Burlington Politics

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For many years Burlington politics were comparatively tame. The first mayor of Burlington, Albert Catlin, declared Burlington to be the Queen City of Vermont in June 1865 and it has lived up to that reputation ever since. Burlington invested in its parks system over the years and it now has 37 great parks including its latest addition – Waterfront Park. Burlington acquired the old tanning plant property in the new north end in 1972 and converted it to Leddy Park and Leddy Beach and added a new ice skating rink there shortly thereafter under the leadership of longtime Mayor Gordon Paquette.

Burlington made some mistakes along the way including the wholesale destruction of the Little Italy ethnic community in the “urban renewal” movement of the 1960s under Mayor Francis Cain. But for the most part the city has steered a path to prosperity, a thriving arts community and an energy rarely seen in a city of this size (only 43,000 residents today). The pace of redevelopment downtown in the form of the Burlington Bike Path, Waterfront Park and the Church Street Marketplace has only accelerated during the last decade as Burlington converted empty lots downtown to three new hotels.

But the real sea change in Burlington politics came with the election of Progressive (Socialist) Mayor Bernie Sanders by a ten vote margin over long time Democratic Mayor, Gordon Paquette in 1981, partly on a pledge of “no enclaves for the rich on the Burlington waterfront”. You may also notice that a lot of the big changes that occurred downtown, the Burlington Bike Path, Waterfront Park, The Church Street Marketplace, Ben and Jerry’s, renovation of the Follett House, the Flynn Theater renovation, First Night and the Art Hop all came to be in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Burlington has been on a roll for almost 35 years now. Most of the credit for these sweeping improvements goes to grass roots efforts by ordinary people but some of the credit must be allocated to the Progressive movement and the political changes it brought to the Queen City in 1981. The Progressives then went on to control the mayor’s office for all but two out the following 31 years. For a time the Queen City was renamed the Socialist Republic of Vermont and Bernie Sanders supporters were often called Sanderistas by political opponents.

Although Mayor Sanders was wrong on the Alden project, see Burlington Parks, his administration vigorously pursued the public trust doctrine to a successful conclusion before the Vermont Supreme Court in 1989. The deal his Administration struck with the railroads to wrestle the derelict waterfront from them and convert it to the park we all enjoy today was a smart one indeed. Although he was less enthusiastic about the Burlington Bike Path than the CWG, see the Burlington Bike Path, he ended up supporting the $750,000 bond necessary to complete the path in November 1984. Sanders also gets credit for the Burlington Boathouse.

The Progressives and their supporters have also added a lot of energy to the city in the form of programs for the less advantaged and the Arts. Where they fell down on the job was advocating rent control instead of pursuing real solutions to the housing shortage downtown and pressing short sighted zoning rules that restricted developers from building what was needed to quench the insatiable need for more housing downtown, like restricting building heights to three or four stories, no more than four unrelated individuals in a household and more onsite parking than was necessary.

The Progressives deserve credit for creating CEDO, the Community Economic Development Office and expanding the Onion River Coop into City Market, the only grocery store downtown now. But where they ultimately fell flat on their face was going into the telecommunications business with the ill fated public enterprise called Burlington Telecom. When Burlington Telecom came up short in its drive to build out a state-of-the-art high speed fiber optics network under Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss in 2009, his Administration illegally loaned $17 million of public funds to the enterprise then teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The city’s bond rating consequently slipped to one grade above junk status, costing the City far more to borrow funds. The public was outraged for there is almost no chance the city will ever recover these funds. Burlington Telecom was a complete disaster. Just imagine what else that $17 million could have been used for (housing programs downtown, new streets and/or sidewalks, bicycle superhighways, better schools…).

That led to the downfall of the Progressives at the polls in 2012 and the resurgence of the Democrats with the election of 42 year old Mayor Miro Weinberger. Weinberger brought experience in business management and knowhow to the job and quickly surrounded himself with competent managers in key city positions like treasury and finance. He worked out a plan to stabilize Burlington Telecom by settling a $53 million lawsuit by a bank that had loaned the Telecom venture capital to buy telecommunication equipment. Mayor Weinberger got a stabilization bond passed and ultimately the city received an upgrade in its bond rating.

Weinberger also appointed competent people to key city departments. Gene Richards took the helm at Burlington Airport when it had the worst bond rating of any airport in the entire United States. The airport recently received an upgrade in its bond rating that helped the entire city achieve a better rating as well. Jesse Bridges took over as Parks Director and has done a terrific job of improving the Burlington Bike Path and instituted a wide range of improvements in City Parks. Chapin Spencer, the former director of Local Motion, was appointed head of Public Works. We are expecting sweeping changes at Public Works to make Burlington a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly “livable city”. But Weinberger is not just about business. He has advocated for the redevelopment of the Pine Street Arts District to provide a safer space for the throngs of people attending the Art Hop and he recently launched an initiative with private funds to bring disadvantaged children up to speed before they enter the Burlington school system. He also opened up the public planning process with numerous public hearings put on by Plan BTV, the south end planning district and the rail yard project.

Any discussion of recent Burlington politics should also include Howard Dean who got his start in politics shortly after his advocacy for the Burlington Bike Path starting in 1980. In 1982 he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. He was elected Lt. Governor in 1986 and succeeded Governor Richard Snelling when he died in office in 1991. He was Governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003 and signed the nation’s first Civil Unions law into effect in 2000. In 2004 he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for President notable for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his use of the internet for fundraising, some say paving the way for Barack Obama in 2008.

Long serving U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy was Chittenden County State’s Attorney when he was elected to the Senate in 1974. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was the former mayor of Burlington from 1981 to 1989. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006. He is the only Socialist to serve in Congress in over 60 years. Weinberger was overwhelmingly reelected mayor in March 2015 with over 68% of the vote against three candidates who all tried to paint him as an overdevelopment mayor bent on selling the city to the highest bidder. One of these candidates openly supported rent control as the solution to the lack of new housing downtown. The people of Burlington were not fooled. They understand the need for more housing downtown to hold rents down and reduce suburban sprawl. Weinberger recently put forth a detailed plan to build more housing downtown.

However, the Progressives gained seats on the City Council in 2015 at the expense of the Democrats. This may result in a more balanced approach to city politics. Weinberger is good at working with all political factions. We hope he will have a long tenure as mayor and lead the city into a Renaissance the likes of which Burlington has never seen. We are very excited about the promise of the Weinberger years. Stay tuned.

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