Progressives Feel Empowered After Nearly Toppling Burlington’s Incumbent Mayor | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Progressives Feel Empowered After Nearly Toppling Burlington’s Incumbent Mayor

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Mayor Miro Weinberger - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger

When Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is sworn in for his fourth term on April 5, he'll be surrounded by many familiar faces.

The opponent he defeated by 129 votes in last week's election, Progressive Max Tracy (Ward 2), will still be on the city council and will likely remain the body's president. Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), who finished third in the mayor's race, has another year left on his term. And of the four seats up for election on Town Meeting Day, the council added only one new member, Mark Barlow, a New North End independent who supports Weinberger and will replace Councilor Franklin Paulino, a Democrat.

But while the policy makers will remain largely the same, the election results could influence how those policies are shaped. Progressives say the margin of the mayor's race — less than 1 percentage point — and overwhelming support for Prog-endorsed ballot items prove that the Democratic mayor can claim no mandate and must work with the party's six-member caucus on the 12-member council.

"I see him in quite a weak position right now," said Megan Polyte, who serves on the Burlington Progressives' steering committee. "If he tries to go forward with the [stance of] 'I'm the mayor, and I know what's right,' it's not gonna really work."

On election night, Weinberger told reporters that he was "humbled by the closeness of the margin." Yet neither he nor his supporters sees this moment as the wake-up call that his opponents do. In an hourlong interview with Seven Days last week, the mayor promised to communicate more with Progressives but stopped short of pledging to soften his stance on the issues that vex them most, such as housing policy and police reform. For Weinberger, his win — no matter how narrow — is validation that he's on the right track.

"Yes, it was a close election, but I trust that [voters] got it right," he said. "They've given this administration an opportunity to lead for another three years, and I'm going to do that the best way I know how."

The 129-vote margin was the closest mayoral race in Burlington since 1981, when a young Bernie Sanders knocked off incumbent Democrat Gordon Paquette by 10 votes. Weinberger's 43 percent share of the vote was a significant deviation from the 48 percent he earned in a three-way race in 2018.

Heading into this year's contest, Weinberger was coming off his toughest term yet, having contended with a social media scandal, protests demanding justice for people harmed by police, and a lawsuit over the stalled CityPlace Burlington project. But he also offered stability during an unprecedented pandemic and a record of financial know-how, possible factors in convincing a plurality of voters to stay the course.

Tracy had promised fundamental change after nine years of "Status Quo Miro," but his support for cutting the police force last summer may have turned off more moderate voters. On the campaign trail, Weinberger blamed the Progs for the city's current police staffing issues, and Progs accused the mayor of fearmongering.

Weinberger raised more campaign cash than he had in previous races and ultimately won, but his share of the total vote dipped in all eight city wards. Tracy, as council president, will continue to set the body's legislative agenda, which has leaned far left since he took the gavel a year ago.

The close call has drawn comparisons to the 2014 Vermont governor's race, when Democrat Peter Shumlin won his third term by just 2,434 votes over a relatively unknown Republican opponent, Scott Milne. The incumbent appeared chastened when he addressed reporters in Burlington's City Hall Park the day after the election.

"Vermonters sent a message last night, and I heard it. I heard it loud and clear," Shumlin said then. "We have faced our share of setbacks in the past couple of years, and I know that people are disappointed in how I've handled some issues. I recognize that I have work to do to regain the confidence of many Vermonters."

Tracy also saw parallels to that election. "When an incumbent has a really close race like this, it can be really difficult to come out of that," he said.

Max Tracy (right) after learning he lost the mayoral election by 129 votes - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Max Tracy (right) after learning he lost the mayoral election by 129 votes

If Weinberger is shaken by the election results, he's certainly not showing it. The mayor said he's feeling "upbeat" about his fourth term and is confident he'll find consensus with the Progs on issues such as the climate crisis and pandemic recovery — plans he said he'll detail in his State of the City address early next month.

The issues that have historically divided Weinberger from the Progressives, such as policing, are another question. Before the election, both sides had essentially drawn lines in the sand: Democrats backed Weinberger's plan last month to raise the minimum officer cap by 10, but Progs dug in their heels and, with Dieng's support, voted it down. Late last year, Progressives proposed creating a citizen-led "control board" to investigate cops for misconduct; Weinberger vetoed it on New Year's Eve.

To Progressives, the close election is evidence that their policing agenda isn't as radical as Democrats have claimed. Tracy, for one, said the mayor shouldn't reject Progs' proposals out of hand.

"I would hope that he recognizes that these results really signal some real doubts in folks' minds around some of the decisions that have been made," he said, adding that Weinberger "will need to show progress on a number of fronts."

Weinberger said he's optimistic that he and the Progs will find "some agreement" on policing issues. He said he's already reached out to Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), who had proposed the oversight board, about "how to move forward with a second try at that." He noted that Progs rejected his proposal to bolster the police roster, but they agreed with his plan to hire unarmed social workers and other civilian specialists to assist with nonemergency calls.

"It's really important that we find consensus where we can," Weinberger said of police issues generally. "I'm committed to doing the hard work to get there."

Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) said she hopes Weinberger follows through on that promise. The mayor's inadequate approach to police reform, she said, has focused on "more training" and "policy tweaks" instead of wholesale reform.

Hightower also lobbied for a ballot question to use ranked-choice voting for city council elections and another to ban no-cause evictions. Weinberger opposed the first and took no public position on the second. Both measures passed with more than 60 percent support, which gave Progressives and "center-leaning councilors" a mandate to push an aggressive agenda, according to Hightower.

If Weinberger continues to veto council proposals, as he has twice in recent months, "I don't think it'll go down well with the public," she said. "I would encourage him to [instead] find a seat at the table."

Weinberger, however, has already indicated he won't support at least two Prog-endorsed policies. On election night, just hours after ranked-choice voting passed with overwhelming support, Weinberger told reporters that he would oppose extending the voting system to mayoral elections. And he told Seven Days last week that while he supports the concept of a $15 minimum wage on a national scale, he's not sure he'd back a proposal specific to Burlington. Councilor Freeman had floated a minimum wage proposal last year.

Weinberger said it will be challenging to find common ground on some proposals but that having those conversations "has the potential to bring out the best in us."

"There's a real difference of opinion about how we go forward," Weinberger said. "We're going to be stuck if we don't find a way to work through that."

Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), a staunch Weinberger supporter, said the Progs can push for bold policies but that the close election doesn't give them a mandate to advance their agenda. Weinberger actually tallied more votes this March than in any prior election, Shannon said. And while 57 percent of voters may have preferred a candidate other than Weinberger, practically the same number of voters chose someone other than Tracy, she noted. Dieng took 13 percent of the vote while four other lesser-known independents earned a combined 2 percent.

Tracy had "a very strong showing," Shannon said, "but he does not have a majority with him any more than Miro does."

Dieng, who is often a swing vote on the council, thinks it's on Weinberger to work with Progressives. The public has expressed support for Progressive ideas, and if Weinberger comes on board now, his party will fare better in future elections, Dieng said.

"He just needs to play it smart," Dieng said of the mayor. "I think that's his only way forward."

Councilor-elect Barlow, who ran on a centrist platform against Democrat/Progressive Kienan Christianson, said the election results indicate that the city is more divided than ever. Barlow, who doesn't intend to caucus with Dems or Progs, said the two sides need to work together for the good of the city, not just their party.

"Miro has tried to reach out and tried to accommodate all views and sides," he said. "Being newly elected, I'll try to do the same. I want to work on building bridges."

Polyte, of the Progressive steering committee, said she'd like to see Weinberger involve the public more in his decision making by going on listening tours, visiting Neighborhood Planning Assembly meetings or assembling task forces to vet complicated issues. 

Policy aside, both Tracy and Dieng's campaigns won votes because they elevated voices from marginalized communities, Polyte argued. Weinberger can learn from that, she said.

"When you create opportunities to actually listen to all that diversity, you will find common themes, and then you can move forward on those," Polyte said. "I hope as our mayor that [Weinberger will] be really modeling that, because it will make our city stronger."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Weaker Weinberger? | Progressives feel empowered after nearly toppling Burlington's incumbent mayor"