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Shannon Faces Challenge in Ward 5 Democratic Caucus 

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** updated **

** updated #2 **

Incumbent Burlington City Councilor Joan Shannon, a Democrat, will face a challenge Thursday night for her Ward 5 seat at the district's Democratic caucus. The challenger? Former Progressive City Councilor and state legislator Carina Driscoll.

This time around, however, Driscoll is running as a Democrat and says she has no intention of running as a Progressive.

"I have no plans to run as a Progressive," said Driscoll. "Though, I think it's fair to say that, if elected, I would represent the progressive wing of the Democratic Party."

Driscoll left politics in 2004 to begin raising a family, and now believes it's time to get involved again. She also believes the city council isn't providing enough leadership — whether it's Burlington Telecom or other issues facing the city.

"It's seems that people are more interested in pulling political stunts and scoring political points than providing leadership and doing all they can to ensure taxpayers will see that $17 million protected and repaid, not lost," said Driscoll.

In a pitch to Democrats, Driscoll said the council has been "asleep at the wheel" and failed in its oversight role when it came to Burlington Telecom.

"I have not been party to the evolution of Burlington Telecom's troubles. Unfortunately, there are many who are accountable and there will be a process that is occurring outside of the council that will address that," wrote Driscoll. "At this time, it is not clear what the council's accountability is, but at the very least it is fair to say that the council has been asleep at the wheel and has failed on its oversight responsibilities. It is time for some fresh faces on the council."

Driscoll (pictured above left) told Seven Days that she doesn't want to imply that Mayor Bob Kiss and Chief Administrative Office Jonathan Leopold are off the hook — quite the contrary. But the council can't claim ignorance.

Shannon (pictured above right) agrees the council needs to provide more leadership on key areas, but disagrees that she's to blame for attempting to provide leadership when it comes to resolving BT's mess. 

"I led the effort to remove Jonathan [Leopold] from office, but it didn't happen because the mayor didn't want it to happen," said Shannon. "I also was the councilor who created the blue ribbon task force that took a more thorough, independent look at Burlington Telecom."

That task force's report was issued almost one year ago. It found that Burlington Telecom was not viable by itself and needed to find strategic partners to help it continue to finance its buildout and run day-to-day operations. From that task force report, the city hired Dorman & Fawcett, a firm that specializes in turning around failing companies. Dorman & Fawcett took over day-to-day management in August, and had been working to restructure BT's debt with CitiCapital. That effort failed, and CitiCapital is now in the process of repossessing BT's equipment. BT, meanwhile, is trying to find a new source of funding and strategic partners to stay alive. Meanwhile, the costs of outside consultants and legal fees continue to mount.

"I have tried very hard not to politicize Burlington Telecom," said Shannon. "Which, in fact, is a very easy thing to do — politicize BT. Instead, I've tried to come up with approaches that everyone on the council can work with and that allows city government to continue to function."

But Shannon added that the BT blame should be shouldered largely by Mayor Bob Kiss, not the council. While councilors may have been informed about BT's financial problems, they were also told that plans were in place to deal with the issues. It wasn't until major problems erupted and the city needed to ask for absolution from state regulators that councilors were made fully aware of BT's failings.

"You also have to remember that the council works only part-time, while the administration is working full-time," said Shannon.

Additionally, she said, three political parties are represented on the council (along with two independents), and as a result the council does not always function cohesively. "There is that inherent political tension," she said.

For sure.

Driscoll is no stranger to Burlington politics, though she's touting herself as a "fresh face" in a note to potential supporters. Aside from her own background as a member of the school board, city council and state legislator, Driscoll is also the daughter of Jane O'Meara Sanders, President of Burlington College. O'Meara Sanders' other half happens to be none other than U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a former mayor of Burlington. Sanders has never run as a Progressive, though he did seek and receive the primary endorsement in 2006, only to turn it down later and run in the general election as an independent.

Driscoll said she left the Progressive Party in 2004 after she stepped down from the City Council. She was first elected as a Progressive from Ward 3 in 2003, the same year that Shannon was elected to her Ward 5 seat. Driscoll resigned in 2004 and was replaced by Progressive Tim Ashe.

"Since then, the Democrats have welcomed me into the party, and I've found myself more at home and aligned with the Democrats than the Progressive Party," said Driscoll, who runs the Vermont Woodworking School with her husband Blake Ewoldson.

So, that's what happens to Progressives as they age and become more "conservative" — they become liberal Democrats. Driscoll said she supported Hinda Miller in her 2006 bid for mayor.

Aside from Burlington Telecom, Driscoll would like to see more transparency at City Hall, particularly in the Community and Economic Development Office and the Planning and Zoning Department.

Former City Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Sullivan, and who was a lead volunteer on Sen. Doug Racine's failed gubernatorial bid, is endorsing Driscoll.

"She is both a breath of fresh air and someone with experience," wrote Sullivan in a note to fellow Democrats. "I believe she is the change we need."

Progressive-leaning Democrats in the South End successfully backed Democrat Suzi Wizowaty's primary challenge to incumbent Rep. Bill Keogh, a Democrat, in 2008. Keogh has since been reelected to the city council and serves as the council president.

Shannon is confident she has enough support, but given that anyone can attend the caucus and vote she's still working hard to ensure enough of her supporters show up that night.

"I think I've done a good job at being responsive to people's concerns in the ward and it's also not like I've been sitting there on the council and doing nothing. I think that is what matters most to people," said Shannon.

Ward 5 Democrats will meet at the Champlain Elementary School at 6 p.m. Thursday night. The caucus is open to all who attend and is not restricted to only Democrats.

Driscoll will be out of town that night and unable to attend the caucus.

Incumbent Councilors Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), Vince Dober (R-Ward 7) and Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2) are seeking reelection. Councilors Mary Kehoe (D-Ward 6) and Nancy Kaplan (D-Ward 4) are not seeking reelection. Democrat Norm Blais is seeking the Ward 6 seat while Democrat Dave Hartnett is seeking the Ward 4 seat. No word if Republicans, or Progressives, will challenge either for those seats or in any other districts.

Incumbent Progressive Vince Brennan (Ward 3) is seeking reelection in March. He was just elected in November to fill out the remaining term of Marrisa Caldwell, who resigned her council seat in 2010.

Progressives will nominate the rest of their council slate at a meeting on January 16, said Morgan Daybell, the party's executive director.

* * Update * *

In an email to Seven Days, Carina Driscoll put the kibosh on rumors that she might run as a Progressive if she loses her Democratic bid at Thursday night's Ward 5 caucus.

She wrote: "I have been asked if I would accept the Progressive endorsement if nominated. In case you are curious, if I were to receive the Progressive endorsement, I would be honored and humbled, but would have to gratefully decline. There are many, many people who have been involved in the progressive movement over the last three decades for whom I have great admiration and respect. I will continue to be part of that movement as a Democrat. I have not changed my values and will always work for a progressive agenda to bring creative solutions to move Burlington forward."

** Update #2 **

Joan Shannon easily defeated Carina Driscoll by a 94-59 margin at tonight's Ward 5 caucus. Close to 175 people were in attendance. About 20 folks were politicos from other wards and members of the Ward 6 caucus who met at the same location.

As noted above, Driscoll did not attend, and Jessica Oski read a statement for her. Shannon was at the event and read her own speech. Despite being on site, however, Shannon was so busy talking with voters after her speech that she forgot to vote. By the time she remembered to vote, it was too late—volunteers and party official were already counting ballots.

Good thing the vote wasn't too close.

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Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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