With No Mayoral Candidate, Progressives’ Strength Questioned

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(Host) Burlington’s Progressive Party may be one of the most successful third parties in the country. But it’s run into a rough patch lately. For the first time in decades, Progressives won’t have a candidate for Burlington mayor. Some observers say that could signal broader political implications for the rest of the state. VPR’s Kirk Carapezza reports.

(Carapezza) Third parties in America tend to have difficulty maintaining their momentum. They may win the occasional election, but they don’t typically enjoy the level of sustained success – and sustained support – that Burlington Progressives have had for nearly 30 years.

(Garrison Nelson) "They had a transformative effect on the City and also by extension on the state."

(Carapezza) Garrison Nelson is a political scientist at the University of Vermont. He says the extent to which Vermont has become a leader in liberal social issues stemmed in part from the influence of Burlington’s Progressive Party.

Progressives have tapped the City for state and national leaders, including former mayor Bernie Sanders, who was the inspiration for the party, even though he always ran as an independent.

But Professor Nelson says the fact that 71 percent of the city voted against Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss on the first ballot of instant runoff voting in 2009 should have signaled to Progressives that their influence was beginning to wane.

(Nelson) "And then to get involved in the Burlington Telecom mess, in which the City is really on the hook for millions of dollars, destroyed the brand."

(Carapezza) A brand that many in the city say was so badly damaged that it will take some time to repair. The party holds just two seats on the 14-member City Council.

Progressives don’t see their decision not to run a candidate in the Burlington mayor’s race as a sign of brand damage. Rather they say it’s an opportunity to strengthen their bench.

(Elijah Bergman) "There’s going to be a number of people coming along the pipeline."

(Host) Elijah Bergman is vice chair of the Burlington Progressive Party. He says Progressives who were disappointed with the Kiss administration are taking the long-view.

(Bergman) "We are a party that doesn’t run candidates just to run them. How can our city government meet the needs of its people – especially moderate and low-income residents? I think that has to be the decision first, not how can we keep power for a few more years."

(Carapezza) Burlington Democrats, who have always had a tense relationship with Progressives, say the lack of a candidate is very telling.

City Council President Bill Keogh, a Democrat, says that Progressives weren’t able to put together a credible defense of Mayor Kiss’s management of Burlington Telecom’s finances. And, Keogh says, they’ve failed to show that the party could run the City effectively.

(Keogh) "Perhaps this is the end of their role in the City. The Progressives have been really strong but in the past two or three years their role on the Burlington City Council has diminished markedly."

(Carapezza) Progressives say don’t count them out, yet. They won’t say whether they plan to endorse one of the candidates still in the race – Democrat Miro Weinberger, Republican Kurt Wright or Independent Wanda Hines.

But Progressives do say they will focus on capturing two open city council seats – something which they hope will bring more people into the party, both in Burlington and around the state.

For VPR News, I’m Kirk Carapezza.

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