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Mark Johnson Political Columnist

Team of Rivals? Burlington’s Democratic Mayor Picks a Prog to Run CEDO

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, raised eyebrows last month when he named Progressive Brian Pine as the next director of the city's Community and Economic Development Office, a powerful post. Not only are the mayor and the Progressives frequently at odds over city policies, but Pine was a candidate to unseat Weinberger in the most recent mayoral election.

City Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) actively encouraged the across-the-aisle plucking of Pine. "Qualifications are more important than politics," she told Fair Game. Paul used the phrases "the perfect choice" and "uniquely qualified" to describe Pine's selection. Two former CEDO directors, Peter Clavelle and Michael Monte, used identical words.

They're right. 

Experience is the key ingredient Pine brings to the table, including 18 years at CEDO, primarily leading the city's affordable housing efforts. Unlike previous CEDO heads who've had to familiarize themselves with the community and the office, Pine knows the key players, the needs and the neighborhoods already.

CEDO's award-winning efforts to build a "vibrant, healthy and equitable city" have been praised for going beyond a city's typical economic development programs. They include assistance to small businesses and promoting community engagement through programs such as Burlington's neighborhood planning assemblies. CEDO's revolving loan program has provided more than $10 million in loans to more than 140 small businesses since 1984. And its work is credited for landing Burlington on "most livable cities" lists in several magazines and other publications.

Federal cash that fueled CEDO's heady early days during former mayor Bernie Sanders' administration has waned; this year, $1.6 million of the $8.6 million CEDO budget came from the city's general fund. That's different from the early years, when CEDO was self-funded through grants and didn't depend on city taxpayer money.

Weinberger bristles when reminded that Pine is his fourth CEDO director — in addition to three acting or interim leaders — but Pine brings stability to an office Monte said is "thirsting" for consistent leadership. The most recent full-time CEDO director, Luke McGowan, left to join the Biden administration. Pine, on the other hand, isn't going anywhere. His family has lived in the same house for 25 years in the heart of the Old North End, where many of the department's projects are focused.

"I said to the staff, 'This is not a stepping-stone job for me,'" Pine said during an interview on his Crowley Street front porch one recent sunny morning, his 59th birthday. Pine has lived in Burlington since attending the University of Vermont in the early 1980s; he has been a consultant since leaving CEDO in 2015, including a recent stint as interim coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. Before joining CEDO in 1996, Pine worked with at-risk youth and at the Vermont Community Loan Fund.

Pine's only hesitation in accepting the job was the requirement that he give up his city council seat representing Ward 3, a commitment to voters he didn't want to break. I don't buy the theory that Weinberger was seeking a political edge in picking Pine, and neither does anyone I spoke with. The Progs, who have held the ward for decades, are confident they'll win the August special election to replace Pine. With him, the Progressives held six seats on the 12-member board. 

Weinberger's choice comes at a critical time for CEDO. Pine will need to complete the reorganization of the 32-person office that began several directors ago. And one of his primary responsibilities will be helping the city decide how to spend tens of millions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars, including continued funding for programs started during the pandemic. 

Weinberger and Pine agree that the reorganization is a priority. Another area of common ground is the need for CEDO to help move along the stalled CityPlace Burlington project that's left a literal hole downtown. The project, stuck in a quagmire of lawsuits, opposition and broken partnerships, will take all of the herding and cajoling skills Pine used coaching Little League. Not to mention the "compassion and respect" for others he said he learned growing up around the 100-year-old family business, Pine Funeral Home, in New Paltz, N.Y. How to deal with Don Sinex, the controversial lead developer whom some city leaders consider untrustworthy, was the only topic Pine declined to discuss. 

Another major dilemma for Pine and CEDO will be figuring out the fate of Memorial Auditorium; Pine said the city may need to ask voters to fund improvements before it can be reopened.

In recent years, critics on the left say CEDO has focused too much on big business development rather than social justice issues. Those competing goals could be where Weinberger and Pine clash. For example, Pine has worried that nonprofits that CEDO helped get started are faltering without the city's help. 

Clavelle, the first CEDO director and a former Progressive mayor, expressed hope that Progressives, including those who oppose the CityPlace project, would see Pine's appointment "as a bit of an olive branch."

"The Progressives need to decide, are they going to take on the role of Mitch McConnell and say our mission is to see good things don't get done for the next three years because the mayor might get credit for them?" Clavelle said. "Or are they going to be willing to work with the mayor and with Brian to advance this critically important agenda?" (When Barack Obama was president, then-Senate majority leader McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed to block all administration initiatives.)

"I think it's too soon to tell," City Council President Max Tracy said of Clavelle's hopes for peace. Tracy lost the mayoral race to Weinberger in March after defeating Pine in the Progressive primary.

Pine comes with the key advantage of being "deeply embedded" in the community, Tracy said. But, he added, the question is whether Weinberger will give Pine the authority and latitude to make decisions and set priorities.

"How willing is Miro to be challenged?" Tracy asked. "And how willing is he to take a different direction with the department?" For example, Tracy hopes CEDO will focus on programs that promote Black home ownership.

He added: "I think what's going to make CEDO vibrant is someone who's really willing to argue for their positions and who's not just going to just take the mayor's direction at face value."

Pine said he would fight strenuously for his positions but also pledged to back the mayor's final decisions. In separate interviews, the two spoke of one another with deep respect and highlighted the other's commitment to Burlington. Despite political differences, Pine said their "good working relationship" stretches back to Weinberger's first project in Burlington as a private developer. That was the controversial Packard Lofts apartment project on North Avenue, just around the corner from Pine's house, which Pine had also worked on while at CEDO.

Of his recent appointment, Pine said, "I knew there would be people who would view the decision through a partisan political lens and come to the conclusion I'm somehow compromising my core values, but the mayor is pretty clear that he knows where I stand on a lot of issues and felt we were still close enough that we could work through" any differences.

Weinberger's view: "I don't want people around me that are just going to say yes and agree ... We're not going to agree on everything. I expect there will be times he has a different take and pushes me to see something in a different way. That's what I want."

Pine had sought the CEDO director position twice before. He didn't get the job when Bob Kiss was mayor or when Weinberger succeeded Kiss in 2012. Weinberger said that back then, he wanted a director with urban planning skills and therefore picked Peter Owens, who helped advance the northern waterfront development, the City Hall Park renovation and the new transit center.

Times and needs are different now, Weinberger said. He's confident Pine will be successful "at this critical point in our recovery and CEDO's evolution."

Third time's the charm. 

Balint Speaks Out

Her anxiety and excessive worrying began as early as fourth grade. A bout of depression during her senior year in high school was completely debilitating. Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) says dealing with her mental health has been a "lifelong dance" she manages with medication, therapy, exercise, rest and a strong network of friends.

The pro tem spoke about her experiences publicly at a recent event to unveil an exhibit about mental illness at the Burlington International Airport. An A-list of guests included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). Balint wasn't sure until the last moment whether she'd open up about her own struggles. Talking about anxiety and depression, particularly for a public figure, she knew, can have consequences. The late U.S. senator Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) was dumped as Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern's running mate in 1972 after his bouts with depression were revealed. Balint, who may run for higher office someday, remembers hearing of Eagleton's case.

"We're in a different place right now. It's still scary to stand up in front of a phalanx of reporters and talk about it. But it's a different time, and I just want to keep moving us forward so we can get healthier," Balint told Fair Game.

"I didn't want to lose the opportunity," she said. "I feel like we've been talking about this issue for years, about trying to alleviate stigma and shame, and I feel like it's only going to [happen] when people who have a bigger platform and have essentially something to lose by being candid show up and be vulnerable."

Her most important message, she said, was to encourage relatives of people who had committed suicide not to feel guilt or responsibility for the death. 

The reaction to her comments at the airport event has been overwhelmingly positive, Balint said. Friends have shared that they, too, struggle with depression and anxiety and are comforted by learning that they are not alone. Others applauded her candor. One politician, Balint said, impressed by her willingness to step up, sent a note. "Which was lovely," Balint said, but added with a laugh that she wondered if the subtext was, "Why did you do that?"

The transition from spring to summer is her hardest time of the year, Balint said, but she has learned to navigate it and turn her depression to her advantage. 

"When I am in a dark place, often when I come out of it, I have a new perspective on what's the next thing that I want to dive into with my energy. And so it is much more comfortable now than it was when I was a kid, and I didn't understand it," Balint said.

Thank you, senator, for shining a light on that dark place.