Friday, August 15, 2008

Queen City: Finding the Weak Spot

“A $52 million commercial complex will be built in Burlington during the next five years, unless residents of the City strongly resist plans now being made by City and State officials. In bits and pieces, people will be urged to pay $8 million to help business and banking interests turn the Queen City into a regional center for tourism and entertainment.” -- Public Occurrence, Spring 1976

“What’s this shit?" The mayor barked, tossing a copy of the latest Public Occurrence on his desk. He’d already confiscated a pile left near the entrance to City Hall. Thousands more were circulating all over town and across Vermont. The same “call to action” was being printed in several community newspapers.

At the bottom of the back page, below an article headlined “Stop the South End Connector!” was my name. Gordie Paquette could barely believe it. Someone working in City Hall had attacked the biggest commercial project in city history. But I wasn’t a city employee. I was a contract worker being paid by a grant, and the advisory panel didn’t care about my off-the books activities.

I’d been coordinating research on “youth needs” for a few months, using sophisticated survey tools with more than a thousand kids and staff at the various schools and social service agencies. In the process I’d built some rapport with members of the Burlington Youth Council, the panel appointed to supervise the project. It was led by Vivian Hartigan, a savvy local matron with solid city and Party roots. She didn’t trust Gordie to do much about the problems but was determined to make him try.

Access to city records netted some useful information about local projects. I read the files and copied reports, feeding information to the activists. Despite the high stakes for the city no statement had been issued about the true scope of redevelopment. The politicians and planners were hoping to sneak it through, bit by bit, worried that if the general public saw what was really going on, before the pieces were all in place, there could be some resistance. Exactly.

After examining economic and planning data, and identifying various pieces of the Master Plan, I reached the conclusion that the South End Connector, a proposed access road to link the Interstate with downtown, was the lynchpin. It was the key incentive developers wanted, and could only be built if the city won approval for spending, probably by floating local bonds, to cover its share of construction. If the road was stopped, or at least questioned and delayed, other projects might be derailed or changed.

But my thoughts went farther. Step one was to change the local debate, convincing enough people that Burlington faced a series of related crises – housing, youth, employment, traffic, and commercial development. To do that meant finding ways to legitimize dissent through various local media and organizing tactics. It would also be necessary to create more media alternatives. Public Occurrence was just the first step. Step two was to connect the dots between issues, build links between special focus groups, and create new ones to deal with issues like the Connector, mall development, and suburban sprawl. It might take years, but in the end the City would have to respond. Finally, a new citywide organization would be necessary if we were going to split the Democratic Party’s base, motivate the disenfranchised, and win political power.

In short, I devised a Five-Year Plan to overturn the local power structure. For obvious reasons I kept most of the details private. Some friends already thought I was a bit unrealistic. But I did write down and share the basic strategy with a few close associates. Persuaded by the analysis they nevertheless doubted that it would work.

My wife came straight to the point. “Who’s going to become mayor? You?” she asked. I hadn’t actually thought about running yet, focused on creating the right conditions for rebellion. But why not? Was it so outrageous? “You’re really not electable,” she added, answering her own question. “Why?” I inquired.

“You’re just not white enough.” What she meant was that Vermont, even a city like Burlington, wouldn’t accept an ethnic “outsider” as a political leader. Especially not an olive-skinned newcomer with an “exotic” name.

She had a point. I wasn’t “mainstream,” and Vermont tended to elect either born-and-bred Vermonters or professional ex-urbanites like Phil Hoff, Tom Salmon, and Richard Snelling. But I could worry about that later. The task at hand was to frame the issues, legitimize the opposition, and peel off part of the dominant power’s base.

Gordie Paquette had no idea what I was thinking. He barely knew who I was, just some consultant brought in to appease a few locals about the kids. A report would be filed and promptly forgotten, he assumed. But he wasn’t about to let someone work in his building and criticize his agenda.

I’d prepared for this moment. The consulting gig wouldn’t last beyond the summer. There wasn’t much Gordie could do beyond bluster. But I could find out something – what made him tick, what he thought about what he was doing. Basically, I could size him up. Thus, I just ignored the bluster and spoke as if we were equals, just two guys shooting the bull. People were skeptical about his plans, I explained. They didn’t understand why he was ignoring local problems and planning to roll over for commercial developers.

His defense was a shock. “I have no choice,” he complained. If he didn’t back these public improvements some of the city’s biggest local merchants were threatening to relocate to the suburbs. It was blatant commercial blackmail. Williston, a nearby “bedroom” community with Interstate access, was destined to become a commercial center; an upstate New York mall chain called Pyramid was already eyeing property. The only way to “save” the city was to improve access and make downtown more attractive to developers, chains, and tourists, he said.

Gordon Paquette was supposedly a “strong mayor,” the reputed boss of the city for more than a decade. Yet he sounded powerless, weak. Almost whining, he protested that he was really a man of the people, but the people didn’t understand the stakes. I acted sympathetic but stood my ground. Meanwhile I thought: this guy can be beaten with the right campaign.

Part Seven of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: From City Hall to the Streets

Thirty Years Later: Touring Burlington

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