Burlington Progressives aren’t running a candidate for mayor this year, instead betting everything on protecting and recapturing ground in a former stronghold: the city’s Old North End.
Queen City Progressives have occupied the mayor’s office for 29 of the past 31 years, but opted to sit this election out. Voter anger over the Burlington Telecom scandal has caused their man in city hall — Prog Mayor Bob Kiss — to avoid a reelection fight he almost certainly would have lost.
Defeats in two Old North End city council races — in Wards 2 and 3 — on March 6 would leave Progressives with Vince Brennan (P-3) as their sole representative on a 14-member council that was once half theirs.
For 30 consecutive years, Progressives or their allies have held the other Ward 3 council seat — the one that’s up for grabs on Tuesday. It’s being vacated by Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who is moving to Winooski. Rachel Siegel, 41, is running as the Progs’ designated heir, describing herself as a women’s rights and antiracism activist.
The open Ward 2 council seat has been occupied by Democrat Dave Berezniak for the past four years. He’s not seeking another term, however, and Progressive candidate Max Tracy, a 25-year-old University of Vermont admissions counselor and union organizer, is working to unite the neighborhood’s mix of student and immigrant renters and working-class homeowners behind his campaign. In 2010, Tracy came within 15 votes of winning the council race in a ward that spawned Prog patriarchs Terry Bouricius and Gene Bergman.
Elijah Bergman, Gene’s son and the vice chair of the Burlington Progressive Party, says his party’s decision not to field a mayoral candidate has enabled it to focus its voter turnout machine on the two Old North End contests. The Progs don’t have much money, but they’re running data-driven campaigns in both wards, a skill the younger Bergman says he picked up while working for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Paul Hodes in New Hampshire two years ago.
For their part, Burlington Dems appear just as determined to sweep to victory in the Old North End. Smelling an opportunity to polish off the Progs, they’ve nominated a pair of articulate candidates: Sean Hurley, a 28-year-old software entrepreneur, to run against Siegel in Ward 3; and Phil Hammerslough, a 68-year-old cycling advocate and employment training specialist for visually impaired Vermonters, who’s in a race against Tracy in Ward 2.
The Dems’ determination fails to obscure some political disarray. Hammerslough was a late entry into the Ward 2 race after the party’s original candidate had to withdraw because his job was federally funded; the Hatch Act prevents anyone in such circumstances from running for office.
In addition, state Sen. Tim Ashe, who ran unsuccessfully as a Progressive-Democrat fusion candidate for mayor, is backing the Progressive candidates in both wards. Tellingly too, Democratic mayoral candidate Miro Weinberger hasn’t endorsed either of his party’s candidates in the Old North End — perhaps because he doesn’t want to alienate two potential Prog city councilors. Weinberger denies that’s the reason for his neutrality; he notes he’s steering clear of all council races to concentrate solely on his own election prospects.
Two independents viewed as longshots are also running in Ward 3: Franco Salese IV, the alpine ski coach at Burlington High School, and Ron Ruloff, who says he lives in a truck.
On the issues, the candidates aren’t far apart. In both wards, the Dem and Prog hopefuls all support a school tax increase that amounts to 9.1 percent. The candidates are trying to reassure Old North End homeowners that they won’t feel the financial pinch because many of them are eligible for state-financed school tax breaks.
“All of us overwhelmingly want the same things for Ward 3,” Democrat Hurley says in an interview at Nunyuns Bakery & Café on North Champlain Street. “We want people to feel safe in the neighborhood and to have good schools and ample affordable housing.”
Siegel sounds the same chord of harmony. “Sean and I share a lot of values,” she says over coffee at Muddy Waters. “We see eye to eye on many issues.”
Siegel is campaigning partly on an idea that may seem obscure yet might be the most achievable of any tossed out in the two races. She wants to change the appointment process for city commissions — the citizen panels that oversee the departments of city government. Rather than being picked by city councilors in accordance with party affiliation, Siegel says that each of the city’s seven neighborhood planning assemblies should choose one member of each commission to ensure “direct accountability to neighbors.”
Another shared theme for Progs and Dems in this election? A stated desire to end the political bickering that has defined their relationship for years.
At a candidates’ forum earlier this month, Elijah Bergman read a statement on behalf of Tracy, who was not there, that said, “We cannot continue the highly partisan behavior that has marked the city council in recent years.”
Striking a similar tone, Hurley suggested he didn’t agree with all of the positions taken by outgoing Councilor Mulvaney-Stanak, but declined to offer specifics. And Salese, scion of the Junior’s Pizza business, presents himself as an independent everyone can support, saying his platform is “a blend of the three major parties.’”
So how do the respective candidates try to differentiate themselves? By subtly highlighting distinctions in style and substance.
Hurley, for example, says he’ll be a “tireless advocate” for Ward 3 constituents. He also depicts himself as the prospective councilor best able to represent the ward in “a period of change at city hall.” Translation: The unmarried Hurley could devote himself to council duties more unstintingly than Siegel, who has two children, ages 5 and 8, and two part-time jobs. She also serves as a volunteer for several social-change groups.
Asked to respond to Hurley’s implied criticisms, Siegel says her two gigs — as a dance teacher at the YMCA and as a patient-care instructor at UVM’s College of Medicine — consume a combined average of 10 hours per week. In a jab at Hurley, she adds, “I’d think someone running a new company might have to work 80 hours a week” — a reference to Hearforward, the social media software firm her opponent launched in 2010. Siegel, who has lived in Burlington since age 3, also cites her “longevity in the ward” as an important asset. Hurley moved to Burlington three years ago.
In the Ward 2 race, Tracy says he’ll be able to “stand up to the bullies” on the city council, while Hammerslough describes himself as a candidate who’s “not dogmatic” and thus “good at working with a variety of people.” Tracy translation: Some of the Dems, who may soon constitute a council majority, act arrogantly toward those with views different than their own. Decoding Hammerslough: The Progs can be insufferably politically correct; plus, a 68-year-old has more wisdom than a 25-year-old.
So far, the Ward 2 rivals have thrown more punches at each other than have their Ward 3 counterparts.
“We need to clean house. We need new leadership,” Hammerslough declares during a breakfast conversation at Panadero Bakery on North Winooski Avenue. (Hammerslough does disclose, however, that he ran with Progressive backing for a state legislature seat from Essex Junction in the mid-’90s.)
Hammerslough also raises the possibility that Tracy, like previous Ward 2 councilor Jane Knodell, may have to recuse himself from votes concerning UVM that can be particularly important in a neighborhood with a high concentration of students. (Knodell, now the university’s provost, was an economics professor at UVM while she served on the city council.)
Interviewed at New Moon Café on Cherry Street, Tracy calls the spectre of recusal “an unfair myth and a scare tactic put out by the Democrats.” He says he’s been assured by Gene Bergman, an assistant city attorney, that his work in the UVM admissions office won’t require him to refrain from voting on university-related issues. Tracy further comments, “I haven’t heard many specifics from Phil on affordable housing, immigrants, children’s programs, and low- and moderate-income issues.”
To what extent Progressives will be weighed down by the Bob Kiss albatross is still unknown. Siegel and Tracy both acknowledge hearing complaints from some voters about their membership in the mayor’s party.
“The Progressives’ legacy has been tarnished,” Tracy acknowledges. “But it’s a very strong legacy in many ways, and I’m not ashamed to be a Progressive.”
Siegel adds, “The Progressives have done some amazing things for Burlington.” As she knocks on Ward 3 doors, Siegel finds that “some people are outright hostile to me as a representative of Kiss. My hope, though, is that voters are sophisticated enough to know I’m not him.”
If she and Tracy do win, there’ll be a trio of Progs on the Burlington City Council — not enough to drive the agenda, but enough for what has been America’s most successful third party to at least remain a player in the city of its birth.