Tracy, Pine Vie for Progressive Nomination in Burlington Mayor's Race | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Tracy, Pine Vie for Progressive Nomination in Burlington Mayor's Race

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Councilor Brian Pine - COURTESY OF KAREN PIKE
  • Courtesy Of Karen Pike
  • Councilor Brian Pine

A viewer of the Vermont Progressive Party's candidate forums last month would scarcely have been able to tell that City Councilors Brian Pine (Ward 3) and Max Tracy (Ward 2) are rivals to become the next mayor of Burlington. 

Over the course of the three virtual events, Pine and Tracy's talking points overlapped more than they differed. The two men were congenial — even complimentary of one another — as they explained how they'd make Burlington a more equitable place: by addressing the climate crisis, increasing affordable housing and uplifting the voices of the most marginalized. Even the candidates recognized that they had said little to explain their differences, despite being in the midst of a weeks-long sprint to win their party's nomination.

"One of the awkward things about running against Councilor Pine is that we work together really well on a lot of things," Tracy, the city council president, said at a November 19 forum on economic justice

"As we have found, there's not a lot of daylight between us on these issues," Pine later said.

But there are key differences between the candidates that may determine how Progressives vote during their party caucus this week. Pine's years of public service and his willingness to break with the party line have won him support from the city's more moderate Progressives. Tracy's hard-line stance and passionate activism have attracted the party's more vocal, leftmost members.

Backers in both camps told Seven Days in recent interviews that those traits give their candidate the best shot of beating incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger, a three-term Democrat whom they desperately want to vote out of office on March 2.

Neither candidate has had much time to carve out a distinctive niche in the run-up to the party caucus on Tuesday. The nominating event is being held virtually due to the coronavirus. Ballots will be accepted until 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 3. The party announced Pine and Tracy's campaigns on November 9, giving them less than a month to hire campaign staff, launch websites and set up social media accounts. Each candidate has said he will get out of the race if he fails to secure the party nomination.

That would make for a slightly less crowded field. In addition to Weinberger, the Progressive nominee will face at least two independent candidates in fellow City Councilor Ali Dieng (Ward 7) and South End resident Patrick White. Still other candidates could emerge by the time Democrats caucus on December 6 or before the January 25 filing deadline.

Pine has made the most of his fleeting campaign time. He said he's raised $10,000 since declaring his candidacy and hired eight paid staffers — including a top staffer for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) 2016 and 2020 presidential bids. His team rolled out a slick website featuring professional-grade photos of a beaming Pine standing in the newly rebuilt City Hall Park.

Pine, 58, announced his run against the backdrop of Burlington's Northgate Apartments, a low-income housing community he helped save from gentrification in the 1980s. He still serves on the complex's board. In the mid-1990s, Pine became housing director for the city's Community Economic Development Office, a post he held for 18 years. Pine now works as a self-employed consultant, helping organizations develop business plans and write grant applications.

Pine's experience earned him an endorsement from New North End resident Mieko Ozeki. The outgoing director of the Burlington Farmers Market, Ozeki said she doesn't normally participate in party caucuses but is voting for Pine after reviewing his extensive résumé. She thinks Tracy is a commendable council president but that the city needs a mayor with a longer track record.

"We need somebody who has strong administrative skills, who understands the inner workings of the government from the get-go," she said.

Tracy, 33, recognizes that Pine has a couple of decades on him but argues that the elder Prog doesn't have more experience — just different experience. Indeed, with nearly nine years on the council, Tracy is the longest-serving Progressive. He prides himself on his in-the-trenches activism, such as the hunger strike for livable wages that he joined as a University of Vermont student and, more recently, a sit-in at Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)'s office to protest the F-35 fighter jets' arrival. Tracy was previously an admissions officer at UVM but now works as a field organizer for the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

Tracy's campaign maintains a people-powered, grassroots feel. His staff are all volunteers, and his campaign website greets visitors with a folksy "Hey, neighbor. I'm Max." He said he's raised $1,666 in this election cycle and carried over close to $1,400 from his most recent council campaign. Tracy already has endorsements from high-profile figures such as Burlington Reps. Curt McCormack (D) and Brian Cina (P/D), racial justice advocate Mark Hughes, and Infinite Culcleasure, a community activist who himself challenged Weinberger in 2018.

Tracy also has a strong contingent of student backers, including UVM senior Chris Harrell, who cochairs the university's Progressive club. Harrell, who uses they/them pronouns, said they are inspired by Tracy's student activism and how the councilor continues to show up, as he did at a recent climate strike in Burlington.

To Harrell, Tracy represents the polar opposite of Weinberger, who has taken more moderate approaches to police reform, supported the CityPlace Burlington project and advocated for the F-35s to come to Burlington. Tracy has embraced this contrast in his campaign messaging, while Pine has been less critical of the sitting mayor.

"Burlington has demonstrated, time and time again, that it is ready for radical change," Harrell said, adding, "There is no room for another moderate."

Harrell pointed to Tracy's record on racial justice as a primary reason they're not voting for Pine. The nation reckoned with race and policing this summer, but Tracy had supported a resolution to "defund the police" nearly a year earlier. He was one of just three councilors who voted in June 2019 to shrink the police force and require that cops wear body cameras, among other accountability measures, after incidents of police violence in Burlington came to light.

Pine voted against the resolution, saying that the concept of cutting police was "objectionable." He's since joined the council's other Progressives in adopting a resolution this summer to reduce the police force by attrition.

"All those demands had a very different meaning as we moved into 2020," Pine said. "The community consensus had shifted a bit over that one-year period."

Harrell appreciates that Pine has evolved but says Tracy's consistency makes him a more attractive candidate. Tracy has "stood up when it has not been politically convenient to do so," Harrell said.

Tracy said sticking to Progressive Party values is a selling point for his candidacy and creates trust among voters. "When we talk about this question of electability, I think that that consistent record is exciting for people on the left," he said.

Councilor Max Tracy - COURTESY OF MATT BINGINOT
  • Courtesy Of Matt Binginot
  • Councilor Max Tracy

Others think Tracy's ideology may be a tougher sell in a citywide race. Former council president Kurt Wright, a Republican, said that despite their near-identical voting records, Pine is more moderate than Tracy and will appeal to a wider electorate. Wright said he thinks Tracy will harness the youth vote to win the nomination but may not be able to beat Weinberger in the general election.

"He will have challenges, because he is viewed as very, very far left in almost every circumstance," Wright said of Tracy. "Anybody that's to the right of center or in the center of the political equation would never consider Max."

UVM economics professor Stephanie Seguino said she's supporting Pine because he can find common ground with political opposites. She thinks Pine can unify a city divided over racial justice and development projects such as CityPlace Burlington.

"He is not dogmatic," Seguino said. "His ultimate concern is the well-being of this community, rather than political purity."

One example, Seguino said, was Pine's advocacy for reinvesting the city's proceeds from its sale of Burlington Telecom to become a part-owner of the company and obtain a seat on its board. Pine joined Wright and former independent councilor Sharon Bushor in making a pitch that the proposal was a rare chance to increase city revenues without raising taxes. Tracy voted against the measure, which failed in an 8-3 vote.

The candidates' stances have diverged a handful of other times. In 2016, before Pine was elected to the council, he filmed a promotional video urging Burlingtonians to approve the allocation of $21.8 million in tax increment financing funds to rebuild streets around the CityPlace project. "As a city, we have an opportunity that we need to seize now," Pine said in the two-minute clip. "We have available a project that's really gonna lay the groundwork for downtown Burlington for many years to come."

Instead, the project has been stalled for years, and the city has sued the developers for failing to build it on time. Tracy has voted against CityPlace from the start.

Pine and Tracy also differed on a proposal to reduce parking spaces on North and South Winooski avenues to make room for dual-direction bike lanes. Tracy, who doesn't own a car and commutes by bike, was in favor.

"We have to make the hard choices if we want to become a world-class city for walking and biking," Tracy said in a recent interview.

Pine opposed the plan after several Old North End entities — including restaurants, the Feeding Chittenden food shelf and Muwahi African Market — complained that their clientele relies on street parking. In the end, the council green-lighted bike lanes for South Winooski Avenue but agreed to study parking needs on North Winooski before building them there. Bike transportation is important, Pine said, but many elderly and physically disabled people rely on a vehicle to get around.

"I didn't feel like that process was as inclusive as it needed to be," he said.

But perhaps Pine's clearest departure from the modern-day Progressive party was in 2019, when he nominated former council president Jane Knodell for the Central District seat over newcomer Perri Freeman. In his pitch, he hailed Knodell's pragmatism, moderation and willingness to compromise — principles that he himself espouses — as reasons she should continue to serve. Freeman's victory ushered in the new class of Progs that make up the council's majority today.

Pine said he welcomes the party's newest members and added that the younger pols bring a sense of urgency "that's long overdue." He credited them for pushing the council to take on bigger issues, such as racism and the climate crisis, and said even though he doesn't always align with their positions, he believes "there's certainly way more that unites us than divides us."

Tracy said the party has tried to move past the "old Prog, new Prog" divide and instead focus on growing the party. At the same time, Tracy pointed out that he's "much closer" to the newer Progs, including Freeman and Councilors Jack Hanson (East District), Jane Stromberg (Ward 8) and Zoraya Hightower (Ward 1), who is serving as his campaign treasurer. "The entire Progressive caucus is backing me because I've supported them," Tracy said.

If Hanson and Freeman are with Tracy, they're not saying. They both served on a party committee that agreed not to endorse a candidate before the caucus, Hanson said.

Stromberg, meanwhile, has endorsed Tracy. She said Tracy has been a calm and collected leader through both the coronavirus pandemic and the summer's racial justice protests, during which Tracy moderated the longest public forum in city council history. Tracy has shown that he values hearing directly from the people, Stromberg said.

"That's something I want to see in a mayor," she said.

Stromberg said she respects Pine and Tracy and that the competition between the candidates will only strengthen their party's position come March.

"I'm hoping that no matter what happens ... that things are civil," Stromberg said. "Of all people, Brian, Max and Miro are going to keep that in mind."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Prog vs. Prog | Brian Pine and Max Tracy are vying to take on Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger"