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Democratic Party staffer resigns, alleging ‘toxic environment’


Vermont Democratic Party members protest former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in Burlington in May 2019. VDP photo

A Vermont Democratic Party staff member ripped the organization on his way out the door this week, citing a “toxic environment” in the party and a “lack of willingness to take the necessary steps to address systemic issues.” 

Announcing his resignation in an email to top party officials on Thursday, Kevin Burgess, the party’s director of affairs and outreach, said that “from dismantling (the state party’s) ‘old boys club’ culture to exploring how the party has failed/continues to fail candidates and Democrats of color, party leadership refuses to acknowledge these longstanding issues.”  

“When party leadership is faced with these institutional failings, they repeatedly minimize, deflect, and refuse to take responsibility,” Burgess continued.  

“As a result of this, party relationships and influence continue to decline,” he wrote. “The Vermont Democratic Party deserves leaders who will bring this organization into the future, not keep it mired in the past.”

Burgess joined the party’s staff in September 2020, according to his Linkedin profile. He previously worked for the 2020 presidential campaign of former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and the Iowa Democratic Party. 

In his email, Burgess called the Vermont Democratic Party “the most unorganized and poorly managed institution I have ever seen” and said he “cannot continue working in this toxic environment.”

“It is turning me into someone I don’t recognize. I have been continually told that I either don’t know what I’m talking about or that I need to be falsely positive in the face of a legacy of injustice. That is not accountability.  It’s gaslighting,” he wrote.

Reached by phone, Burgess declined to comment on his resignation, which was first reported by Seven Days on Thursday. 

In a statement, party chair Bruce Olsson said that Burgess was “no longer an employee of the Vermont Democratic Party.”

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“We are grateful for his efforts and wish him well in his future endeavors,” Olsson said.

“The VDP will continue to support and build our town and county committees, as well as work with partners and allies to create a more diverse and inclusive party. We will continue to move forward together to lay the necessary groundwork for electing Democrats in 2022 and beyond,” Olsson said. 

The Vermont Democratic Party has weathered frequent staff turnover in recent years. When Olsson took over as chair last year, he became the fourth person to hold the job since 2017. The party also faced a staffing scandal in 2019 when its former operations manager, Brandon Batham, was accused of embezzling nearly $20,000. 

Burgess’ criticism of the party comes after several women of color in Vermont resigned from public office after they faced harassment. 

According to Brenda Churchill, a member of the Vermont Democratic Party’s executive committee, Burgess’ departure was a “gut punch.” She said that she and Burgess had been working together to address many of the concerns he raised in his resignation letter. She stressed that the work to improve diversity within the party will continue. 

Churchill leads the party’s Affirmative Action Committee, which she and Burgess were attempting to reshape. Just this week, Churchill sent a letter to potential members of the committee announcing that she, Burgess and another executive committee member, Steffen Gillom, were “reforming’” the group, which seeks to bolster diversity in the party.

“For too long, the Vermont Democratic Party has been silent on issues impacting the most marginalized Vermonters,” Churchill wrote. “From confronting Vermont’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy to empowering our trans brothers and sisters, the Vermont Democratic Party can and must do better.”

Her email included a list of diversity goals for the party: prioritize the hiring of “marginalized individuals, especially Black and Indigenous” people, create a mentorship program that targets minority populations, and “intentionally search for and invite people of color, queer individuals, and others from minority communities” to join the party.

Gillom, the other party official involved in the committee, said Burgess’ work included “engaging people of color,” such as candidates and potential candidates for office.  

“Even though he’s leaving, I’m hoping that this opens up the opportunity for those of us in the party to have a really open and honest conversation and do some really good work towards making sure that we include all voices at the table and that we are not excluding anyone,” Gillom said. 

Sen. Kesha Ram, D-Chittenden, said she met Burgess for the first time this week at the launch of a new initiative to help women of color navigate the challenges of holding public office. She said she was sad to hear he was leaving.

“I think a lot of the staff end up feeling overworked and underappreciated and particularly under-heard in all the stories they’re gathering in the community,” Ram said. “And I think Kevin started to feel that way because he was doing a lot of listening to those who are sometimes at the margins of society or the party.”

But Ram, who used to be a member of the party’s Affirmative Action Committee, said she believes his departure has reignited conversations the group had been having and “gotten people to pay attention that we can’t take our time on these issues.” 

“We can’t ignore them while you have Black women who want to consider themselves Democrats and want the party to support them around the state not feeling safe in their own roles,” Ram said.

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She said she wanted to celebrate the fact that the party hired Burgess in the first place and “he had the leeway to do this work.”

“I have no idea what went wrong,” Ram said. “But I think we were getting on the right track and hopefully this keeps us going in that direction rather than slowing us down.”

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