Burlington mayoral candidates face off

By Alice Dubenetsky

BURLINGTON – “Amicable” best describes the tone of the first mayoral debate between Republican Kurt Wright and Democrat Miro Weinberger that was held last Thursday at Champlain College. The debate, broadcast live on radio station WVMT, and moderated by Hall Communications General Manager Dan Dubonnet, was largely a meeting of the minds between the two candidates, who each focused on the need to move the city forward and restore fiscal stability and renewed trust in City Hall.

Burlington residents, and indeed the entire state, have been alarmed by Burlington’s sharp decline under the Kiss administration. Currently, the city is suffering a $48 million pension shortfall and a general fund loss of $17 million dollars that was illegally transferred to Burlington Telecom to keep the ailing telecommunications company afloat. As a direct result of this blatant fiscal instability the city received a credit rating downgrade from Moody’s. Vermont’s largest city, and arguably one of the state’s greatest assets, has been fiscally ravaged by years of progressive government that promised much even as it failed to increase it’s tax base, finally culminating in the disastrous Kiss administration, in which transparency, leadership and an understanding of sustainable fiscal policy were noticeably absent.

Wright and Weinberger agree on most of the critical issues facing Burlington – the need to ease the way for more development, the requirement to create a sensible tax structure to attract and keep businesses, the restoration of fiscal stability, and, importantly, trust in the Mayor’s office. Their differences are mainly on style, and background. Wright has served on the Burlington City Council and as a state legislator. He is a political insider, with contacts and experience that could serve him well as mayor. Wright is also running what he terms a tri-partisan campaign, and he intends to include and work with Republicans, Democrats and Independents/Progressives to accomplish mutual goals.

Weinberger, on the other hand, is a successful businessman with an MA in Urban Planning and Public Policy from Yale, who has successfully completed complicated projects, bringing people and funds together to complete major undertakings. He’s active in the community and serves on several boards, including the important Airport Commission and the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center board.

Thursday’s friendly debate opened with Weinberger characterizing the mayoral race as essentially about moving the city forward, and emphasizing that he “comes from outside city government” with a plan and a background to grow the “eco-system of clean, socially responsible business” even as the city continues to labor in uncertain economic times.

Wright opened by stating that the people of Burlington need to work together and not repeat the mistakes of the last administration – one that didn’t listen and was not inclusive. He emphasized his experience in state and local government and asserted that it is critical to have a mayor who “has faced the fires”, is unafraid, and willing to spend political capital.

On the big issues – fiscal stability, the need for development, a stable and business friendly tax structure, a general clean-up of City Hall and city management, both candidates are much in agreement.

Wright did take on the Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO), saying that it needs to be restructured (which brought audible gasps from some audience members). He said CEDO needs to broaden its focus from just housing to include economic development issues and do that successfully, it needs a new, dynamic leader. He cited the long-vacant Midtown Motel, a Main Street eyesore, as an example of inertia in City Hall.

One difference between the candidates is their enthusiasm for incorporating technology and social media into the city’s operation. Wright admitted that he is no social media expert, but would not hesitate to consult with the experts at Champlain College. In contrast, Weinberger took the technology ball and ran with it, responding that social media and technology would be “a key part of the way I govern”, which would lead to greater efficiency.

With either candidate, the voters would seem to have a good chance of electing a mayor who understands leadership, finance and business. Restoring the city to solid financial well-being is a necessary step toward saving the social programs and city services that are important to many city residents and both Wright and Weinberger have a firm grasp on that important reality.

There still could be a few spoilers in the race, however. Well known community activist and organizer Wanda Hines has just recently announced that she will run as an Independent Candidate for mayor. Hines will run more of a populist campaign, that, while not well funded, will have a fair amount of grass-roots support.

So far, it remains to be seen if the Progressive Caucus will field a last minute candidate when the meet on January 22, which may, presumably, whittle away votes from Weinberger. However, with the two major candidates off and running, it’s “game on” in the race to City Hall in 2012.