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In Burlington’s Mayoral Contest, Joan Shannon and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak Are Mostly Focused on One Issue: Public Safety

By Courtney Lamdin

Published February 20, 2024

There's a startling perception circulating in Burlington that's proving hard to shake: that public disorder has made the city's downtown unsafe for visitors and residents alike. Whether or not that fear is justified, it's no surprise that public safety dominates residents' concerns as they prepare to pick the Queen City's first new mayor in 12 years.

On March 5, voters will elect one of four candidates. The front-runners are Joan Shannon, a real estate agent, Democrat and 20-year city councilor; and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, a former labor activist, second-term state legislator and stalwart of the Progressive Party. Two less-known independents, Will Emmons and Chris Haessly, are also on the ballot. (See "Wild Cards".) The winner will succeed Democrat Miro Weinberger, whose tenure began by addressing Burlington's fiscal problems but who will end it amid widespread frustration over the city's triple crises of housing, drug addiction and crime.

The election also marks the city's return to ranked-choice voting for mayor, a system that allows voters to indicate their second, third and fourth choices. If at first no one wins an absolute majority, those secondary selections count. Nonetheless, it's widely expected that either Shannon or Mulvaney-Stanak will be elected and become the city's first-ever woman mayor.

The contest pits an established yet polarizing city councilor against a younger, idealistic lawmaker whose Progressive Party some blame for the city's woes. Both say they're running for mayor because they want to help the city they love become a safer place.

The fixation on public safety has completely overshadowed discussions of city spending, property taxes and climate policy that are typical of Burlington elections.

The winner has her work cut out for her. Since the pandemic began in 2020, Burlington has watched a set of urban problems explode into public view. Drug use has become common in city parks, with people hooked on a more dangerous supply. Homelessness has ballooned, and many more people are sleeping on the streets. Downtown businesses report an increase in petty theft, and once-rare reports of gunfire in the night have increased.

All this at a time when city police are stretched too thin to answer every call.

The fixation on public safety has completely overshadowed discussions of city spending, property taxes and climate policy that are typical of Burlington elections. While the two leading candidates offer different philosophical approaches to the city's problems, neither can offer a quick solution. For each, there are unanswered questions about the cost and feasibility of the steps they say they would take.

Given the concerns about public safety, Shannon, 59, entered the race with the benefit of a clear record of supporting law enforcement, including her opposition to a Progressive-led vote in 2020 to diminish the size of the police force through attrition. She's been endorsed by the police union, a signal for many that she can be trusted to clean up the city. But her record on the problems that underlie public safety, such as the housing shortage, is less clear. And Shannon's critics say her messaging is alarmist, not inspiring.

"It's easy to rally around fear," said Mieko Ozeki, a Mulvaney-Stanak supporter. "With Emma, she's saying, 'Let's not dwell in the negative narrative, and let's work on solutions.'"

Mulvaney-Stanak, 43, had no vote on the city's public safety issues, but she acknowledges that being a Progressive could harm her at the polls. She, like Shannon, has called for hiring more police, but she's put more emphasis on addressing the problems that lead to crime and homelessness. Her supporters say the city needs this balanced approach. Her critics, though, contend that a Progressive can't be trusted to turn the city around.

"It's going to be hard for Emma to convince the average voter that she's really going to be the one that can rebuild the police force and get us back on track," said former council president Jane Knodell, a Progressive working for Shannon's campaign.

Each woman has a short window to convince voters her approach to addressing the city's problems is best. In this election, it's a safer Burlington or bust.

Setting the Tone

On a brisk Saturday morning in January, a clutch of Shannon supporters huddled around a table at Zero Gravity on Pine Street as a fire warmed the room. A couple of youngsters, whose parents came to meet the candidate, played pool as the adults talked politics.

It was the day's second and final stop in Shannon's Java With Joan series, informal coffee hours she has held at cafés across the city. At this spot in the South End, where Shannon has served as a city councilor for two decades, she was in her element, talking to friends and neighbors about solutions to the city's problems. She had an eager audience, including Andy Vota, who coauthored a widely circulated petition that urges Burlington officials to take stronger action on the public safety crisis.

Sitting at the head of the table, Shannon listened intently as the discussion shifted from stolen bicycles to retail theft, interjecting with quick asides or to clear up confusion. At one point, she excitedly introduced Malik Mines, a Democrat running for the Ward 3 city council seat, who stopped by in search of the signatures he needed to get on the ballot. As Mines described the crime he'd witnessed as a former retail manager downtown, Shannon's husband, Ken Grillo, took cellphone photos that were later posted to her campaign Instagram account.

The conversation was what Shannon would call an "All Hands on Deck" moment. The saying — Shannon's campaign slogan — is meant as a call for collaborative problem solving. But it also aptly conveys a central theme of Shannon's campaign: Burlington is in troubled waters, and she can right the ship.

"I have the courage to lead, even when it's hard," Shannon had said in an earlier interview. "I have stood up to very strong political winds, and I've done what I felt was right."

Shannon grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., and came to Burlington in 1985 to teach sailing. She loved the city so much that she stayed, delaying her college education at Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania. In winter 1986, then-mayor Bernie Sanders knocked on her door during a neighborhood canvass. Shannon, a government major, realized there was something different about Burlington politics: It was up close and personal.

Shannon didn't run for office until 2002 and had to be convinced to do it. She was a new mom to daughter Julia, running a women's swimwear business and couldn't see elected office fitting in with her schedule. When friends offered to help with childcare, she took the plunge. Shannon defeated a Progressive incumbent and has handily fended off challengers to her South District seat ever since.

"I have great compassion for people who are suffering ... but you cannot make other people in our community unsafe."JOAN SHANNON

Shannon is unapologetic about her views, often saying that even if people disagree with her, they'll know where she stands on an issue. And on public safety, her messaging has been consistent: She didn't support "defunding" the police, and her priority is hiring more cops.

This stance has won her the endorsement of the police and firefighter unions. She's also been endorsed by the Burlington Electric Department employee union and AFSCME Local 1343, which represents about 300 city employees — a blow to Mulvaney-Stanak, a former labor organizer whose wife, Megan Moir, works for the city as its water resources division director.

Shannon describes her platform as a blend of "accountability and care," calling for both more aggressive law enforcement and more robust drug treatment. Asked in debates about public drug use, Shannon defaults to the same response: Parks are Burlington's "community living room," and the city shouldn't tolerate drug use in the "house." People who break the rules should be arrested, she says. They may not be jailed — that's outside the mayor's purview, Shannon acknowledges — but authorities should at least "interrupt their day."

"I have great compassion for people who are suffering in our community," she said. "I want to get them help, but you cannot make other people in our community unsafe."

Shannon believes that stricter enforcement depends on adding more cops to a force that now stands at 68 officers, far fewer than the 92 who were on staff before the council's 2020 vote. The roster cap was previously 105 and is now 87. Rebuilding the ranks will take time, she acknowledges, but she says she'd enter office with a new tone, one that is less tolerant of disorder than Weinberger's.

"Part of it is setting an intention that says we're not going to look away when we have open drug use and open drug dealing," she said. "I don't think Miro has a really different policy, but I don't know that the police have felt really empowered to act. And I think that that's the difference."

She'd use the same approach to crack down on homeless encampments in city parks. Shannon says she'd have authorities intervene sooner, before camps are established, to send the message that sleeping outside isn't allowed in Burlington. She'd like to hire more park rangers to enforce the ban but acknowledges that she doesn't know how she'd pay for them. As it is, the city is asking for a 3-cent public safety tax increase on the March ballot, money that would be used to plug some of a $9 million budget gap. It'll be up to the next mayor to figure out how to close it.

Shannon thinks the state needs to open more homeless shelters, and not necessarily in Burlington. Two of the city's shelter sites — the pods on Elmwood Avenue and a winter shelter on South Winooski Avenue — are temporary and will be redeveloped. They're funded with state and federal dollars, and the latter are drying up. The city could open others if the state paid for them, Shannon said, "but we cannot be the only community providing shelter."

Back at Zero Gravity, Shannon supporters lingered to talk after the candidate had left. South End resident Tom Simon said he's voting for Shannon because her refusal to cut the police, despite strong political pressure, showed she has guts. His wife, Burlington police commissioner Carolyn Hanson, agreed, saying that all of Burlington's social problems "have tentacles in that vote."

"That's why I support Joan," she said. "There's a difference in being a politician and a leader, and Joan knows how to lead."

Resetting Priorities

Mulvaney-Stanak was late for dinner. She'd been invited to Burlington Co-housing East Village, a tight-knit neighborhood near the University of Vermont Medical Center, but she'd gotten tied up at the Statehouse. She and her colleagues in the House had just approved a bill that would allow overdose prevention centers — also known as safe injection sites — in Vermont. If the measure became law, a site could open in Burlington.

Mulvaney-Stanak stood, professor-like, at the front of the village's common room as residents young and old tucked into mismatched bowls of blueberry-apple crisp. After a 15-minute stump speech about the housing crunch, property taxes and the drug crisis, she opened things up for questions. Mulvaney-Stanak became more at ease as the conversation went on, describing her family's challenge of affording childcare and making jokes about parenting a demanding 4-year-old.

Much of the Q&A session focused on public safety, allowing the candidate to muse on the complexity of Burlington's problems and how police alone can't solve them.

"People want and deserve long-term solutions," Mulvaney-Stanak had told Seven Days in an earlier interview. "Not just easy, quick fixes [that] won't actually fix the problems."

Mulvaney-Stanak's Progressive ideals formed early in life, as a child raised by peace activist parents in Barre City. Along with twin sibling Llu, a young Mulvaney-Stanak was carted to polling places and anti-war protests.

The political bug bit. She worked jobs at the Vermont Livable Wage Campaign and Vermont-NEA and served on the Burlington City Council from 2009 to 2012. In 2020, running as a Progressive/Democrat, she defeated a four-term incumbent in her House district primary. In the general election, she became the first-ever Prog to represent a slice of the New North End. Mulvaney-Stanak lives with her wife and two young kids in the other part of her district, the Old North End, and runs a leadership coaching and consulting business.

As a queer mom, Mulvaney-Stanak is relatable to a segment of Burlington that isn't widely represented in city politics. On social media, she gives insight into both her professional and personal lives, equally likely to post about her legislative work as she is to offer a selfie showing off the outfits she bought at a thrift store.

In Montpelier, Mulvaney-Stanak has introduced bills to improve workers' compensation, support equal pay and address unemployment. Last year, she and fellow Progressives voted to uphold Gov. Phil Scott's veto of the state budget because it didn't fully fund the state's motel housing program for homeless people.

"People want and deserve long-term solutions. Not just easy, quick fixes [that] won't actually fix the problems."EMMA MULVANEY-STANAK

The reduction in that program, plus the housing shortage and wages that haven't kept up with inflation, Mulvaney-Stanak says, have resulted in more people sleeping outside in Burlington — as many as 300 people compared to fewer than 50 a year ago. She recognizes that the increase, combined with a visible drug crisis, makes many Burlingtonians feel unsafe. Mulvaney-Stanak thinks the city's current response is too fragmented. Police and social workers work out of one department, park rangers another. The city's homelessness expert is based in the Community & Economic Development Office. Mulvaney-Stanak says one of her first acts would be to appoint a special assistant for community safety, who would convene those workers, plus members of Howard Center's Street Outreach Team, to come up with a cohesive response to the drug crisis, homelessness and crime. She also proposes forming a "community brigade" of volunteers that would pick up trash and cover graffiti.

On homeless encampments, Mulvaney-Stanak would be more permissive than her opponent; unless there were serious public safety concerns, she would avoid breaking them up if the residents had nowhere else to go. She would also consider opening a sanctioned campsite for people in the short term.

Unlike Shannon, Mulvaney-Stanak doesn't think people should be arrested for using drugs in public. Instead, she'd try to deter the behavior by stationing more cops downtown, a strategy she said would also deter retail theft. Like Shannon, she wants to revive "community policing," where cops are assigned to beats to build trust with residents. She, too, recognizes that it will take time to hire more police. She thinks the current 87-officer roster cap is sufficient but noted that the number came from a 2021 consultant's report, which could use some updating.

Mulvaney-Stanak says an overdose prevention center, where people could use drugs under supervision and be revived from possible overdoses, would help address the public drug-use problem while also connecting people to treatment programs and reducing needle litter. She'd aim to open one within a year. (Shannon has also said she supports opening an overdose prevention center in the city.)

"We need to come up with solutions to help these folks who are deeply suffering," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "Addiction is a medical condition, and I think we really have to see it that way."

Mulvaney-Stanak relies in part on the hope that she could convince state government to help fund low-barrier shelters and expanded mental health treatment. She also thinks the city could redirect some money in the budget to hire more firefighters and expand the department's overdose team, which responds to calls about unresponsive people.

To raise more revenue for these programs, Mulvaney-Stanak has proposed looking at the city tax code, including possibly taxing commercial properties at a higher rate.

"We have to get real about what our priorities are," she said.

East Village resident Jen Lazar is among those who support Mulvaney-Stanak's broad approach to public safety. She likes that the candidate hasn't been entrenched in city politics for years.

"The way that we're working together is not working at all," she said. "When I think about having Emma as a mayor, I start to get excited."

Running With a Record

In late January, an unnamed person created an Instagram account called lets_talk_abt_joan. Whoever runs it is no fan of the longtime city councilor.

In one now-deleted post, Shannon was depicted as a cartoon Godzilla, blowing flames on high-rise buildings. Another, headlined "Joan Shannon Contributes to Burlington's Housing Crisis," noted that she supports a landlord's ability to evict tenants without cause. A third, of a mock ballot, urges voters to pick "literally anyone else."

This isn't the first time Shannon has drawn the visible ire of some critics. In 2020, demonstrators staged a die-in on her lawn to protest her votes on policing and racial justice. The same year, activists "phone-bombed" the councilor during a meeting because she opposed a police oversight board that would have had the power to discipline officers. The council ultimately approved the proposal, but Weinberger vetoed it. In 2021, after Shannon voiced support for closing the sprawling Sears Lane homeless encampment, her detractors wore T-shirts emblazoned with "Fxck Jxxn Shxnnxn" to council meetings.

After 20 years in office, Shannon has a long record that gives ammunition to her critics. They say her consistent support for police has raised questions about her willingness to hold officers accountable. Pointing to her votes on housing, they charge that Shannon isn't serious about building more of it.

As a real estate agent, Shannon has said she understands Burlington's urgent need for more homes. But she has not supported every proposal for residential development. In 2001, for example, she was quoted in the Burlington Free Press voicing concerns about the aesthetics of taller buildings after a developer proposed building an apartment complex on South Winooski Avenue. In 2015, she opposed a rezoning effort to allow housing in certain parts of the South End.

"We need to reserve some areas in our city for jobs," Shannon said, according to Free Press coverage of the 2015 proposal. "Housing tends to take up all other uses when it's allowed."

She's staked similar positions more recently, too. A year ago, Shannon was the only councilor to vote against eliminating a city requirement that housing developers include parking in their projects. These so-called "parking minimums" reduce developable land and make construction more expensive, proponents say. Last winter, Shannon voted in favor of a renewed effort to allow housing in parts of the South End — after successfully advocating to reduce the maximum allowable building heights. Neighbors had complained that taller buildings would block views from Calahan Park.

"This is why I'm really worried about a Shannon administration," said Jak Tiano, a member of pro-housing group Vermonters for People-Oriented Places. "I don't think she has the vision ... to mitigate the housing crisis that we face."

Shannon doesn't put much stock in such criticism, however, noting that she was slammed for supporting taller towers at the downtown CityPlace Burlington development. The project is under construction with 10-story towers — shorter than the 14-story buildings that Shannon supported. As for the South End rezoning, Shannon said developers can construct buildings with a broader footprint but a lower profile, and containing just as many units as an eight-story tower.

"I didn't advocate for fewer units," she said. "I advocated for less height."

Shannon's housing plan is largely focused on homeownership, which she says keeps costs more stable than the volatile rental market. To increase the housing stock, Shannon would work with local banks to adopt lending practices that encourage condo development.

Specifically, she would make it easier to convert apartments into condos, a practice the city currently discourages by levying hefty fines on developers who do it. To keep renters from being displaced, Shannon says she'd create a program to help them afford down payments on the converted units.

Her housing plan also calls for holding problem landlords accountable by potentially seizing their properties if they don't address crime or code violations.

Shannon's critics note that she is not only a landlord herself but has received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from a number of major landlords and commercial property owners. The implication is that she is out of touch with lower-income people.

That's one reason Phil Merrick, cofounder of August First bakery and a longtime Democrat, said he's supporting Mulvaney-Stanak. He thinks she'll represent everyone, regardless of their wealth.

"'All Hands on Deck,' her nautical theme — it's like, who owns boats?" Merrick said of Shannon. "That is her message: 'I represent those people.'"

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Outgoing Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) is concerned by Shannon's police union endorsement. He put it sharply: "They will own her."

Dieng, who has endorsed Mulvaney-Stanak, says Shannon's refusal to support previous police reform proposals could alienate younger, more progressive voters. Shannon, like all council Democrats, opposed the 2020 effort to create a new police oversight board with the power to discipline officers. When a nearly identical measure got on the ballot in 2023, Shannon used campaign funds to erect "Vote No" signs near police headquarters. Last month, she voted to delay a public vote on a new, watered-down oversight proposal.

In an interview, she defended the decision.

"Our lack of police officers at this point is more of a problem in this city than discipline," Shannon said.

Shannon's supporters say her critics unfairly paint her as closed-minded and unyielding. Several who spoke to Seven Days praised the candidate for regularly soliciting input from constituents before big council votes. And on Tuesday, Shannon snagged an endorsement from a longtime colleague: Council President Karen Paul, who lost to Shannon in the Democratic mayoral primary.

"Get to know her before you vilify her," South End resident Kitty Bartlett said. "When you spend the time to get to know Joan, you tend to appreciate her."

A Scarlet Letter?

New North End residents Gabriela Sarriera and Liz McElhinney are solidly within Mulvaney-Stanak's target demographic. The young, queer couple generally hold progressive ideals. McElhinney even attended Democratic socialist meetings when she was a student at UVM.

Surprisingly, though, both women said they're voting for Shannon. Sarriera said the Democratic candidate would be "an adult in the room," someone with practical solutions to the city's problems. It helps, she added, that police and firefighters are supporting Shannon. McElhinney agreed.

"Right now," she said, "I'm wary about voting for a Progressive."

Those concerns aren't uncommon. In the years since the 2020 vote to cut the size of the police force, followed by increases in crime, homelessness and general disorder, "Progressive" has become a dirty word to some in the city.

As leader of the House Progressive caucus, Mulvaney-Stanak is inextricably linked to the party. Her campaign website describes why she's running with the party label, though she isn't necessarily advertising the letter P by her name. One of her campaign brochures, for instance, doesn't even mention her political party.

Shannon clearly thinks the label is a liability. In a debate hosted by Seven Days earlier this month, Shannon explicitly blamed Progressives for "defunding" the police, which she said created some of Burlington's challenges. The line earned her a robust round of applause.

Mulvaney-Stanak won't say how she would have voted on the police question in 2020. Instead, she's said she makes decisions based on data and would have asked many questions, including about how long it would take for the city to hire unarmed responders in place of police.

"The process would have looked different if I were there at that table," she said.

She noted that several Democrats voted in favor of the police cuts, though only Progressives have suffered the consequences. Democrats effectively won a majority in last year's Town Meeting Day elections, and none of the six Progressives who voted for the police cuts will serve on the council after this coming election.

Mulvaney-Stanak differs from some Progs in her outspoken support for hiring more police officers. On the trail, she's made public safety personal, pointing out that a hostage situation at a local bar last month prevented her from picking up her daughter from school. But she also believes in the need for more police oversight. Last year, Mulvaney-Stanak said she voted for the controversial ballot item that would have created an independent board with the power to discipline officers.

She seems wary of Police Chief Jon Murad, whose appointment to the job was initially denied by council Progressives. While Mulvaney-Stanak hasn't expressly disavowed the chief, she hasn't committed to reappointing him, as Shannon has. In an interview, Mulvaney-Stanak said she's met with Murad and found him to be professional but "rigid" in his opinions.

"Nobody knows all the answers," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "Any leader who comes in with that kind of attitude is probably not going to be a team player that I will need to help lead the city forward."

To demonstrate her wide appeal, Mulvaney-Stanak hosted a Dems for Emma event at Queen City Brewery earlier this month. Nearly 70 people, including Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George and former Democratic mayoral candidate C D Mattison, turned out to support her.

Downtown resident Arshad Hasan, a political organizer and lifelong Dem, said Mulvaney-Stanak will get his vote. He described the candidate as thoughtful, attentive and someone who wouldn't deepen Burlington's political divide.

"The letter next to her name is not nearly as important as the kind of leadership this city needs," he said.

Mulvaney-Stanak has made the same point on the campaign trail. She often talks up her experience at the Statehouse and how she reaches across the aisle, including in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, which is chaired by a Republican from the Northeast Kingdom. Knowing the policy makers will be vital in order for Burlington to access state funds for homeless shelters, drug treatment programs and other initiatives, she says.

Ward 1 resident Sharyl Green, who organized the meeting at East Village, acknowledged that a Progressive candidate may struggle this election season. But she thinks Mulvaney-Stanak is using the right approach by meeting with as many voters as possible.

"She knows that that is critical," Green said. "Her getting out and talking to people, and people putting real questions in front of her, will go a long way."

Back to Basics

The last contest for Burlington mayor, in 2021, played out almost entirely online. A race during the height of the pandemic meant swapping door knocks for virtual meet and greets. Voters hoping to get face time with the candidates got, well, FaceTime.

Three years later, it's back to basics. Shannon and Mulvaney-Stanak have been busy canvassing neighborhoods and holding events. Mail-in ballots have arrived, and, as of Tuesday, voters have returned just 74 of nearly 24,000 that were sent out, according to the city clerk's office.

Last time around, Weinberger squeaked out a 129-vote victory by winning both the South End and New North End, Democratic strongholds with high voter turnout. Shannon seems to be banking on the same recipe for success. She's hosted weekly coffee hours at the Bagel Café & Deli on North Avenue, just as Weinberger has since he first ran in 2012. She even sits in his spot: the first table on the right.

Her campaign organized a family skating event at Leddy Arena and a lasagna dinner at the Elks Club, two New North End mainstays.

Shannon has a comfortable lead in fundraising, having hauled in more than $132,000 as of February 4. That's almost twice as much money as Mulvaney-Stanak has raised.

Nearly a quarter of the 159 Burlington residents or property owners who donated to Shannon's campaign hail from the New North End. In contrast, most of Mulvaney-Stanak's 74 local donors hail from her home base in the Old North End, a Progressive stronghold. More than two dozen out-of-state voters gave to Mulvaney-Stanak; her campaign says most are college friends or people she knows from her previous work as a labor organizer.

Shannon has leaned heavily on social media, thanks to the Gen Z members of her team: daughter Julia and City Councilor Hannah King (D-Ward 8), her campaign manager. She's also met with younger voters, including at a party at Manhattan Pizza & Pub downtown, a college student haunt and Shannon's go-to bar. UVM alumnus Kevin Garrison Jr., 24, organized the gig, inviting some of his friends who lean Progressive. He was impressed with how Shannon answered their questions.

"If you don't like her ... she wants to hear why, and she still cares about your perspective," Garrison Jr. said. "I think that says a lot about her."

Mulvaney-Stanak has tried to drum up support in Dem-leaning areas, holding online and in-person meet and greets. True to Progressive form, the campaign has offered free childcare at each.

Like Shannon, she's also made time for fun. Last week, Councilor Melo Grant (P-Central District), a longtime radio DJ, spun records at a Mulvaney-Stanak happy hour at T. Ruggs Tavern in the Old North End — the same bar that had the hostage situation a month earlier. A drag party fundraiser at the Venetian Cocktail & Soda Lounge was Mulvaney-Stanak's "one moment of queer joy" on the trail, she said.

In this public safety-themed election, however, the candidates' manner of getting out the vote may matter less than their messages. Shannon says voters want a candidate with a strong police platform.

"I wouldn't be running if I didn't believe that," she said. "If this is not what people want, then they have another option."

Clearly, she means Mulvaney-Stanak, who insists that Burlington needs a skilled leader who thinks beyond policing.

"A campaign that has a tint of fear in it, or a campaign that's around what is possible?" Mulvaney-Stanak said. "People are really resonating with what is possible."

For many voters, what actually is possible, at a time when the city faces unprecedented challenges, is an open question. They're hoping one of the candidates has the answers.

Wild Cards

In a ranked-choice contest, lesser-known candidates have a better chance of scoring votes than they would in a typical ballot system. This election, there are two independent candidates hoping that'll work in their favor.

Will Emmons, 41, is touting his public safety, education and infrastructure platform. Chris Haessly, 50, is focused on economic development and affordable housing.

Haessly, who works remotely as a systems analyst at Albany Medical Center in New York, is a longtime renter and former school commissioner. He serves on the Church Street Marketplace Commission and the steering committee for the Wards 2 & 3 Neighborhood Planning Assembly. In 2021, he unsuccessfully sought the Progressive party nomination for a special Ward 3 city council election.

Emmons, who sells used cars, has lived in Burlington since grade school and previously served as president of a Vermont union representing postal workers. He owned his own home on Blodgett Street until he could no longer afford the taxes and now lives in the New North End.

This isn't Emmons' first run for mayor. He was one of seven candidates in 2021, pulling in just 27 votes, or 0.19 percent of total votes cast. But Emmons is undeterred. He says he offers an alternative to the major-party candidates who will be beholden to donors. Emmons says he's raised about $650 and is primarily self-funded. He's created campaign literature stylized with a logo from the 1985 movie Back to the Future.

Indeed, time travel is a central theme of Emmons' campaign. He wants to bring Burlington back to the glory days. In debates, Emmons frequently laments the state of downtown, which he describes as a "war zone." One of his goals, for which he's already drafted a council resolution, is to "defund all vagrant housing initiatives," including the Elmwood Avenue shelter pods.

"I don't think we're gonna be able to solve the world's homeless problem from Burlington, Vt.," he said.

He would raise the police department roster cap from 87 to 112 and shore up sidewalks and roads. Once downtown is cleaned up, Emmons said, more people will spend money at local businesses, generating tax revenue that will build up city coffers.

Haessly is also focused on bringing more people downtown. On the campaign trail, he speaks passionately about starting a minor-league hockey team and creating a civic center, possibly at the shuttered Memorial Auditorium, to boost tax revenues. Mayor Miro Weinberger has already signed a letter of intent with local developers to consider redeveloping the parcel, but Haessly thinks the city should hold an open bidding process for any project there.

On homelessness, Haessly says Burlington should focus on the root causes of the problem instead of "treating the symptoms." As mayor, Haessly said, he'd lobby the state to open a new 100-bed mental health facility. He's an advocate for universal basic income. And, like Shannon, he believes the city should promote homeownership, such as by passing an ordinance that prevents single-family homes from being converted into apartments.

In the short term, Haessly says North Beach Campground should become a sanctioned homeless encampment when it's not being used in the summer.

Haessly has run a low-key campaign, relying on media coverage to build name recognition. His goal is to appeal to voters who feel alienated by the two major political parties. Progs and Dems have failed to work together, he said.

"I feel like the wild-card team just qualified for the final playoff spot," he said. "I'm just very grateful to be here."Correction, February 21, 2024: An earlier version of this story misstated the total number of Burlington police officers on the roster in June 2020.


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