Editorial: Unsettled Rutland

Published: 4/4/2017 9:00:23 PM
Modified: 4/4/2017 9:00:22 PM

Chris Louras, the former mayor of Rutland, is living proof that no good deed goes unpunished in American politics these days.

Louras is an ex-mayor mostly, or perhaps solely, because he made arrangements to resettle 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the city, in what he characterized as a humanitarian act that was also an effort to boost Rutland’s declining population and economic prospects. Voters weren’t buying it, ousting the five-term incumbent in March. They elected in his place a leading opponent of resettlement, by 52 percent to 34 percent in a four-way race. Given that Louras had won the previous two elections with nearly 60 percent of the vote, it seems beyond question that last month’s election was a referendum on refugee resettlement.

Despite the outcome, Louras sounds like a man with no regrets. Two Syrian families, with a total of five children, did make it to Rutland before President Donald Trump shut down the resettlement program, and they are apparently thriving. “There’s no better reason to get de-elected than doing the right thing and saving people’s lives,” he told The Boston Globe.

But did he need to get “de-elected” for doing the right thing? It’s tempting to write off this whole episode as just another ugly example of American xenophobia and racism in the age of Trump. That was certainly part of it, but we suspect that, as usual, the truth is more complicated. At least some of the opposition is attributable to the fact that Louras unilaterally arranged to take the refugees in private talks with state and federal officials. When the initiative was finally announced in April 2016, the backlash was fierce, both on the merits of the resettlement and the lack of transparency in the process.

The former mayor has defended that process, correctly noting that nobody gets to vote on who lives where. “Nobody voted on the Jews that came here in the ’30s. Nobody voted on the Greeks that came here in 1906,” Louras said during an appearance in Bethel last week, declaring that he did not have a good answer as to how he could have involved the public earlier in the process.

But Louras had a good case to make in public, which is that taking the refugees was essential to the economic and social revitalization of his struggling city of 16,000. “Those post-industrial communities that have embraced new Americans, refugees and immigrants, are the ones that are thriving and whose future is bright,” Louras said after the election. “Whereas communities like Rutland, in 2017 — our stock is falling.” Indeed, in January the New York Times reported on the positive effects immigrants and refugees were having on Rust Belt communities such as Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio, that have welcomed them.

“Individuals who opposed refugee resettlement (in Rutland) were opposed due to fears, both rational and irrational,” Louras told the Globe. “They didn’t give themselves enough of a chance to understand that these are families who are simply trying to rebuild their lives.” Was there an opportunity early on to give Rutland residents that chance to learn from the experiences of other cities and to talk through their misgivings in public forums? We think there probably was. Would it have made any difference? Probably not in the current political climate. But people’s minds are rarely changed when they are taken by surprise. The slow, steady drip of information and education is more likely to wear away walls. 

But if the process Louras used was a miscalculation, it was at least a miscalculation made in the attempt to do the honorable thing. We hope that he will reconsider his repeated vow not to run for elected office again. America needs politicians like him all the more now that Donald Trump seems determined to demonstrate that no mean-spirited act will go unrewarded by voters. 





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