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Curley's Cue 

Local Matters

Published February 15, 2006 at 4:01 p.m.


Some politicians have a litmus test to help them decide how to vote on issues. Kevin Curley, Ward 4 city councilor and the Republican candidate for Burlington mayor, uses what he calls the "Ralph Thompson" test. Thompson is Curley's 86-year-old neighbor on West Road in the New North End.

"I ask myself, 'Do I want Mr. Thompson to eat macaroni and cheese one more night a month so we can pass this tax increase?'" says Curley. "That's the bar that needs to pass."

Curley doesn't mind if people call his approach to decision-making simplistic. "I'm just a regular guy. I don't know how to put that out there any more than I have," he says. "I want city government to work for all Burlingtonians."

Seven Days caught up with the mayoral hopeful and lifelong Burlington resident at his modest split-level home at 95 West Road -- assessed value: $204,200 -- where he lives with his wife, Kathy, a tax-credit specialist with the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, and his 15-year-old son, Casey, who attends Burlington High School. Curley's two stepdaughters, who also attended Burlington schools, have since moved away.

Curley, 43, is a tall, husky man with a boyish mop of wavy brown hair. He greets me at the door with a firm handshake, his thick fingers still ink-stained from his job as the shop supervisor at Vermont Print and Mail in Hinesburg. He's worked there for the last two and a half years. Curley's ottoman-shaped yellow Labrador, Amber, is excited to have a visitor, but is soon snoring away in the living room, where a framed painting of the Burlington waterfront hangs over the sofa.

With the election only three weeks away, Curley had just finished printing his own campaign signs and begun putting them up around town; from the look of things, his campaign office is the dining room table. It's been a challenge juggling a full-time job, his City Council duties and a busy campaign schedule, he says.

Curley is a third-generation Burlingtonian. His grandmother was born and raised in a boardinghouse in the Old North End. His father served on the City Council. After graduating from Burlington High School, Curley immediately took a job at the Essex Publishing Company on North Avenue. Today, he bemoans the fact that the Queen City is no longer a place where young people can learn a trade right out of high school and find an affordable place to live. "We've lost that critical piece in the city," he says.

Thus far, Curley's working-man cred has served him well in the political arena. Voters in Burlington's more conservative but largely Democratic Ward 4 elected him to two terms on the Burlington School Board in the 1990s and four terms on the City Council since 1998; in two of those council races, he ran unopposed. Curley is hoping that his passionate, shoot-from-the-hip style will lead to his first-ever citywide victory -- in his first bid for mayor in 2002 against Peter Clavelle, Curley garnered 45 percent of the vote. It was the only election he's ever lost.

Though some may write Curley off as the "Joe six-pack" of City Hall, the lifelong Republican has made his presence felt on a City Council that invariably steers to the left. In the past, he's chaired the Public Safety, Policy and Charter Change Committees. He now heads up the License Committee, which oversees cabaret and liquor licenses and outdoor entertainment permits. When he took over the post last spring, many downtown bar and tavern owners saw Curley as a welcome change over his predecessor, Bill Keogh. They credit Curley with streamlining the license-review process.

Curley describes himself as a fiscal conservative who believes that city government should only be big enough to "fit the bill." During his eight years on the Council, he's shown a readiness to be the lone dissenting voice on some issues, occasionally expressing opinions that were later supported by the voters.

Asked to identify his proudest moment on the City Council, Curley cites his success in helping to defeat the multimodal transportation center that Mayor Clavelle proposed for the Burlington waterfront in 2001. Curley claims it was his op-ed piece in The Burlington Free Press that mobilized opposition to "that stinky, diesel-fumes-spewing bus station." Instead, Curley says the city should invest in an open-air market at that location.

Curley also takes credit for helping to defeat the measure that would have handed over the Moran Plant to the Greater Burlington YMCA. On that issue, Curley was aligned with Progressive Ward 3 councilors Tim Ashe and Phil Fiermonte. Curley and Ashe were both critical of how the city was determining the fate of this valuable waterfront property without adequate input from the public. So, the two got together and hammered out a ballot question to allow Burlington voters to decide.

"Kevin and I worked closely together in what turned out to be, from the public's point of view, the correct approach," says Ashe. "I've enjoyed working with him and we've found a lot of points of agreement."

Curley claims it was his initial opposition during a late-night Council meeting, combined with an editorial he penned, that eventually led to Burlington residents overwhelmingly rejecting the move. Whether or not Curley really deserves the credit for killing the YMCA-Moran Plant plan, he was unquestionably the first councilor to publicly oppose it.

"I think Kevin showed that he's someone who really listens to the people," notes Republican Kurt Wright, Curley's fellow Ward 4 City Councilor. "As in the Moran Plant issue last year, he showed some real leadership qualities."

In keeping with his fiscal conservatism, Curley identifies the biggest miscalculation in his political career as his vote in favor of City Market moving downtown. Curley complains that the food co-op didn't live up to its initial pledge of providing $775 per year to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, nor did it provide rebate checks to local shoppers, as originally promised. "My biggest mistake was believing what I was told without really seeking iron-clad guarantees," he says.

Wanda Hines at the Food Shelf is far less critical of City Market. She says the store's general manager, Earl Bell, has taken steps to meet its financial obligations, including negotiating a deal that allows the Food Shelf to buy goods wholesale through the co-op's distributor. The arrangement saved the emergency pantry about $2000 in its first quarter alone.

Whether or not people agree with Curley's opinions, few would deny that he's passionate about the city. In particular, he seems to have a knack for tapping into the collective discontent, from residents' revulsion over property-tax increases to their desire for smaller government. Curley voted against the citywide indoor smoking ban, arguing that it would put Burlington businesses at a disadvantage compared to those in neighboring towns. Later, Curley voted to oppose expanding the smoking ban to private clubs, and rallied opponents of the measure to show up in force at public hearings on the issue. In his campaign for mayor, he's stated his firm opposition to a proposed local option tax.

But Curley insists he's not some knee-jerk Republican who opposes all government regulations and tax increases. He voted in favor of the livable wage ordinance and has been an ardent supporter of keeping neighborhood schools open in the Old North End. "I tend to be conservative by nature," he explains, "but that doesn't mean I don't care about the community."

Interestingly, Curley's campaign manager, Harry Snyder, is a lifelong Democrat who, until June 2005, worked as the city's human resources director under Mayor Clavelle. Curley claims he didn't even know Snyder's political leanings until after he'd joined the campaign. Not that Burlington Republicans have a deep bench to choose from. Curley's only opponent for the GOP mayoral nomination was Kevin Ryan, a 37-year-old self-employed comic book dealer whose voter registration lists his address as the Burlington emergency shelter on North Street.

In fact, during a mayoral meet-and-greet last week at the Wards 2 and 3 Neighborhood Planning Assembly meeting, Curley made a point of distancing himself from the Republican Party at the national level.

"I want everyone in this room to rest assured that I don't have George Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld on my speed dial," Curley told the packed room, "nor has Condoleezza Rice ever called me to ask my opinion on foreign policy."

His comment got the evening's best laugh, but it was more than just a clever quip. Curley says he has no plans to accept campaign funds from the Vermont Republican Party; GOP Chairman Jim Barnett confirms that the state political organization is primarily involved in legislative and statewide elections, and generally doesn't fund local races. Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie expressed his support for Curley during a recent radio interview, but Curley says he won't be soliciting an endorsement from his friend, Governor Jim Douglas.

It's no secret that in city elections, Burlingtonians tend to vote for people over political parties, a trend that has worked in Curley's favor in the past. This time around, though, that tendency could hurt Curley's chances, especially considering the number of big-money GOP supporters who have thrown their support behind his Democratic rival, state Senator Hinda Miller.

Burlington real estate mogul Ernie Pomerleau, a self-described "fiscally conservative Republican with a Democratic social core," has endorsed Miller, whom he describes as a neighbor and close personal friend. "Kevin's a really good guy," Pomerleau explains, "but I want somebody who really understands the business side of it and can balance the social fabric that's required in this community." Pomerleau sees nothing unusual about his endorsing the Democratic frontrunner; he points out that in past elections, he's backed Clavelle and Senator Patrick Leahy as well as Bush and Douglas.

Body Shop owner and longtime Republican Yves Bradley has also thrown his support behind Miller. Although Curley clearly has a lot of passion and more experience at the city level, "I think it's going to be important for us to have a mayor at the helm who has not been a part of city government for a long time," he says. "I see that as an asset, not a drawback."

Bradley adds, "I'm naïve enough to believe that people can rise above their declared politics and have the best interest of the city in mind."

Curley seems unfazed that so many GOP supporters from the business community are supporting his Democratic rival. "Maybe some of my votes have alienated the Republican Party. I'm not going to apologize for it," he says. "The only thing I want is what's best for the city. And I will step into the mayor's office and owe nobody anything."

But the electoral deck will be stacked against Curley in another respect. For the first time in Vermont history, Burlington voters will have the opportunity to use Instant Runoff Voting, a system that eliminates the "spoiler-candidate" phenomenon by allowing voters to rank their candidate choices in order of preference. Under the old system, a candidate could be elected to office by as little as 40 percent of the popular vote. Typically, this benefited the Republican candidate in races where the liberal vote was split between the Democratic and Progressive challengers.

Curley was opposed to IRV, but not because it took away his edge in the upcoming mayoral race, he says. Rather, he's concerned that the system will be too confusing for senior citizens. Curley's own second choice for mayor is Progressive candidate Bob Kiss.

Curley spends a lot of time talking about what his administration would do to provide relief for Burlington seniors. He says one of his first priorities would be to set up a senior home-retention program, which would help older residents stay in their houses. Curley says he would propose a freeze on all municipal tax increases for seniors until the sale or disposition of their property. As mayor, he knows he'd have no control over local school taxes.

"We cannot have our seniors going to the polls voting on issues and doing that solely based on whether or not they can afford it," Curley told the Ward 2 and 3 NPA. "They really need to vote based upon the merits of the issue."

Curley says he would also ask the City Council to approve a local tax credit for Project Home Share, a program that encourages young people to move in with retirees in exchange for helping out with basic household chores, such as cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. Curley's own mother-in-law has just signed up for the program. Finally, Curley says he would set up an office for seniors with the help of the nonprofit AARP, to create a place for "one-stop shopping at City Hall."

Curley says his first act upon taking office would be to impose a hiring freeze on all city departments. He would require that all new prospective hires, regardless of position, be reviewed by the Board of Finance to determine whether that position is truly needed. "Hinda Miller says, 'In the first hundred days I'll get the reports from all the department heads,'" Curley says. "Well, I don't need to wait a hundred days. I've been living those reports. We can do some things right off the bat. . . There does need to be just a little housecleaning in City Hall."

Curley says he would pursue an ambitious policy of reducing city government spending, in part by consolidating some positions and responsibilities, in part by seeking new revenue streams. For example, Curley proposes stiffer fines for landlords who are repeatedly cited for building and safety code violations. Curley also wants the city to be more proactive in how it manages its assets, such as Memorial Auditorium.

"How does the City of Burlington lose $150,000 a year out of the Parks and Recreation budget on Memorial Auditorium? That's net loss!" he says. "You find me one person in the city of Burlington who loses money on real property."

Finally, Curley says he believes the city should provide more positive outlets for teens and young adults. He says he will seek out a sponsor for a public-private partnership to build an indoor skate park and swimming pool in Leddy Park.

Although many political observers don't believe he has enough citywide support to win the mayor's office, Curley seems unperturbed. Holding the minority opinion has worked for him before.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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