Winning the Speakership was the easy part

Congratulations to Mitzi Johnson, the apparent successor to Shap Smith as Speaker of the House. She pipped House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland-Hanzas at the post. And although her selection must be ratified by the Democratic caucus and then the full House, there’s no real doubt that she will win.

Johnson is whip-smart and highly capable. She was skillful at managing the House Appropriations Committee, which is a hell of a trick.

As for being Speaker, well, she’s about to discover how different and how difficult that job is.

Shap Smith made it look effortless, but there was constant furious activity below the waterline. He also enjoyed the support of an informal cadre of loyal House members who helped him keep tabs on the ebb and flow of lawmaking and the interpersonal dynamics that must be managed effectively if the House is to function. In that regard, a capable inner circle is just as important as the actual caucus leadership.

Johnson won’t have that. She may or may not realize the importance of having that. But the House is a somewhat random gathering of 150 willful souls with 150 agendas. And by “agendas,” i don’t mean policy; I mean unique admixtures of principle, practicality, intellect (or lack thereof), knowledge (or lack thereof), curiosity (or lack thereof), debts payable and receivable, and ludicrously overdeveloped senses of self-preservation..

If it were just a matter of policy and ideas, the House would be a lot simpler to manage. Johnson seems to believe that being Speaker is mostly a matter of policy and ideas. In reality, that’s the tip of the iceberg.

In addition to the cat-herding outlined above, the Speaker also bears a heavy load of political obligations: recruiting candidates, fundraising for the candidates and the party, networking among local and state party officials, members, and donors. In the new biennium, Speaker Mitzi Johnson will be the Democrats’ top in-state politician. Hope she’s prepared to act like it.

Does Johnson have the inclination for the political side of the job? I have no idea. But she’d better, for the sake of the caucus’ future health. The Dems have seen their numbers erode over the past several years. They still have a healthy majority, but it can’t be taken for granted.

Johnson offered a fresh approach to the Speakership, which might have looked better in the abstract than in actual implementation. For instance, she wants the House to undertake “a systematic review of the operations of state government.”

That sounds just peachy, but is it appropriate? The Legislature is responsible for making law and policy; the details are left to the executive branch. This is especially true with a part-time Legislature; it operates for four months a year, while the Administration is running every day.

To really conduct a top-to-bottom review of the government, the House will have to hit the “Pause” button on just about everything else. No bills, no new laws, no new initiatives until the bureaucracy slog is done.

And then there’s the question, are these people really qualified for the task? How many House members have administrative or management experience? How many really understand the ins and outs, the daily technicalities and demands, of state government?

To be frank, the House does not consist of Vermont’s best and brightest. It’s a rather random agglomeration of people, more granfalloon than karass. Some rose to the top, like cream; others floated there, like turds. The vast majority of Representatives come from safe districts; once a person is ensconced in a seat, they’re almost impossible to remove. Are these folks better equipped than state bureaucrats themselves to conduct a meaningful, effective examination of government operations? I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

This “systematic review” would presumably be conducted by House committees. Will the committee chairs be willing to cede their customary duties, procedures and prerogatives in favor of the Speaker’s great new idea? That’ll be a harder sell come January than it might appear right now, especially with veteran committee chairs like Janet Ancel, David Deen, and Carolyn Partridge.

Or would Johnson dare make a power play and install new chairs in tune with her “systematic” vision? Oh, that’d touch off one hell of a fracas.

Johnson will be challenged, vociferously by Minority Leader Don Turner, who labels Johnson “part of the problem” due to her chairship of the Appropriations Committee during a time of what he sees as excessive spending.

And this kind of thong might alienate the caucus’ left wing:

Johnson says her goal is to collaborate with Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott on as many issues as possible.

“Vermonters want us to get stuff done and cooperate, so I think there are a lot of places where we have overlapping interests,” she says. “And I think there are places that we can make a lot of progress.”

Noble words. Statesmanlike, in fact. But how do they sound to party loyalists and progressives (small- and large-P)? They don’t want to make life easier for the new Republican Governor. They want to fight for the programs they believe in, against a Governor insistent on purposely vague cutbacks. They want to maintain momentum for ideas like universal healthcare and marijuana legalization and paid family leave and raising the minimum wage.

They don’t want a Speaker who’s trying to make Phil Scott a success. They want someone setting the stage for the next election and their chance of racapturing the governorship. And in the meantime, forcing Governor Scott to sign unpalatable legislation or risk veto overrides.

Again, Mitzi Johnson is energetic, dedicated, and fiercely intelligent. If anyone can navigate the reefs and shoals of the  position, it’s her.

But she’d better be prepared for a steep learning curve, and for doing things she might not be inclined to do. (Like letting committee chairs run their shops as they see fit, or tramping around the state in search of candidates and money.) If not, well, we could see a raucous, dysfunctional House next year and a further erosion of the Democratic caucus in 2018.

Oh, and one more thing about the Speaker-to-be. She hails from one of Vermont’s few swing districts. She finished second this year in a two-seat district, and came within 103 votes of losing to a Republican challenger. In 2018, she’ll have to run for re-election in a non-Presidential year, which is always tougher for Democrats. Plus, she’ll be carrying the accumulated baggage of the Speakership and whatever the House accomplishes, or doesn’t, during the next two sessions. .

Wouldn’t the Republicans just love to send the Speaker to an ignominious defeat? I’ll bet her Grand Isle-Chittenden district becomes a high-stakes battleground two years hence.


6 thoughts on “Winning the Speakership was the easy part

  1. ApacheTrout

    John, why do you write that Johnson won’t have “a capable inner circle?” Is there something you can offer in support of this?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      It’s something that has to be consciously built. She has the building blocks of an inner circle — some key supporters plus, most likely, colleagues on Appropriations.

      When you come down to it, I’m inferring based on what I hear and see.

  2. Scott Peyton

    Johnson has made some bad moves with some Democratic tag-a-longs, like unions, so I hope you are right that she is as close to perfection as you believe.

  3. Sherman Schman

    John, are you worried about Mitzi winning by only 103 votes? Hell, Donald Trump lost by about 3,000,000 votes and he will be our next President. Well at least the president of the minority of those casting a vote. Don’t worry about Mitzi, John!


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