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Progressives Hope Gains On Burlington City Council Will Bolster Their Agenda

(L to R) Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger swears in the four councilor elected last month. Incumbent Democrat Joan Shannon was re-elected and Democrat  Franklin Paulino and Progressives Jack Hanson and Perri Freeman are starting their first terms.
Liam Elder-Connors
Left to right: Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger swears in the four councilors elected last month. Incumbent Democrat Joan Shannon was re-elected, and Democrat Franklin Paulino and Progressives Jack Hanson and Perri Freeman are starting their first terms.

A third party is gaining political clout in Vermont’s largest city. The Progressive Party scored two wins on Town Meeting Day, giving them nearly half the seats on the City Council, and pushing famously liberal Burlington even farther to the left.

Now, with a stronger coalition, Progressives see an opportunity to push their agenda on topics like climate change.

The Burlington City Council meeting on April 1 was more about celebration and ceremony than debating policy. The auditorium was buzzing as the crowd watched four councilors get sworn in.

As they stood in the middle of the room, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger read them the oath. All it all, the swearing in took about 30 seconds.

Two of the new members — Progressives Jack Hanson and Perri Freeman —beat incumbents to win their seats. Both are more left-leaning than the councilors they replaced.

While no party has a clear majority on Burlington’s 12-member City Council, the Progressives’ wins in last month’s election mean they now have four members and a Democrat-Progressive who tends to vote with them.

Democrats still have four seats, plus an independent who tends to side with them. There’s also a second independent and one Republican on the council.

Climate change, housing and bringing more people into the political process were central messages for Progressive candidates on the campaign trail. According to Progressive Councilor Max Tracy, the caucus is in a better position to push those ideas.

“I think it certainly allows us to be more proactive in terms of bringing proposals and pushing issues because it’s not just, you know, a couple of us — it’s really more leaning towards half the council at this point,” Tracy said.

But critics have accused the party of being too oppositional. On issues like the development of the downtown mall, Progressives (including Tracy) were critical of plans supported by the mayor and majority of the council.

"They seem to be the party right now in the city that says no to everything, stop progress," said Dave Hartnett, a conservative Democrat and former councilor. “And I don’t have a problem with that as long as there’s solutions that come with that message, and right now I don’t see any solutions from that fraction of the Progressive Party. Alls I hear is 'no, no, no.'"

But Progressives on the council disagree.

“There’s a clear divide on some very crucial issues that have gotten a lot of attention,” Tracy said. “But I think that ... there has been a lot of shared work and collaboration that's taken place; it’s just not that interesting to talk about that.”

And Freeman, who was just elected, said she sees her policy goals as focused on solutions.

“It’s yes for better wages, and yes for community-driven planning and zoning process and development," Freeman said. "And, you know, yes on climate policy that’s going to protect the lake and keep the air clean."

On addressing climate change, it looks like Progressives will have an ally: Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger.

“2019 will also be a year of action on climate change,” Weinberger said in his State of the City address. “This is especially true when it comes to ground transportation, the sector that continues to be our biggest emissions challenge.”

Weinberger said the new councilors are supportive of efforts, like expanding the city's bike infrastructure, that have seen resistance from the past councils.

“I think this council may be more supportive of doing what we need to do on bike lanes, on e-scooters, on these other transportation innovations that we’re going to need to reduce congestion and to really ... achieve our very ambitious climate goals," Weinberger said.

The mayor said he hopes to meet for more frequently with Progressive councilors — something that members of the caucus say they’re looking forward to.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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