The Race for Burlington- What’s happening in this year’s town election?


Kyle Galvin, Assistant Editor


Amid the noisy, bustling crowds of Burlington’s annual Tavern Day, a loud hissing sound emanates from a helium machine.

After a suction noise, a red balloon is tied off and handed to a small child in the street. The balloon is emblazoned with the insignia of the Burlington Republican party, and many of them are bobbing in the crowd, or floating into the sky. Many adults, some in suits and ties, congregate around a tent, also a shade of red, discussing various subjects. Many are there to meet their party’s challenger to the incumbent, Democratic first selectman, who is currently walking down the same street greeting families and speaking with allies.

This is no new situation. Tavern Day, Burlington’s annual festival to celebrate the town and its history, has always been host to political candidates looking to spread their campaign and represent their party ahead of November’s election. But this year, there’s also an independent candidate looking to connect with voters – her tent is pitched further down the road and is surrounded by family members and other people looking to discuss her run.

Ted Shafer, the current Democratic first selectman, has held the position for 10 years, overseeing all of Burlington’s recent developments. This year, his challenger from the Republican party, Douglas K. Thompson, won his party’s primary and is now looking to mix things up after a decade of a Democrat in the selectman’s office. And the addition of an unaffiliated candidate – Ellie Parente – makes this a three-way race, with the potential to split votes further among the town. Large support has been coming up for all three candidates in the form of numerous signs popping up on lawns in every corner of Burlington. Three-way voting means that the race could potentially go any way, and each candidate has their vision for what the town needs right now.

If there is one thing that Parente and Thompson, the independent and Republican candidates respectively, share in common, it’s their repeated statements that the current ways the town hall and selectman are serving the town need to change.

“We need a little more honesty and transparency in our [Burlington’s] government,” Thompson says. He stresses that the community deserves more transparent communication, but also transparency in how we make decisions.

“I want the community to know what’s happening, and I want the community to speak,” he said, giving an approved solar farm project going up on Prospect Street as an example. Thompson said that not many people knew about this, and that many had been surprised when he told them.

“We need somebody in the leadership position that can move projects across the finish fine,” he says.

A self-described family man and former certified public accountant, Thompson won against his Republican challenger, Dwight Harris, during the Republican primary in mid September. Since March, he has been posting updates to his Facebook page to around 260 followers, where he states his goals and feelings about a potential term. Thompson says he feels confident about the upcoming vote on Nov. 2.

“I feel good, but I’m still somewhat worried- you don’t know how people are gonna vote,” he says.

Thompson would like to do a town-wide survey about what Burlington needs, and then develop a new 10-year plan using that survey- replacing the current one developed under Shafer.

Shafer, meanwhile, says that things are going good and should continue that way.

“I’d like to continue the town hall philosophy – the projects and programs we’ve been carrying on for several years now,” says Shafer. He cites the positive relationship he’s cultivated with the Region 10 community as the sort of thing that the town should go forward with: “We’ve achieved success so far.”

Over his 10 years in office, Shafer has grown proud of his team, the town, and his accomplishments. With a Masters of Public Administration degree from UCONN, he has a lot of experience with government under his belt. He’s especially proud of the good working relationship with Region 10 staff and parents he has, and would like to continue nourishing it- whether it was successful surplus allocation with schools in both towns or the role the Lewis Mills civics projects play in shaping Burlington.

“I’ve fostered and administered the civic class student town project twice a year for the last 10 years,” Shafer says, going on to explain that many student ideas have made their way into the workings of Burlington’s government. He would also like to move forward other things he’s done – like support scout projects and his involvement with the Community Health Coalition.

“I’ve successfully managed the town’s operations, but I’ve also built a team of professionals that make sure the town runs well every day,”  he says.

As for commenting on the issue of transparency that the other two candidates stressed was needed in the town? “As First Selectman, I am at Town Hall and out in the community everyday and on weekends, during the day and at night, to listen and address any concerns,” Shafer says. The selectman describes the various public debriefings and doucments made available for citizens but also stresses the need of executive sessions for more sensitive matters, which, according to him, include topics such as personnel, contracts, real estate acquisition, litigation and security status. These topics can be “properly managed” during these sessions, he adds.

Returning to the topic of what Burlington needs, the selectman cites infrastructure- that we need roads and bridges, along with more sidewalks. Shafer notes he started the development of sidewalks in the center of town and would like to move forward to the next phase of implementing them all over Burlington.

And the center of town?

“We have new businesses opening soon,” Shafer says. Indeed, one can see the new brewery located next to Library Lane, which opened last week, as an example. He is looking to continue to develop the town center should he win another term.

As for Ellie Parente, the unaffiliated candidate – she makes it clear that she thinks the town needs to change.

“We need a more community-oriented town. When I moved here, 35 years ago, we were more of a community,” she stressed.

Parente announced her candidacy in July, before sending out a postcard in September detailing her campaign statement and goals, as well as a round-up of her 25 years of prior experience serving with Burlington’s government, including her term as Director of Finance. Since she was neither part of nor endorsed by a political party, she had to pursue another approach to running – petitioning the state. Independent candidates need a certain amount of signatures in order to run for selectman. It’s definitely a more lengthy process, she said.

Parente would like to ensure that what the government spends people’s money on is for the people. In order to focus the community on what is going on inside town hall, she would like to send out a quarterly newsletter. “What is the library doing? What about the fire department? Or the police?” she says. Another thing Parente thinks the town needs is community involvement. She says that if she comes across an obstacle in town policy that she isn’t familiar with, she can enlist an expert from the community.

Parente feels strongly about people being involved in town affairs, and explains that many citizens want to be privy to what is happening with their money- and the town’s resources. While speaking about the importance of transparency in politics, she cites a saying her mother taught her, “If you can’t talk about what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

“We have to ask ourselves- those of us in in government positions, ‘are we doing the best we can?’ If not, let’s improve it. We want the best for Burlington- that’s the bottom line,” she said.

The three candidates have their own vision for what the town’s future should look like during their term as well.

Thompson would “like to do some town halls, go out into the community.” He would invite our district representatives, Joe Piscopo and Derek Slap, for talks about how what’s going on at the capitol would affect us in Burlington.

“I would like a grass-roots feel for what people want,” he says.

Shafer says that he’d “like to carry forward the vision I’ve had while serving the community of Burlington.” He continues by saying he’s balanced rural character, which he’d like to carry on, and managed growth within the community. “I’m looking towards carrying out those plans and strategies for the bright future of our town,” he says.

Parente wants more small businesses for a higher tax base. She aims to be proactive, and-like Shafer-  keep Burlington’s rural look going into the future.

“No box stores,” she says, noting also: “I want it [Burlington] to be a community that everyone likes to come to. If you have a problem, you can come to the town hall with it.”

Aside from what they think about what Burlington needs at the moment and what the future would look like, all three candidates have their own first priorities for their hopeful coming term.

Thompson recently had a conversation with the fire chief of Burlington, which is currently a volunteer position. He says the chief talked about how fire calls have grown four times as frequent since he assumed the position, and that there’s a problem with succession in fire department. No one is in the wings for the position if the chief leaves, and it’s “been a problem for some time,” says Thompson.

“I want take a look at our town structure, the resources we have, our personnel, make sure have a structure to support our town of today,” he continues.

Parente’s priorities similarly reside with town structure, and she stresses that we don’t have our CERT program anymore. (CERT stands for Community Emergency Response Team, and its purpose is to educate volunteers on disaster preparation and response.)

“We need to bring that back,” she says, saying that she was part of it. Parente would also like to bring back and strengthen some of the social services in Burlington, citing seniors becoming a bigger percentage of the local population.

Shafer also has something similar in mind.

“I’ve successfully managed and will continue to monitor COVID, and I’m especially hoping to protect the folks in our community more at risk,” Shafer says. He says that seniors and people with pre-existing conditions continue to have the highest odds of negative consequences from COVID and its related issues. Besides COVID, the current selectman wants to continue to support and promote efforts with the local business community.

Beyond local politics, the national political scene has seen massive divide over the last couple of years- and now, things seem to be worse than ever between the dominant two political parties- the Democrats and Republicans. In a survey released by NBC News in April, polling said that 82 percent of Americans believe the country is divided. If we were to break that number down a bit more, 50 percent said America was “mainly divided” and 24 percent said “totally divided.”

However, this doesn’t seem to be trickling down to the local scale – in Burlington, at least. All three candidates said that the political fracture seen on national levels isn’t present here.

“No, thankfully, I do not see that,” Thompson replied. He’s eager to run at a local town, where things are not as heated. According to him, the Burlington Republican Committee is helping make sure a sense of unity is preserved.

“We’re not taking shots at the other side. We’re not partisan, not divisive, and it’s very wonderful,” he says.

Shafer also explained: “I’ve been conscious to bring inclusiveness rather than a divided atmosphere.” The selectman is confident that he’s been successful in preserving a balance and peace between those that may have opposing viewpoints. He says those around him say his personality brings people together, adding that it’s important to “Listen and lead.”

Parente does note that despite relative peace locally, things are different at the state level.

“People are pointing fingers at one another,” she says, referencing events happening in Hartford’s statewide government. “I’m going to go with what is best for Burlington, and what is best for the residents.”

Regardless of party lines, each candidate says that they can be a unifying force in town. Thompson says that it “comes with the experience I’ve had,” and that it’s important you focus on the common ground. Shafer talks about how being out in the community and being “present for all citizens,” whether it be at the library, school events, or community fundraisers, shows that someone is committed to helping all townspeople, and not just their party or favored group of people. Furthermore, he explains how he attends town meetings every night and on weekends to show that he is there for everyone.  Parente also says she can communicate with everyone, despite not being part of either of the two parties.

“Let’s face it. There’s going to be a lot of people I work with that are Democratic and Republican. But there is always a way of talking and coming to an agreement,” she concludes.

The election is about a couple weeks away. On Nov. 2, the citizens of Burlington will cast their votes, and one of the three candidates will be elected. But until then, all they can do is spread their campaign messages and wait. Recently, a Q+A was livestreamed from the Burlington Public Library with the three candidates, and Parente hosted a Meet and Greet on Oct. 9th. She’s enthusiastic about her odds, and says she would bring efficiency into the position and be the first elected unaffiliated candidate in a long, long time.

“We can make history,” she says.

Thompson says, “Among the people, there’s a sense that things don’t get done.” Throughout his campaign, he feels like he’s connected with people in the town, through attending meetings, events, and more. He thinks that “getting people’s perspective has made me a better person.”

“Even if I don’t win, this was worth the effort.,” he says.

And as for Shafer, the current selectman says that he and his team have evolved Burlington in a “quality way,” and that we will continue to do so.

“I think it’s very important for a first selectman to continue life long learning. As technology and society evolves, our job is to understand how that fits into local politics,” he says. “If I’m lucky enough to move forward, I will continue to work collaboratively with everyone in town.”

Whoever wins the election, this is undoubtedly one of the most important ones in the town’s history. Each of the three candidates has their hopes, priorites, and things they love about about Burlington. As for which vision will be realised?

That will be seen on November 2nd.