James Burke’s political vision stretched beyond the borders of Burlington by 1906. He was deeply embroiled in an effort to wrest control of the governor’s office from the Republicans. To attempt this he forged a delicate personal alliance with Percival Clement, railroad tycoon and owner of the Rutland Herald, who was warring with Proctor marble interests. A joint ticket emerged with Democrat and Independent candidates, and Clement at the top.
That summer, as Burke traveled the state attacking Republican graft and rule, he continued to call President Roosevelt “the greatest Republican since Lincoln and the greatest Democrat since Jefferson.”
The Burke-Clement alliance was largely rooted in political expediency. Both men wanted to be governor and knew that no Democrat could win statewide. Both had also been mayors, Clement in Rutland, though his control of the Rutland Railroad didn’t ease negotiations about the Burlington waterfront, which was owned by Clement’s line and Central Vermont. But there was also an ideological affinity that bridged the class barrier between them. Both were ardent supporters of the “local option” to issue saloon licenses and vocal critics of graft by marble and coal interests dominating the GOP.
The day Theodore Roosevelt found out he was going to be president he was riding with Clement on his railroad. The Vice President had been visiting Vermont Lieutenant Governor Nelson Fisk at Isle LaMotte when word came through that the President had been shot. By 1906, Roosevelt was on the attack against the beef, oil and tobacco trusts, while in Vermont Clement was warring with marble interests, especially Fletcher Proctor, the Republican candidate for governor.
Burke had won another term as mayor over Walter Bigelow, the 40-year-old chairman of the state Republican Party and night editor at the Burlington Free Press. He saw a “bright and glorious future” for the city and wanted people to move beyond “a narrow or partisan point of view.” But the logic of progressive reform impelled him to influence the movement Clement was building.
At first it was called the “Bennington idea,” referring to the town where a petition first circulated for Clement to lead an independent movement that aimed to “save the state” after 50 years of Republican rule. But Clement’s supporters decided that a fusion with Democrats was essential, so they tried to induce Burke to join the ticket.
He wasn’t persuaded. Giving Clement the Democratic nomination would effectively put him in control of the party. If a Democrat won the presidency in 1908, Clement would get to hand out patronage. Thus, Burke remained a potential candidate for governor himself even after a Barre Democrat agreed to join Clement on a slate.
The Democrats were still divided on June 28, the day of both the Independent and Democratic state conventions in Burlington.
While the Independents convened in City Hall and the Democrats met at the armory, a joint committee worked out an agreement to divide the state ticket. The Democrats would field candidates for one half of the slate, Independents would take the rest. After accepting the Independent nod Clement walked with Burke to the Strong Theater for a joint assembly.
Debate on fusion was heated, some people accusing Burke of opposing the idea because he couldn’t head the ticket. Speaking for himself, Burke reminded the audience that he had backed fusion under Clement four years earlier. But the “local option” for alcohol was no longer a galvanizing issue and Clement was, after all, still basically a Republican.
The Democrats rejected Burke’s advice and approved a joint slate headed by Clement and Democrat C. Herbert Pape. With more than a thousand people packing the theater, Clement took center stage, Burke at his side, and launched into a long, fiery attack on the Republic machine, the marble companies, and the inefficiency and graft that was robbing the people.
Burke actively backed Clement’s war on the Proctor Republicans, spending much of his time that summer on the campaign trail. As usual, his rhetoric was rich with praise of Roosevelt.
“Reform is in the air,” he shouted from the back of the candidate’s private train, “and Vermont will share in the benefits that come from the general revolt being made against ring rule and graft.” He envisioned a popular coalition of Lincoln Republicans and Jefferson Democrats that would wipe out party lines. It might even combat corporate lobbying on labor issues like the nine-hour day and minimum wage.
But Fusion was defeated by Republicans united behind Proctor in November. And the following March, Burke came up short in his first mayoral race in five years – to Walter Bigelow. The defeat was devastating for political allies who lost their jobs and watched old opponents return to power.
Clement eventually became governor in 1918 – as a Republican.
Next: On the Waterfront
 In 1902 a referendum gave towns the option of granting licenses. Four years later the authority was transferred to the Secretary of State, and in 1917 to the Commissioner of Taxes. In 1921, the old liquor laws were repealed and replaced by a system that conformed to the 18th Amendment. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the state re-assumed the power to regulate the sale and use of alcohol.