Well over a hundred people gathered in the midday sun today, to hear House Speaker Shap Smith officially launch his candidacy for Governor. The crowd was enthusiastic, and nobody keeled over from heatstroke, so there’s that. Several state lawmakers were on hand. So too, interestingly, was Governor Shumlin’s recently departed chief of staff Liz Miller. She wasn’t wearing a “Shap” sticker that I could see*, so maybe her presence was mere coincidence. Mo Vegas is, after all, the place to be.
And if Peter Freyne were still alive, Mr. Speaker might have acquired a new nickname: the Prag Prog.
I say my record is one of pragmatic progressivism.
He also unveiled a campaign logo, “Shap” in large white letters next to a green outline of Vermont, all set against a deep blue background. I would have been tempted to go with “Shapleigh,” but that’s probably why I’m not a candidate.
Holding the event in Morrisville was, I thought, a good move. It emphasized his status as a Vermonter rather than a Statehouse insider, and underlined his speech’s emphasis on ensuring opportunity in every part of Vermont, not just Chittenden County.
My big takeaway: the event highlighted his strengths as a candidate and the big challenges he will face. Most of which revolve around the same thing: his position as Speaker and his central role in Democratic policy initiatives of the past several years.
During a Q&A after his announcement, Smith pointed with pride to the accomplishments of recent years:
I think the record does speak for itself. We’ve done a lot to invest in our communities and in Vermonters, and to try to protect people. … And I’m confident that when people see the choices that we’ve made and how we’ve moved forward, that people will understand that we’ve done a really good job to move Vermont forward in a way that supports her people and her infrastructure.
That’s all well and good, but when asked about potential negative associations with the Democratic record, he turtled.
I don’t think this is an issue of what we’ve done over the last few years. I think it’s an issue about what we want to see for Vermont in the future.
We got more of the same when the AP’s Dave Gram asked if Smith would differ from Governor Shumlin on issues like raising taxes on top earners and trying to cut Reach Up benefits and the Earned Income Tax Credit:
As I said before, what I’m going to be about is making sure we have a Vermont that’s going to be successful for the future, and it’s going to be one that our kids have the opportunity to do well in, and we’re going to adopt policies that move our state forward in that way.
Looking back when convenient, resolutely forward otherwise.
He’s got some work to do on threading that particular needle, and he’s got plenty of time for it. He’ll get a lot more questions about how he would do things differently and where he agrees and disagrees with Governor Shumlin and the legislature’s record.
(We pause briefly for conspiracy theorizing. Could Liz Miller’s presence be a sign of Shumlin’s blessing? If so, to go deeper into the thicket, does that mean Transportation Secretary Sue Minter is not running for Governor? As a dedicated Shumlin functionary, she would seem to have first dibs on the Governor’s favor.
And now we return to our regularly scheduled analysis.)
He was asked if he plans to serve out his term as Speaker, which expires in the fall of next year.
I do. I gave the commitment to the people of the state and my district in 2014 to continue with that job, and I plan to do so. I’ve talked with a bunch of people who have gone through this before, and I feel confident that I’ll be able to fulfill both roles.
That could get a little interesting, since House Minority Leader Don Turner has already called for Smith to give up the gavel.
Of course, I would then ask Mr. Turner: if Phil Scott runs for Governor, should he give up the Presidency of the Senate? Or, at the very least, give up his influential seat on the Senate’s powerful Committee on Committees?
Then again, perhaps Phil Scott is uniquely immune from such conflicts of interest, since when he served in the Senate he was vice chair of the Transportation Committee even as he continued to head a construction firm that frequently bids for state roadwork contracts.
But I digress. The other thing about staying on as Speaker: Smith is banking on a productive and popular 2016 legislative session.
We have a lot of difficult issues we have to focus on in the Legislature, and I think that the ability to work effectively in the Legislature will be determinative of how successful the candidacy is. If I do my work well, Vermonters will appreciate it, and we’ll go forward.
That’s pretty bold. He is embracing his leadership of next year’s Legislature on the assumption it will help more than hurt. That’s a substantial bet on himself. Usually, even if a legislative session is successful, there’s some short-term blowback. Shap Smith is counting on the 2016 session being a springboard, not a stumbling block.
Overall, the event was well staged and well attended, and Smith generally did a good job. He will, however, have to more effectively deal with the legacy of the last five years, and find ways to differentiate Shap Smith the potential Governor from Shap Smith the legislative dealmaker and gubernatorial go-between.