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Democratic Mayoral Debates for Dummies

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If Burlington voters thought they had killed off instant runoff voting once and for all, think again.

It's alive and well in the Democratic primary for mayor — and boy does it show.

An upside to IRV is that it's supposed to allow candidates to focus less on a winner-take-all strategy and more on taking substantive policy stances that appeal to a wider range of people — people who may be endorsing one of their competitors.

The downside is that it makes for excruciatingly boooorrrriinnng debates, if you can even call them debates. They're more like live versions of a candidate's Facebook page — basic bio, interests, work history, a poke here and there.

As evidence, I offer readers the two packed Democratic forums in the past two weeks: None of the four Democratic candidates are looking to offend, annoy or otherwise draw political blood.

Why not? Because your enemy in the primary may become your friend on caucus day, November 13. Or, at least their supporters might.

To win the caucus, a candidate must actually get a majority (over 50 percent) of ballots cast. With four candidates that'll take some time, and at least two candidates are going to get knocked out before the final round.

To avoid upsetting each others' supporters, State Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), City Councilor Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2), State Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington) and housing developer and airport commissioner Miro Weinberger have each taken the "high road" in the forums.

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Any jabs, if you can call them that, have largely come from Weinberger (pictured right), directed at Ashe. They boil down to: Pssst, he's really a Progressive and therefore he must support incumbent Mayor Bob Kiss or at least be fickle when it comes to party loyalty. Ashe has said, repeatedly, that his lack of support and enthusiasm for Kiss is demonstrated by his run for mayor. Ashe, though, has also said his support for the Democratic winner — should it not be him — is offered with one caveat: the winner has to stick to a "high road" campaign.

The most grumbling I've heard from forum attendees is that the candidates haven't really tried to distinguish themselves from each other or offer any critique of each other's policies or stances.

To date, the candidates haven't offered up much in the way of substance to analyze. And what does come up is occasionally well-trodden ground. Take, for example, Weinberger's recent plan to "save Centennial Field."

As Seven Days readers know, this is a topic that Brian Pine at the city's Community and Economic Development Office has been working on for more than a year. In fact, most of Weinberger's ideas are ones that a community group identified as ways to improve the field and keep the Vermont Lake Monsters in Burlington. Next steps are raising money from private and public sources to make it happen.

Ditto Ashe's (pictured right) proposal for "saving Burlington Telecom." Ashe recently said the city should ask state regulators to relax mandates that require Burlington Telecom to complete its network build-out and that bar it from selling services outside the city limits. In fact, the Kiss administration floated that idea two years ago and, more recently, the city council agreed to ask state regulators to relax the requirement that it lay cable to every city address by a date certain.

In both cases, the "new ideas" are, in fact, ones that the current administration either came up with or promoted. But you'd never know that from the Kiss administration; they're letting the candidates pass off the mayor's ideas as their own without a peep.

Pulling punches in the primary won't do Democrats any favors if they want to toughen up their candidate for the general election. Just ask Gov. Peter Shumlin what a tough primary can do to prepare you for an even rougher general.

For example, when Lorber said last night that no one should "buy into the fear" that we need to put up city assets for a fire sale, he turned around and said the city should sell the Burlington International Airport as a way to raise cash. No candidate challenged him. When Republican Kurt Wright last week suggested selling off the Burlington Electric Department, most of the Dems poo-poohed it. Aside from Weinberger that is.

Who wins the November 13 caucus? In this four-way race, it's anyone's guess. The race remains pretty fluid.

Weinberger has plenty of ideas and energy, but he hasn't yet warmed up to public speaking and therefore the crowds haven't completely warmed up to him. It may be different in smaller forums. He also comes across as if he's trying a bit too hard, which is normal for most first-time candidates. As a stand-up comedian and lawmaker, Lorber (pictured right) easily gets the crowd's attention and can hold it, but he hasn't closed the deal yet by offering enough substance and gravitas — despite the fact he's raised more than $20,000 and has hired on campaign staff.

At this point Kranichfeld seems to have the most momentum and has been a crowd favorite at both forums, followed by Ashe who offers more substantive answers to the questions than most — when he's not having to deflect or defend his previous allegiance to the Communist Socialist Hippie Progressive Party.

When Kranichfeld (pictured right) says, as he often does in these forums, that this election is a time "to put behind us the partisan vitriol" and a time "for us to come together and for us to move forward" I get the sense that he means those coming together as Democrats, rather than as a city as a whole.

That's because Kranichfeld's support comes deep from within the old guard Democrats, those who have served on the front lines of the Progressive / Democrat battles of the past thirty years, including former Rep. Sandy Baird and Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, the mother of Kranichfeld's boss, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan.

Baird is one of the few Democrats who, like Kranichfeld, have turned back Progressive challengers in parts of the Old North End. In 2009, Baird supported Republican Kurt Wright in the general election over a Democrat because she thought he was the best chance at turning Kiss out of office.

This year, she's fully backing Kranichfeld.

For Ashe, he's in an uphill battle to stitch together Democrats who believe he'll be the best chance of keeping Wright from benefiting from a split on the left and winning the mayor's office. For Ashe, his goal — and his challenge — is to get enough Democrats, Progressives and independents to show up at the November 13 caucus.

Photos: Andy Bromage

Editor's Note: Sen. Tim Ashe, a candidate in the Burlington mayoral race, is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Routly is not assigning or editing stories, columns or blog posts about Burlington politics for the duration of the campaign. Andy Bromage now has that role.

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