Ex-Rutland Mayor Shares View

  • Former Rutland Mayor Chris Louras speaks to a Bethel University Class at the Bethel, Vt. Town Hall, Wednesday, March 29, 2017, about his efforts to bring Syrian refugees to the city before President Trump’s executive order and Louras’s ousting. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Former Rutland Mayor Chris Louras listens to the remarks of an audience member during his appearance at a Bethel University session in Bethel, Vt., Wednesday, March 29, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Former Rutland Mayor Chris Louras listens to Samira Davis, of Grand Isle, left, during discussion after his Bethel University Session at the Bethel, Vt. Town Hall, Wedensday, March 29, 2017. Davis attended the Bethel University session, about the Syrian refugee crisis and Louras’s efforts to bring refugees to Rutland, with Selectman Chris Jarvis, second from left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/30/2017 12:34:14 AM
Modified: 3/30/2017 12:39:28 AM

Bethel — Speaking before a mostly sympathetic crowd at Bethel University on Wednesday night, Chris Louras, Rutland’s former mayor, gave a post-mortem of his decision to bring Syrian refugees to his city, a bid to revitalize the post-industrial community that he says cost him his job.

Before he began the course, titled “Refugees — An Economic Imperative, a Humanitarian Response,” Louras gave the audience of about 30 people in the Bethel Town Hall what he called a “trigger warning.”

“I’m de-elected now for three weeks and my filter is turned off, so there may be some colorful language that seeps out,” he said, drawing laughter.

Louras, a Republican turned independent, lost his bid for a sixth term as mayor earlier this month by a significant margin to David Allaire, an opponent of refugee resettlement on the city’s Board of Aldermen.

He gave the talk on Wednesday evening as part of a one-time course at Bethel University, a temporary “pop-up” school launched in 2014 by the Bethel Revitalization Initiative.

The university, which is open each year in March, offered scores of courses this year to residents from all over the region.

The talk began with a short video produced by Adam Sappern, a volunteer for Bethel University, that gave the backstory to Rutland’s refugee drama through news clips spliced together over a backing track of John Lennon’s Imagine.

The production set the scene: amid an ongoing demographic decline in his city, Rutland’s mayor contacted state and federal officials in private and arranged to bring about 100 refugees from war-torn Syria to his city in the coming year.

“I’m convinced that we’re not going to see anything but benefits from this issue,” he said in one of the clips, explaining that the city’s unemployment rate was at a dangerous low, with businesses struggling to fill open jobs.

Louras said during his talk that he contacted then-Gov. Peter Shumlin the day after Shumlin announced that Vermont would remain open to refugees, in early November 2015; the news that Rutland would participate in resettlement broke in April the following year.

The backlash was swift. Louras received criticism for making his decision out of the public eye.

His plan, some opponents said, would strain municipal services and cause taxes to rise. Others expressed fear that Syrian immigrants would bring “Sharia law.”

“They have forgotten that their grandparents ... met the same language, the same fears, that they spoke to about Syrians,” Louras, a descendant of Greek immigrants, said of his critics on Wednesday night, referring to the expatriates who he said had built the city. “The ‘bomb-throwing anarchists’ is how the Italians, Sicilians, were described.”

Proponents of resettlement in the city formed Rutland Welcomes, which organized aid for the anticipated refugees and countered arguments from the anti-refugee group Rutland First.

The U.S. Department of State approved Louras’ plan in September, but only two families made it to Rutland before President Donald Trump put a halt to resettlement.

Those immigrants, Louras said, are thriving. He saw one of them, a worker at a downtown bakery, as recently as Tuesday as the man ended a shift.

“To see how far they’ve come in a couple months,” Louras said. “He’s working like a dog, and that’s what he wants to do. He wants to work for himself; he wants to rebuild his life.”

As for concerns about the democratic process, Louras contended that some issues should not be voted on — including who gets to live where.

“Nobody voted on the Jews that came here in the ’30s,” he said. “Nobody voted on the Greeks that came here in 1906.”

Louras did meet with some criticism from the crowd, especially after this statement.

Rick Ely, of Hanover, said that he, despite being a supporter of resettlement, was concerned by Louras’ decision not to solicit public input in Rutland’s refugee application.

“It irritates me, to be honest,” he said. “I’m on your side on this issue, but I’m also very, very conscious of issues of democratic legitimacy, and I’m not sure I agree with you that we don’t get to vote on who our neighbors are. ... We may be wrong, we may be prejudiced, but it doesn’t change the legitimacy of the vote.”

Louras replied that, after the unfavorable reactions to his plan, he had wondered whether there might have been a way to involve the public earlier in the process.

“I don’t know how I would have done that,” he said. “I really don’t. I’ve thought about it a lot.”

After the talk, Ely added that he wanted politicians to focus on how they might turn public opinion in favor of refugees, rather than lose popular support — and perhaps their jobs — by acting unilaterally.

Attendees talked among themselves as the evening drew to a close, sharing their personal stories on immigration and the political climate here and elsewhere in the nation.

“Anger is not the solution,” said Natalia May, who introduced herself as a Russian immigrant who works at Vermont Law School providing legal information to the community.

“What I do is educate people,” she said. “I talk to my neighbors; I educate my neighbors whether they like it or not.”

Russia is in the news often these days, with its apparent interference with the election and connections to the Trump campaign, she said. But when people she knows speak ill of all Russians, she said, “I just tell my personal story, and just say, ‘Folks, you may hear news about Russians with evil intent, but there are other Russians, and you’re looking at one.’ ... People-to-people democracy, representative democracy — that’s the answer.”

Afterward, Louras said — as he has many times over the past few weeks — that his political career was over.

“I will not run for another elected office again,” he said.

No other role can compare to serving as mayor when it comes to one’s ability to get things done, he explained.

This will be his first true career change, Louras said; he didn’t exactly have to sit down for an interview when he moved from the U.S. Army to the family business in the ’90s, and the rest of his time has been spent in office. He doesn’t yet know what he’ll do next.

“I just want to figure out what I want to do when I grow up,” he said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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