“So, who’s going to be the next mayor of Burlington?” As a summer conversation topic, it’s right up there with Lake Champlain flooding and errant congressional Tweets — at least among news junkies.
Political blunders by Mayor Bob Kiss and his administration have created an electoral buzz in Vermont’s biggest city — a leadership vacuum into which any one of a number of wannabe mayors could be sucked.
Although no one has officially declared his or her candidacy, plenty of names are surfacing — including, remarkably, the mayor’s — eight months before the March 2012 city election. No doubt Kiss’ low ratings are contributing to the number of emerging contenders. One, Brian Pine, is not only currently working for the mayor in the Community and Economic Development Office — he’s a fellow Progressive.
You’ve got to wonder why anyone would want to be mayor of Burlington right now. Although the city is still winning national accolades, it’s seriously strapped for cash at Burlington Telecom, at the airport and in the pension fund. Recent floods stressed aging infrastructure. The city council is in oppositional mode; it seems every Kiss initiative — from a proposed tax increase to Burlington Electric Department’s smart grid — has become controversial.
Politically speaking, though, it’s a good time to step up. There’s no better opportunity than running against a vulnerable — or nonexistent — incumbent. Things can only improve, right? Democratic State Rep. Jason Lorber has already said he’s on board. Republican Rep. Kurt Wright, who lost narrowly to Kiss last time around, reports, “It’s more likely than not that I will run.”
Who else might? All the characters below have expressed interest in one form or another. In recognition of the growing magnitude of the job, Seven Days surveyed the crowded field of possible candidates who would rule the Queen City.
All caricatures by Marc Nadel.
Didya hear the one about the comedian who ran for mayor of Burlington? No joke: State Rep. Jason Lorber, the standup comic who brought Christmastime Moo Jew Comedy to Chinese restaurants in Vermont, is putting himself out there as a possible mayoral candidate. His unofficial entry was a recent op-ed in the Burlington Free Press calling for a “clean slate” at city hall. The four-term Democratic legislator, who has an MBA, certainly hasn’t done anything to extinguish the buzz. On the contrary, the 44-year-old consultant is showing up at ribbon cuttings and other events with conspicuous frequency.
Biggest Strength: He’s a standup comedian.
Biggest Liability: He’s a standup comedian.
No wonder Mark Larson’s name keeps appearing on the short list of mayoral could-be’s. As chair of the House Health Care Committee, the Democratic state rep was instrumental in passing Vermont’s recent, and potentially historic, health care reform law — a definite positive with left-leaning Burlington voters. His experience as vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee means he’s got budget-writing chops. A Boston native, 41-year-old Larson has another thing going for him: the nice-guy factor.
Biggest Strength: He can say he delivered health care reform to Vermont.
Biggest Liability: He’s a little vanilla. After six years of Silent Bob, Burlingtonians might want a mayor with a bit more pizzazz.
Will Democrat T.J. Donovan, the Chittenden County state’s attorney, give up the courtroom for Contois Auditorium? Mentioned by insiders as a possible candidate, Donovan, 37, is staying mum about his plans while his office investigates whether city officials broke the law in the Burlington Telecom fiasco. He declined comment for this article. Whether he brings criminal charges or not, the probe is bound to impact Donovan’s political fortunes in Burlington and beyond.
Biggest Strength: Part of a well-known Democratic family with close ties to political kingmaker Harlan Sylvester.
Biggest Liability: The BT investigation. No matter what he does, he’s bound to piss some people off.
Instant runoff voting helped Kiss win a second term in 2009. Ever since, he’s been playing defense — on Burlington Telecom, on the city’s partnership with Lockheed Martin and other matters. The soft-spoken Prog has steadfastly defended his administration’s record and resisted calls to toss his number two, Jonathan Leopold, for improperly using $17 million from the city’s cash pool to keep BT going. Leopold finally resigned — a prerequisite for Kiss to run again — but pundits are still declaring his reelection prospects DOA. Some think the 64-year-old mayor will run as an independent if the Progs decide he’s dragging the party down. Kiss didn’t return a call for comment — leaving his status for now as “wait and see.”
Biggest Strength: He still has eight months to repair his image.
Biggest Liability: His name is Bob Kiss.
She’s not an official candidate yet, but City Councilor Karen Paul has been quietly laying the groundwork to make a bid for mayor next year. If she does run — and wins — Paul would be the first political independent to occupy the mayor’s office since Bernie Sanders left the office in the late ’80s. Paul, who represents Ward 6 in the South End’s Hill Section, is a Burlington native and product of its public schools. She started an asset-management firm in her twenties and is now self-employed as a financial analyst. That stuff comes in handy when reading spreadsheets.
Biggest Strength: Number-crunching prowess.
Biggest Liability: No party machinery to support her campaign.
For months, Brian Pine has been quietly pitching himself as a possible candidate for mayor in 2012. A former city councilor and current housing czar for Burlington’s Community Economic and Development Office, he’s gone to bat for countless Progressive initiatives over the past several decades. Pine may be better known, though, for coaching Little League in the Old North End, where he resides with his family. Indeed, lots of neighborhood folks know the friendly, goateed Pine — a potential advantage in a crowded election where a few votes could make the difference.
Biggest Strength: A vocal and articulate champion for affordable housing and tenants’ rights.
Biggest Liability: He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Progressive — and it’s a bad year to be a Prog.
State Rep, Burlington City Councilor and two-time mayoral candidate Kurt Wright may want another shot at the title. He worked hard to eliminate the system that doomed him last time — instant runoff voting — and with Progressives on the ropes, he’ll never have a better opportunity. A native Vermonter who sells ads for the Lake Monsters, the 55-year-old Republican has defied the odds to become a player in liberal Burlington. In Montpelier, he represents the city’s New North End. Under the golden dome, Wright has demonstrated an ability to capitalize on current events to advance his agenda. After a dramatic hit-and-run in Burlington, he sponsored a bill that would increase penalties for eluding a cop. “It’s more likely than not that I will run,” Wright declares.
Biggest Strength: Well-known pol who can appeal to some liberals.
Biggest Liability: The “R” next to his name.
City Councilor Joan Shannon has been one of the most vocal critics of the Kiss administration — in particular its mishandling of Burlington Telecom. She called loudly for the resignation of the mayor’s right-hand man, Jonathan Leopold. But to some, her politics veer toward paternalism, as exemplified by her proposal to ban outdoor smoking downtown. Many have urged Shannon to run for mayor, but the 46-year-old Democrat now says it’s unlikely she will. “Everything I did became about becoming mayor,” she says of her recent council votes. “I have to keep my focus on doing the right thing for Burlington, and a lot of times political ambition gets in the way.” Still, she isn’t ruling out a run — and in politics, that means the door is still wide open.
Biggest Strength: It seems like she’s tried to hold city hall accountable.
Biggest Liability: It seems like she’s part of an ineffectual city council.
At 34, state Sen. Tim Ashe is the youngest of Burlington’s potential mayoral candidates — a relative whippersnapper next to baby-boomer politicians like Bob Kiss and Kurt Wright. But don’t underestimate him. The Harvard Kennedy School of Government alum is a rising star in the Statehouse who has proven himself to be smart on policy and adept at politics. With his “fusion” party approach — the Dem and Prog parties both endorsed his candidacy — he could be just the guy to unite warring lefties. Will he do it? “Only fools rush in,” he quips. (Disclosure: Ashe is the live-in partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.)
Biggest Strength: In politics, youth translates as energy and fresh ideas.
Biggest Liability: It also translates as inexperience.