1, 2 or 3 at their caucus last month, but they can still tap candidates before the January 24 filing deadline.
Roof, the Dem party chair, said he's optimistic that he'll recruit other candidates, particularly in Hightower's Ward 1. In 2020, Hightower upset Sharon Bushor, an independent who had held the seat for 32 years.
The Dems have already picked UVM student Hannah King to run in Ward 8, an area that encompasses student-heavy neighborhoods downtown. Stromberg won there in 2020, knocking off Roof.
In Ward 5, Ben Traverse, a local attorney and chair of the city's parks commission, will seek the seat that Mason has held. And in Ward 7, the party is backing political newcomer Aleczander Stith. It's unclear whether the incumbent there, independent Councilor Ali Dieng, will run again.
Incumbents Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) and Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) are running for reelection.
Despite being the local Progs' most prominent member, Tracy said the caucus has "a number of leaders" and that his exit won't weaken the party. His seat is unlikely to fall into Democratic hands, nor is neighboring Ward 3's, where a rematch of the summer's special election is under way: Incumbent Magee will face Christopher-Aaron Felker, the chair of the Burlington GOP.
Wronski expects that the Progs will have at least five contenders on the ballot, whether Hightower and Stromberg run or not. He said he's spoken with possible alternative candidates for those seats and that the incumbents' indecision doesn't mean that the party is losing power.
"I think we have a strong chance of holding all six and maybe even picking up a seat," Wronski said.