MAYORAL CANDIDATE PROFILE, Bob Kiss (P)
The McClure MultiGenerational Center lives up to its name at the February 9 meeting of the Ward 2 and 3 Neighborhood Planning Assemblies. The entryway is cluttered with jabbering toddlers playing on the floor with blocks and toy cars, as older kids chase each other up and down the halls. Meanwhile, about 100 residents of the Old North End, from college students to senior citizens, are gathered in a large community room for a more sedate activity -- evaluating four of the five candidates for Burlington mayor.
As Progressive Rep. Bob Kiss introduces himself to the audience and begins outlining his mayoral credentials in a mild-mannered tone, three silver-haired seniors in the back of the room all lean forward in unison and strain to hear him over the children's shrieks and cackles outside. Not every politician has a stentorian voice and a commanding stage presence, but it's rare to find one as soft-spoken as Kiss. His gentle and disarming nature makes him hard to dislike.
But being likeable doesn't necessarily translate into political support. The biggest hurdle of Kiss's campaign is getting voters to know him. Kiss, 58, has never been on Burlington City Council. And although he spent 12 years running one of the largest low-income advocacy agencies in Vermont, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity isn't nearly as well-known to most Burlingtonians than the programs it runs -- Head Start, the Fair Housing Project, the Mobile Home Project, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf.
Kiss has also maintained a relatively low profile in the Vermont House of Representatives. Now in his third term, he may be best-known for a bill he introduced three times that would establish outdoor lighting standards to promote energy efficiency and reduce light pollution. That bill, H.28, finally passed the House this year. But except for amateur astronomers and those who read the International Dark-Sky Association Newsletter, most Vermonters have probably never heard of it.
As Kiss enters the final week before the March 7 election, his biggest task will be to convince Burlington voters that he's the candidate most qualified to carry on the legacies of Peter Clavelle and Bernie Sanders. To do so Kiss will have to become much more aggressive than he's been thus far. "Some people wonder whether I'm a serious candidate for mayor," Kiss says. "I definitely am."
Seven Days met up with Kiss one evening last week at his Ward 1 home on Germain Street -- 2005 assessed value: $290,600 -- where he lives with his wife, Jackie Majoros, a lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid and a long-term-care ombudsman for nursing home residents. Kiss has no children of his own, but has been a parent to Majoros' son, Matt Wohl, since he was 2 and a half. Wohl is now the executive director of the Waterfront Theater in Burlington and lives next door with his partner, Angela Smith, and their son.
Kiss and Majoros have lived in their 1920s-era duplex since 1977. The modest, rustic home is warm and inviting, with stained-glass in the front window, hardwood floors, and cacti on the windowsills. There's an upright piano in one corner and a wood-burning stove in the middle of the living room with a Dr. Seuss-like stovepipe winding into the ceiling. On a coffee table is a recent issue of The Economist; a black and white cat named "Popoki" sits on a chair and methodically cleans herself while another, "Horicon," occasionally pokes his head into the room.
Kiss has just returned from the Statehouse, where he cast a late-afternoon vote in favor of the Sexual Violence Prevention Act, a bill that enforces stiffer sentences and makes treatment mandatory for sex crimes. He worked on it for more than a year in the House Judiciary Committee, on which he's served for the past two terms. Kiss takes a seat on a futon couch and fiddles with his gold-rimmed glasses. His eyes are tired-looking after a long day in Montpelier.
Kiss's quiet and unassuming demeanor during our interview is consistent with the one he presented at the NPA meeting a few weeks earlier. I too have trouble hearing his voice over the cooing of doves he keeps as pets in the basement. But he speaks with a genuine concern and working knowledge of the social-justice issues that would be priorities for his administration -- preserving neighborhood schools, promoting livable wages, increasing citizen involvement in decision-making, and making government more efficient.
Kiss reiterates many of the themes that are defining his candidacy. "Burlington is open for business but it's not for sale," he says, meaning that he'd go slow on waterfront development and would make sure the public is actively involved in that process. Kiss, who supported putting the Moran Plant on the ballot, isn't eager to see development on the North 40 property, the undeveloped waterfront acreage between downtown and North Beach. "Inclusiveness" and "citizen participation" are buzzwords of his campaign.
Kiss also says it's important that Burlington not "lose the momentum that we've built up already." Asked to clarify, he explains that he doesn't want Burlington to lose sight of progressive values that date back to the Sanders administration. Of the five mayoral candidates at the debates, Kiss was the only one to mention issues of gender identity and expression.
Kiss says his progressive politics are modeled more after Sanders' than Clavelle's. Though he lacks the congressman's confrontational style and oratory skills, Kiss shares Sanders'' populist world view, and has a lifelong commitment to working people.
Kiss's union roots run deep. He was born on April 1, 1947 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a town with strong ties to the American Labor Movement. For 30 years, Kiss's father was a United Auto Worker at the American Motors Corporation plant. When Kiss was a child, AMC in Kenosha was the largest automotive plant in the world, with as many as 15,000 people working each shift. Kenosha was home to other union plants as well, such as Anaconda American Brass and Snap-On Tools, which employed members of Kiss' extended family.
Kiss got his Bachelor's degree in political science at Knox College in Illinois, then moved to New England. While living in Boston in 1969, he wrote to several alternative schools in Vermont looking for work, including one in Starksboro and another in Burlington. When a friend who was driving to St. Albans offered him a ride to Vermont, Kiss accepted the offer and spent the summer in Burlington. He's lived in the Queen City since 1972.
Throughout the 1970s, Kiss worked almost exclusively in human services. In 1972, he volunteered at the nonprofit Bread and Law Task Force helping low-income Vermonters apply for food stamps. The next year, he took a job with the Vermont Department of Health as its first outreach worker for the Woman, Infants and Children program. Through the mid to late 1970s, he worked for Child Care Services, Social and Rehabilitative Services, the Department of Social Welfare and the Chittenden Valley Agency on Aging.
In 1981, Kiss was hired to be the director of Chittenden Community Action, a part of CVOEO. It was a difficult time to be working for a low-income advocacy group, Kiss recalls. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president and federal funding for elderly, poor and disabled people was rapidly drying up. Shortly after Kiss came on board, the feds tried unsuccessfully to dismantle the low-income weatherization program.
Locally, his organization had the full support of Sanders, who was first elected mayor in 1981. His administration was seen as a buffer against the rightward shift at the federal level. "That was a government that would really listen to people, that gave people a voice, that was inclusive and promised to shape a better world," Kiss says of the Sanders administration.
Six years after he took over CCA, Kiss was promoted to executive director of CVOEO, a position he held for the next 12 years. He was intimately involved in the agency's expansion, helping it grow into an $8 million nonprofit agency with more than 100 funding streams. CVOEO now has about 150 employees and serves the needs of more than 19,000 people in Chittenden, Addison, Franklin and Grand Isle counties. Under Kiss's leadership, CVOEO established many of the programs that are still in operation, including the Warmth Program, the Micro Business Development Program, the Mobile Home Project and Vermont Tenants, Inc. Kiss left CVOEO in 1999. He now works as a consultant for nonprofit groups.
"Bob basically built this organization into what it is today," says Tim Searles, CVOEO's current executive director, who took over shortly after Kiss. Searles worked uncer Kiss for many years as director of the Warmth Program and later as CVOEO's community relations director. He says Kiss created a work environment that was very conducive to new ideas and initiatives.
"If you're a creative employee and a self-starter, you couldn't ask for a better boss than Bob Kiss," Searles adds. "He was someone who let people do what they needed to do to get the job done."
Searles emphasizes that neither he nor his organization is endorsing a mayoral candidate. But he describes Kiss as "an excellent fiscal manager" who left the agency in far better financial shape than many similar organizations in Vermont.
But other former employees aren't so sure about Kiss' leadership abilities. Though none was willing to speak about their former boss on the record, a commonly heard refrain was that if Kiss has a fault, it's that he's too nice a guy.
That's a legitimate concern for someone seeking Burlington's top job, says Mayor Clavelle. He points to a number of times when he needed to be a "hard-ass" to protect citizen interests: successfully challenging Central Vermont Railroad's plan to develop office buildings and high-end condos on the waterfront in the early 1990s; standing up to private landowners who tried to block the bike path from crossing their property.
Clavelle adds that even as a labor-friendly mayor, he's sometimes had to "stand tough" during bargaining sessions with the city's four labor unions. "You hear all this stuff about collaboration and cooperation," Clavelle says, referring to the current mayoral candidates. "But there are times when you need to play hardball and stand up for the interests of the city."
Kiss doesn't make apologies for being a nice guy who focuses on the problems at hand instead of the personalities. "I work the issues pretty hard," he says. "Most of the time, you have to be able to go back to these people and fight again."
Few doubt that Kiss would be a labor-friendly mayor. Interestingly, though, it was during his tenure as executive director that CVOEO employees decided to unionize -- one former employee described it as a "betrayal" of Kiss. At the time, Jerry Colby was president of the Family Center in St. Albans, where he got to see firsthand how Kiss negotiated with the United Electrical union. Though Kiss didn't try to block the union drive, "He was no pushover, either," Colby recalls. "He knew how to defend his interests."
Colby is now president of the Champlain Valley Labor Council (CVLC), a coalition of 17 labor unions in the Burlington area representing more than 3500 workers. They include the nurses at Fletcher Allen Health Care, the faculty at the University of Vermont, and unionized employees at IBM.
At a press event last week in Burlington City Hall Auditorium, Colby announced CVLC's endorsement of Kiss for mayor. Colby pointed out that it wasn't just Kiss's voting record on labor but his lifelong passion for working people that earned him the union stamp of approval.
Colby describes Kiss as "a man with brains as well as principles," and someone who "doesn't take lightly other people's suffering." Although Colby acknowledges that Miller also has a strong voting record on labor issues, he says, "By all accounts, she had to be brought to our positions kicking and screaming . . . Bob Kiss clearly stood out well above every other candidate."
Clavelle apparently sees things differently. The Progressive-turned-Democrat endorsed Senator Hinda Miller for mayor before Kiss entered the race. But even if Kiss had announced earlier, Clavelle says he would still be backing Miller.
"It's not about Bob. I have a high opinion of Bob and consider him a friend," Clavelle adds. "I just think Hinda would bring to the mayor's office the right mix of qualities that would make her a very decent mayor."
Interestingly, the Burlington Police Officers Association, the union that represents 72 BPD officers and has endorsed the winning candidate in each mayoral election of the last 25 years, is sitting this one out.
Kiss's six years in the Legislature provide more clues about the sort of mayor he might make. His voting record places him on solidly liberal ground. The Vermont Alliance of Conservation Voters ranked him among the most environmentally friendly members of the House, giving him a 91-percent approval rating in 2001-'02 session, and a 92 in the following biennium. The group gave his Democratic opponent Senator Hinda Miller a 75-percent approval rating for the 2003-04 session.
The two candidates come out quite differently in the eyes of the business community. On its 2003-04 "Legislative Report Card" the Vermont Chamber of Commerce gave Kiss a 10-percent approval rating -- the lowest of any House member. In contrast, Senator Miller earned a 56, the second highest of any Senate Democrat. At the local level, both Kiss and Miller support the proposed 10-cent increase to the property tax for school funding and the local-option sales tax -- which the Burlington Business Association opposes.
Kiss hasn't championed many bills that grab headlines, but the legislation he's sponsored is important to the population he's worked with for more than 25 years --working families and low-income Vermonters. One bill, H.110, would give the state primary responsibility and additional resources to conduct housing inspections and code enforcement. As Kiss points out, there are at least 50,000 rental units around the state that have never been inspected, which may explain why Vermont has a high death rate from house fires.
Kiss has also sponsored legislation that would expand Medicaid coverage to include dentures and eyeglasses. "Right now, someone who's eligible for Medicaid can get their teeth pulled but can't get dentures to replace them," Kiss notes. "If they need glasses, they're not covered by Medicaid. These are people that we know are low- or very-low income people."
That bill hasn't made much progress, Kiss is undeterred. In politics, sometimes patience works best, he suggests. "You don't get into things overnight, and you don't get out of them overnight."
Fellow lawmakers characterize Kiss as a level-headed consensus-builder who works well with all House members, regardless of their political ideologies. Representative Mike Kainen (R-Hartford), who describes himself as "about as liberal as Republicans come," sits on the Judiciary Committee with Kiss. Although he frequently disagrees with Kiss on issues related to civil liberties and rights of the accused, he says Kiss often raises concerns the rest of the committee hasn't considered before.
In recent debates over the Sexual Violence Prevention Act, for example, Kiss was the first representative to voice his opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing, arguing that it could have had negative consequences for prosecutors. That provision was eventually dropped from the bill.
"Bob has a charitable view of those who are charged with crimes and convicted of crimes. He probably has the view that everybody can change," Kainen says. "Bob is just one of those really, really nice guys, and the rest of us sort of say he needs to be a little more realistic, because not everybody is as nice as Bob."
Although Kainen won't endorse Kiss, he says, "I think he would be a good mayor because he could work with everybody. I don't think he'd be overly doctrinaire."
Rep. Tom DePoy, a self-described conservative Republican from Rutland who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, describes Kiss as someone who doesn't speak unless he's solid on the facts. Although DePoy and Kiss are from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the two are collaborating on a bill to clarify the role of legal guardians in order to prevent exploitation and abuse of the elderly.
DePoy won't go so far as to endorse Kiss, either, but he calls Kiss's easygoing nature is an asset, rather than a liability. "I don't think Bob lacks in leadership ability, that's for sure," DePoy says. "He works hard at what he does. Even with his mild manner, I don't think you need to be a loud person to be a good mayor."
Kiss is hoping voters agree -- and that nice guys don't have to finish last.