If voters elected candidates based on their stoicism, Bob Kiss would be a shoo-in to win one of Chittenden County’s six state Senate seats this November. He might even finish first.
The former Burlington mayor was his usual unflappable self during an hourlong interview last Friday and at a campaign event the next day in South Burlington. He remains coolly self-confident six months after exiting city hall amid a firestorm of criticism over the Burlington Telecom financial debacle. That disgrace might prove to be the main legacy of his six-year tenure as mayor, but Kiss, 65, is unapologetic as he asks voters to send him back into public office.
Kiss’s long-shot campaign for state Senate took him to Fredrick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington last Saturday morning for a League of Women Voters forum titled “Speed Date Your Senators.” No more than 25 voters unaffiliated with the league weathered the rain to question nine Senate hopefuls seated at round cafeteria tables. The candidates chatted with the mostly elderly attendees for 10-minute clips before circulating to the next table of voters.
Nancy Baker, a South Burlington resident who attended the forum, appeared to be sold on Kiss’s Zen-like tranquility. “I commend you on your actions in City Hall Park,” she told Kiss, referring to the then-mayor’s defusing of a near-riot of Occupy Burlington protesters last November.
“You stayed calm,” Baker said as Kiss nodded in assent. “You understood that talking is much better than fighting.”
For better or worse, such high-profile incidents explain why Kiss enjoys stronger name recognition than his nonincumbent competitors, and he’s raised more money than most of the 14 Senate candidates vying for Chittenden County’s six Senate seats. Nearly $4000 in contributions — including a total of $550 from former city hall staffers Larry Kupferman, Bruce Seifer and Jonathan Leopold — has allowed Kiss to put his kisser on the side of buses crisscrossing the region. The candidate loaned himself another $4000.
Beyond that, the Kiss campaign is a characteristically low-key affair. Though he declined to let a reporter accompany him door to door, saying that would be “unfair” to voters, he laid out his campaign plans in an interview last Friday at Burlington Bay Market & Café: strategic lawn signs, “honk-and-waves” at busy intersections and possibly some ads in weekly community newspapers. He won the endorsment of the Vermont NEA — the state’s largest union — but his volunteer-staffed operation has no campaign manager and isn’t planning any major expenditures in the closing weeks of the campaign.
It’s an oddly unambitious approach for an underdog. The former Progressive is running as an independent — and no independent in recent memory has won election to the state Senate from Chittenden County. Plus, many of his competitors are well known: five incumbents, along with seven-term House member David Zuckerman and interfaith leader Debbie Ingram, are among those vying for the six seats. Zuckerman and Ingram are both running with Democratic Party endorsement in a year when the top Dem, Barack Obama, will likely roll to a landslide victory in the Burlington area.
The biggest problem stalking Kiss remains his mishandling of Burlington Telecom — more specifically, the mountain of bad press it earned his administration. “The BT thing does bother me,” Marge Gaskins, a past president of the League of Women Voters of Vermont, said following last Saturday’s forum. “I don’t believe in spending public money for something like that.”
Louise Ransom, a 90-year-old historian and former editor of the Williston Whistle, added in regard to Kiss, “He doesn’t have a very good reputation. He’s also not very outspoken. He didn’t make a big impression in one of the biggest jobs in the state.”
Burlington resident Eric Svensson presented a different view. “What happened with the Telecom was small potatoes in the big picture,” he said. “There was a lot of drama created around that. It was way overblown.” Svensson said he’ll probably cast one of his six state Senate votes for Kiss, mainly because of the emphasis the candidate places on implementing a single-payer health insurance system in Vermont.
Kiss is hoping there are many more voters like Svensson out there. He admits that BT “is part of the discussion” as he talks to voters around the county, but insists, “for a lot of people outside Burlington, that’s not their focus.” Importantly, voters from towns outside of Burlington usually account for about two-thirds of Chittenden County’s Election Day turnout.
The former mayor acknowledges that his administration did violate a state regulation requiring prompt repayment of $16.9 million in city funds secretly loaned to BT. But Kiss isn’t saying he’s sorry about that “unfortunate” outcome — which was largely responsible for lowering Burlington’s bond rating to near-junk status. He instead insists, “We did what we needed to do to protect that asset for the city.” Contending that BT has built “the most powerful fiber-to-the-home system in the world,” Kiss says “it gives us an infrastructure for people choosing Burlington as a place to work and live.”
In laying out his qualifications for the state Senate, Kiss notes that he served three terms in the Vermont House and ran a social-services agency with 150 employees and an $8 million budget. He also defends his overall performance in the mayor’s office. The city amassed $12 million in budget reserves while avoiding a property-tax increase during his tenure, Kiss points out.
For those and other reasons, Vermont Progressive Party chair Martha Abbott declares, “He was a successful mayor.” But Abbott wouldn’t reveal whether she’ll vote for Kiss this year. And she doubts he’ll win a seat, partly because it’s “almost impossible” to get elected as either an independent or a Progressive on a countywide basis. Abbott further suggests that “this might not be an ideal time” for Kiss to seek elected office, given that the bad BT vibes are continuing to reverberate.
Kiss is running without Prog endorsement after having the P designation in all five of his previous races — each of them successful. It’s a mutually agreed upon divorce intended to spare both parties embarrassment.
He didn’t seek Progressive backing this time, and the party didn’t urge him to try for it. Asked about the split, Kiss will only say that running as an independent “reflects how I’ve gone about my work for the past six years.”
Abbott describes Kiss as a “wonderful person.” And even political opponents who know him on a personal level generally concur that Kiss is one of the kinder and gentler practitioners of what can be a dark art. Most close observers would also agree with Abbott’s addendum: “He’s not a good communicator.”
But Kiss will need nothing less than expert salesmanship to persuade voters to refocus away from BT and toward the issues he prefers to highlight.
In addition to a single-payer health care system for Vermont, Kiss says that crafting a fair budget would be his top priority in the Senate. “I can tolerate the disparity between rich and poor only if there’s a floor that we don’t let anyone fall below,” he told a set of voters at the speed-dating forum. Kiss also believes the legislature has a role to play in slowing the rate of climate change — mainly by making public transportation more widely accessible in Chittenden County. And he’s not afraid to utter the “T” word, suggesting that a regional gasoline tax could be one option for financing better bus services.
Asked at the forum about the proposed basing of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport, Kiss says he supports bringing the new and noisier generation of planes to BTV. “A lot of people have accommodated to the noise” of the military and commercial planes that already fly in and out of the airport, Kiss says, noting that the din sometimes reaches his own home in Burlington’s Old North End. It’s worth tolerating the discomforts in the interests of enabling the Vermont Air National Guard to play a key role in America’s legitimate defense effort, Kiss says.
He favors an immediate shutdown of Vermont Yankee and says wind turbines should be part of Vermont’s energy mix.
Voters asked Kiss about gun control at the forum, too — something he vocally advocated during his first term as mayor. He reiterated what amounts to an unpopular position among many voters: that Vermont should establish some regulations on firearms, though he did not specify what those should be.
Kiss’ noncommittal stand on a right-to-die law was challenged at the forum by Ginny Walters, a Shelburne retiree who with her husband, Dick Walters, has led the effort to give terminally ill Vermonters the option of taking a prescribed medication to end their lives. Kiss said he wants first to ensure there is “a palliative care plan for everyone facing that kind of crisis.” Walters maintained that such a plan is already available in Vermont and urged Kiss to read the legislation.
“I have read the legislation,” Kiss told her.
“I don’t think you read it very closely,” Ginny Walters responded.
“I’ve read the legislation,” Kiss repeated.
Asked after the forum whether she’d consider voting for Kiss, Walters replied, “Definitely not.” And it’s not only his position on the doctor-assisted death legislation that has her riled. Instant-runoff voting is another. Kiss supports extending IRV to statewide elections — a position Walters and the League also advocate.
But “unfortunately, it was his election that killed IRV in Burlington,” Walters says of a 2010 Queen City referendum that repealed IRV. She reasons — as do most political observers — that voters used the IRV ballot question to register displeasure with the Kiss administration’s bungling of BT.
Win or lose on Election Day, Bob Kiss needs to get a job. He’s begun collecting Social Security, but doesn’t intend to retire — partly for financial reasons. State Senators in Vermont are paid slightly more than $600 a week while the legislature is in session — or about $11,000 for the 2012 session — plus a mileage and meal allowance for lawmakers who commute to Montpelier.
Kiss adds that he’s happier when he has a job, although he says he recognizes, “There’s much more to the world than working.”
Still lean and only a little bit wrinkled, Kiss’ only visible debility is a bandaged finger on his right hand — from a misstep on the way down Mount Mansfield. “I feel like I’d bring youth and energy to this office,” Kiss says with a wry smile over a cup of coffee at Burlington Bay.
He does indeed look fighting fit, as though nothing bad ever happened to him.
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