Daily Archives: November 14, 2014

The limits of introspection

It sounds like Governor Shumlin has reached the end of his post-election navelgazing after ten entire days, and he has found that the reasons for his shocking near-defeat are largely external. Yes, he accepts responsibility for failing to listen to Vermonters and he promises to do better on that score. But as for the widely-held notion that there was a personal message in the election results? Not so much.

You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

Shumlin appeared on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning (podcast should be up shortly), and Mark opened the hour with a pretty solid grilling of the Governor about the whys and wherefores of the gubernatorial election.

When asked what messages he took from the returns, Shumlin named two:

— On policy, “there’s a feeling that folks are frustrated” on pocketbook issues, school spending, and continuing wage stagnation for middle- and working-class people. Which is not just a Vermont problem, he was quick to point out, but a national trend, for which he can bear no special responsibility.

— A vaguely-defined brace of regional and local issues. The Vermont Gas pipeline may have cost him votes in Addison County, and his support for ridgeline wind was a problem in the Kingdom. Aside from those two examples, no specifics.

I can accept that Shumlin was confronted by local concerns as he campaigned around the state, but I haven’t seen any evidence for a localized rejection of him. When I looked at four state senate districts, in different parts of the state, I saw a very clear trend: the Governor polled consistently behind Democratic senate candidates, by a similar margin in each of the four counties.

The general message, he said, was “You’ve got to listen more… Don’t get too far out in front of the troops.”

And then Mark tried to explore the personal dimension. Was the election about policies, or about Shumlin personally?

Safe to say he didn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. “I’ll leave that to the pundits,” he said.

Mark followed up with a direct reference to the Jeremy Dodge land deal, which seemed to resonate with a lot of voters. And not in a good way. Shumlin pivoted immediately to generalities: “I’ve got to do my job better going forward.”

Mark: Was this all about policy, then?

Shumlin: I’ll  leave that to the pundits.

Earlier in the interview, Shumlin had said he fully expected a close election because of what he heard on the campaign trail, and his own campaign’s internal research (which he wouldn’t give any details about). At this point, Mark returned to that idea: Didn’t you hear anything from Vermonters about your own style, your personality? Why not talk about it?

Shumlin: “I have talked about it.” Back to generalities: “There were lots of messages in this election.” And then it was eyes forward to the “tough decisions” that lie ahead. “I’ve got to roll up my sleeves and get back to work.”

A bit later, Mark noted that while Vermont Gas might have cost him votes in Addison County, that didn’t explain Shumlin’s troubles in the Burlington suburbs, where he polled poorly and the Dems lost multiple House seats. His only response was another reference to general “economic frustration.”

All in all, he made it pretty clear that he’s closed the book on the past and is ready to “roll up his sleeves and get back to work.” Nothing more to see here folks, move it along.

I can’t say I’m surprised by the lack of personal introspection, but I am disappointed.

If this election was about policy not personality, then I’m left wondering why one individual so badly underperformed the rest of the Democratic ticket. Why the Governor was almost thrown out of office, while his party retained a strong grip on the legislature?

He did admit that he’d gotten a bit distant, that he was listening to the same small group of people too much. And he committed himself to getting around the state more, and holding open public events (of an unspecified kind) that would get him in touch with a broader variety of viewpoints. And that’s a good thing, as far as it goes (and if it really happens).

But clearly, there are dysfunctional elements in his administration and his own conduct, and it sounds like he’s unwilling to go there. Which, in my view, is a huge opportunity missed.

Is this the time for business as usual?

It’s an annual rite at this time of year: a changeover in the upper levels of the administration. It usually involves some key departures, a shuffling of the deck, and the elevation of those who have served in a lesser capacity.

The latter began on Wednesday for the Shumlin Administration, with promotions for press liaison Sue Allen, campaign manager Scott Coriell, and education adviser Aly Richards. Loyal servants, rewarded for their work.

But should they be?

I have nothing against these folks. As far as I know, they deserve their promotions. But a broader question is on my mind:

Praise and promotions were freely distributed when Shumlin was riding high. Should the same be true after a poor administrative year and a disastrous campaign?

Further: Are these promotions a sign that Shumlin, at some fundamental level, doesn’t get it? That it’s business as usual on the fifth floor?

The Governor has made the right noises. But the current situation calls for a lot more than that. You can say “The buck stops here” all you want, but if the buck stops and gets tossed in a drawer, it’s a meaningless statement.

After the election, I saw a gleam of hope: Shumlin does his best work in crisis, as we saw after Tropical Storm Irene. This election was the closest thing to a personal Irene for Shumlin. My hope was that he would seize the opportunity, thoroughly evaluate everything he and his people do, and boldly set a new course.

So far, given his frequent deferrals to legislative leadership and his dispensation of Jobs For The Boys (And Girls), I’m having my doubts.

In addition to a personal reckoning by Shumiln, there ought to be a personnel reckoning. During the campaign, I wrote that the continued problems of Vermont Health Connect called for some clear direction and, probably, the rolling of some heads.

In addition to Doug Racine’s, that is. Racine may have had his failings at Human Services, but it wasn’t like he got a lot of help from Shumlin. Plus, he had little to do with Vermont Health Connect. He was expendable, not because he was the biggest problem, but because he wasn’t really part of the team. Mark Larson, who was far more responsible for VHC but was clearly one of the boys, was shunted to the side but kept his title and is still drawing a salary for duties and responsibilities unknown.

Is Governor Shumlin capable of evaluating his staffers and functionaries with the cold eye of reason, and demoting or defenestrating those who’ve contributed to his administration’s malaise?

We’ll see. He promises more personnel changes to come. But I have to say I’m not optimistic. If the changes have more to do with the desires and ambitions of his staff than with a sorely-needed overhaul of the Shumlin Machine, then his third term is off to an inauspicious start.