Our sclerotic Senate

In my most recent rant about the State Senate, our most dysfunctional and ego-driven deliberative body, I tossed out a back-of-the-envelope figgerin’ of the Senate’s electoral stasis:

A quick overview of our 30 senators shows at least 26 who are virtual locks for re-election as long as they want to run. And one of the other four is Norm McAllister, who would have been number 27 if only he could have kept it in his pants.

That, I should note, is a generous calculation. You could just as easily argue that if all the sitting Senators ran for re-election in 2016, McAllister is the only one who’d be seriously vulnerable. Almost all the districts lean heavily to the left or to the right. That’s a bad thing, and helps create a Senate that’s full of overinflated egos and smothered in a sense of entitlement.

In case you think I’m overstating the political reality of the Senate, I thought I’d run down the list. In alphabetical order by county:

Addison. Democrats Claire Ayer and Chris Bray romped to re-election in 2014, with no Republicans even bothering to try.

Bennington. Democrats Dick Sears and Brian Campion drew a single Republican challenger, Warren Roaf, who ran a very poor third. Bear in mind that this was, as it turned out, a very good year for the VTGOP, and Campion was a state Rep making his first bid for the Senate. Still, Roaf couldn’t come close.

Caledonia. Democrat Jane Kitchel and Republican Joe Benning are solidly entrenched incumbents. The only other candidate on the 2014 ballot, Democrat Mike Heath, barely drew half as many votes as Benning.

Chittenden. The Big Enchilada, with six seats that appear to be locked up for the incumbents: Republican Diane Snelling; Democrats Ginny Lyons, Philip Baruth, and Michael Sirotkin; D/(p) Tim Ashe and P/D David Zuckerman. Sirotkin, in his first time on the ballot after being appointed to replace his late wife Sally Fox, beat out seventh-place Dawn Ellis by more than 1300 votes.

Essex/Orleans. Democrats Robert Starr and John Rodgers are in like Flynn.

Franklin. This is perhaps the closest thing to a swing district we have, and that’s not saying a lot. In 2014, McAllister and Dustin Degree swamped the field, even though Democrat Sara Kittell was a serious contender. It might be different in 2016 with a Presidential race and Pat Leahy on the ballot and Peter Shumlin NOT on the ballot, but Degree and whoever is appointed to replace McAllister will be the favorites. If Kittell runs again, she’d have a good shot at winning a seat.

Grand Isle. The perpetual Dick Mazza, who’s been warming his seat since 1984.

Lamoille. Republican Richard Westman didn’t draw an opponent last fall.

Orange. Dem Mark McDonald will be there as long as he wants to be. Last fall he faced a well-funded, active opponent in Bob Frenier in a good year for Republicans; McDonald still took 54% of the vote.

Rutland. Right behind Franklin as a district most likely to swing, which again is not saying much. Republicans Kevin Mullin and Peg Flory are virtually unmovable. The Dems, in the form of popular incumbent Bill Carris, used to occupy the third seat; when his son WIlliam Tracy Carris tried to follow in his footsteps, he got blown out by Republican Brian Collamore. In the right circumstances the Dems could win back that third seat, but the Republicans have a distinct advantage.

Washington. Perpetual incumbency at its worst. Bill Doyle’s been in the Senate since 1969, and insiders will acknowledge that he can’t really do the job anymore. But never fear, we’ll keep electing him as long as he draws breath. Pretty much the same with Dem Ann Cummings and P/D Anthony Pollina. That’s a rare trifecta: the same group of voters consistently returning on Republican, one Democrat, and one lifelong Progressive to office. And in 2014 we had a solid Republican challenger, Pat McDonald; she couldn’t come anywhere near the Untouchables.

Windham. The only competitive race last fall was in the Democratic primary. Once that was over, the Dems breezed to victory without Republican opposition.

Windsor. Three absolutely safe Democratic incumbents: Alice Nitka, Dick McCormack, and John Campbell.

Look up and down that list, and tell me who’s vulnerable. If 2016 is a spectacular year for Democrats, they might pick up a couple of seats — in Rutland and Franklin counties. Franklin will be their best opportunity, and that only because of the McAllister scandal.

Retirement is the most certain form of turnover in the State Senate. If Bob Hartwell and Peter Galbraith hadn’t voluntarily stepped down in 2014, they would certainly have been re-elected. It’s almost shocking when an incumbent loses. (Not counting the Eldred Frenches of the world; he got into the Senate by appointment but couldn’t win on his own.)

I don’t have a solution for this. Senate districts generally follow county lines, and that’s a sensible approach. I wouldn’t want us reverse-gerrymandering the districts to create more competitive races. But when virtually every incumbent is a virtual lock to win, it’s not healthy for the institution or the quality of political discourse.

9 thoughts on “Our sclerotic Senate

      1. odum

        Term limits says to voters “in our judgment, you’re not doing a good job with democracy, so we’re going to take some of it away from you.” Not the answer.

  1. R Roper

    Perhaps something we can agree upon… One solution would be to have candidates run for specific seats, as they do in many town-wide races, rather than having the top two, three or six (how absurd is that!) vote getters get the nod.

    The way the multi-seat districts (all but two) work now in most cases is to allow weak incumbents to hide behind strong ones, denying challengers the opportunity to provide a meaningful contrast for the voters. Also, using Windsor County as an example, if Republicans wanted any realistic shot of picking off one seat, they now need to recruit (and fund) three strong candidates in the hopes one will outpoll one of the Incumbents. Logistically and psychologically daunting. It would be more competitive if only one R stepped forward for that candidate to run against, again just an example, John Campbell for a hypothetical Windsor 1 seat. Rutland: same argument for the Democrats.

    In split districts, candidates of opposite parties will make handshake agreements not to recruit challengers to the ticket — which is bad for competition. But often times a good candidate will not come forward for fear of knocking off a fellow party member. If your party is not likely to pick up a seat, what’s the point, and no one runs. But, if running for a specific seat were the policy, in Caledonia County for example, a new Republican challenger could run specifically against Jane Kitchel for Caledonia 1, and a Democrat challenger could run specifically against Joe Benning for Caledonia 2.

    Would incumbents still have an advantage under this system? Sure. The Westman and MacDonald races show that. But at least it would give challengers a better shot at being competitive, and voters a clearer choice at the polls. Sadly, the changes that would need to occur to make this happen would have to be approved by the incumbent senators, so the likelihood of it happening is (ha ha) rather slim.

  2. Annette Smith

    Agree, it’s an unhealthy body somewhat mirroring DC. The one possible game changer is the failure to change the process for approving renewable energy. Depends on how much is built where between now and 2016, but when those elected to represent their constituents fail to represent them (Addison County Senators are a good example of elected officials who seemingly ignored the interests of people dealing with the gas pipeline and solar projects), voters have only one option, find someone else to run and vote in someone who will represent them. So how many people can the renewable energy industry upset between now and 2016 election? The way things are going, likely a lot.

  3. Todd S.

    In the end, it really comes down to Sears, Mazza and Kitchel. The rest are all superfluous, in terms of creating the senate’s actual agenda or determining its approach. These three say “jump” and the others say “how high.” Is this a screwed-up system? By all means. I mean Sears’ Bennington has been losing businesses like crazy in the past few years, yet he’s one of the enlightened and chosen ones? Senate needs to reevaluate its leadership circle.

    I didn’t include Campbell in this mix because he’s just a hack for these three.

  4. Max C.

    Regarding the idea of splitting multi-seat districts: At present, women only occupy seats in the larger districts. I know Bartlett held Lamoille for quite a while. Still, I wonder if we’re more likely to have women elected if they’re part of multi-seat slates? I’d like to think that the absence of women on slates would shame the parties. On the other hand, we have one woman in office out of nine positions that are voted on state-wide, and she was initially appointed. I’d definitely like to see more women in leadership at all levels; this is especially acute at the state-wide and Congressional levels, where it’s just embarrassing.


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