Plus c’est la même chose, plus c’est la même chose

If you’d been harboring any faint hopes for change in the State Senate leadership, you were quite reliably disappointed by Saturday’s Democratic caucus.

With only the tiniest hint of dissent, the status quo was maintained in Our Most Stagnant Deliberative Body. John Campbell? Yep, President Pro Tem again, along with Phil Baruth as majority leader, Claire Ayer as whip, and… the earth would tremble and the skies would be rent asunder if they failed to re-elect Dick Mazza as “third member” on the organizationally influential Committee on Committees, where he will rejoin the Phil Scott Fan Club with Campbell and Scott himself.

Maybe someday there’ll be a real Democrat on that panel.

Seven Days’ Paul Heintz, ever the pot-stirrer, introduced me to Mazza before the caucus convened. And the Eternal Member gave me a hearty greeting, making it clear that he knew what I’ve written about him and that it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. Baseball players used to refer to beat reporters as “flies,” and that’s how Mazza sees me: a fly buzzing around his shit. Didn’t even bother to flick me away.

So the fix was in. There were no competing nominees for any of the four posts, and there was only the slightest bit of dissent: Anthony Pollina voted “no” for Campbell and Mazza without explanation. Afterward, he spoke to Heintz:

“I would like to see the ability for more people to be involved in leadership, quite frankly, and I think that it would be more healthy for the caucus to have some conversation about who’s going to be the leader, and we don’t seem to have that conversation.”

Yeah, we certainly don’t. The organizational meeting was a hearty session of hands-around-the-campfire, we’re-all-friends-here. Any ill feelings were kept resolutely in check. In fact, there was one moment of unintentional gallows humor, when a senator who I didn’t recognize* nominated Mazza for “third member” by praising the past work of the Committee on Committees; he said that everyone had been happy with the committee assignments made by the CoC.

*Subsequently ID’d as Tim Ashe, putative Prog/Dem and studious ass-kisser to the Senate power structure. Gah. 

Somehow, Ginny Lyons and Ann Cummings didn’t scoff loudly. Both veteran lawmakers were screwed out of committee chairmanships by the CoC last time around. Lyons was replaced on Natural Resources by climate change skeptic Bob Hartwell, and Cummings was removed from Finance, presumably because she had the temerity to stage a brief challenge to Campbell’s leadership in 2012.

The CoC’s smackdown had its intended effect, as no one rose to challenge the same-old, same-old. The Three Kings will soon return to their secret undisclosed location to dole out the committee goodies. We’ll see if they behave themselves this time — but only after the fact, since Campbell has declared that the CoC is not subject to open meetings law. Paul Heintz, last February:

When Seven Days happened upon its three members — Lt. Gov Phil Scott, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) — convening to discuss the matter last Thursday in Scott’s Statehouse office, Campbell declared, “It’s not a public meeting.”

“My understanding,” he elaborated, “is it’s a private, deliberative meeting of one of the committees of the Senate and therefore, you know, not open to the public.”

“So committees can just close the doors when they’re deliberating?” Seven Days asked.

“I believe this one, yeah,” Campbell said. “My opinion is that.”

Following that dismal exchange, the CoC held a closed-door confab with Senate Secretary John Bloomer and chief legislative counsel Luke Martland, who then produced a convenient bit of legal mumbo-jumbo to cover Campbell’s backside. When asked why Senate rules, which strictly limit closed committee meetings, don’t apply to the CoC, this laughable exchange took place:

Said Bloomer, “This, in my opinion, doesn’t apply because these are standing committees. The Committee on Committees has no function to take evidence.”

Added Campbell, “The Committee on Committees is totally different. It’s kind of a misnomer using that name, ‘committee.’”

The Committee on Committees isn’t a committee, eh?

Pardon me if I feel completely justified in my cynicism about the CoC.

Let me somewhat belatedly make clear that I have no beef with Ayer or Baruth, aside from their willingness to be part of a leadership team with an inconsistent record for upholding the principles (and candidates) of the Democratic Party. Baruth offered a tepid explanation for the lack of change, telling me that it was going to be a difficult session, so continuity of leadership would be a positive.

“We can’t change captains now,” said the First Mate. “The Exxon Valdez is in trouble.”

Campbell introduced his new aide, former Shumlin Administration functionary Erica Wolffing, fresh off her gig at the Democratic Governors Association.  And he made brief reference to his poor performance as Pro Tem in 2011, which led to Cummings’ challenge and the hiring of Rebecca Ramos as his top aide/nanny. Wolffing will now fill that role, helping him lift that big heavy gavel, and she’ll probably be very good. She’s likely to keep communication lines open between Campbell and the administration, and help keep things running smoothly in the Senate chamber.

After his re-election, Campbell gave a short speech laying out the top four priorities for the coming session, which he said would be “one of the most difficult bienniums in decades.” Which, he added, means “there’s a chance the work we do will be historic.”

Mm. The Hindenburg was historic.

Three of Campbell’s Big Four priorities were predictable:

— Health care. Trying to overcome his past public skepticism about single payer, he promised a full and open consideration of Shumlin’s plan. “We have an obligation to the administration to hear what they have to say, and to the public to deal with the rising cost of health care.”

There’s also that social-justice part of it, but Campbell didn’t mention that.

— The budget. He said the likely $100 million deficit was “not pie in the sky,” and lawmakers will have to look closely at revenues and state functions, prioritize services, and look for efficiencies and duplications. By funding too many “good ideas,” he said, “we’ve spread ourselves very thin.” He called for a tight focus on “what is our obligation to business and to citizens,” as opposed to what we’d like to do. (Yes, he said “business” first.)

In short, No New Taxes. And don’t expect any new money for anything.

— Education funding and governance. “We will have to look at what we need to educate our kids, and what we don’t.”

The fourth priority was a bit surprising:

— Lake Champlain, which he first called an “economic driver” and then called it “iconic.” Priorities.  “It’s not just because the EPA has said we must act; we have an obligation.” What that means remains to be seen, with all the talk of cutting government and focusing on the essentials and no new spending. It was nice to hear Campbell put Champlain at the top of the list, but I suspect we’re not going to get much more than lip service or possibly tokenism.

It’s looking like a dispiriting biennium for liberals. The Senate remains safely in the death grip of The Usual Suspects, now armed with what they see as an electoral mandate to cut and cut and cut. Shumlin himself, in remarks to the House and Senate caucuses, made it clear that his response to his near-defeat will be a predictable tack to the center. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

And so we beat on, boats against the current and all that.

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