- Jordan Silverman
- Andy Montroll and Reid Dewolfe
During last week’s Seven Days-sponsored debate on the Burlington waterfront, one audience member stood up to say she’s heard a lot of talk about “style, leadership and charisma” in this mayoral match-up. She wanted to know from the four candidates in attendance how they “differ substantively” on the issues that matter most to voters.
Each candidate took a slightly different tack. Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss touched on his record as a consensus builder. Republican City Councilor and State Rep Kurt Wright pointed out the political diversity among his supporters. Independent Dan Smith highlighted his outsider status and his desire to end “business as usual” at City Hall.
But Democratic City Councilor Andy Montroll used a very specific example to illustrate his uniqueness. He explained that when he was involved in rewriting the city’s zoning ordinances several years ago, it was his goal to ensure that Burlington remains a walkable community. To that end, he pushed for maintaining a minimum 12 feet of space between new buildings and the curb to allow bicycles, strollers and pedestrians to pass comfortably on the sidewalk.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think all of my opponents said, ‘Let the developers decide what that width should be,’” Montroll said. “And to me, that’s the wrong approach.”
For someone who’s dedicated 15 consecutive years to the city council, it was an odd way to distinguish himself. After all, if Burlingtonians were polled on the issues that will decide the March 3 election, “sidewalk elbow room” probably wouldn’t make the Top-10 list.
Montroll’s critics use the sidewalk story to indicate what’s lacking in the city council veteran. While few of them deny that Montroll is bright, detail-oriented and hardworking, they contend he sometimes misses the forest for the trees.
“You can always count on Andy to be very prepared and really know his stuff,” said outgoing City Councilor Jane Knodell, a Progressive from Ward 2 who is stepping down from her post and has opted not to endorse a candidate in this race. “But there is that tendency for him to get a little too bogged down in the details.”
That said, it’s hard to ignore Montroll’s lineup of heavy-hitting endorsements. While some Democrats have defected to Smith, Kiss or Wright, Montroll’s camp includes former governors Phil Hoff, Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean, as well as all five current Democratic city councilors and five members of the Burlington school board. His supporters have an altogether different view of Montroll’s supposed Achilles’ heel. They believe his deep knowledge of city operations is what qualifies him to be Burlington’s next mayor.
“I would not say that Andy gets bogged down on the details,” argued fellow Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5). “He actually has a really good ability to see through the weeds and get to the crux of an issue . . . He doesn’t say a lot at the council table, but when he does, he adds a lot of clarity to the issue.” Shannon added that whenever she has a resolution to introduce to the council, “I always run it by Andy first.”
Ward 5 School Board Commissioner Fred Lane echoes the sentiment. “To my mind, when you look at the seriousness of the issues facing the city, you really want someone who’s going to spend the time to understand the issues,” Lane said. “I think it’s a real strength for Andy, rather than a deficit.”
It’s been more than 30 years since Burlington elected a Democrat as mayor. Montroll, who made two previous, unsuccessful attempts to win his party’s nomination, in 2001 and 2006, believes he can break that losing streak. But in a race where the candidates don’t disagree dramatically on the issues — they all talk about building more affordable housing, promoting economic development, keeping downtown vibrant, and growing Burlington’s waterfront sustainably — the deciding factor may be which one has the leadership skills necessary to get things done.
If that’s the case, Montroll will have to convince voters that his quiet, analytical style doesn’t suggest an absence of backbone. Montroll is not a natural-born politician who speaks in easily digestible soundbites. He lacks Wright’s “Aw, shucks!” folksiness and Smith’s skill at working a room.
Indeed, Montroll comes across as somewhat tentative in large groups, like a scholarly but introverted rabbi who’s unaccustomed to projecting his voice to the back of the congregation. Extroversion may not be a requirement for public service, as the election of Mayor Kiss proved three years ago; Burlington voters don’t necessarily prefer leaders who are well-coiffed, smooth talking or shamelessly self-promoting. Occasionally, experience and substance do trump style.
“Leadership is a funny thing,” opined former Gov. Hoff. “You can put two people side by side, and they’re both quiet. One can be very ineffective — and as much as I like Kiss, I think he’s been very ineffective — and the other person is quiet but effective. I think that describes Montroll.”
In one respect, it’s a bit surprising that Montroll, 51, isn’t more outspoken and gregarious, given his family upbringing. The son of a Rochester, N.Y., college physics professor, Montroll was the eighth of 10 children. They always had a quorum at dinner and had to be aggressive eaters if they didn’t want to leave the table hungry, he said with a laugh.
Montroll’s attention to detail is more understandable, given his education. He attended the University of Rochester, where he studied optics engineering, then went on to earn a master’s degree. After graduation, Montroll moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job at an engineering consulting firm. But after five years there, he began looking for a new direction.
In 1986, Montroll moved to South Royalton to attend Vermont Law School. In keeping with his interest in writing — he was editor of his college newspaper, the third largest daily in Rochester — he was chosen editor of the VLS law review. Montroll also served as the student representative on the VLS board of trustees, where, without realizing it at the time, he rubbed elbows with major players in Vermont politics, including Hoff.
Though Montroll initially assumed he’d return to the D.C. area after law school, he quickly grew to love Vermont and decided to settle here.
In 1989, he moved to Montpelier and landed a coveted and highly competitive position clerking for Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley. At the time, Dooley was still partial to recruiting grads from Boston College, his alma mater. But the associate justice recalls being “particularly impressed with Andy” and hired him right away.
“He was a very smart and diligent law clerk,” Dooley remembers, noting that, as a rule, supreme court justices do not make political endorsements. “He was a very good writer and very tenacious at getting things done.”
Dooley, who’d earlier served as Vermont’s secretary of administration, said he was somewhat taken aback by Montroll’s interest in politics.
“He was pretty shy and reserved in those days. I’d have to say it was a little bit of a surprise that he pursed a political career,” Dooley remembered. “His personality is not what one thinks of as really outgoing in political life.” Nevertheless, the associate justice has kept in touch with Montroll over the years and is impressed with his legal skills, which he witnessed on several cases that came before the high court.
In the early 1990s, Montroll moved to Burlington. He met his wife, Barbara Anne, at a contra dance in Bristol. The couple has two children, Sarah and Elliott, both of whom attend Edmunds Elementary School, across the street from Montroll’s law office on South Union. It’s fair to say Montroll has the smallest carbon footprint of all the mayoral candidates: His house, office, kids’ school and City Hall are all within a radius of several blocks.
In the early ’90s, Montroll worked at Riser Management Systems, an engineering consulting firm that helped large buildings throughout North America install and manage their telecom infrastructures. He was recruited for that job by Michael Dworkin, former chair of the Vermont Public Service Board.
Dworkin, now a VLS law professor and director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment, spent three years working with Montroll in the late 1990s. He still thinks very highly of the city councilor and described him as someone “with sound judgment, high intelligence, great ethics.” He also made note of Montroll’s skill “dealing with people and managing teams.”
Montroll first ran for elected office in 1994, when he competed against Joel Miller for an open council seat. The husband of Democrat Hinda Miller lost to Montroll, but his wife came back and defeated Montroll in 2006 for their party’s mayoral nomination. This time around, Hinda Miller are backing Smith.
In 2001, Montroll was elected council president, a post he held until 2005. Not surprisingly, analysis of his tenure as president varies depending on the source. On the political right, outgoing Councilor Craig Gutchell (R-Ward 7) remembered Montroll as someone who was always committed to Burlington and has his heart in the right place.
“But Andy tries to please everyone,” Gutchell added. “It’s hard to please everyone and play the middle of the road all the time. I could never tell which way he was going to vote.”
On the left, current and former Progressives who served with Montroll agree that he is intelligent and hardworking, but suggest he lacks the decisiveness to be an effective mayor.
“I don’t think he carries a lot of authority,” offered former councilor Phil Fiermonte, who served with Montroll from 2000 to 2006 and is backing Kiss in this race. “I thought he was a relatively weak city council president. I never saw Andy come up with any creative ideas in addressing city problems . . . And I just don’t think of him as somebody who can rally people.”
Fellow Progressive and State Sen. Tim Ashe agreed. He called Montroll’s stint as president “unimpressive” and was critical of his choice of priorities in that leadership role, citing such issues as “whether ferrets were exotic animals, whether pro wrestling should be allowed in Burlington, and whether the circus should come to town.”
In his own defense, Montroll ticked off several more substantive concerns that commanded his attention. They included such “quality-of-life issues” as co-sponsoring the resolution to enact Burlington’s noise ordinance, initiating the creation of the code enforcement office, revamping the housing codes and co-sponsoring the citywide workplace smoking ban.
As council president, Montroll also takes credit for refocusing the council’s interactions with the mayor’s office; for launching or reforming several council committees, including the environmental committee and the public safety committee; and for promoting the construction of the Southern Connector, which has reared its head as a major issue this year.
When Montroll was asked why, in 15 years on council, he hasn’t managed to push through the Southern Connector, he blamed the current and past mayors.
“The Southern Connector is something that, in my 15 years on city council, I’ve probably supported half a dozen times,” Montroll said. “But ultimately, it’s not the council that accomplishes these goals. It’s the mayor.”
Actually, Montroll did serve as mayor of Burlington once, albeit briefly. When the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred, then-Mayor Peter Clavelle was stuck en route back to the United States from Ireland. In his absence, Montroll was acting mayor. Like most municipalities around the country, Burlington was trying to figure out a suitable response to the attacks. Montroll recalled crafting a council resolution that was neither a drumbeat for war nor an antiwar statement.
This year, when the mantra at every political level is “change,” Montroll may find it difficult to convince Burlingtonians that he’s a fresh new voice in city politics. But, despite the defection of a handful of Democrats to his opponents, Montroll seems unafraid of being labeled as the candidate who’s known for crossing his ‘t’s and dotting his ‘i’s.
“Making change come to pass doesn’t just happen because someone sits back and is passive about it,” Montroll said. “I was the one who took a leadership role and moved things forward . . . I’ve been very good at seeing the details and the big picture.”
This is the third in our series of profiles of Burlington's mayoral candidates. Ken Picard will profile Independent Dan Smith next week.