In a city that voted two and a half to one for the last Democratic governor — and five to one for the last Democratic president — Kurt Wright is attempting the improbable: to become the Republican mayor of one of America’s most liberal cities.
But you won’t hear Wright utter the R word.
It’s not on his website. It’s not in his advertisements. And it’s definitely not in his campaign slogan: “Citizenship, Not Partisanship.”
A longtime member of the Burlington City Council — he’s been on and off since 1995 — Wright has earned endorsements from council colleagues of every political persuasion: Democrat David Hartnett, who manages his campaign; independent Sharon Bushor; and Progressive Vince Brennan.
Also on the R’s side is former Democratic state representative Sandy Baird, who ran for mayor on the Green Party ticket. “Kurt operates on a local level, and so do I,” Baird says. “When an issue comes up that I’m concerned with, I find him to be open and respectful. He always listens and sometimes disagrees.”
But in his other political job, representing Burlington’s more conservative New North End in the Vermont House of Representatives, Wright’s record is reliably Republican. Though he strays from party orthodoxy from time to time — with his “yea” for gay marriage, for example — Wright consistently votes with his caucus on issues relating to the state budget, taxes, labor, health care and the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
“I don’t know much about his work in Montpelier, frankly,” Baird concedes.
Unlike his Statehouse colleagues from Burlington, Wright has earned perfect or nearly perfect marks in four of the five legislative scorecards produced by the pro-business Vermont Chamber of Commerce. Many of the votes for which Wright earned credit from the chamber — in favor of former governor Jim Douglas’ veto of a Democratic budget, in favor of reducing the estate tax and against requiring Vermont Yankee to increase its decommissioning fund — split largely along party lines.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Wright has scored 25 percent or less in four of the five reports produced by Vermont Public Interest Research Group, while the rest of the Burlington delegation notched perfect or near-perfect scores. Wright earned mixed reviews, meanwhile, from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, which released its first scorecard following the 2009-10 biennium. The liberal business group rated him at 50 percent. VBSR gave him credit for supporting gay marriage and bolstering the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, while it dinged him for his VY decommissioning fund vote and for opposing legislation that would have required utilities to buy renewable power at higher-than-market rates.
During last year’s legislative session, for which interest-group rankings are not yet available, Wright was one of 34 House members — of 150 — who opposed the Democratic budget. He was one of 49 against creating a single-payer health care system in Vermont.
Wright can be hard to pin down ideologically. Asked to name a single statewide or national political figure from his party with whom he identifies, Wright declines to answer, saying, “I differ with everybody on different things.
“I’m a Republican that believes in the basic Republican philosophy but is an independent-minded Republican. In other words, I don’t stick with strictly party dogma. I do what I think is right,” he says.
That approach has made Wright a thoughtful and deliberative legislator, according to his Statehouse colleagues. They say that while he may support his caucus’ position on big-ticket taxing and spending provisions, he’ll go against his party if he feels strongly enough about an issue.
“I definitely disagree with him on stuff, but I’ve seen plenty of examples when he’s taken a principled stand and ignored his caucus’ position,” says Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington).
He points to Wright’s support of national popular vote legislation that Pearson sponsored, for which the Republican took “a fair amount of heat from his caucus,” Pearson says.
Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), who leads the Republican caucus, observes: “Just watching from my leadership position, he does ask a lot of good questions in committee. He understands how the process works. He understands how to get things done. I see him working across party lines, but he’s willing to carry our message with him to committee.”
In the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, chairman Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier) says Wright is engaged, informed and independent. Wright is the only one of three Republicans on the committee who occasionally sides with Democrats and Progressives, Klein says.
“When push comes to shove in my committee, I can go to Kurt Wright and I can deal with him on an issue, and he will make his decision based upon the issue, not the partisan piece,” he says.
Though he has a lifetime score of 37 percent from the Vermont League of Conservation Voters, Wright received a 58 percent for the 2009-10 session and scored higher than all but five other House Republicans in the last two bienniums.
“I’d say 58 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, for a Republican, is pretty frickin’ good,” Klein says.
Wright wins the most bipartisan praise for his 2009 vote in favor of marriage equality. When Douglas vetoed a bill legalizing gay marriage, Wright voted with a slim two-thirds majority to override the veto.
“I think it was brave of him to vote against his governor and support it,” says Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), a supporter of Wright’s Democratic mayoral opponent, Miro Weinberger.
Not according to Burlington City Councilor Ed Adrian, the vice chairman of the city Democratic party and also a Weinberger supporter. Adrian claims Wright’s vote was simply a matter of political expediency.
“He voted that way because that was how he needed to vote politically,” Adrian says. “I think for somebody who wants to be the mayor of certainly a left-leaning city, to vote otherwise would have been political suicide.”
Adrian points to a letter Mayor Bob Kiss circulated in 2009 that was meant to send a pro-gay-marriage message from the Burlington City Council to the governor and the legislature. Most city councilors signed it — but not Wright.
Wright says he declined to sign the letter because, as a state legislator, he saw no reason to send a letter to himself. Plus, he was still gathering input from constituents about how he should vote.
“I listened to both sides, went to different people’s houses on both sides of the issue and listened and talked to them and went to public hearings and ultimately decided it was the right thing to do,” he explains.
Though he was not in the legislature at the time, Wright says he did not favor the creation of civil unions in 1999. Since then, his views have shifted.
“I didn’t and that’s part of the process of evolving,” he says. “I didn’t think it was the right thing at that time. Again, it’s the process of growing and changing.”
That flexibility can leave Wright open to criticism. Last month, the state Democratic Party accused him of flip-flopping on a relatively routine budget adjustment act that would have provided funding for several Burlington priorities. When the bill first came up for a vote, Wright voted against it, but on final passage — a few hours after the party criticized the vote in a press release — he voted for it.
“When he thought no one from Burlington was paying attention in Montpelier, he voted party-line Republican and against Burlington interests,” Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson wrote in a statement. “Once called out on his vote, he conveniently changed his tune.”
Wright says he initially voted no to express dissatisfaction with a provision in the bill that would have created a number of new state government positions — but that he always planned to vote for the bill on final passage.
“It was a simple matter of casting a vote to express concerns about the process,” he says.
Ram finds that hard to believe.
“I let him know I was surprised he voted against it. Of course, he voted for it the day after. I still don’t understand the substantive changes he saw,” the Democrat says.
Wright sees criticism of his voting record in Montpelier as evidence that his Democratic opponent is engaged in “a traditional, hardcore, party-based campaign.” He says he has received undue scrutiny because he is running against “a guy who has no voting record whatsoever.”
Wright and his supporters argue that what Burlington voters really care about is his record on local issues and his experience in city government.
“I don’t always agree with Kurt, but what I’ve really come to appreciate is the process he goes through when we’re having a discussion about an issue,” says Bushor, the independent city councilor who endorsed Wright last week. “He really does listen to all sides before he makes a decision, and that’s really important to me.”
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