BURLINGTON — With Burlington’s Ward 3 special election coming Tuesday, three candidates enter the final weekend to compete for a seat that’s been a progressive stronghold for four decades and counting.
The underdog conservative challenger, Navy veteran Christopher-Aaron Felker, is a Republican who has made his pro-police stance a primary message of his campaign.
“Before I even go into our policies I ask the voters what issues are important to them,” Felker told True North in an interview Thursday. “And the number one issue since the very beginning of this campaign, throughout the entire ward, has been public safety and rebuilding our police department.”
He said his campaign’s positive messaging on public safety and other matters is resonating with voters.
“The current vibe of our campaign and our supporters is extremely positive,” he said. ” … We entered this race months ago as an unexpected candidate and the underdog, and we’ve made this race completely competitive. We are now just days away from election day and the winner is completely up in the air.”
Felker faces off against Democrat Owen Milne, executive director of the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, and Progressive Joe Magee, a former campaign staffer for Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Progressive activists including members of the City Council have repeatedly called for reducing police levels below what’s been recommended by law enforcement professionals. Earlier this summer Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said the department was functioning 30 officers short of recommended levels to keep everyone safe.
In 2020, the Burlington City Council voted to reduce the force by 30 percent resulting in a 74-officer cap. Murad said the actual operating levels got as low as 67 due to officers’ other commitments and injuries.
Felker noted that crime continues to rise, and said Magee defended abolishing the police in a recent debate.
“That was on a Friday, and that weekend, that Saturday and Sunday, we ended up having two shootings — a hate-motivated assault in Battery Park and a knife fight in City Hall,” Felker said.
His other competitor, Milne, has called for major reforms to the police department. His website states that the next police chief should “not need to come from 30+ years of criminal justice and have a tactical training to effectively lead through change.”
Felker says that his campaign is the only one to commit to raising staffing levels back up to recommended levels. Two other of his proposals include more funding for better training, including de-escalation training, and getting more social and mental health workers on staff to help with non-violent emergencies.
He said the increase in staffing should make a difference.
“We want to accommodate and bring back foot patrols, the street crimes unit, and adding sworn animal control officer to the Burlington ranks,” he said.
Felker says his campaign has been able to reach out across political parties.
“We have had much success with reaching out and successfully connecting with life-long Democrats who’ve lived here in Burlington — they are receptive to our message,” he said. “I have earned the votes of these people and they are extremely excited about our chances.
“I keep getting messages almost daily from some of these people who have lived here in the old North End for a very considerable amount of time, property owners and renters alike, who are very excited about this race in particular.”
In addition to public safety, the next two issues that Felker says he heard the most about from voters was the recent reassessment of property values by the city, which has caused property taxes to go up.
“When the tax bills hit people’s mailboxes two weeks ago, man, that issue really gained popularity and momentum,” he said.
Another issue was infrastructure — in particular, having well-kept sidewalks for accessibility around the city, and building rain gardens to mitigate flood and water-facility challenges that sometimes occur during heavy rains.
Felker said he is confident heading into the Tuesday election.
“We ran a positive campaign putting forward actionable solutions for the problems facing Burlintonians here in Ward 3,” he said. ” … We are extremely optimistic about the outcome on Tuesday, looking forward to a win and hopefully a big one.”