Vermont city elects Progressive mayor

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — Bob Kiss, the Progressive Party candidate for mayor, swept to a surprise victory here March 7. Running against a Democrat, Republican and two independents, Kiss, a state representative, confounded pundits and pulled an upset. His election was also the first mayoral race in the country to be conducted under the rules of instant runoff voting.

Kiss, who only entered the race five weeks ago, was not expected to win. The Democratic candidate, state Sen. Hinda Miller, spent over $50,000 on her campaign to Kiss’ $10,000. Miller was endorsed by big-name Democrats, including former Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. Patrick Leahy and incumbent Mayor Peter Clavelle. Clavelle left the Progressive Party two years ago to run for governor as a Democrat.

Many observers thought the 24-year reign of Progressive leadership, begun when Bernie Sanders was first elected mayor in 1981, would come to an end this year.

However, Miller is a founder of the Jogbra Company of Burlington, and the fact that she recently sold it to owners who promptly moved it (and its 200 jobs) to North Carolina became an issue in the campaign.

Miller had the full support of the Chamber of Commerce and the de facto support of the Republican Party. The GOP’s candidate, City Councilor Kevin Curley, ran a campaign addressing some of the needs of working-class people, although his emphasis was on market-oriented solutions.

The Progressive Party took a long time to find a candidate because most people associated with the incumbent administration had lined up with Clavelle when he defected to the Democrats. Kiss, the current city chair of the Progressives, was persuaded to run at the last moment.

Before he was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives, Kiss had been director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity for 12 years, creating many programs that benefited working and poor people in Burlington.

Another factor that made this election of special interest was that it was the first time a mayor was elected in this country using instant runoff voting.

Kiss was the top vote-getter after the first round of the hotly contested election, getting almost 40 percent of the vote to Miller’s 31 percent and Curley’s 27 percent. With instant runoff voting, voters rank the candidates according to their preference. If no one gets 50 percent plus one in the first round, the number two choice on the ballots of candidates who have no mathematical chance to get a majority are distributed to the leaders. In the second round, Bob Kiss increased his vote to 54 percent of the total.

The mayoral campaign focused on the issue of whose interests city government should serve. Kiss spoke frequently of the need to create housing that working people could afford. Another major issue was maintaining neighborhood schools in the city’s Old North End, a part of town inhabited by immigrants and low-income people, and the need to create jobs that provided more than the minimum wage.

Miller, on the other hand, emphasized the “creative” economy, cutting the city budget by laying off city workers, and opening the door to privatization of the publicly owned lakefront.

In an interesting development, Republican candidate Curley urged his supporters to vote second on their ballots for Progressive Bob Kiss. He warned that a Miller victory would turn City Hall over to the big developers and corporations. “Bob Kiss,” he said, “would be good for the working people of Burlington.” In the runoff, most of Curley’s second place votes went for Kiss.

“This election was about class,” said Martha Abbott, chair of the Vermont Progressive Party. “The people of Burlington have learned over the past 25 years who is on their side.”