One theory to explain Rutland Mayor Chris Louras’ overwhelming defeat at the hands of Alderman Dave Allaire holds that it was a referendum on the mayor’s effort to bring a significant refugee population to the city, and the xenophobes of Rutland carried the day.
That’s a view Louras posited in interviews this week with VTDigger.org and Seven Days.
It’s a convenient narrative to explain why Louras lost badly to a rival he had handily beaten twice before. It also allows people who supported Louras and refugee resettlement to dismiss too easily those who questioned both the wisdom of resettlement and the process by which the issue was presented to the community — notwithstanding the often offensive comments about Muslims that were made in public forums and on social media.
But blaming the election outcome on resettlement paints with much too broad a brush.
Among other things, it fails to account for the fact that four of the six candidates elected to the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday backed resettlement.
It’s rarely just one thing that tips an election, and that’s true in this case.
Did the resettlement issue factor into the result? Of course, though probably not in the way Louras might like people to believe.
The mayor couched the resettlement issue as the right thing to do for families half a world away whose lives were being ripped apart by the ravages of a brutal civil war. Most Rutland residents understood the moral imperative behind that reasoning; not everybody agreed with it, but it was a fairly simple concept to grasp.
Where Louras got into trouble was in trying to couch resettlement as an economic development opportunity for Rutland — that inviting people from afar to settle in our fair city would change the culture and lead to ethnic diversity, and that in turn would spur economic growth and enrich the lives of people who are already here. Listening to him talk, the mayor sometimes made it sound like Rutland’s bigger problem is that the city has too many jobs just waiting to be filled.
That didn’t square with most people’s economic reality, and it cost Louras credibility, even among people who had no particular objection to inviting 100 or so refugees to relocate to Rutland.
The way the mayor went about it didn’t help his standing, either. Rather than engaging the community in a dialogue beforehand, by the time resettlement was rolled out a lot of people felt it was cast as a done deal, with the implicit message that you either backed the mayor or you were wrong. That’s hardly a recipe for getting yourself re-elected and it ignored the fact that not everyone who questioned the wisdom of the program, or the lack of transparency in the process, was a raving xenophobe.
On top of the resettlement issue, Louras failed to get city firefighters to buy into a controversial department restructuring. That led to a nasty budget fight in which Louras alienated even some of his staunchest allies on the Board of Aldermen. The firefighters union — made up of a lot of highly respected residents with deep community ties and extended families who vote — came out strongly in favor of Allaire.
Louras was, by his own admission, a divisive leader. He acknowledged that some people probably thought him arrogant, but that was the price to be paid for having somebody in charge who got things done, in his view. Besides, the way he saw it, he was the only candidate capable of understanding the city’s needs and coming up with plans to meet them.
Voters disagreed, and not because most of them differed with him on the resettlement issue. Some who did may have even been motivated by racism and xenophobia, but not enough to account for the staggering swing witnessed at the polls Tuesday.
Above all, we think voters suffered from Louras fatigue. He led the city through several natural disasters, out of a fiscal mess and forward into Project VISION with a style that worked. But after 10 years, regardless of how they felt about resettlement, enough people tired of the mayor’s act and responded to Allaire’s call for greater transparency to bring about change.
Blaming the result on jingoism is not only a vast oversimplification, it’s grossly unfair to most Rutland residents, no matter how convenient it may be.