My recent post about the Vermont Democratic Party drew more reaction than just about anything I’ve ever written… with the notable exception of the Latin Motto controversy. Almost all of it was positive, and much of it came from young folks who feel like they got the cold-shoulder treatment from the party.
At least a couple of people asked me to do the Progressive Party. And while I did briefly address their failings in my post-election “Winners and Losers” piece, there’s more to be said.
Short take: 2020 was a disastrous year for the Progs. They managed to hold onto their seven-seat caucus despite three retirements and one upset defeat, which is noteworthy. But otherwise, the bad far outweighs the good.
Let’s start with the electoral defeats of two prominent Prog-identified pols. Tim Ashe finished a distant second to Molly Gray in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman lost by 41 points to Gov. Phil Scott.
It’s hard to understate how big a setback this is for the Progs. They’ve suffered a huge loss of influence in the Senate, with Ashe’s departure as President Pro Tem and Zuckerman relinquishing the gavel. Also, Ashe and Zuckerman were the Progs’ top two hopes for statewide office. They had built their political careers over more than a decade of success, but they’re off the charts (at least for now).
Also, the magnitude of their losses calls into question whether the Progressive label is statewide electoral poison. Ashe lost by 11 points to Molly Gray, who was a complete political unknown at the beginning of the year. Zuckerman faced impossible odds in taking on Phil Scott during the pandemic; but even so, 41 points???
Otherwise, the Progressive pipeline is pretty much dry. Sen. Chris Pearson is the obvious next person up, but he has perpetually finished sixth in Chittenden County Senate elections (for six seats). There’s no sign that he’s building a base. Sen. Anthony Pollina is the grand old lion of the party, but his health problems appear to rule out another statewide run. I’d thought of Rep. Diana Gonzalez as a potential hopeful, but that ended (at least for now) with her retirement from the House.
And while the Progs maintained their numbers in the House, they still lost in two important ways. There’s a lot less collective seniority in their caucus. Most of their members will be learning the ropes in the first biennium. And the 2020 results confine the Progs almost exclusively to Chittenden County. They’ve still got Pollina from Washington County and Brattleboro’s Rep. Mollie Burke, plus newcomer Heather Surprenant from the Upper Valley. But they lost Robin Chesnut-Tangerman’s foothold in southwestern Vermont and Zach Ralph and Sandy Haas from the Upper Valley. And Susan Hatch Davis seems to have been consigned to perpetual loser status with a very poor finish in a run for her old seat in the House.
Of the nine lawmakers who are mainly associated with the Progs, seven are from Chittenden County. That doesn’t speak well for the party’s potential for becoming a statewide movement.
For the past decade, the Progs have deprioritized statewide campaigns and emphasized dual-ticket candidacies as a way to avoid the third-party “spoiler” label. The former led to the embarrassment of Cris Ericson occupying five of its six nominations for statewide office. The latter has allowed the Progs to sneak in an occasional victory, but there’s no evidence that it’s building toward anything bigger.
The only place where the Progs are advancing is on Burlington City Council, where they now hold a slim majority. They will be tested in the coming election for mayor. They have a pair of credible candidates in councilors Brian Pine and Max Tracy. The Democratic incumbent, Miro Weinberger, is beset by the ongoing City Place disaster and controversies around the Burlington Police Department. If the Progs can beat Miro, they’ve got something to crow about.
But only in their home city.
Now, if the Dems in general and the Burlington Dems in particular don’t get off their asses, they might not only lose the city, but the city’s House delegation as well. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak’s win over established Rep. Jean O’Sullivan should be a wake-up call for the Democrats. If they run true to form, they’ll throw the alarm clock across the room, pull the comforter up over their heads and go back to sleep.
Having dumped all over the Progressive Party, I’ll acknowledge that it’s extremely difficult to build a third party in America. So much so that the Progs’ mere survival is a creditable accomplishment. If they asked me (and why would they?), I couldn’t offer any bright ideas.
The Progressives’ best hope for future growth is out of their control. If we had a ranked-choice voting system, they wouldn’t have to worry about the spoiler label. But there are at least two obstacles in their path.
First, there’s widespread opposition to RCV in Democratic circles. I’d argue that RCV would actually benefit them, because they’d likely win more races thanks to Progressive second-choice votes than they’d lose going the other way. I think their opposition is mainly inspired by disdain for the Progressive Party. Democrats don’t want to do anything that might give the Progs any more oxygen. It’s petty and counterproductive, but it’s real and it’s not going away.
And second is Burlington’s brief experiment with an RCV-like system. It happened to produce an unlikely (and seemingly illlogical) victory for then-Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss. And since Kiss’ regime turned out to be something of a disaster, the concept of RCV has a certain stink about it.
Personally, I’d like to see RCV. It seems to be working just fine in Maine, and it’s beginning to spread elsewhere. But I’m just a blogger, and my support is probably an impediment if anything.
Failing the unlikely adoption of RCV, the Progressive Party will continue to struggle for bits and bobs of relevance — if not for mere existence. There’s no sign that it’s growing in political power or electoral appeal.