People, Not Party: Ali Dieng Makes a Nonpartisan Pitch in the Burlington Mayor's Race | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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People, Not Party: Ali Dieng Makes a Nonpartisan Pitch in the Burlington Mayor's Race

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Councilor Ali Dieng - FILE: BEAR CIERI
  • File: Bear Cieri
  • Councilor Ali Dieng

During his three campaigns for Burlington City Council, Ali Dieng has earned endorsements from both Democrats and Progressives.

Last year's race was no exception. But when it came time to formally put his name on the ballot, the Ward 7 councilor dropped the party labels and ran as an independent. He had decided that city politics had become, well, too political.

"Being an independent is what fit me best," the New North End rep reflected recently. "I realized that I simply just want to represent the people and not the party."

That sentiment is now a core tenet of Dieng's campaign to become Burlington's next mayor. He joins council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) in the bid to unseat incumbent Miro Weinberger, a three-term Democrat, come March 2. While five independents are in the running, of them, Dieng has the most political experience, public endorsements and financial support.

Dieng says electing Weinberger or Tracy would only create more partisan squabbling instead of healthy debate. And while those two have scrambled to land big-name endorsements, Dieng says he has assembled a coalition of voters to support him at the ballot box. 

"His ability to win is about connecting to the people," said Mark Larson, a former Democratic state representative and Dieng's campaign treasurer. "For many of us who want to see stuff get done, as opposed to the battle about which party is going to be able to come out on top ... it's frankly a breath of fresh air."

But while Dieng's supporters say that his partisan disloyalty makes him the best candidate to unite an increasingly fractured city, his critics say those unpredictable swings make him unsuited to be mayor.

"While I value independence, I don't value being erratic, and that's what I see," said fellow Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), a Weinberger supporter. "Being erratic is no way to run a city."

Dieng first ran for city council in 2017, in a special election to fill a vacant seat midyear. He had won the Democrats' endorsement, but the Progs weren't impressed when Dieng wouldn't commit to running with a P next to his name. At a caucus event, the acting county party chair scolded Dieng, saying he should have known "this sort of thing." Afterward, Dieng questioned the Progs' obsession with party labels.

"It's so distracting, such a mess," he said at the time. The Progs did end up endorsing him, though that former party official, Meg Polyte, is now backing Tracy's campaign for mayor.

When Dieng was elected that June, he became the council's only nonwhite member and its second-ever New American. Dieng was born in the West African nation of Mauritania, but he grew up in French-speaking Senegal. He moved to the U.S. in 2007 and settled in Burlington the following year.

Dieng quickly wove himself into the community fabric. He started an afterschool program, founded a drumming group and joined the boards of two local nonprofits. In 2015, Dieng started Parent University, a program that teaches New American parents English, cultural customs and other skills. Dieng manages the program, which is run through the Burlington School District.

Isnino Mohamed, a Kenyan refugee and Parent University graduate who lives in Ward 1, said Dieng reaches out to New Americans even if they're not his direct constituents. His mayoral campaign has been inclusive, too, Mohamed said: Dieng is planning two virtual campaign events for speakers of Nepali and of Maay Maay, an African language.

"Ali doesn't say, 'I can do this.' He says, 'We can do this,'" Mohamed said. "That's the kind of leader we need."

Steve Goodkind, a longtime city Progressive who ran against Weinberger in 2015, said Dieng takes a pragmatic approach to solving problems. He pointed to Dieng's stance on police reform as evidence. Last June, Dieng voted against a Prog-led resolution to cut the police roster by 30 percent, to a maximum of 74 officers. But he's also supported Prog proposals, such as one to create an oversight board to investigate police misconduct. Weinberger vetoed that plan last month.

"He's not afraid to vote against either side," Goodkind said, adding that Dieng "doesn't look to some ideological doctrine" to make decisions.

But Dieng's wild-card votes have sometimes confounded his critics. Both Shannon and former councilor Adam Roof said they were shocked when Dieng opposed a $30 million bond to upgrade the city's aging wastewater infrastructure, a measure that later passed with 92 percent voter approval in 2018. Dieng said the project was rushed, and he worried that taxpayers would be saddled with too much debt since, at the same meeting, the council approved a $70 million bond to upgrade Burlington High School.

More recently, Dieng joined his fellow councilors in voting to delay tax bill collection during the first months of the pandemic — but he then opposed taking out a $20 million temporary loan to replace those revenues. "It was a really indefensible vote," Weinberger said. Dieng said the city should have dipped into reserves instead of borrowing.

Dieng also opposed the city's face-mask mandate for shops and buildings last May, saying the order was unenforceable. Citing a request from a constituent, he instead proposed mandatory masking at the Burlington Farmers Market, but the measure failed in a tie vote.

"Nobody ever knows where Ali will come down on an issue because he's not ideologically driven, but you can't really identify what he is driven by," Shannon said. "[It] makes him unpredictable."

Roof, who now chairs the Burlington Democratic Committee, agreed. "When you're one of 12 on the council, you can be the contrarian and get away with it," but a mayor needs to unite the city, he said.

Dieng's supporters say he'd be a fearless mayor unconcerned with optics. As councilor, for instance, Dieng voted against the police department cuts last summer, despite testimony from hundreds of racial justice advocates who demanded action. He called the Progs' resolution a "knee-jerk" reaction and blamed Weinberger for not addressing police reform sooner.

"He is exactly like the Progressives — they just react," Dieng said. "They're just about the optics, but they have no vision and they do not tackle issues until there's a problem."

Dieng had proposed in June that the city first assess department staffing levels before voting to cut officers, but his colleagues disagreed. Since then, 11 deployable officers have left the department, a situation police brass and Weinberger have said could, if the trend continues, force the department to curtail overnight coverage. On Monday night, Dieng joined the six council Progs in voting down Weinberger's proposal to increase the staffing cap from 74 to 84 officers. Just as in June, Dieng said, there had been no process to determine the correct staffing numbers.

Almost immediately afterward, the mayor's campaign sent out an email that accused Dieng and Tracy of "putting politics above the safety and security of Burlingtonians." It continued: "Their votes should disqualify them from serving as Mayor."

Goodkind, however, has accused Weinberger of playing politics with the police. He said Dieng's plans — which include creating stronger oversight and forming a nine-person task force to guide the police chief in carrying out reforms — are measured and pragmatic.

Dieng's agenda includes a number of other big-picture items that appeal to Goodkind. If elected, Dieng would consider combining the Burlington Electric Department and the city's water department into one "utility department" with a joint billing system. He also wants to form a commission on aging and has proposed creating a "home support program" for elderly residents.

A Mayor Dieng would also create a position for a new, full-time "public health emergency manager" who would work closely with the city's Board of Health, which Dieng says needs to play a larger role during the pandemic. The staffer would also focus on opioid-use prevention and air quality, among other "healthy lifestyle" initiatives.

Carina Driscoll, a 2018 mayoral candidate now supporting Dieng, pointed to his "community wealth initiative" as an example of his people-focused campaign. Under Dieng's plan, residents would pitch ideas for starting cooperatives and employee-owned businesses, and city staff would provide legal research and help secure grants. Supporters say the idea, which has been used in several U.S. cities, is an anti-poverty plan packaged as economic development.

"Our city is currently being run as a business," Driscoll said. "In my view, and in Ali's view, you have a responsibility to create the city that creates opportunity and viability for success."

Shannon likes some of Dieng's proposals but says they'll cost money at a time when the fallout from the pandemic demands careful spending. Weinberger has overseen a budget and kept essential city services going through the pandemic and still managed to allocate $1 million for racial justice efforts, Shannon said.

No polling data on the campaign has been publicly released, so it's difficult to say who's leading the contest. Dieng is well behind in the money race, pulling in just $7,721 as of late last month, compared to $42,441 for Tracy and nearly $86,000 for Weinberger. Dieng has spent just under $2,000 on campaign software, a banner and lawn signs.

Last week, Tracy's team sent out an email touting the dozens of state and city leaders who are backing his campaign; a picture of Ben & Jerry's cofounder Jerry Greenfield wearing a "Max for Mayor" T-shirt made the rounds on social media. Weinberger's donors include a slew of big-name developers, as well as some political elite: former governor Howard Dean, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Dieng's financial backers are his friends and neighbors. 

That's just what Ward 4 resident Keegan Carter wants in a candidate.

"It makes me feel a lot more confident that if we get Ali as mayor, we're not gonna have somebody who's bought and paid for," Carter said.

But while Dieng has painted his lack of endorsements as a choice, Roof says it's more likely that the candidate simply has less support.

Driscoll said she thinks Dieng will have citywide appeal. His more measured approach could attract would-be Weinberger supporters who want change at the top, and his support for some progressive plans could snag votes from Tracy, who some see as too far left, she said.

Dieng says he's unconcerned with how much money he raises or how to draw votes from his opponents. While the Progs and Dems fight it out, Dieng says he is drumming up support by calling voters directly, hosting trivia nights, participating in debates and "just being honest."

"I'm asking for people to show up and vote for me because of my passion, my pragmatism, because of who I am and what I stand for," Dieng said.

"We are exactly where we need to be," he continued. "Our main focus is to disturb this race and win it when no one will see us coming."

The original print version of this article was headlined "People, Not Party | Independent candidate Ali Dieng makes a nonpartisan pitch in the Burlington mayor's race"