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February 07, 2012

Do Endorsements Really Matter in Burlington's Mayoral Race?

-1The press advisory landed in reporters’ inboxes at 9:33 p.m. Sunday: “Shumlin to Join Weinberger for Special Announcement.”

What could it be? Would Gov. Peter Shumlin announce that he and mayoral candidate Miro Weinberger would be teaming up to compete on “The Amazing Race?”

The suspense was almost too much to bear.

Alas, when the Monday morning Union Station press conference arrived, the announcement was this: The Democratic governor of Vermont was endorsing the Democratic candidate for mayor of Burlington — a governor, no less, who once employed the future mayoral candidate when the two sought to take back the Vermont Senate in 1996.

Game changer? Not according to Kurt Wright, Weinberger’s Republican opponent.

“A Democrat endorsing a fellow Democrat is not big news. That’s to be expected,” Wright said. “It would have only been news had he said he wasn’t going to support him.”

MiroShumlin1So, do endorsements really matter in Burlington elections? If you ask the candidates, the ones they don’t get don’t matter. The ones they do get are “huge,” as Wright called his endorsement last month by the Burlington Police Officers Association. Wright’s campaign was quick to point out that the police union has a perfect track record in picking winners in Burlington’s mayoral elections.

Independent candidate Wanda Hines, who has yet to net any big names, dismissed the whole notion.

“I’m pretty much not into the name game right now,” she said. “I think my community is my endorsement over the past 50 years.”

So does that mean Hines is foreswearing the whole endorsement business? Not quite.

“There could be some other endorsements popping up,” she hinted.

According to Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, what matters in local elections are local issues — not the endorsements of statewide political figures.

“The governor is not a resident of the city of Burlington, so it’s not going to have the juice that Miro might think it does,” he said. “[Voters] don’t want to know you have powerful friends. That does not help you make decisions.”

That’s not to say Nelson dismisses the support of all those who have lined up behind Weinberger (the candidate’s web site lists two former governors, a former mayor, nine state legislators and six city councilors). Nelson points to former governor Madeleine Kunin’s endorsement of Weinberger as particularly significant, given her strong ties to Burlington.

Of course, the endorsements candidates highlight tend to telegraph quite a bit about the candidates’ strengths — and their weaknesses.

Wright, a Republican in a largely Democratic and Progressive city, can barely get out a sentence without mentioning how many Democrats, Progressives and independents support his candidacy.

His campaign slogan? “Citizenship, not partisanship.”

A full-page ad Wright took out in the North Avenue News last week opens with, “The mayoral candidate who can transcend party lines. That candidate is Kurt Wright… Democrats and Independents support Kurt Wright!” Following are testimonials from eight Burlingtonians praising Wright’s ability to work across the aisle.

Not exactly subtle.

Weinberger, on the other hand, has been working to mend fences with Progressives turned off by his close contest with Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) in the Democratic mayoral primary. Key to that effort, says Prof. Nelson, is Weinberger’s endorsement by former mayor Peter Clavelle, an icon in Burlington Progressive circles.

“That’s probably the biggest endorsement Miro can possibly have,” Nelson said.

On the campaign trail, Weinberger often says he will be a mayor in the tradition of Clavelle. And it’s no accident that when Gov. Shumlin came to town yesterday, he made the connection himself.

“The fact of the matter is, in my judgment, Miro will be the kind of leader that Peter Clavelle was as mayor of this city, one that found creative ways to enhance everything from housing to job opportunities to public infrastructure,” Shumlin said. “That's what this city needs now.”

So what endorsements haven’t yet been doled out that could make a difference?

Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who, like Clavelle, is enormously popular among Progressives, has yet to indicate who he supports for mayor, though Nelson thinks it’s unlikely Sanders will step into a local race this year.

“Bernie’s running for reelection,” Nelson said. “An endorsement does not help his candidacy and could well hinder it.”

As for Wright, he points to tonight’s meeting of the Burlington Fire Fighters Association, which may weigh in on the race with an endorsement. Of course, jokes Wright, that endorsement would only be significant if he wins it himself.

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