John Walters is a political columnist for VTDigger. He also contributes to our daily Statehouse newsletter, Final Reading. Subscribe here.
Vermont tradition dictates that campaigning doesn’t begin until the Legislature adjourns. Well, so much for tradition. The first week of the 2020 session was overshadowed by an outbreak of political news.That’s likely to continue. Is there any room left for the slow, unsexy grind of lawmaking?
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman is running for governor. Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, hopes to succeed Zuckerman. Sen. Debbie Ingram, D-Chittenden, and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, may join the race for lieutenant governor, along with assistant attorney general Molly Gray and perhaps others. There will be at least one opening, and possibly two, in Chittenden County’s Senate delegation — and on Tuesday morning, Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction, became the first to launch a bid for one of those seats, followed hours later by former Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington.
Ambition is never in short supply at the Statehouse, but right now it’s bustin’ out all over. It seems like a highly unusual, if not unprecedented state of affairs.
Or maybe not.
“I’ve done it twice,” said Doug Racine, former lieutenant governor, state senator and human services secretary. Racine was LG in 2002 when he ran for governor and narrowly lost to Republican Jim Douglas. Then, in 2009, Racine was one of five Democrats vying to succeed Douglas — along with two fellow senators, Pro Tem Peter Shumlin and Appropriations Committee chair Susan Bartlett. (The field also included former Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and ex-senator Matt Dunne.) On top of all that, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie was presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor.
That’s a lot of ambition in a single chamber. Did it affect how the Senate did its business?
“I don’t think it really affected the work we did,” said Racine. “I would say people who run for office have been thinking politically for quite a while. In Vermont, you face the voters every two years. You’re aware of the politics of what you’re doing.”
In fact, Racine believes partisanship was kept to a minimum. “I think [Shumlin] was trying to get things done with Gov. Douglas,” Racine said. “He made an extra effort to get things done and wrap up the session without any veto showdowns.”
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There’s one big difference between then and now. Douglas was retiring, while Republican Gov. Phil Scott is expected to run for re-election. Democrats and Progressives seeking higher office will be motivated to draw clear lines between themselves and the incumbent. It remains to be seen how Ashe will approach this, but if the dramatic redo of his Senate office is any indication, he’s looking to shake things up. (The formerly staid office now features colorful furniture and splashy abstract art.)
Team Scott hopes for the best. “Even before we knew about these announcements, we knew it was an election year,” said Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s spokesperson. “[Scott] knows there will be areas of disagreement, but he likes to think the best of people.”
Political campaigns are not known for bringing out “the best of people,” but we shall see.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, believes that intra-party differences may be heightened. “The Democratic Party is going through an exercise not dissimilar to the Republicans in 2016, with the extreme wing of the party battling the middle,” he said.
Benning places Zuckerman firmly in that extreme, but he’s not sure about Ashe. “He has to appease all sides,” he observed. “There are some powerful Democratic donors who’d be hesitant to support someone who’s running too far to the left.”
As lieutenant governor, Zuckerman is right there on scene but has little role in lawmaking. It’s a great platform for partisan tub-thumping — but for him, that’s nothing new. “It’s not going to change my advocacy or positions I have taken over the years,” Zuckerman said. “I’ve been very consistent for 20-plus years in office about my priorities, and I will continue to do so.”
It’s different for Ashe and other lawmakers seeking higher office. “There may be compromises that make sense from a policy standpoint but not from a political standpoint,” said former House Speaker Shap Smith. “Candidates have to decide if they want to risk offending people in the building or outside the building. Anyone who tells you it’s not tricky to hold one office and run for another is lying.”
Smith had a close brush with the ambitious lawmaker’s dilemma. In 2015 he launched a candidacy for governor — but withdrew before year’s end due to family considerations. “I had given it some thought,” he said, referring to the choices he would have faced in 2016 if he’d stayed in the race, “but my thoughts were not fully formed by the time I withdrew.”
Whether or not officeholder/candidates choose partisanship over policymaking, it’s going to be a running theme in the 2020 session. “Things could get overtly political,” said Racine. “Reporters like you will point it out if they put their legislative duties in second place.”
Yeah, that’s the stuff. When things go sideways, blame it on the media.
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