- Jordan Silverman
Hip Vermont City on Lake Champlain with left-leaning political tradition ISO sharp, articulate, confident woman to lead and inspire municipal government of 39,000 in university town admired and imitated by civic leaders across the country. Political awareness, not correctness, desired. Must be able to explain socio-economic differences between Old and New North End; why the long-awaited Southern Connector is still not built; how Act 60 really works, etc. Must also be knowledgeable about non-local issues such as Nicaraguan agricultural policy, Mideast peace plans and the history of the American left, center and right political movements. Long hours, but good pay — $65,000+ — and benefits, including a free reserved parking space next to City Hall. Opportunity to meet hundreds of new friends, not including lobbyists, as well as budget-busting bureaucrats, irate taxpayers and hard-to-please supporters. Some family time permitted.
Sometime in the 21st century, Burlington’s longest-serving mayor, Peter Clavelle, will call it quits as the number-one politico in town. Not just yet, though. “I still love the job and love the challenges,” says Clavelle, expounding on numerous accomplishments, from the Waterfront Park to downtown business recruitment, sounding a lot like a candidate for re-election in March 2003.
But who knows? Maybe the former Winooski city manager and Burlington City Hall bureaucrat will take his progressive vision to a Montpelier office. Or maybe the guy Newsweek described in 1989 as “bald and paunchy” will land a post in Washington, D.C., in 2005, helping President Howard Dean deal with the nation’s mayors.
Beating an incumbent mayor is not easy — though Clavelle did get bumped off in 1993 by voters unhappy with his plan to allow unmarried partners of city workers to get health insurance at taxpayer expense. But the victor, Peter Brownell, kept the “domestic partners” insurance plan in place, had trouble keeping the streets plowed, and Clavelle got his job back in 1995. He’s won every biennial election since.
But when Progressive Pete does step down, he’ll create an open seat, inspiring a lot of wannabe mayors to start rounding up supporters. With the allure of Burlington’s most visible political job — and the potential power of incumbency — the field could be as crowded as an Olympic procession.
When that day comes, we hope there’s a strong cadre of female candidates. Even Clavelle, who got the N.O.W. endorsement in a mayoral race against two women in 1989, routinely points out the gender inequity when City Hall-visiting schoolchildren are confronted with a wall of all-male mayoral mugs. After nearly 150 guy-filled years, we think the top office could use a woman’s touch.
But just who might be considered front-runners? Seven Days nominates six talented, articulate, politically astute women — two Progressives, two Republicans and two Democrats — as possible candidates for the first woman Mayor of Burlington.
Karen Moran Lafayette’s middle name says Burlington politics — the defunct power plant on the Waterfront was named after her grandfather, who was mayor from 1948 to 1957. Her father was a longtime head of the Burlington Housing Authority.
“My grandfather believed that government exists to serve and protect the people, especially the common person and those in need of assistance,” she says. Lafayette has helped numerous other Democratic candidates over the years — including her former husband, Paul, who ran for mayor in 1987 and 1995. A lot of political people owe her.
In 2000, after four terms in the Vermont House of Representatives, she ran for one of the coveted six Chittenden County State Senate seats, but finished seventh, a handful of votes shy.
She’s kept a hand in politics as a legislative lobbyist for the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council, trying to shore up key low-income programs under the Statehouse budget knife. “I think that one person can make a difference in people’s lives, and that politics can be an honorable profession,” says Lafayette. “I hope my work down there can make a difference.”
She admits she’s thought about being mayor. “I feel blessed to have been born here, and to have shared in a long family history of involvement in the community, and I’m honored to have served as an elected official,” Lafayette says. “I have campaigned citywide, had wonderful support, and would enjoy serving Burlington in some capacity down the line.”
She developed an expertise in school funding while in Montpelier, and schools are part of her vision for a healthy city. “Our school system should be the best,” Lafayette says. “It’s really our best resource in keeping Burlington a vital, attractive place for those who live here now and for those who choose to come.”
If you like to see business experience in a political candidate, Barbara Grimes fits the bill — and then some.
She’s been the general manager of Burlington Electric since early 1999, the city-owned utility that serves 16,000 residences and 3500 businesses. Before that she worked in state government as director of Housing and Community Affairs, then as director of Employment and Training. She prepped for these jobs and learned the political ropes of the city and state, representing the New North End for several terms in the House of Representatives.
Grimes knows Burlington and its issues. She knows money, budgets and how to say the most important word a budget-conscious mayor can ever invoke: “No.” She can make tough decisions to keep an organization moving in the right direction.
And the bottom line looks excellent — BED has held its rates stable since 1992, with an actual rate decrease in 1995, while investing millions in energy efficiency and other pro-environment projects. Recently divesting ownership in Vermont Yankee, for example, will back a wind-energy project in Southern Vermont. And there’s no rate increase in sight. Makes for one nice shiny plank in a candidate’s platform.
When publicly commenting on future campaigns, politicians make it a rule to “never say never.” But Grimes broke that one quickly, telling us she’d never be a candidate for the city’s top job — she’s happy right where she is. For now. . .
Burlington has always been left of the rest of Vermont — even when the state was staunchly Republican. Ronald Reagan swamped Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, but not in the Queen City. Even Michael Dukakis was king here.
To win in Burlington as a Republican, you gotta catch a wave, as Peter Brownell did in 1993, or you have to be a pretty special person.
There’s no wave in sight — yet — for Kathy Connolly, but she is special. A community-oriented mother of six kids, two of whom are adopted, she has been a foster mother to a dozen or so more. As if that’s not enough, she also volunteers at the Howard Family and Baird centers. Add her job as a Burlington School Board member, and her weekly to-do list rivals the busiest city official’s.
Connolly has paid her political dues, too, with terms on the Burlington City Council and the Parks and Recreation Commission. She learned New North End and city politics from the late city councilor and attorney Allen Gear, a Republican revered for his thoughfulness, compassion and wit.
A strong advocate for special education, Connolly says the city needs to look at how it funds education. “If we had had any of the previous formulas fully funded by the state, we wouldn’t be in trouble right now,” she notes. “We love living here; Burlington is a fantastic place to raise a family. We just need an education system that will attract families here.”
Not surprisingly, running for the mayor’s office takes a back seat to family at the moment. Connolly confirms, “The kids are my number one priority.”
Amy Tarrant hasn’t spent too much time in City Hall in past years, but she’s been busy improving the town through other means. Her contributions to and enthusiasm for the arts and civic life have helped make Burlington one of the hottest towns in the country.
Last year Tarrant was honored as “Vermont’s Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year” by the Northern New England Fund-raising Professionals for her financial and volunteer support of the Flynn Center, the University of Vermont and other nonprofits. The former chair of the Flynn board, that institution has named an art gallery after her.
Tarrant is passionate about Burlington, and enjoys meeting all kinds of people. With her then-husband Rich Tarrant, CEO of IDX, she has raised five children, volunteered extensively, and has given support, advice and money to favored candidates in local and state elections — usually Republicans.
Though nominally a Republican herself, Tarrant could be a mayor for all parties. She keeps her Republican support by cautioning against excessive government involvement in the private sector. Progresssives and Independents could warm up to her staunch advocacy of women’s, social and economic issues as well as her support of the downtown co-op. And Democrats would do well to recall that her father, the late State Senator Fred Fayette, was a key Democratic player in the ascendancy of the Democratic Party in Vermont. Former governor Phil Hoff would surely cross the line to endorse her candidacy.
Tarrant was out of state and unavailable for an interview or photograph, but we think she’s a woman to watch.
Though she doesn’t quite picture herself as a candidate for the mayor’s job, there’s something about Jane Knodell that keeps Progressive operatives coming round.
Her boosters point out Knodell’s unique and vote-pulling blend of ivory-tower intellect — she’s an associate professor in the economics department at UVM — and down-to-earth, door-knockin’ savvy. She’s been elected to the City Council in the Old North End four times and served as its president. She’s articulate, caring and knowledgeable about the issues. Tested in academe, she’ll debate you with a smile while slicing your arguments to shreds. She can keep her cool in the hot seat.
Knodell would bring a woman’s perspective to the city’s helm, and the best of the Sanders-Clavelle political tradition: visionary, populist policy coupled with grassroots connections to ordinary voters, renters, elderly and the newer “hip” residents who want to keep Burlington a beacon to lefties and “cultural creatives.” Big-money interests might get a cold shoulder if they tried to push their way to the front of the line.
“One thing I’m very interested in is regional economic development, where there’s cooperation between legislators in different towns for a regional economic strategy,” Knodell notes. “I also want to see people in the Old North End succeed, and enjoy a higher quality of life, with more housing choices, less noise and disruptions.”
If the once-youthful and more radical Progressive movement in Burlington needs a boost, one woman in a good position to rejuvenate the group is Carina Driscoll.
Now five years out of college, she is the daughter of Jane Sanders, who climbed the ladder from city youth advocate to Interim President of Goddard College. She’s also the stepdaughter of Congressman Bernie Sanders, the guy who got this Progressive thing off the ground back in 1981. Carina was just 7 years old when he took over Burlington City Hall.
But, make no mistake about it. Even with her semi-privileged status, Driscoll packs her own punch. She was on the Burlington School Board before she won a seat in the Vermont House in 2000. Despite being relegated to a position on the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, she’s building a solid reputation in Montpelier. In her work with Burlington youth and women’s groups, she has impressed people with her listening skills. She’s a doer with her heart in the right place and her feet on the ground.
“We need to keep working on transportation alternatives and affordable housing,” Driscoll says. “And a city youth advocate could help get young voters more interested and involved in the political process.”
Driscoll may well be ready to sprint ahead of the pack when the mayoral seat is open. Making history in Vermont, just like her folks.