A similar version of this post was published in The Water Tower. Spoiler: Ms. Knodell won the election.
Keeping up with national politics, for all the work it takes, bears bitter fruit. I’m the kind of guy who attacks political apathy wherever he finds it, but I can’t deny that Congress tends to look like Sisyphus, pushing a rock up a hill and watching it roll back down over and over again (just with a lot more shouting). Progress in Washington is slow, results are meaningless to many Americans, and voter fatigue plagues citizens who trudge to the polls every couple years to choose the prettier of two assholes.
But remember, thanks to this thing we call federalism, that there’s another level of government in town, one where your voice might actually be heard.
“Almost nothing is more important than local politics,” says Emily Lee, one of two women running for Burlington’s Ward 2 City Council. In what Seven Days magazine calls “Burlington’s most closely watched election race this year,” Lee, a Democrat, has been braving the cold for months, campaigning door-to-door against her Progressive opponent, UVM economics professor and former Provost Jane Knodell. Each of Burlington’s seven wards has two councilors who serve two-year terms. I got the chance to sit down with both candidates and now see the race as a tough contest between two intelligent, qualified, engaged, and open-minded women. However, their differences in age, background, and education give them unique perspectives on Burlington’s most contentious issues.
Prof. Knodell grew up in Seattle and went to Stanford, where she got her B.A. (’76) and Ph.D. (’84) in Economics. A job at UVM brought her here in 1986, where she has lived and involved herself in community-building ever since. Her scholarly and political careers are closely aligned: while she has taught courses such as Macroeconomics and Money & Banking, she simultaneously has served as a watchdog for Burlington’s banks, a founder of Burlington’s Community & Economic Development Office, and a Ward 2 City Councilor for no fewer than seven terms. “City services matter,” she told me over coffee at the Davis Center; it’s a point that seems obvious but is often overlooked.
She gave up her councilor chair in 2009 to devote more time to her Provost responsibilities, but now she’s seeking reelection at a pivotal moment; half of Burlington’s city councilors have less than two years of experience, and most of newly elected Mayor Miro Weinberger’s office has less than one. The City of Burlington needs well-seasoned lawmakers right now, and when it comes to experience, Jane’s the name. In her previous terms, she spearheaded issues like the quality of public schools, use of local agriculture, permanent home ownership, and small business development, and she plans to stay the course.
Even her opponent admits that Jane is “really smart and accomplished,” as Emily put it when I interviewed her at Muddy Waters. “But it’s time for some fresh energy,” she added, outlining exactly what her perspective would bring to Burlington. Unlike her West Coast competitor, Ms. Lee is pure Vermont: her Green Mountain State roots go back seven generations, and her great-grandfather Cassius Cobb (UVM Class of 1906) used to lug coal up Old Mill as his work study job. Emily grew up in Westford, VT, with a family that was “constantly on the verge of financial collapse.” She went to Essex High School, then paid her way through UVM, spending her nights working with the disabled and elderly. After graduating in 2003 she took a data entry job at Merrill Lynch Bank in Burlington. Now she’s the Vice President. “Get your foot in the door!” she emphasized, valuable advice for students of all shapes and sizes. “Let no job be beneath you!”
She’s also proved herself an adept community organizer, helping found the West Hill Neighborhood Association and working tirelessly to bring people together. She wants to reduce the price of housing and the animosity towards students by making on-campus life more appealing. Her ideas include building more dorms, making UVM a wet campus, and decriminalizing marijuana.
Yes, this year’s ballot hosts a dynamic pair, but Ward 2 is a dynamic part of town that demands a well-rounded representative. Ward 2 stretches from Main Street (between Willard and Union) all the way past the northern edge of town. Its growing refugee population makes it the most diverse part of Vermont, but its transient, off-campus student population—many of whom spend less than a year in the ward and are registered to vote in other states—earn Ward 2 the prize for Burlington’s lowest voter turnout. It doesn’t help that the election—which takes place on March 5th at the H.O. Wheeler School—always occurs over UVM’s Spring Break. (Don’t worry though; you can find the early absentee voter ballot online.)
The conflicting interests of permanent residents and students—the town and the gown, as they say—complicates democracy in college areas. City councilors rely heavily on direct feedback from their communities, and oftentimes, the needs of a politically silent chunk of the population will get overlooked (or presumed nonexistent). So students who feel disconnected from their community, know that it usually goes both ways. “I’m responsible to everyone in my ward, voters or non-voters,” Jane assured me, but both women vowed to tighten the relationship between city and college.
Ms. Lee plans to team up with the university to solve Burlington’s housing crisis. “When I went to UVM, an off campus apartment was $300 a month,” Emily told me. “Now, students pay up to $750.” Considering that in the same time, the total out-of-state cost of UVM has gone from $27k to $45k per year, we’ve got a major problem on our hands. “UVM has outsourced its housing problem to Burlington,” she went on. “The Redstone Lofts housed an additional 400 students. We needed room for 4,000.” She also wants to work with UVM’s Office of Community Relations to expand Burlington’s student internships and ideally encourage more long-term student residency.
Ms. Knodell has similar plans, but believes that more on-campus housing will make the off-campus parties even rowdier. She’ll enforce stricter fines for noise violations and crack down on apathetic landlords. But she also hopes that tapping into UVM’s commitment to the environment—either by finding volunteers for community sustainability projects or by offering service learning courses at the school—will transform our student body into more engaged and neighborly citizens.
And engagement is essential. After all, “self-government correlates with freedom and self-determination,” Jane said when I asked her why she values democracy. “Citizens are the ultimate accountability mechanism. They keep elected officials honest.”
Emily has a broader vision for democratic citizens. “Conflict comes from people not having a voice,” she says. “So speak up, communicate your needs and values. You can do that through voting, writing, using the internet, or chaining yourself to a redwood.”
I can’t tell you whom to vote for. But I can tell you that both these women are entirely committed to local politics, with no ambitions outside working for the people of Burlington. If Emily looses, she’ll continue being a grassroots organizer. If Jane loses, she’ll keep teaching at UVM and look for boards to get on. “And maybe get some new dogs,” she added.