Acting Locally: Progressive Party Victory in Vermont

Acting Locally: Progressive Party Victory in Vermont

Written by Graham Forward, Mike Furze, Benjamin Dangl

Wednesday, 22 March 2006

Image <!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:””; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} a:link, span.MsoHyperlink {color:blue; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed {color:purple; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} p {mso-margin-top-alt:auto; margin-right:0in; mso-margin-bottom-alt:auto; margin-left:0in; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} –> On March 7th, Bob Kiss, a member of the Vermont Progressive Party, defeated a heavily favored Democrat and a Republican to become Mayor of the city of Burlington. The election was the first test of the city’s new instant runoff voting system. Mike Furze and Graham Forward worked on his campaign.

Benjamin Dangl: How did the Vermont Progressive party get started?

Graham Forward: The Progressive party was born out of the Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for mayor of Burlington (the largest city in Vermont) in the early ’80s. Bernie Sanders is something of a political legend in Vermont. He ran for statewide office four times in the 1970’s as a candidate for the Liberty Union party, and failed to garner more than 6% of the vote in any of these elections. So, when he ran for the mayor as an independent in 1981, he was considered by the established parties to be this sort of political gadfly. He was running against a six term incumbent conservative Democrat, so it was sort of David vs Goliath. His twelve vote win in that election was one of the most shocking political upsets in Vermont history.

When Sanders came into power, he had a lot of energy and a lot of great ideas, but he also had to contend with a city council that was filled with Democrats and Republicans who considered him an upstart and didn’t want to work with him. In response, the people who had voted for him formed what became known as the Progressive Coalition for the purpose of electing people to the city council to support Sanders’ initiatives. Although the Progressive Coalition was never able to gain a majority on the thirteen seat council, they were able to get enough candidates elected to allow Sanders to do many of the things that he wanted to do. Eventually, the Progressive Coalition morphed into the Progressive Party, and candidates began to run for statewide office as Progressives. Currently, there are 6 Progressives in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Curiously, Bernie Sanders, who went on to become a three term U.S. Representative and is currently running for U.S. Senate, never became Progressive. The Progressives have a complicated relationship with him. They admire him because he is a successful, charismatic and independent figure, and he stands for basically the same things that the Progressives stand for. But I think that some Progressives wish that he would officially affiliate himself with their party and are annoyed by the fact that he has endorsed some non-Progressives for statewide office in Vermont. Sanders is a very popular figure in Vermont.

BD: What does the Progressive party stand for?

GF: That’s sort of a difficult to question to answer because the Progressive party is not really a single issue party like many third parties. It’s like asking what the Democrats or the Republicans stand for, not like asking what the Green party stands for. Usually, you can rely on the Progressives to be to the political left of the Democrats on most issues. But I think that one of the things that I find so attractive about them is that, in contrast to the mainstream parties, Progressives are policy and goal oriented. They aren’t bogged down in the negativity and finger pointing of partisan politics. This allows them to take risks and develop creative approaches to tough problems.

The transformation of Burlington over the course of the past twenty years may be the best example of this. My parents lived in Burlington during the late seventies, and they tell me that it used to be a pretty depressing place in a lot of ways. The impression I get from them and from other people that I have talked to who were living here during that time is that Burlington was a fairly decrepit former industrial center that hadn’t been able to forge a new identity, and was economically, politically and culturally repressed as a result.

Part of the Progressive solution to this problem was to make Burlington a nicer place to live–which is really sort of radical, when you think about it. Instead of encouraging commercial development along the waterfront, the Progressives turned it into a public park with a bike path. Money went into cultural activities like arts and music festivals. To reduce economic disparities and support working class people, the city’s tax structure was changed so that it did not rely entirely on the regressive property tax, and money was plowed into low income housing and innovative initiatives like a city-run daycare center. Other projects spearheaded by Burlington Progressives included the construction of a biomass electrical generating plant that provides much of the city’s power, the construction of a community owned boathouse, the establishment of a women’s council and a city arts council and a major upgrade of the city’s sewage treatment facilities.

Today, Burlington is a thriving and vibrant community. I drive through some of these crappy little American cities that have roughly the same population as Burlington, and I’m always amazed at how it doesn’t seem like there is anything to do in these places. There doesn’t seem to be any downtown center or local culture–there’s just a strip and a bunch of billboards. There doesn’t seem to have been any effort to make the community unique, or celebrate its uniqueness. You really see that in Burlington, and I think that is a big part of the legacy of the Progressive Party.

BD: Could you outline Bob Kiss’ basic campaign platform and his background?

Mike Furze: Kiss ran on his experience as a community leader in Burlington for the past two decades. He drew parallels between his experience as executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity and the need for the mayor to increase city output with declining funds. Kiss also served as a three-term representative in the State Legislature where he supported workers’ rights, fought to increase wages and protected Vermont’s environment.

A significant issue in the campaign dealt with how the city, and housing in particular, will remain affordable for citizens in the face of increasing property taxes. Kiss proposed the creation of a broad-based citizen’s committee to examine alternatives to the property tax– including the 1% local option sales tax which passed on the ballot this March. In addition to this, Kiss stressed the protection of open space surrounding Lake Champlain and public participation in any development there or in the abandoned Moran electrical generating plant on the waterfront.

The message of inclusive government and a promise that the city would not balance its financial troubles on the backs of renters and homeowners resonated with most of the people I spoke with. Kiss is also a supporter of the livable wage campaign here in Burlington.

BD: How did Kiss compare to the other candidates?

MF: All three major candidates came into the race as elected members by their respective parties. Kevin Curley (R) was a City Councilor, Hinda Miller (D) is a State Senator, and Kiss is a State Representative. I think that Kiss’s deliberative style, reserved demeanor and proclivity for emphasizing participatory democracy set him apart from Miller in particular.

I worked with Miller to some degree as an intern in the State Senate. I found her to be a more pro-management and than other pro-business, centrist Democrats. I believe this comes in part from her experience as a founder of Jog bra and her interests afterwards. I agreed with the statements that about her lack of concern or even familiarity with the day-to-day problems faced by the many Vermonters living paycheck-to-paycheck. When citizens raised these concerns, her answers did not connect with voters.

I think that became evident to voters in the mayoral race. She had several antagonistic confrontations with individuals who asked about her ability to connect and empathize with residents in the denser and less-affluent parts of town. In a confrontation at a community dinner, Miller was rumored to have told a resident that she donated more money than that individual spent on food in an entire week. Word of this disconnect spread among networks of friends and coworkers in the community, converting potential Miller supporters to Kiss supporters.

As for Curley, he painted himself as a fiscal conservative with a social conscience. While I believe that his “compassionate conservatism” may have had more substance than the Bush Administration’s, I doubt the real-world implications of such a policy structure. When push comes to shove, I believe money would trump the needs of citizens. Importantly, Curley told voters that he would select Bob Kiss as his second choice for mayor…

BD: How and why did you get involved in the Kiss campaign?

GF: There was really never much question in my mind about what candidate I would support for mayor. As you can probably tell, I really like Burlington, and I feel like I want it to continue to be the same kind of place that it is today. I also really like Bob Kiss on a personal level–he’s a warm, friendly guy who clearly has a genuine personal commitment to public service and progressive values. I had met him a couple of times before he decided to run because he was the state representative for the part of the city that I lived in, and it always seemed to me that he had an incredible amount of integrity.

MF: My involvement goes back to trying to get involved with Burlington Progressives over a year ago. I found my initial experience getting involved frustrating. Although I knew many members of the party, they informed me that the Burlington Progressives structured itself around elections and laid amorphous until that time. I had been elected as a ward representative to the Burlington Progressive Party’s steering committee and named “Ward Captain”–which meant coordinating campaign activities for Ward 6 (the City is divided into equal districts called wards). I knocked on doors to collect signatures for Kiss and for another progressive candidate.

Anyway, I agree with Graham’s assessment of Kiss as a person. When Kiss announced his candidacy, I told him that I’d help anyway that I could. At the beginning, it took the campaign a few days to get up and running with familiar activities: phone banks and mailers and such. I decided that bridging the gap I had already encountered could make local politics accessible to progressive-minded individuals without political connections, per se.

BD: What was your experience like working within the campaign? What kind of work did you do?

MF: I spoke with some friends about getting the “under-40? crowd involved in the campaign. Initially, I wanted to have a small donation fund-raiser… but I realized that college students and twenty-somethings in Burlington do not have that sort of disposable income. We decided to hold a movie screening with free pizza. In the end, we gathered over a dozen people to have a conversation with Kiss and Clarence Davis, a progressive candidate for city council.

The initial campaign event, as far as I know, allowed these folks to immediately volunteer for both campaigns. They also formed a core group that participated in events throughout the campaign–3 city-wide literature drops, speaking events, a college-student voter registration drive, and the phone banks. I believe that the initial event lead to at least two dozen volunteers for the duration of the campaign. Since Kiss was a late entrant, those conversations, both pro-Kiss and against other candidates, broke the ice and allowed Burlington to listen to his message.

Of course, every campaign has less glamorous things– making signs, walking lit routes and talking with friends and neighbors. Even if they are less glamorous, those tasks are the nuts and bolts of campaign work.

GF: Since this was the first time that I had ever really been seriously involved with local politics, I was pretty content to be a campaign foot soldier, so to speak. But it was such a good experience overall that I think that I would like to take a more active role in the future. During the campaign, I ran leaflet routes and I hosted a meet the candidate party at my house. I also went to various campaign events. Probably the most important thing that I did was to talk to all of the people that I knew about how great Bob Kiss was and how awesome and unique it was to have the opportunity to vote for a viable third party candidate. I tried to get all the people around me involved in some way.

BD: During the campaign, was it clear Kiss would win?

MF: I think that people on the campaign believed Kiss would be the better Mayor of Burlington, but convincing the residents of the city presented a challenge. Kiss announced his candidacy in mid-January, well after the other candidates. Hinda Miller had been campaigning since September and, although she did have to survive a caucus vote, her campaign was presented as the front-runner and had band wagon appeal. She also had the support of the local democratic establishment, including Senator Patrick Leahy, and former governor/current DNC chairman Howard Dean.

Kiss’s limited fund-raising and delay in organization, coupled with his “nice guy” image, led to a media perception that he was an “also-ran” candidate. The absence of long-time progressive office-holders from his camp didn’t help. Several progressives and former progressives openly supported Hinda Miller, including outgoing Mayor Peter Clavelle. I think that the support of the establishment for Miller actually helped Kiss frame himself as new leadership for the city, even though Progressives have held office for nearly the past 20 years.

GF: I thought that he was going to lose, to be honest. Everybody in the media was saying that he was going to lose, and I really started to believe it by the end.

BD: How does instant runoff voting work? Did instant runoff voting have anything to do with the victory?

MF: Instant-runoff voting is a system of tabulating ballots to determine a majority winner of an election. In Burlington, IRV gave voters the option of ranking candidates in order of choice. IRV eliminates the “Nader effect” and is potentially cheaper for a community than a conventional runoff because it combines a regular election and runoff into a single election event.

GF: I think that IRV allowed people to feel comfortable voting for Bob Kiss despite the fact that he was not favored to win. I think that if instant runoff voting was not in place, people would have bought into all of the media coverage about how Kiss was running a quixotic campaign, etc. ..and they would have voted for Hinda Miller.

One big problem that the Progressive Party has faced in Vermont is that they are often reviled as a spoiler for the Democrats. So a lot of people are afraid to vote for Progressives because they really don’t want a Republican to win. IRV would solve this problem, and the ease that Burlington had in implementing it really proves that the technology is there to do it.

Kiss’s win really turns around the conventional wisdom on how the Progressives will always be the spoilers for the Democrats because, after the first round, Kiss had more votes than Miller-so technically, she was the spoiler candidate. This was really surprising to a lot of people. I think that it proves that the Progressives would be much more competitive than people think if they were able to compete on a statewide level and the Democrats weren’t able to play the spoiler card.

BD: Why should instant runoff voting be used in national elections? How could impact a presidential race?

GF: Well, Bush probably would have lost to Gore in Florida in 2000. When the second choices of Ralph Nader were distributed after he was eliminated, I’m sure that there would have been plenty of votes to put Gore over the top. It is interesting to contemplate a national political landscape where third parties could not be cast by the mainstream parties as spoilers. A national political landscape where people could vote for candidates who they really liked, instead of against candidates who they really hated.

BD: Describe the final days of the campaign. How did you feel when you heard he won?

GF: It was very satisfying. I felt like it was a real vindication not just of Kiss, but of the Progressive party’s continuing viability and political muscle. I think that even a lot of hard-core Progressives were surprised at the margin of the victory and the depth of their support in Burlington.

MF: Yeah, I really enjoyed being a part of the campaign. Really, I had no organizing experience, just a desire to do good and some friends who thought the same way. Before I got involved I wondered how people “organize.” I believe that the answer is to take responsibility and act.

The campaign was all volunteer, compared to the hired staff of the Democratic candidate, who out spent us by an 8 to 1 margin. I remember the faces slowly changing from the usual progressive suspects to a wider range of new faces.

In the last days leading up to the election, there was a flurry of activities. Students continued dorm-storming and registering classmates at the University of Vermont and there was a float in the Burlington Mardi Gras Parade (in about 5 inches of snowfall) as well as endorsements and press conferences. Unfortunately, I spent the last weekend stuck in O’Hare Airport waiting for a flight to Burlington while other volunteers did a final lit drop and posted signs across town. Thankfully, I ended up returning just in time to vote.

At the election gathering on Church street, I would describe the mood as tempered excitement. But, as the numbers rolled in and the crowed swelled, the excitement slowly changed the mood. When we learned that Kiss had won Miller’s Ward, there were smiles all around. The party really started when the IRV votes showed Bob as the winner.

For me, the win was the culmination of hard work across the city. I found playing a real role in this campaign empowering– volunteers gathered and spread the message, issues and people won out over money.
BD: Do local, mayoral elections such as this effect national, and international politics?

GF: Irregardless of the success the Kiss administration, I think that there is a real lesson here about the value of acting locally, and the value of working outside the two party system when neither party really stands for what you believe in. I found working for Kiss’s campaign to be far more satisfying personally than working for national campaigns. Too often, you need to take the “lesser of two evils” approach with national politicians. On a local level, you can get to know the candidates personally. Hell, you can even be the candidate if you want. It’s nice to be reminded of this.

And I also believe that local, grassroots political efforts play a huge role in developing good candidates and changing the way people think. I think that a lot of people around the country think that Vermont is this sort of uniformly liberal state where everybody is a left-wing-draft-dodging-hippie-ski-bum-back-to-the-lander, due to exports like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Howard Dean. It is debatable whether Vermont is really like this today (exhibit one being Republican governor Jim Douglas, the very popular successor to Howard Dean), but it is just plain inaccurate to say that Vermont was like this 25 years ago.

And yet, 25 years ago, Bernie Sanders was able to eke out a victory in Burlington that helped to lay the foundation for his eventual election to the U.S. House of Representatives. That victory also laid the foundations for the Progressive party, and heralded what would become fairly dramatic shift in the political character of Vermont. It’s a perfect example of the repercussions that local action can have. I don’t know whether this election will end up having as far reaching consequences as that one, but you never know. I’m certainly proud to have been a part of it.

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