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Weinberger's Restart: Mayor Faces Challenges From the Left


Published November 26, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Mayor Miro Weinberger announces a $200 million redevelopment of the Burlington Town Center last week. - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger announces a $200 million redevelopment of the Burlington Town Center last week.

Nearly three years after promising Burlington "a fresh start," Mayor Miro Weinberger is preparing to send a fresh message in his race for reelection.

No longer can the 44-year-old Democrat campaign against the fiscal failures of his Progressive predecessor, Bob Kiss. Instead, as he looks to next March's Town Meeting Day elections, Weinberger plans to run on his own record — and his vision for the Queen City's future.

"We've kind of worked through some of these messes that were there in 2012," he says, citing the city's dismal finances and stalled development projects. "I think we can start to lift our eyes to the horizon and start having a future-oriented conversation about where we want to go as a city."

In the next few weeks, administrative assistant Jen Kaulius will leave her post in the mayor's office to manage Weinberger's campaign for a second three-year term, he says. A formal kickoff could come on January 11, when the Burlington Democratic Party holds its mayoral caucus and, presumably, anoints Weinberger its nominee.

Already, the coming election looks dramatically different than the last. In 2012, Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright, a city councilor and state representative, fought over the same territory: Who was best prepared to clean up after Kiss? The Progressives sat out the race after their preferred candidate, Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), narrowly lost the Democratic nomination. Another left-leaning contender, independent Wanda Hines, came in a distant third.

Wright says he isn't interested in running again this year, adding, "I don't anticipate there being a significant Republican name."

Instead, Weinberger may face two challenges from the left — and from Burlington's past.

Last Monday, former Department of Public Works director Steve Goodkind confirmed he's planning to challenge Weinberger in order to "give people some choices that they haven't had in a while in Burlington." The 32-year city-hall veteran got his political start when Bernie Sanders launched his long-shot but ultimately successful 1981 mayoral campaign from Goodkind's living room.

That same year, writer and activist Greg Guma announced his own campaign for mayor, but he backed out after Sanders entered the race. More than three decades later, Guma said last Wednesday that he, too, is considering challenging Weinberger.

"I'm not happy with what I've seen in the past three years," says Guma, who went on to run Pacifica Radio and covered the 2012 mayor's race for VTDigger.org. "There's a rush to redevelopment. There's a move away from the kinds of balance and progressive vision we had for 30 years."

Guma, 67, says he'll probably run as an independent, while Goodkind, 63, says he's "likely" to seek the Progressive nomination. But both would certainly court a similar constituency: those unnerved by new building in Burlington and nostalgic for its bygone days of leftist rule.

"He's making the steamrollers run on time, but that's not the only thing that's important," Guma says of Weinberger, a former developer. "The question is, in what direction are they running?"

The incumbent says he doesn't think that charge will stick. He says his administration is "focused on projects that Burlingtonians want progress on" — such as rejuvenating the northern waterfront, improving the bike path and redeveloping the Burlington Town Center mall.

No doubt there's room for one candidate to challenge that assumption. But two? That might give Weinberger a head start toward a second fresh start.

Survivor: Burlington

As Weinberger and his foes ready for the mayor's race, the Burlington City Council's 14 members are preparing for their own game of musical chairs.

Last March, voters signed off on a redistricting plan that will reduce the number of city councilors to 12, add a new ward enveloping the University of Vermont campus, and force every member of the council and school board to stand for election next spring.

Currently, the council consists of seven Democrats, five Progressives, a Republican and an independent. Burlington Democratic Party chairwoman Fauna Hurley says she hopes the Ds will hold on to seven seats after redistricting, which would give them a majority on the new, 12-member council.

But Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Ward 2) says she hopes the non-Ds will hang on to six seats.

"I think a divided government is a good thing," she says. "I think it's a healthier process when there's not a taken-for-granted majority and they have to work toward compromise."

The consolidation of the council is already proving awkward, since, in much of the city, there will be fewer seats than incumbents.

"I'll be brutally honest: I really don't have interest in going into a competitive primary with one of my colleagues," says Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5).

In the past, each of the city's seven wards would send two representatives to the council for two years each. Terms were staggered so that every ward would vote on one councilor per year.

Under the new regime, eight wards — including the new student-centered one — will send a councilor apiece to city hall for two-year terms. Another four councilors will be elected during alternating years to represent larger districts consisting of two wards each.

Confused yet? You're not the only one.

Here's an example: Mason and fellow Democrat Joan Shannon currently represent the South End's Ward 5. Up the hill and to the east, Norm Blais and Karen Paul, also both Democrats, represent Ward 6.

Under the new plan, each of those wards will choose just one councilor. Then, voters in both wards will select another councilor to represent the combined "South" district. So at least one of the four incumbent Democrats will have to step down — or get booted out of office.

Like Mason, Blais says he hasn't decided whether to run. Paul says she's in, but she won't say whether she'll seek the Ward 6 seat or the South district seat. Shannon did not return a call seeking comment.

"I figure it'll be a question of who wants it least," Blais says. "We'll just have to see how it all plays out."

Progressives are facing a similar conundrum in the Old North End.

Currently, Knodell and Max Tracy represent Ward 2, while Vince Brennan and Rachel Siegel represent Ward 3. Under the new plan, all four Progressives will have to vie for the two ward seats and the combined "Central" district seat.

Knodell says she'll seek the latter. Tracy plans to run again in Ward 2. Brennan says he's undecided. And Siegel did not return a call for comment.

"Right now we're still haggling over who our candidates are," Brennan says.

In the New North End, Democrats and Republicans both intend to run. Wright plans to seek reelection in Ward 4, while his seatmate, Democrat Dave Hartnett, will go for the "North" district seat, which includes wards 4 and 7.

In Ward 7, Democrat Tom Ayres says he plans to run for his current seat, while his fellow Democratic incumbent, first-termer Bianka Legrand, says she's undecided about whether to run again. Republican Michael Ly, who narrowly lost a tough race for state representative earlier this month, says he'll also vie for the Ward 7 seat.

The only area with more openings than candidates is the city's "East" district, which includes the new, student-centered Ward 8 and the existing Ward 1.

There, Progressive Selene Colburn says she and longtime independent councilor Sharon Bushor are both planning to run again, but haven't figured out which will stay in Ward 1 and which will branch out to the East district.

According to Hurley, former Democratic candidate Emily Lee plans to run for the East seat. Neither Lee nor Bushor could be reached for comment.

Democrats and Progressives alike say they're searching for students to represent their party in the Ward 8 race.

"We don't have anyone yet, but we have some interest and a few names we're vetting," Hurley says.

Shadow Government

Three weeks after Election Day, Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne still hasn't said whether he'll keep fighting for the state's top office 'til January. That's when the legislature, empowered by Vermont's constitution, will pick the next governor from among the three top voter-getters: incumbent Democrat Peter Shumlin, Milne and Libertarian Dan Feliciano.

But if Milne, the close-second-place finisher, pulls off another miracle and is named governor on January 7, will he be ready to serve when he's sworn in on January 8?

According to those who've orchestrated previous transitions from one governor to the next, it'd be tough.

"A transition is something that really takes time, so I don't know how that would work — unless he's done all kinds of work behind the scenes," says Tim Hayward, who served as chief of staff to former Republican governor Jim Douglas and played a role in three gubernatorial transitions. "It's not something you can do overnight."

Liz Bankowski, who helped manage transitions for Democratic governors Shumlin and Madeleine Kunin, says governors-elect typically have just two months to accomplish several key goals: name dozens of people to cabinet- and subcabinet-level positions; formulate a legislative agenda; get up to speed on pending agency business and write a budget.

"It's a huge undertaking," she says. "Things have to move very quickly and very orderly."

A day after Douglas won his first term in 2002, he appointed Mike Smith secretary of administration and tasked him with pumping out a budget. By statute, the governor must present one to the legislature by the third Tuesday of the legislative session: This year, that deadline is January 27.

"So [Milne] is either going to have to go with Shumlin's budget and get it changed by the legislature," Smith says. "Or in two weeks, he'll have to come up with a whole new budget, which, logistically, will be problematic."

Typically, outgoing administrations work closely with incoming ones, providing office space, funding and plenty of guidance. But according to the Shumlin administration, Milne hasn't asked for any of that.

"We've had no contact from Mr. Milne or his campaign since election night," says Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell.

Nor have those who ran Douglas' transitions — Hayward, Smith and Neale Lunderville, the governor's final secretary of administration — been asked for advice.

"I spoke to him once last summer, but he didn't know who I was," Hayward says.

Milne, who returned from a four-day business trip to Mexico on Sunday, says his transition is "obviously something we've thought about," but he won't elaborate.

"I'm a man with a plan," he says. "I think there's a movie: Man With a Plan."

And who, precisely, is involved with Milne's plan?

"A lot of the same people I had involved with my last plan," he says, adding, somewhat less elliptically, "I have seriously thought about what I'd do if the legislature elects me, and I'll be ready."

Media Notes

Seven Days has hired veteran Statehouse reporters Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen to bolster its coverage of Vermont government and politics.

Hallenbeck and Remsen spent a combined 35 years at the Burlington Free Press, where they ran the paper's Statehouse bureau. Both resigned on Election Day after they were reassigned to new beats as part of a corporate downsizing.

At Seven Days, Hallenbeck will serve as a full-time staff writer, continuing to cover the Statehouse and occasionally writing this column. Remsen will cover health care and medicine for the paper in a part-time capacity. She will also start a part-time gig as special correspondent for WCAX-TV.

"As the media landscape continues to shift, we're seeing opportunities where we can step up, increase our coverage and continue to provide something different from everyone else," says Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. "Terri and Nancy bring an unusual combination of experience and knowledge. They'll really hit the ground running."*

As part of the expansion, Routly has named me political editor. As such, I'll supervise our Statehouse coverage and continue writing this column most weeks.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Weinberger's Restart"

*Correction 12/02/14: An earlier version of this article described the knowledge and talents of new Seven Days writers Remsen and Hallenbeck as "usual." This, of course, is incorrect — the experience and knowledge they bring to the job are unusual.