Is the Progressive Party Becoming Irrelevant?

It’s hard to look at Tuesday’s results and feel excited for the Progressive Party, a party with a very tarnished brand, a party that purports to help working and low-income residents, but is unable to actually attract said folks to their ranks. While Mayor Weinberger lost 15% in the polls from 2015, Progressives were unable to gain a single council seat, couldn’t field a mayoral candidate, and Brian Pine, a heavy favorite and moderate Progressive-ish candidate, was elected to a left-leaning bastion, where radical Genese Grill came close to beating Councilor Knodell only a year ago.

A large part of third party’s appeal is their unwavering commitment to their principles and strategy. Love or hate them, but at least you know their positions and strategies. Third parties’ influence comes from a small tent – a weakness and an asset – which limits membership but saves energy from engaging in lengthy battles requiring extensive internal compromise towards the ‘middle’. While third parties may have trouble winning statewide office, they can still affect change by being a party that works together and pulls from the left, without having to constantly compromise in ways that left Democrats must.

Atleast that’s how it should work. In practice, the Progressive Party over the last few years, particularly Burlington Progressives, have been entirely unable to agree on anything, and because of this no one knows what they stand for. Who wants to vote for a party that, when push comes to shove, say they support working class folks, but were perfectly okay selling city property to a known slumlord, and those who did object did so from the perspective of not privatizing city property, as opposed to protecting our most vulnerable residents from landlord abuse?

From entirely abandoning beleaguered Mayor Kiss, to disagreements about the mall redevelopment, F-35s, and civilian oversight of our police commission, Progressives are unable to vote together, are unable to put together a competing vision for this city that doesn’t involve isolated opposition, and are therefore an entirely ineffective opposition party. While I am sure that many folks feel that being an opposition party is a bad thing, that’s how a two party system works. If you aren’t in power and you want to regain power, you need to offer a clear competing vision. Otherwise, why would anyone vote for change if most of the time the ‘opposition’ is in agreement with the ‘establishment’?

On top of this, Progressive candidates running in Democratic primaries, along with many longtime Democrats like Tim Ashe and Phillip Baruth receiving the Progressive endorsement (D/P or P/D), not only confuse people on what it means to be Progressive, but also make it incredibly hard to hold any party leaders or elected officials accountable to the party platform. On top of this, the Burlington city party has put very limited resources behind new Progressive candidates, but will mobilize for more established and ‘establishment’ candidates (some of whom won’t even take the Progressive label) like Driscoll, Knodell, Pine, the latter two of whom were also supported by mega-landlord Bissonnette. I have trouble understanding how helping marginalized folks includes working with folks who mass-evict low-income residents.

Outside forces have also hurt the party. Bernie running for President as a Democrat, and Our Revolution primarily supporting progressive Democratic candidates, has quickened the party’s demise. The results from the Ward 8 election, where Socialist Culculsure and independent-left Driscoll won many more votes combined than the Democratic incumbent, but Progressive student candidate Neubieser lost handily to the incumbent ‘independent’ Democrat Roof, show that the party is in dire straights and even students would rather support nominally-independent candidates over Progressive challengers.

I know too many people on the left who have become entirely uninterested in the Progressive Party. If the Progressive Party wants to have a chance of survival they need to shed the older Progressives or those associated with older Progressives (Brian Pine, Councilor Knodell, Council Sharon, and anyone associated with Michael Monte and former Mayor Clavelle aka ‘the Clavelle Wing’, who openly supported Mayor Weinberger last election), many of whom refuse to share meaningful leadership and power with younger members, and they need to start putting priority in supporting newer, younger, and often times further-to-the-left candidates. Otherwise, they should be prepared to be in charge of a party that stands for little and accomplishes even less.

But what do I know, I was just chair of the city party for two incredibly frustrating years, and an unsupported city council candidate.

Town Meeting Day Brings A Toothless Housing Ballot Item

Last March, as cofounder of Fight for 15 Burlington, I helped city councilors put a nonbinding question on the ballot. At the time, I was incredibly proud – being able to affect such change, to help bring a better living standard to so many of my friends, coworkers, and neighbors. I was told that while the ballot question was incredibly vague and had no enforcement, it would help move the conversation forward on the state level.

Those arguments sounded good – and nearly every councilor voted for it, except the Republican and Republican/Democrat. It helped not only the progressive (small p) city councilors running for election and reelection, but even some of the Democratic councilors. And why not support it? No one had to make any concrete plans or promises, they didn’t have to take any political risks. Even Mayor Weinberger, although at first opposed, eventually came around to supporting the ballot item, likely because he also recognized how toothless and free of political risk the question was.

As the months went by, I thought that even though the ballot item was nonbinding, since it was supported by 75% of voters that Progressive councilors and Councilor Shannon (a vocal booster of the question) would recognize that there were concrete steps they could take in the following months while waiting for the state to raise the minimum wage. They could have expanded the livable wage ordinance, got rid of all the exemptions, could have taxed businesses over a certain size that don’t pay a livable wage, or at the very least had a public conversation about this on the local level. What did those councilors end up doing? Nothing.

In retrospect, while I felt embarrassed to have my name associated with pointless feelgood measures, it was an important learning lesson. When a ballot item or ordinance is supported by a majority of councilors, especially when supported by councilors who tend to be fairly fiscally or socially conservative, that is a good sign that the bill has no purpose, no teeth, and is really just meant for local politicians to look good without having to take any political risks.

So is the case with the new housing ballot item, and it may be no coincidence that just like the $15 ballot item, Councilor Knodell was the one to introduce it.

“Shall the voters of the city of Burlington in order to help the city’s nonprofit housing organizations build more affordable housing throughout the city, advise the city council to identify and adopt progressive local option revenues, the proceeds of which shall be used exclusively to benefit the city’s housing trust fund?”

During Monday’s council meeting, the question was changed to strike the specific tax language in lieu of the looser “local option revenues.” It passed on a vote of 9-3, with Councilors Kurt Wright, R-Ward 4, Dave Hartnett, I-North District, and Joan Shannon, D-South District, opposed.”

The only way I can see this ballot item having merit is if those who voted in favor of it promise, if citizens support it, to follow through. I’d love to be made wrong on this one.