Have Burlington Democrats ever faced better odds of taking back the mayor’s office? Since Independent Bernie Sanders was elected mayor in 1981, Queen City Dems have been exiled from city hall as a parade of Progressives — and one Republican — has come and gone.
But with incumbent Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss weakened by the Burlington Telecom scandal, Dems smell an opportunity.
“I think this is the moment,” says Burlington Democratic Party chair Steve Howard. “After 30 years, the same two parties have run city hall, and people do want to move to a fresh approach.”
Four Democrats, including one who also wears the Progressive label, will vie for the Democratic nomination at the November 13 caucus in Memorial Auditorium. All of them are younger than 45, all come with Ivy League credentials, and all pledge to restore “trust,” “accountability” and “transparency” to city government.
Candidate forums have been packed and interest in the election is high, but, even so, party leaders expect as few as 2000 voters to decide the contest at the caucus. And because it’s an “open” caucus, voters of any political persuasion can cast a ballot (see sidebar).
Below are snapshot profiles of the four Democratic candidates.
Bram Kranichfeld says he wants to end the partisan bickering that’s infected Burlington politics and believes he’s the guy to do it.
“We need, as a community, to break out of this partisan framework that many of us are stuck in,” says the second-term city councilor and deputy state’s attorney. “The ideologies of the Democrat and Progressive parties are virtually identical. We want to improve the community, quality of life, and we want to move forward.”
At 31, Kranichfeld is the youngest — and politically least experienced — candidate in the mayor’s race. But he argues he’s got “the right experience for what we need right now.” His résumé includes stints as a Wall Street lawyer, state prosecutor and chair of the Burlington Electric Commission.
Kranichfeld is a relative newcomer to Burlington, having moved here from Brooklyn with his wife in 2006, but says he’s felt a strong “sense of community” in the Queen City. As a city councilor, he’s also seen progress blocked by partisan fights.
“I have been very frustrated on the city council,” says Kranichfeld, who was elected in 2010 to a Ward 2 seat historically held by Progressives. “Most of the energy and time the council spends is wasted on political posturing and bickering.”
The problem is distrust with city government, Kranichfeld says, and the solution is “transparency and accountability.” He wants a city budget that’s easier for city councilors and the public to understand, expanded audits, and performance reviews in every city department to track service calls and response times.
Kranichfeld says he’s constantly asked how public-works projects get prioritized, and he wants to peel back the curtain on that process. “We could post that information online,” he suggests. “Here’s the projects DPW is working on, here’s the queue of projects, and here’s why we’ve prioritized them that way. It would be a totally new era of transparency, and sharing that information would improve the city’s relationship with residents.”
Born in Dummerston, Vt., and raised in Rye, N.Y., Kranichfeld earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2001 and a law degree from Cornell in 2004. He landed a summer internship in the anticorruption unit of the New York state attorney general’s office when Eliot Spitzer was the boss.
Kranichfeld interned — and later went to work — for the New York city law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn, representing clients with interests in natural gas and oil, finance, and public stock offerings. He left after two years.
“I took a step back one day and asked myself, ‘What am I doing with my life?’” Kranichfeld recalls. “And the only answer I could come up with was, ‘I make rich people richer.’ I couldn’t continue that. I wanted to have a more meaningful impact in the world.”
Even as he distances himself from his stint on Wall Street, Kranichfeld says the job endowed him with a “financial background” the next mayor will need to tackle the city’s vexing money problems.
Like any good lawyer, Kranichfeld has the gift of gab. He worked the audience at a recent candidates’ forum as he would a jury, selling them on the merits of his case — in this instance, why they should elect him. Beyond public-speaking skills, Kranichfeld says his job gives him insight into the “whole community, not just part of it,” meaning the drug addiction, homelessness and other social ills that often land people in court.
“I make hard decisions every single day at my job,” says Kranichfeld, who earlier this summer successfully prosecuted the Latonia Congress murder trial. “What we need is someone who can make a decision and follow through on it.”
Tim Ashe is the latest entrant into the mayor’s race and the only one wearing two party labels: Democrat and Progressive. The 34-year-old state senator has won two terms at the Statehouse as a “fusion” candidate and believes that’s the formula for beating Republican candidate Kurt Wright next March.
“I’m the one candidate who has demonstrated he can unite people,” Ashe says, touting the roughly 11,000 votes he received from Burlington voters in the 2008 election.
He’s also running as the “experienced” candidate. “I have more familiarity with all the moving parts of government, and I have relationships with the business community,” he says. “I won’t have to learn on the job. I know this city inside and out.”
Ashe says he “would be crazy to not see” that the Progressive brand has been damaged in Burlington, but maintains that the label is a strength and not a liability.
“Progressives need to be in the fold, need to be part of the coalition moving forward,” he says. “There’s a lot of people out there that want to vote for Progressive values, and I’m not going to abandon that.”
What might prove a liability for Ashe are two YouTube videos currently making the rounds. One shows him enthusiastically endorsing Bob Kiss for mayor in January 2009 at a city-hall kickoff. In the other, Ashe downplays the seriousness of the Burlington Telecom fiasco at a Progressive Party gathering in November 2009. Ashe calls the videos “personally embarrassing” but says their context is being ignored.
Around the time of the second video, Ashe says the public service commissioner and state auditor suggested people may have personally profited off the $17 million in city funds loaned to Burlington Telecom, and the commissioner opposed a refinancing deal that could have freed Burlington taxpayers from the debt.
“Do I feel like a buffoon because the video makes me look like I’m out of touch with reality? Of course,” Ashe says. “But does the spirit of what I was saying hold true in some ways? Yes. I don’t think anyone was personally enriching themselves off this.”
Ashe pledges that his administration would include people of all political parties to head off “partisan bickering” and would meet more frequently with city councilors.
His agenda for city hall is ambitious. Along with finding a new partner for Burlington Telecom, Ashe has outlined an economic development vision that imagines jump-starting the Moran Plant project, enhancing the waterfront parcel known as the North 40 with botanical gardens or other amenities, repairing the bike path, and redeveloping the Battery Street railyard into 13 acres of retail, residential and commercial properties.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” Ashe concedes. “We’re talking about a 20-year vision.”
Born in Holliston, Mass., the youngest of four boys, Ashe came to Burlington to study history and English at the University of Vermont and graduated in 1999. He attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, earning a master’s in public policy in 2004. Ashe served on the city council from 2004 to 2008 as a Progressive, representing a section of the Old North End. Today, he works as a project manager for affordable-housing developer Cathedral Square.
Ashe won the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers of Vermont, the union representing hospital and university workers, hundreds of whom call Burlington home.
He promises he would not run as a Prog if he loses the caucus. Ashe is less definite about his senate seat. He says he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2012, but might hang on to the seat beyond next March to cast critical votes and ensure that Chittenden County isn’t “one vote short.”
(Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher Paula Routly. See disclosure in Letters to the Editor.)
Miro Weinberger is running for mayor — and he wants you to run with him. The 41-year-old businessman and airport commissioner is turning his regular jogs into meet-the-candidate events he calls “Running for Mayor: The Sprint.” The next one is set for November 10, three days before Burlington Democrats gather to pick their nominee.
After years of working for other politicians, Weinberger is making his first bid for elected office. He has two goals in mind: “putting the fiscal house back in order” and “restoring trust in the office.”
Weinberger estimates that between Burlington Telecom debt, pensions and other costs, the city faces liablilites totaling $80 million. He believes he can shave 10 percent off that figure — or $8 million — with “smarter governance” and by finding “efficiencies.”
At the first candidates’ forum, something else made Weinberger stand out: He was the only Democrat who wouldn’t take GOP candidate Kurt Wright’s idea of selling Burlington Electric Department off the table.
“I didn’t have a knee-jerk response. I did my homework, looked into it further,” he says, adding that he now thinks the plan is “half baked.”
More than any candidate, Weinberger has put out detailed policy plans addressing finances, schools and the doomed Minor League Baseball field. While that gives voters a clearer picture of his priorities, Weinberger says, “There’s no doubt I have lost a few votes by taking clear positions.
“My read on what people want right now is someone who is serious, who will address these issues head on and who is going to be frank,” he says.
A die-hard baseball fan, Weinberger has pitched a plan for saving Centennial Field, home of the Lake Monsters, which immediately touched off a metaphor-laden skirmish with opponent Tim Ashe. Ashe called the plan “a swing and a miss,” saying it depended on legislation Montpelier is unlikely to pass. Weinberger responded that Ashe “wasn’t watching the same game,” noting that a pending bill in Montpelier would address that very hurdle.
“I didn’t promise I could pull this off,” Weinberger says. “I said this is an example of something I’d try to do.”
The only candidate raised in Vermont, Weinberger grew up in Hartland, where his parents moved “to get away from Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California,” Weinberger says. He graduated from Yale University in 1993 and earned his master’s in public policy and urban planning from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1998.
Weinberger interned for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and worked on the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania in 1994.
Weinberger is part of a local American-history book club that has taken eight years to cover pre-Columbian times to the start of the 20th century. Even Weinberger’s house has a political backstory: The Hill Section home where he lives with his wife and 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter was once the residence of former U.S. Attorney Joe A. McNamara.
By day, Weinberger runs the Hartland Group, a housing development and consultancy business that puts together mixed-use projects around Vermont. In Burlington, the firm is developing the former Packard automobile showroom on North Avenue into loft apartments and a café.
Heading into the caucus, Weinberger boasts some big numbers: more than 200 public supporters (whom he lists on his website) and $29,588 raised (almost half from out-of-state donors).
Jason Lorber doesn’t just want to be Burlington’s next mayor. He wants to be its “chief marketing officer.”
The 44-year-old state legislator and business owner says the next mayor will need strong communication skills to accomplish his agenda. For Lorber, the top priorities are to “restore trust and restore fiscal stability.”
“You can’t do either one of those without strong communication skills,” he says.
That comes naturally for Lorber, an amateur standup comedian whose research and marketing business, Aplomb Consulting, teaches improvisation to business executives. As a performer, he may be best known for his Moo Jew Comedy shtick, doing standup at Chinese restaurants at Christmastime.
Lorber was the first entrant into the mayor’s race. His unofficial launch was an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press calling for a “clean slate” at city hall. He says city government needs better bookkeeping, clearer communication with city councilors and improved transparency.
Transparency is something of a buzzword in this campaign, but Lorber says it has real meaning for him. He released his list of campaign donors and expenditures weeks ago, even though the law doesn’t require their release until after the caucus. He supported bills in Montpelier to penalize agencies that withhold public records.
Lorber even holds up a transparency lens to one of the more sensitive events in his personal life: when, at age 21, he told his parents he is gay.
“I was scared of what they were going to do,” Lorber recalls. “They stood with me and they taught me that we are stronger when we confront who we are, when we address the issues in our lives that may be a little messy.”
Born in Philadephia, Lorber was raised in Long Beach, Calif., the son of a public school teacher and a neurologist. He graduated from University of California, Berkeley, in 1989 with a degree in rhetoric, and earned a master’s in business administration from Stanford University in 1995.
Lorber moved to Vermont in 2002 when his husband got a job teaching at St. Michael’s College. In 2005, he won a seat in the state House of Representatives. His priority was working on single-payer health care, but he ended up tackling another vexing and expensive problem: prisons.
Not convinced he was getting the full picture at public hearings, Lorber conducted a series of off-the-record interviews with corrections commissioners, parole officers, advocates and inmates, and released their anonymous insights in a report titled “53 Voices on Corrections in Vermont.”
Lorber also touts his work on the so-called Farm to Plate initiative, which makes $5000 state grants to ag-related businesses. His committee was shaping the program in 2009 when it was called “something like the Vermont Agriculture Sustainability and Investment Program,” he says.
“I said, ‘We need to get a name for this,’” Lorber says. “I said, ‘I’m a marketing guy. Trust me. You don’t have a name for this.’” Someone threw out “farm to plate” and Lorber jumped on it.
“I wasn’t an expert on agriculture. I wasn’t an expert on prisons,” he says. “But by taking these projects on, I became an expert, of sorts.”
Lorber opposes the idea to sell Burlington Electric, but he has floated selling off or regionalizing the Burlington International Airport and using the money to fund local transportation projects such as bike lanes and new bus routes.
“Let’s call it a ‘shareport,’” says Lorber. “Share the burden and the benefits.”
Cycling is another priority for Lorber and something he has addressed at the 20 “backyard brainstorm” sessions he’s held during the campaign. An avid cyclist, he believes Burlington can be the “bike capital of the country.”
Never been to a caucus before? Join the club. Here’s a basic rundown of how the process works, with some tips on how to make it as painless as possible.
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