Don’t look for white smoke to billow out of Burlington City Hall anytime soon. As the annual conclave to select a new city council president approaches, two candidates look like they may evenly split the vote. A tie in the 14-member council would lead to another vote. And another. Until somebody secures a majority and Mayor Miro Weinberger rings the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Or something like that.
“I’m just hoping we can get a council president elected in less time than it took the cardinals to pick a pope,” says Councilor Norm Blais (D-Ward 6).
Running for reelection to the post is Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5), who took the reins last April after winning a unanimous vote.
“I’ve enjoyed being city council president,” she says. “To be honest with you, you’re on a learning curve when these things start. But I think the council has been running smoothly, making good on their promises, and I’d like to extend it another year.”
But last week another candidate announced her intention to run: Councilor Karen Paul (I-Ward 6).
“I believe that I can be an effective president who intimately understands what it means to be nonpartisan,” she wrote in an email to her colleagues. “I believe I can be fair and appreciative of the many points of view on the council.”
The subtext? I’m not a Democrat.
That message appeals to the motley crew of seven non-Ds on the council, who occasionally band together to oppose the Democratic mayor and the seven-member Democratic caucus.
Paul courted a similar crowd a year ago when she first sought the council presidency, but Progressive councilors ended up siding with Shannon and the Dems. In the end, Paul wasn’t even nominated for the position.
A divisive city election earlier this month suggests that the Prog-Dem alliance isn’t likely to reappear this time around.
Progressives are fired up over a series of negative attacks lobbed by the Vermont Democratic Party against Jane Knodell, a former Progressive councilor who successfully ran for an open seat against Democrat Emily Lee. The Dems also tried — and failed — to depose veteran independent Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), who often votes with the Progs.
“The Progressives will act as a group on this,” Knodell says. “We’re looking for a president who sees the value of a strong council and a healthy balance of power between the council and the mayor.”
Though Progressives made gains in the recent election, the council arithmetic isn’t dramatically different this year. Progs earned a fourth seat — five if you include Bushor — while Republicans dropped from two to one and Democrats maintained seven.
So long as Shannon’s partymates stand together, nobody else can win.
“I think the Dems are going to hang tough,” says Blais, a Shannon supporter. “We have a significant plurality on the city council.”
Two councilors to watch? Bushor, who is always hard to pin down, and Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4), who often defects to the Republican side of the aisle. But Hartnett says he’s staying put.
“You’re talking to a councilor who was really on the fence a year ago about who I was going to support,” he says. “Ultimately I supported Joan, and she’s proven to me over the year that she’s very capable.”
Hartnett adds, “Maybe the other side wants me to break a tie, but it’s just not gonna happen.”
For his part, Councilor Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7) — the last Republican standing — says he’s definitely not backing Shannon, calling her “a mouthpiece for the mayor.”
“I think Joan has some weaknesses and I think she has some splainin’ to do, Lucy,” he says.
Shannon disputes the charge that she works too closely with Weinberger.
“The mayor is pretty good about addressing concerns in advance of their coming to the table,” she says. “So it may look like a rubber stamp, but no, it actually wasn’t. It was behind the scenes.”
You can expect plenty of behind-the-scenes action in the lead-up to the vote, which is scheduled for April 1. If successive rounds of balloting don’t shake loose a majority, look for a dark-horse contender to emerge.
Decelles suggests Knodell could play that role, though it’s unclear whether any Dems would get behind her. That said, the former council president — she served in that capacity from 1999 to 2001 — won’t foreclose the possibility.
“It’s not something I’m actively seeking, but I think anyone on the council could if we do get bogged down in a seven-to-seven vote,” she says. “Then we’ll have to find some other solutions.”
Until that happens, Weinberger-appointed chief administrative officer Paul Sisson will serve as acting council president.
Now that’s a rubber stamp.
“R” Is for Rebranding
Ever since President Barack Obama won reelection last November and Democrats expanded their ranks in Congress, there’s been plenty of hand-wringing among national Republicans about the future of their party.
A little closer to home last week, one of Vermont’s most prominent Republicans got in on the action.
In a lecture titled “GOP, R.I.P.?” delivered as part of the University of Vermont’s Rosen Memorial Lecture Series, former governor Jim Douglas conceded, “At first blush, things don’t look so good right now for the Republican Party.
“The basic problem,” he said, “is there are two fundamentally different visions of where the party needs to go in order to regain its competitiveness and have a decent chance of electoral success.”
One vision is that of the Tea Party, while the other is of “broadening our base, becoming the true big tent, accepting differences among those who call themselves Republicans and directing our energies to winning elections.”
Can you guess which vision he shares?
In case you were wondering, Douglas has a three-part plan to get the party back on track. Appropriately for the Republican, each part starts with an ‘R’: respect, reach out and relevance.
In Douglas’ view, his party must respect a diversity of opinions on social issues — gay marriage, abortion and physician-assisted suicide, to name a few. “I’ve voted for candidates on both sides of these issues,” he said.
Republicans must also reach out to constituencies that haven’t traditionally backed the party, including immigrants, African Americans and, in particular, Hispanics. “After all, these are family-oriented, churchgoing folks who believe in entrepreneurship,” he said. “They ought to respond to a Republican message.”
Lastly, the party must focus on relevant economic issues, not divisive social ones. Sure, number three sounds a lot like number one, but a trio of ideas sounds better than just two.
Here in Vermont, Douglas said, “the hurdles are higher,” noting that fewer Republicans won election to the legislature last year than at any point in the state’s history. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was the sole GOPer to win statewide office.
Douglas’ local prescription?
His party must contest every race, hold Democrats accountable for ethical lapses and improve their “ground game.”
Not exactly breaking news.
“I’ve reminded [Scott] that a dozen years ago as state treasurer, I was the only [statewide Republican]. The following year we recaptured the governor’s office,” he said. “Public sentiment can change quickly and anything is possible — especially as fiscal pressures mount in Montpelier.”
Not all the students and community members assembled at the Davis Center’s Livak Ballroom were buying what Douglas was selling.
During a question-and-answer period, one audience member called him out for vetoing a 2009 bill that would legalize same-sex marriage — a veto that was overturned by the legislature. The questioner invited Douglas to sign on to an amicus brief filed by many prominent Republicans who believe the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California.
“I appreciate the invitation,” the ex-gov said. “I don’t think I’m likely to do that. I’m out of politics now.”
Another audience member kept at it, noting that Douglas had just said his party should lighten up on the social issues: “I’m curious if you still believe the issue of civil rights, and particularly gay oppression, is still a ‘distraction,’ as you famously said in 2009 in reference to vetoing gay marriage.”
Guess elephants aren’t the only ones with good memories.
“I’m not going to re-debate the gay-marriage law, to be perfectly frank,” Douglas responded. “I never said anything as disrespectful as what you just said.”
“You said it was a distraction!” the audience member called out.
“But you enhanced that as you quoted it. The point is that I had a lot of friends who voted for the bill and a lot of friends who voted against it,” Douglas said. “I lost that debate, but I accept the outcome. I respect the outcome, and we move on.”
Sounds like Douglas’ rebranding might need a little more rebranding.
Comings & Goings
A number of prominent political types and guv’ment workers are on their way in and out of top jobs in the state.
Vermont Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson stepped down from the party’s leadership last weekend, leaving vice chairwoman Dottie Deans in charge until the Dems hold a special election in April. Perkinson, who bolstered the party’s professional staff during his two-year tenure, says he wants to spend more time on personal and professional pursuits.
Professional Firefighters of Vermont president Matt Vinci is heading to Washington, D.C., in May to serve as education and training director of the 310,000-member International Association of Firefighters. The 19-year veteran of the South Burlington Fire Department built a reputation as one of the most influential union voices in the state.
Vermonters for Health Care Freedom executive director Jeff Wennberg, meanwhile, is leaving that job to serve as Rutland’s public works commissioner, as the Rutland Herald reported Tuesday. He says the anti-single-payer advocacy group’s founder and board president, Darcie Johnston, will lead the group until it decides whether to seek a new ED. Johnston served last year as Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock’s de facto campaign manager.
In state government, the Public Service Department has hired Darren Springer, former chief counsel for Sen. Bernie Sanders, as deputy commissioner. And Secretary of State Jim Condos said Tuesday he’s promoted Will Senning to replace Kathy Scheele as director of elections and campaign finance.
Oh, and remember Tom Salmon, Vermont’s recently departed state auditor? As we reported last week on our political blog, Off Message, he’s already taken a job with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation — and left it after barely a month. Salmon, who earned a reputation in Vermont for quickly shifting political ambitions, departed to pursue a new gig with the federal government, according to Massachusetts’ State House News Service.