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The Elephant in the Room: Are Burlington Republicans a Dying Breed?


Published February 7, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Thom Glick

GOP party chair Paco DeFrancis blamed bad winter weather the first time a gathering of Burlington Republicans failed to attract a sufficient number of committee members to hold a vote.

But on the day of the second attempt, January 25, there was no snowstorm, and local Republicans still couldn't assemble the quorum of 10 committee members its bylaws require.

Middle-aged attendees made small talk around a table in the Robert Miller Community and Recreation Center in the New North End, and one cracked a joke about the predicament.

"Overflow seating?" quipped Mike Sarvak when Kurt Wright, a longtime state legislator and city councilor, brought in an extra chair.

The GOP has candidates running for just two of eight Burlington City Council seats up for election. One of them is incumbent Wright, who is unopposed in Ward 4. The second, political newcomer Joel FitzGerald, is competing for the city's South End Ward 6 seat.

To solve the quorum problem, DeFrancis telephoned David Kirk, a school board member, to participate; someone else called longtime Republicans John and Pam Ackerson. Via cellphones, the trio joined those present to endorse the two candidates in a unanimous voice vote.

"It was embarrassing," Wright said later. "I was so frustrated I almost walked out and ran as an independent."

The meeting illustrated a political reality in Burlington: Republicans are rare; GOP candidates, even more so. With party stalwarts aging, few young Rs waiting in the wings and more young, liberal families moving into the once-conservative New North End, the GOP is facing an existential crisis.

A year ago, it looked like just the opposite was happening.

In February 2017, 24-year-old Alex Farrell and 22-year-old Jason Maulucci, then a senior at the University of Vermont, stepped into leadership vowing to revitalize a "largely dormant" party, as Farrell phrased it in a written statement after his election as chair and Maulucci's as vice chair.

The fresh faces promised in the press release to launch a rebranding campaign, reach out to area businesses and start to "recruit candidates for the 2018 Town Meeting election — including for mayor."

A year later, there's little to show for the efforts. In October, Farrell resigned, saying he didn't have time for the job. He's now party secretary.

No Republican mayoral candidate stepped up to challenge Democratic incumbent Miro Weinberger, who will face independents Carina Driscoll and Infinite Culcleasure on Town Meeting Day.

And the party likely won't make gains on the council. Wright, running unopposed, will keep his seat. FitzGerald faces a slim chance of victory in a race with longtime councilor Karen Paul, a Democrat, and Charles Simpson, a Prog. Burlington school board candidates, who will also appear on the March 6 ballot, do not run with party affiliations.

Last month's inability to get a quorum — twice — was an all-time low for the party, said Wright.

Other Republicans were more measured.

"It's a bit of the changing of the guard in terms of the party leadership," suggested Mike Donohue, chair of the Chittenden County GOP and spokesperson for the state party. He praised Farrell and DeFrancis for "bringing new energy into the city party" and described the future as "bright."

Donohue's assessment seems charitable, at best. Neither Farrell nor DeFrancis anticipates running for council anytime soon. Michael Ly, who lost a Ward 7 race in 2015 by just 32 votes, said he has no immediate plans to step up. Maulucci, now a staffer for Gov. Phil Scott, also demurred, saying he hasn't "thought about running."

Why aren't Queen City Republicans looking for seats at the table?

Farrell chalked it up to the influence of President Donald Trump: "It's hard for people to get past that big R in Burlington."

Sounding a bit like the president, school board member Kirk blamed the "liberal media, like Seven Days and the Burlington Free Press," which "sometimes publish things that aren't true." In October 2016, Kirk drew media attention — and the ire of parents, fellow school board members and the mayor — for authoring Facebook posts that some considered racist. He stayed on the board but is not running for reelection.

While Republicans have long been a minority party in Burlington, the elephants haven't seen a drought like this in decades.

When Wright was first elected in 1995, he was one of five Republicans on the 14-member council. Those numbers have dwindled. In 2014, Republican councilor Paul Decelles stepped down and Wright returned to the council — the last man standing.

Burlington hasn't had a Republican mayor since councilor Peter Brownell upstaged Progressive incumbent Peter Clavelle in 1993, becoming the first since Edward Keenan, who served from 1963 to 1965. Wright has mounted three unsuccessful bids for the city's top job. He's also served as the only GOP city council president in the last 30 years, he said, and is the only Republican representing the Queen City in the Vermont Statehouse.

"Sometimes I feel like the Maytag repairman — the loneliest man in town," he said, referring to the old TV commercial. Wright blamed the local GOP's demise on a lack of party support for candidates. People who step up to run for office need to know there will be volunteers and financial resources to help them, he said.

Wright, who turned 62 on February 7, doesn't know what his future holds. He even considered stepping down this year. When he does decide to hang it up, "it's important that there's [a Republican] who can win as a candidate in Burlington," he said, presumably to maintain a healthy balance of political ideologies and policies.

Wright gets elected because his moderate, practical approach attracts supporters across party lines, said Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District), who calls Wright a longtime friend. Republicans endorsed Hartnett when he ran unopposed in 2017, but Hartnett considers himself a Dem, even though he's to the right of center on the political spectrum and once ran as an independent.

"I don't know what the Republican Party in Burlington looks like after Kurt Wright," Hartnett said. "Quite honestly, I don't think there's a plan in place."

The left is also slowly encroaching on Wright's territory in the New North End.

In a special Ward 7 election last June, Ali Dieng easily bested Republican candidate and former city councilor Vince Dober. Dieng is the second-ever New American to win a seat and has proved to be one of the council's most progressive members.

"The New North End is changing ... The folks who are the typical base of the party are aging; they're moving; they're passing on," said Decelles, who served on the council from 2006 to 2014. "If I were running now, it would be the hardest race I've ever had to fight."

The recent caucus showed why. Despite Farrell's vow to be "more inclusive," attendees were largely middle-aged and white. Two of them — Kirk was one, by phone — have come under fire for inappropriate conduct.

The other, Mike McGarghan, ran in 2016 to represent the New North End in the Vermont House. He derailed his campaign with a tweet that read: "Take that traitor Obama & hang him from the neck until he's dead!"

"We need to grow our tent," said DeFrancis, in what seems to have become a mantra for party leadership.

Republicans have yet to carve out a platform for themselves in a city where Trump won just 11 percent of the vote in November 2016. At the January 25 committee meeting, Wright and FitzGerald discussed their support for the F-35 fighter jets, denounced the high cost of living and harped on the need for financial conservatism.

That core Republican tenet — fiscal responsibility — has been co-opted by Mayor Weinberger, who's touted his work improving the city bond rating as he campaigns for a third term. The Democrat has also earned the support of the business community — which, according to Wright, is a key population for Republicans if they're going to remain viable.

"We need to be denying the Democrats access to the pro-growth label and the financially responsible label," opined DeFrancis.

The Democrats' adoption of a Republican talking point is a new thread in the city's political spider web, which includes years of unorthodox alliances and grudges. When independent Bernie Sanders won the mayoral race in 1981, Democrats were furious and responded by voting as a group against his initiatives, recalled John Franco, who served as assistant city attorney at the time.

To overcome the obstruction, Sanders reached out to Republican alderman Allen Gear. "Look, we have our philosophical differences, but we have a city to run," Franco recalled Sanders saying.

The partnership started a decades-long tradition of Prog-Republican cooperation on economic issues. Wright has a strong relationship with City Council President Jane Knodell (P-Central District) and met with the Progs about the Burlington Telecom sale.

In that case, does party affiliation even matter if a councilor is so outnumbered? "I'm not sure it changes a lot," said Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), noting that Weinberger still faces opposition from Progressives.

It doesn't appear Republicans have a viable comeback plan. How will they attract new voters? DeFrancis couldn't cite specifics, though he maintained that the GOP is "on a growth trajectory" and promised big things — in 2020.

DeFrancis pointed out the party's success "helping Phil Scott resonate" in Burlington, where 27 percent of voters supported the Republican governor in 2016. The party added three members at the January meeting, DeFrancis noted, bringing total membership to 31.

In theory, that should make the next meeting a little easier to run.

It's premature to predict the party's extinction, according to Franco, who for decades has observed the ebbs and flows of Queen City politics.

"Voters in Burlington want to have checks and balances," Franco said. "To say the Republicans are out — I don't believe it for a minute."