Three years after placing himself in the center of Rutland's refugee resettlement debate and losing his mayoral seat, Christopher Louras only regrets the refugee families who never came.
When he was still mayor in April 2016, Louras announced the city would become Vermont’s newest resettlement community and welcome 100 mostly Syrian refugees, with more expected to follow.
VPR’s Nina Keck wanted to see how the city and those most closely involved with the refugee debate have changed because of it. In the first of her three part series, Nina caught up with the former mayor.
Christopher Louras was mayor of Rutland for a decade, president of the city’s board of aldermen, and served two years as a state representative.
Before he got into politics, he was in the Army. He served 10 years active duty, maintaining and test flying CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Those are the big ones with two rotors.
“So in the Army, as a warrant officer, you can pick one of three tracks,” Louras said. “Either safety track, where all the grumpy guys go; instructor pilot track, where all the prima donnas go; or maintenance, where the people who want to just work and get [stuff] done go. And that’s where I went."
Louras brought this no-nonsense style to city hall, but not everyone loved it.
These days, however, politics are notably absent from his private sector job managing a local distribution business. And for someone who was very much in the public eye, he's not anymore. Louras has given very few interviews since he left office in 2017.
So besides the three refugee families that moved to Rutland, Louras is probably the one who’s seen his life change the most because of how resettlement played out in this city.
As mayor, he definitely weathered his share of criticism. But the 58-year-old said the pushback he got on refugees was different, fueled in part by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign.
“On this issue, what I was surprised at was not the level of the contention, but the fact that it didn't abate and just simply grew," he said.
The idea of bringing immigrants to Rutland was something Louras said he had been thinking about long before the world was focused on Donald Trump or the war in Syria.
He traced it back to 2008 and 2009 during the sub-prime mortgage crisis, when out-of-state property owners began defaulting on multi-family homes in Rutland.
“They walked away from the homes — we had squatters," Louras said. “The city had become a defacto property manager, picking up the garbage and mowing lawns. We had too much housing stock and not enough people to fill it."
At the same time, local employers like GE were complaining about the city’s shrinking workforce.
“We recognized from federal and state data that if GE were to leave the city of Rutland, that it wouldn't be because of [development law] Act 250,” Louras said. “It wouldn't be because of taxes. It wouldn't be because of transportation infrastructure. If GE were to leave the city of Rutland, it would be solely due to a lack of workforce.”
Louras remembered sitting in his office with a former city attorney talking about what to do.
"We decided that would be a great idea to try to replicate what happened at the turn of the century, when all the southern and eastern Europeans came to Rutland and built this community," he said.
Louras’ own grandparents had been among them, settling in Rutland after fleeing Greece.
But it wasn’t until late 2015, when former Governor Peter Shumlin announced Vermont would open its doors to Syrian refugees, that Louras saw an opportunity to act on his idea.
A few months later, during a crowded press conference at Rutland City Hall, Louras stood with dozens of high school students, refugee resettlement organizers and select local officials and announced his plan to resettle 100 Syrian refugees in the city, with more to follow.
The plan took many city officials by surprise.
Former Rutland Herald editor Randal Smathers remembered seeing several people at that press conference who were not applauding. “I was like, wow, what was he thinking, doing it that way?”
Smathers, who is now the director of the Rutland Free Library, said he fully supported the idea of bringing in refugees. But he also believed the mayor made a crucial mistake in not informing all the members of the board of aldermen ahead of time.
“If it’s that controversial an idea that you can't let anybody know what's going to happen until after it's happened, you're doing something wrong,” Smathers said.
Louras’ relationship with the board had always been contentious, and this wasn’t the first time he had gone around them to get something done.
But this time, things got ugly.
Meetings at city hall in 2016 were packed with people on both sides of the resettlement issue.
Critics worried about how the city would pay for a large influx of new residents. They brought up health concerns like tuberculosis, questions about employment and housing, and many, like Sharon Leonard, wondered why the city would help foreigners before attending to locals in need.
"I would like to be considered before outside people,” Leonard said at a board of aldermen meeting. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
“Refugees are needy folks,” said former Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton. She warned of increasing costs for city schools.
“People are angry,” said local physician Timothy Cook. “We have too many things on our plate already. There’s no way we can possibly afford this.”
“Once you open that door, that’s it, we're going to have to take hundreds of them,” said Dave Trapeni, who had run against Louras in a previous mayoral race.
Trapeni was incensed at what he called the secrecy of the way resettlement was rolled out. And he felt local residents should have been allowed to vote on the matter.
“We’re not like the Kool-Aid drinkers in Burlington,” he said. “This is a whole different thing down here. If we don’t get a say in this, this will be used in March.”
And it was. Louras had cruised to reelection five times. But longtime alderman Dave Allaire, who had challenged Louras twice before and lost, harnessed anger over resettlement. This, along with support from the local fire department — who had their own beef with Louras — was enough to oust the incumbent mayor in March 2017.
Dave Allaire won, 2,196 to 1,420.
“I got smoked,” Louras admitted the day after the election.
Incumbents are hard to beat in Vermont. Many who know the former mayor say this was an especially tough blow, and one he took personally.
When he first left city hall, Louras worked briefly as a union representative, then for his family business, a tobacco and candy wholesaler in Rutland that the family recently sold after 75 years.
Now Louras is a general manager for Foley Distributing. He said he’s grateful to have the job.
But people who know the 58-year old say the transition out of public life has been difficult for him.
“I'm just doing my thing,” Louras said. “But I'm not at the point where I'm willing to self-reflect, especially with a microphone.”
As to whether he regretted the way he handled the refugee resettlement issue, he was quick to say "no."
“Not a bit," Louras said. "The way it was handled in the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016 was the only way it could have been handled in order to get the three families we did into Rutland."
And he said his conviction has grown even stronger after watching the backlash and the level of acrimony that he says still exists three years later.
Meanwhile, by all accounts, the three refugee families that did make it are doing well. One lives just down the street from Louras and is in the process of buying a home.
Louras said he struggles to find solace in that.
“I can't get past the recognition of how much more it could have impacted Rutland had it continued," Louras said. "Now should I be looking at the positive? Absolutely. I see the positive any time I walk past Hussam and Hazars’ house, anytime I see [their son] Mohammad and his sister Layan. Yeah, I get it. That feels good. And I know everything is right in their world.”
He added, “However, I can't look at anything broader for this community because of the tragedy for our country. The fact that we shut the doors on tens of thousands of families just like them. It's so wrong that I can't get past that to talk about how good it is that we have these three families here.”
In August, the Rutland Chapter of the NAACP awarded Louras its "Courage in Action Award" for his efforts on behalf of Syrian refugees.
When asked if he had any plans to re-enter politics, the former mayor’s answer came fast: Hell no.
Correction 4:30 p.m. 9/27/2019 An earlier version incorrectly identified the model type of the Chinook helicopter.