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?