In Rutland, three challengers are trying to unseat Mayor Christopher Louras in next week’s election. Some consider the vote a referendum on refugee resettlement, but the candidates argue the race comes down to differing visions and leadership styles for the city.
At an economic forum at the College of St. Joseph’s Wednesday night, the scene was downright familiar, since all three challengers have run against Louras before.
Michael Coppinger, who heads the Rutland Downtown Partnership, a local economic development organization, pointed out that Louras and challenger David Allaire, a member of the city's board of aldermen, have both served nearly 20 years in city government, and that it was time for new ideas and more targeted efforts to grow the tax base.
“We’re less than a week out from this election, and right now, I’m the only candidate that has put out a clear vision, a methodical vision on economic development,” said Coppinger. “It’s based on workforce development, it’s based on lowering taxes city wide, it’s working with our legislative delegation to help with permit reform and it’s also about marketing our city.”
The 39-year-old is recommending a 1 percent sales tax in Rutland City as a way to help pay for much-needed infrastructure repairs and other city costs, while lowering local property taxes.
While a mayor doesn’t create jobs, Coppinger says it’s vital that city government set the stage for job growth by ensuring a strong infrastructure and support for local businesses.
Coppinger also believes the city needs to do a better job of marketing itself. But he says to do that effectively, you have to know whom you’re marketing to. For instance, he says millennials and baby boomers may want different things, and he says a local marketing plan needs to address that.
Kam Johnston is hedging his bets by running not only for mayor, but also for the board of aldermen, city assessor and school board. The 52-year-old told the roughly 80 people in the audience Wednesday night that he’s the only candidate for mayor who will cut the budget. For instance, Johnston says he opposes rebuilding the city pool and would fight more local spending on the Center Street Alley, a downtown space currently under renovation.
Alluding to his first run for mayor two years ago, Johnston jokingly admitted that this time, he actually wants the job.
“Last time, I did it as a lark because I wanted to get known. But this time I actually have done some studying, and I actually think we need a change," he says.
“The thing is, that is only going to happen is if someone stands up. If somebody else had come out and said ‘I’ll cut the budget,’ I would have supported them. Unfortunately they’re not sitting on this panel,” Johnston said, referring to the three other mayoral candidates. “So I may be a flawed candidate, but I’m your only good chance ... not to mention the headlines that would come out ... 'No money spent, Rutland sends a message, we care about fiscal responsibility.'"
Johnston says he would spend more on city lighting to ensure people feel safe on local streets, but stressed that if federal funding is cut in many areas, as President Trump has promised, Rutland needs to have a rainy day fund to be ready. So he says fiscal prudence is vital.
David Allaire, a former state legislator and board president, has served 19 years on the city’s board of aldermen and has run twice before for mayor.
Allaire provided few specifics as to how he’d improve economic growth, attract new businesses or lower taxes other than to say Rutland will need to do more to collaborate with other towns in the region and the state. He admits whomever is elected mayor will have to grapple with an aging and declining population — something he worries may negatively impact how local employers view the city.
Despite the challenges, Allaire stressed he would bring trust and transparency back to city hall — something he feels has been lacking.
More than any other candidate, the 61-year-old has tapped into the anger and frustration that’s been expressed over the way the mayor handled refugee resettlement, namely by not including the city’s board of aldermen or calling for a public vote on the proposal.
Speaking after Wednesday night's forum, he elaborated, “I’ve been very clear about the refugee resettlement right along. I have no issues with refugees themselves. The two families that have come to Rutland, I have welcomed them. What I have an issue is with the process and with the refugee resettlement organization and their lack of information and transparency right up to this very moment.”
Michael Coppinger says he too was frustrated by the lack of transparency and the acrimony he believes it caused. He says he supports resettlement in moderation, but believes an unlimited number of refugees would be too much for the city.
Kam Johnston suggested Rutland would do better to follow the Canadian approach and pair refugees with local sponsors.
Louras, who’s been mayor since 2007, stands by his actions and says Rutland will be defined by its attitude toward refugees and by the results of next week’s election.
“I have absolutely no regrets with respect to bringing refugees to Rutland,” said Louras after Wednesday night's forum. “And the fact is, I would challenge anyone in this community to look into the eyes of the children, as I have, and challenge them to say, if I had my way, you wouldn’t be here right now.”
The 56-year-old says resettling refugees creates economic benefits and brings more youth and diversity to a city that he says needs both.
Beyond refugees, Louras says drugs and crime remain pressing problems, but he says Rutland has made measurable progress under his leadership.
He says recent police data show burglaries and shoplifting are down significantly. Police say burglaries have declined 56 percent since 2013 and shoplifting is down 45 percent since 2014. Louras also touted a recent survey that shows a five-fold increase in the number of people who say they feel safe in the community.