The Chittenden Trap

One of the top items on the Vermont Democratic Party’s to-do list is a makeover of its relationship with the Progressive Party. Nothing drastic, just some overdue maintenance. The core issue: how to deal with Progs running as Dems — and, in some cases, running as Dems and then re-entering the fray as Progs after losing a Democratic primary.

But I would argue that another issue might be more urgent: the party’s increasingly Chittenden-centric orientation.

Writing this post was in the works before today’s news that Rep. Mitzi Johnson has edged out Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas to be the next Speaker of the House. Now, it seems even more pertinent. The leaders of both houses will come from Chittenden County’s sphere of influence: Johnson from South Hero (basically a bedroom community for Burlington), Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe from Chittenden County. And the three members of the Senate’s Committee on Committees all being from Chittenden.

When I say “Chittenden County,” I define it broadly; from the southern half of the Champlain Islands down to Shelburne at least, and southwestward to Richmond if not Waterbury.

Chittenden County itself accounts for one-fourth of Vermont’s population. Its Senate delegation is twice as large as the next biggest county — and in fact, based purely on population, it ought to have one more Senator. (And will certainly get at least one more after the 2020 Census.)

Beyond the mere numbers, Chittenden is home turf for the Democratic Party’s urban-ish, tech-oriented core. And its donor base.

Economically and culturally, the Burlington area is practically a different state. It’s the only part of Vermont whose biggest problem is managing growth, not mitigating decline.

Sue Minter’s campaign reflected the pitfalls of the Chittenden Trap. In agenda and in style, it never connected with the rest of Vermont. I’m not just talking about guns or wind; the whole thing was primarily aimed at well-educated Vermonters accustomed to a measure of diversity.

(Matt Dunne’s gubernatorial campaign paid plenty of attention to the rest of the state. In his case, the problem was the messenger: even though he’s from the Upper Valley, he fell short on image and style. He looked and acted Chittenden-ish.)

In some ways, Minter’s approach was smart. Chittenden is where the votes are, especially for Democrats. But Minter was up against the poster chid for the Other Vermont, and that only deepened the dissonance.

How does this play out in terms of policy? How does it not, really. The Legislature’s lengthy deliberations over issues like GMO labeling, marijuana, paid sick leave, the carbon tax, and the right to die appeal mainly to the Chittenden mindset. Sure, they have their proponents elsewhere in the state; but those issues and others made it appear that Democrats were insensitive to the real economic and social insecurities of other regions. When you’re working multiple jobs and barely paying the bills, or your school might close for want of students, or you have to fill your pickup’s tank a couple times a week, then you’re at a different level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and the preoccupations of the more fortunate seem distant from your more immediate concerns.

And then there’s the (nonpartisan) elephant in this here room. Legislative leadership has consistently framed the cleanup of Lake Champlain as an issue for all of Vermont, to be paid for by everyone in Vermont. Well, maybe; but more than half the state isn’t in the Champlain watershed. To say that we’re all responsible is partly true, but it’s also a way of cushioning the blow on the areas that, by far, are most directly responsible for turning Champlain into a nutrient-rich, blue-green stew. And who’s front and center, pushing that “all-in” approach? A lot of Chittenden-area lawmakers, that’s who. And those lawmakers wield too much power for their more distant colleagues to advocate a less Chittenden-friendly funding mechanism.

I paint with a broad brush, as I did in my earlier post about Freeway Vermont and Two-Lane Vermont. This is a different formulation of a similar idea. But this particular formulation is more relevant to the Democrats’ hopes of retaking the governor’s office. They need to look beyond the stuff of craft-beer klatches and TED talks and find ways to appeal to the Other Vermont. They’ll have to do so in spite of the increasing Chittenden-centricness of their leadership.

Part of this is ensuring that the rest of the state gets more than a token presence in party leadership. Retaining Copeland-Hanzas as House Majority Leader and promoting Becca Balint to Senate Majority Leader would be a start, but only a start.

I’ll close with a tangentially related question. How many top Democrats belong to the Elks Club, VFW, or American Legion?

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8 thoughts on “The Chittenden Trap

  1. Sen. Joe Benning

    By golly John, I think you are finally beginning to understand Vermont!

    I’ll only add this brief list to your ending tangential question for consideration of a very valid point you’ve raised: “Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions?”

    Reply
  2. Kay Trudell

    Good for you, John. As a Grand Isle County resident, I believe that you hit the nail right on the head. But honestly, what do you expect when the governance of the state is so overwhelmingly liberal (whether Dem or Prog)? This urban/tech and bigger government mindset is fairly typical for liberals.

    Reply
  3. Mary Hooper

    Your point about the dominance of a certain type of thinking is important. I’d expand the sphere of influence to Montpelier. Annually Chris Pearson passed out a graph of the economic status of the state, with and without Chittenden County. Remove Chittenden County and our recovery from the recession is virtually nonexistent. But I don’t think you are right when you look at Mitzi Johnson and her district. Mitzi’s district runs to the Canadian boarder and includes bit of rural Milton in Franklin County. Sadly the poverty rate and unemployment in parts of this district rival the northeast kingdom and other parts of the state. I don’t think they have a high school and it probably takes longer to get to Burlington from Alburgh than it does from Royalton. Mitzi also has a pretty rich record of community service and engagement–the sort that counts when understanding what living in Vermont means.

    Reply
  4. tlittle54om Little

    Re: the Lake Champlain basin. The basin encompasses a little less than 50% of the square miles of the state, but around 62% of its population. From data and maps available at the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      You’re right, but the vast majority of the pollution problem comes from the Burlington area and the farms of the Champlain Valley. Runoff from the rural inland is a fraction of the problem. And then there’s the question of why should people in the Connecticut River Valley share equally in the cost?

      It may be the appropriate thing for all Vermonters to pay for something that will benefit Vermont, just as we pay taxes to support human services and schools even if we don’t need them. But the fact that there’s so little examination of the “everybody pays” idea shows how Chittenden-centric the Legislature is.

      Reply

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