Progressive Bob Kiss elected mayor of Burlington
Or, why Democrats will never support Instant Run-Off Voting :P
Burlington Free Press

Bob Kiss, a Progressive state representative but a newcomer to city politics, was elected mayor of Burlington on Tuesday, defeating Republican City Councilor Kevin Curley and Democratic state Sen. Hinda Miller.

The election marked the first in the city's history in which instant runoff voting was employed, and Kiss was awarded the victory only after the votes of runners-up in the five-way race were redistributed.

The vote, after second-choice ballots were counted, was 4,761 for Kiss and 3,986 for Miller. Curley received 2,609 votes in the first round. Independents Louie "The Cowman" Beaudin and Loyal Ploof had 119 and 57 votes, respectively.

Kiss won five of the city's seven wards and outpolled Miller in her home ward, Ward 6. As the vote totals were announced in Contois Auditorium at City Hall shortly past 9 p.m. Kiss supporters, who had been tallying the results ward by ward, rose with a loud cheer and began hugging.

"Progressives are alive and well!" former Ward 5 Councilor Richard Kemp thundered over the noise of the crowd.

Kiss's voice never varied during the campaign. The 58-year-old former anti-poverty agency executive exuded a calm confidence that ultimately persuaded voters to continue for three more years the Progressive tradition that began with Bernie Sanders' election in 1981.

At 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, surrounded by exuberant supporters in Sweetwaters on Church Street, Kiss said he had felt in the days before the election that he had "the potential to win."

"People do have pride in the city," he said, "and they value the progress that's been made in the past 25 years."

He said voters recognized, too, that his long leadership of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity had given him the experience he needed to be a good manager of the city.

During the campaign his buzzwords were "efficiency" and "inclusion." His first task?

"Well," he said, "I don't become mayor until April, but we will face the budget early on."

He said that in the intervening days he would meet with Clavelle and department heads. "We need to talk," he said.

Even with the approval Tuesday by voters of the local option sales tax, the Kiss administration faces a budget shortfall of at least $500,000 for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

For Rebekah Daubenspeck in Ward 3, the vote for mayor was about electing the candidate who would support workers. She gave her vote to Kiss and didn't mark in another candidate on the instant runoff voting ballot for mayor.

"I wasn't terribly impressed by the others," she said. "Hinda Miller was not supportive of labor."

Megan Bast, another Ward 3 voter, said of Miller, "She just didn't rub me the right way. ... I didn't get a good vibe." She, too, voted for Kiss. Her second choice was Curley.

None of the candidates initially reached the 50 percent plus one vote level necessary for victory under Burlington's new system of electing a mayor. Kiss had 39 percent, Miller 31 percent and Curley 26 percent.

Because no candidate had won a majority, the instant runoff voting system came into play. In the equivalent of a runoff election, the second choices of Curley, Ploof and the Beaudin supporters were distributed to Kiss and Miller. That second round gave Kiss an additional 952 votes and Miller an additional 880 and pushed Kiss over the top.

Jane Amis, a Ward 5 voter, said she voted for Miller "because she's got that business sense and we need that right now." Then she added, speaking of Kiss: "I wouldn't mind if he won, either. I think he's great."

On Church Street, at the Rusty Scuffer, Curley, a council veteran who ran as the only candidate with intimate knowledge of the city's budget and management problems, was upbeat about his loss.

"I want to let the people of Burlington know that I protected them from a Hinda Miller administration," he said. "And for that, I'm proud."

At Vermont Pub and Brewery, Miller said she had no comment. Christine Salembier, her campaign manager, also declined comment.

Miller began her campaign in September and outspent Kiss 8-1, but in the end, her support waned. She carried the endorsements of former Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy -- all Democrats -- and Mayor Peter Clavelle. She pointed to her years of corporate experience with the sportswear company Jogbra and promised to make the city a magnet for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Curley, an eight-year veteran of the City Council, pointed to his council experience and promised to balance the budget without a sales tax.

All three candidates said they were committed to creating new jobs and more affordable housing in the city.

One effect of the five-way race and instant runoff voting is that Kiss will take office as the first choice of only 39 percent of Burlington voters. As mayor he will step into a maelstrom of competing needs: wage and benefit demands of city workers, infrastructure expenses, insistence from the city's poorer residents for the creation of local jobs paying livable wages and more affordable housing, and vastly different visions of the city's future from pro- and anti-growth advocates.

"I wish him all the best of luck," Curley said, shaking his head. "Anything I can do to help, I'm willing to do."

Dissecting the Kiss win: 'the Lazarus Campaign'

A relentless grass-roots campaign that took the candidate to every corner of the city succeeded Tuesday in putting Progressive Bob Kiss in the Burlington Mayor's Office for the next three years.

The effort wasn't easy. The campaign started late, lacked the presence of party bluebloods and lagged in fund raising.

Nevertheless, Kiss' victory Tuesday over Democrat Hinda Miller and Republican Kevin Curley was the "sweetest victory" for Progressives since 1981, when Bernie Sanders won a four-way race, said John Franco, a local attorney and longtime Progressive.

"This was the Lazarus campaign," he said, referring to the biblical story of a man raised from the dead by Jesus. "In January, we were dead and in the tomb."

Kiss said Wednesday that voters decided at the polls they like what the city has become over the past quarter-century and they understood that he would support those values.

"I think sometimes we forget how important the character of Burlington is to residents," he said. "The values I was representing were nowhere else in that race."