On the TV show Portlandia, Kyle MacLachlan plays the mayor of Portland, Oregon (“where young people go to retire”) as an enthusiastic and convivial presence who dashes around on his bicycle to answer the call of his city’s youth. While Burlington’s Democratic mayoral candidate, Miro Weinberger, may not play in a reggae band or “strengthen his core” on an exercise ball at his desk, the “fresh start” contender shares with the fictional mayor a passion to support his community’s twenty-somethings.
Originally from Hartland, Vermont, Miro (pronounced as in The Island of Doctor Moreau) recognizes his state’s politicians as his main influences. He cites specifically Senator Patrick Leahy, with whom he interned for while at Yale, as well as Congressman Peter Welch. He notes that Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, a look into Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem for the better, was most inspirational early in his career. “I’m a student of American History,” Weinberger said regarding his decision to run for office. “The idea of playing a small role in the democratic process has always had its appeal to me.” A catcher for the Vermont Cardinals and an outdoors enthusiast, Weinberger said he made his final decision to run for office while hiking the Long Trail with a friend. “I think being in the outdoors is critical,” he said. “I try to do that when I make big decisions.”
His outsider status and fresh perspective on the wounded Burlington economy led Weinberger to consider his bid in the first place. “I definitely reached a moment this year where I saw something had to be done,” he said. “Someone needed to step up who had a different kind of background and different kinds of skills than what we’ve had. The other people who were talking about running didn’t fit the bill, and I saw it was a time I could really make some kind of contribution to the city.”
The 41-year-old businessman runs the Hartland Group, an affordable-housing nonprofit dedicated to “creating stimulating neighborhoods,” according to their website. Weinberger also serves as airport commissioner, a job in which he’s had “a firsthand view of the administration” and proved his dedication to innovation. “We were having some abuse of the parking system because people would come in and ‘lose their ticket,’” he said. “They would stay for weeks or even months, paying for only one day of parking. There’s now a license plate recognition system so you can’t get away with that when you go in.”
Weinberger’s candidacy has thrived on his “fresh start” slogan since its inception, and it remains a core principle of his campaign. Thread spoke with the amiable Weinberger on a recent rain-soaked Wednesday at his Summit Street home, while campaign assistants bustled around the house. We found his living room walls adorned with family photos printed upon cloth, and a healthy panoply of houseplants lining the floor. A quick glance at a CD shelf around a corner revealed a collection containing, among many others, Pete Seeger, Phish, and U2, though he says he’s also been a “long-time fan” of Colin Hay, Bobby McFerrin, and The Boss. Weinberger, who lives there with his wife and 5-year-old daughter, sat on his couch beside a folded pile of laundry and laid out why Thread’s general readership deserves his vote. “I’ve seen in my time too many people from your demographic come here excited about living in Burlington, and then have to fight to stay here,” he said. “A lot of people lose that fight. They’re unable to do it and need to move away. Job creation is critical to that.”
Weinberger’s plans for office involve building upon the socially-responsible companies already in town. “We’ve got a great base to the creative economy here with companies like Dealer.com and Union Street Media, but it does need to be bigger,” he said. When asked for comment regarding Miro and business development, Ted Adler, owner of Union Street Media, said, “To be a successful developer, you need vision, determination and patience. To be a successful entrepreneur, you need focus, energy and capital. Miro is an entrepreneurial developer, which I define as someone who is building both his client’s projects and his business at the same time. Bringing Miro’s skill set to the Mayor’s office would be tremendously positive change after the morass of the past six years. Unlike any other candidate in the race, Miro really could bring out Burlington at it’s best.” Weinberger also recognizes a difficulty in attracting new Burlingtonians. Dealer.com, he says, identifies their biggest challenge for recruitment as the lack of businesses like them, which could offer jobs to the spouse of a far-flung new hire. “If someone is relocating from across the country, they have to be thinking, ‘What could happen if this job doesn’t work out? What if this project that I’m working on comes to an end? Is there going to be another job on the market available? Or will I have to tear up my roots again and relocate?’” Weinberger identified the Pine Street corridor as prime real estate to develop and attract more companies downtown. “Physically, there are more opportunities for more jobs, and we just have to work with the existing companies to get there.”
If elected, Weinberger plans to use his own office as a resource for college students and recent graduates to jump-start their careers. “We are definitely going to create a mayoral internship program,” he said. Aside from interning with Senator Leahy, Weinberger also worked on the U.S. Senate re-election campaign of Pennsylvania Democrat Harris Wofford. Though unsuccessful, Weinberger recognizes the campaign offered him influential awareness into how interns bring vitality to politics. “The energy and perspective they can bring to the campaign and to the city I think is critical,” he said. “For some people we can create additional opportunities for them to get involved in the community, which could perhaps lead to further opportunities for them to stay in the city beyond graduation.”
Part of Weinberger’s “fresh start” also includes connecting with Burlington’s citizens via social media. Already he’s seen the effect platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have had in bolstering his campaign’s success. “Social media certainly focuses on a Thread demographic,” he said. “But it’s not just you guys. I’m struck when I go door knocking and meet people who are able to recite to me details from my Facebook page.”
“Creepy” Thread said.
“It’s remarkable,” corrected Weinberger.
Social media-based specifics in utero for the mayor’s office include offering live streaming of neighborhood-planning meetings for those who can’t attend, keeping a public calendar online, and maintaining a constantly-updated Facebook page and Twitter feed. “I don’t think I’ll ever be Cory Booker,” Weinberger said, regarding the Tweet-happy mayor of Newark, “but I will Tweet regularly about my public agenda.”
The Weinberger administration also plans to offer “SeeClickFix” technology. “If you were on the bike path and a new pothole had developed, you could take a photo of it and have an app where you send it to the city. It automatically gets routed to the right department,” he said. “And then you’d be able to track progress of that complaint until it gets resolved.” Weinberger said the service could apply to code violations and “a number of physical world areas where that would help.”
Also on the docket for his innovative approach to the mayor’s office is to mimic Montreal and other cities by installing parking kiosks. “In these northern climates,” he said, “we can have weeks when you lose a lot of revenue from your parking meters because they’re plowed in. With a kiosk, it’s much easier to keep that cleared, and it’s easier for people to pay, rather than having to root around for change.” Weinberger also expressed interest in helping the CCTA push to install intelligent systems on their buses to help cut down the bothersome gap between projected wait times and actual wait times, via a smartphone app. He stressed these proposed advances wouldn’t happen without his election. “I’ve got to be in the mayor’s office to tackle them,” he said.
Burlington’s strenuous housing issue manifests as another founding agenda for the Miro campaign. Weinberger wants to sustain the downtown’s youthful presence, and draws frequently upon his Hartland Group experience as a key asset supporting his ability to do so. “I think someone in the 20 or 30-something demographic wants to actually live in Burlington,” he said. “They don’t want to be out in Colchester – they want to walk to Church Street, to the downtown, and there are very few housing options right now for the people in that group. The only options now are extremely expensive.” Weinberger says he’s also committed to “not changing the character that drew so many of us here and that so many of us love. I think jobs and affordability are at the heart of keeping Burlington a place that that demographic can stay in.”
Weinberger emerged as victor of the Democratic caucus after tying Progressive-leaning Democrat and State Senator Tim Ashe in the first round of voting. Each candidate received 540 votes on November 13th, when early Democratic mayoral hopefuls Jason Lorber and Bram Kranichfeld both fell out of the race. The Miro team’s December 11th win came after receiving 655 votes to Ashe’s 533, according to the Burlington Free Press. “The month-long period between Democratic caucus votes granted Weinberger…time to cultivate fence-sitters – and to solidify a loyal leaning Democratic base that seemed increasingly inclined to endorse him over a rival espousing ‘fusion’ with city Progressives,” the Free Press reported. Weinberger says he welcomed Ashe, who now supports the Miro campaign, when he entered the race as a Democratic candidate rather than a Progressive. “If he had run as a Progressive and skipped the Democratic caucus so that we would have had a strong Progressive candidate and a strong Democratic candidate,” Weinberger said, “I think that would have been a recipe for electing Kurt Wright.”
Initially, few political differences seemed to separate Weinberger and Mr. Wright, a city councilor and state legislator who is the uncontested Republican candidate for mayor. After a January 5th debate at Champlain College, the Free Press reported that few “substantial differences emerged between Weinberger and Wright regarding waterfront and downtown planning (it needs to move faster), Burlington Telecom (private financing and not taxpayers should rehabilitate the utility) and balancing the city’s social and business needs (an important discussion).” As the March 6th election approaches, however, Weinberger ensures that voters know how Miro and Wright administrations would differ, focusing specifically on values, experience, and yes, of course, a fresh start too.
“When he’s in Montpelier,” Weinberger said of Wright, “he has consistently voted against environmental issues. I think those values matter.” Weinberger points to his history with Senator Leahy and Governor Shumlin as proof he’s worked consistently to sustain Vermont’s environmental health. “I think that having someone who comes to the office with an environmental lens and a strong environmental background will impact the decisions that the next mayor makes,” he said.
Weinberger said that while he respects Wright’s “important experience” as a city councilor and a state representative, he insists his own background of making business-minded decisions at the Hartland Group and as Burlington’s airport commissioner gives him the necessary clout above Wright to manage the city’s finances. “I think my background of actually having managed significant amounts of money is a real distinction in our backgrounds,” he said; “one that suits me better for what the mayor’s job actually is.”
The “fresh start” leitmotif gained considerable leverage from Weinberger’s recent claim, not yet made public before going to press that Wright voted with the Kiss administration on the financial issues Burlington residents say led the city to its current economic woe. “He made 474 votes on the financial issues,” Weinberger said of Wright’s tenure on the Board of Finance from 2007-2009, a time when Wright also considered himself “Burlington’s de-facto mayor.” “He voted with the Kiss administration 473 times. I don’t think that’s the fresh start people are looking for,” Weinberger said, adding that he “finds it interesting” to hear candidates borrow from his own campaign rhetoric to support themselves. Along with his “been through the fires” approach, Wright wrote recently in a Free Press article that the city needs “a mayor that can breathe a breath of fresh air into City Hall.”
When this issue of Thread went to print, the Progressive party had yet to decide on running a candidate. Progressive mayor Bob Kiss announced in November he would not seek a third term. Wanda Hines, an Independent, is a Burlington community organizer and longtime Old North End resident now running against Weinberger and Wright. According to Andy Bromage, Shay Totten’s replacement at writing the “Fair Game” political column for Seven Days, Hines has said, “I do not perceive myself as the underdog at all,” though the January 16th column also quotes the newest candidate as ambivalent regarding her plans for office: “I really don’t want to get into specific things I want to do.”
While Hines’s entrance into the race introduced a new hurdle for the Miro campaign, in that it could persuade Weinberger-leaning Progressive voters to go for Hines, the Democrat outlined his agenda for earning the support of the Progressive Party. “I am working hard to make sure people know my entire professional career has involved affordable housing issues and trying to create jobs for low-income and working-class families.” He’s also kept an open ear for Old North Residents by inviting them to speak with him at “open coffee” sessions, a supplement to his social media-based communication. The meetings, which began at the Bagel Café in the New North End, have only confirmed his suspicion that the entire city has become united in supporting a drastic change: “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to local business people, property owners, heads of our social service organizations, union leaders, people in the South End, people in the North End. I have not found any significant group that doesn’t agree with the notion that we need a fresh start,” he said.
Burlington hasn’t voted a Democratic mayor into office since Independent Bernie Sanders defeated six-term Democrat George Paquette by a mere 12 votes in 1981. While Hines and Wright present formidable obstacles to the Miro campaign, Weinberger has garnered the support of both former Mayor Peter Clavelle and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Clavelle, a former Progressive, was Burlington’s longest-serving mayor, and Dean, after completing his terms as governor, ran for president in 2004. “While I initially had not intended to endorse in this race,” Dean said in an open letter to the Democratic caucus, “I have concluded that we really do need a “Fresh Start,”and I have decided to publicly support Miro Weinberger.”
The support of bigwig VT politicos could help voters read the close race within the context of former revered leaders, and Weinberger’s youthful approach to campaigning has aligned him to make good on his slogan’s promise. “My belief about running for this office, which in some ways is consistent with how I think the job should be run, is that we need to do a lot of different things and we need to do them all well,” he said. Before the election, he plans to continue sustaining the energy of his campaign through the help of his swarming team of assistants, and to continue debating Kurt Wright and Wanda Hines. There had been two debates before Thread went to print, with another ten scheduled. Weinberger and his opponents also write weekly responses to questions posed by the Free Press on issues, such as how to engage the public, and identifying the major malfunction with the present mayor’s office. In addition, Weinberger plans to continue his fervent door-knocking enterprise. “It’s a real privilege to be able to get to do this and have so many people supporting the effort,” he said, adding that his wife and daughter have been “very supportive,” and are “engaged and enjoying it, too.”
Already having offered Thread time allotted elsewhere, Weinberger ate his lunch standing up before dashing off to his next event. The would-be mayor agreed to a photo shoot before he left, and posed staring, grinning and confident, off into the hallways of his house. The camera’s shutter blinked. “I’m just starting to get used to this,” he said.