The House Democrats’ ill-considered pension reform plan was the icing on the cake, the topper in a series of events that expose the fundamentally centrist nature of the party and its officeholders.
And this I trace to the all-encompassing influence of one Harlan Sylvester.
For those just tuning in, Sylvester is a longtime money manager who shuns the limelight — but for decades, he has been the kingmaker of Vermont politics. You don’t get to the top of the heap without his blessing. And it sure seems like the modern Democratic Party has been fashioned according to his fiscally conservative taste.
There have been occasional press profiles about him, and they all describe him the same way. Peter Freyne, 2000: “Mr. Sylvester has had the cocked ear of Vermont governors going all the way back to Tom Salmon in the 1970s.” Freyne quoted then-UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson thusly: “Harlan loves conservative Democrats. He wants to erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”
Rutland Herald, 2002: “it was Harlan Sylvester’s considerable influence and strategic skills that helped put [Republican Jim Douglas,] the apparent underdog candidate, in office.”
In 2010, Freyne’s successor Shay Totten described Sylvester as “The most powerful man in Vermont politics.” Totten also quoted Prof. Nelson: “He’s got access to people with real money, and those people with real money will invest in politicians who will protect their interests.”
So that’s Mr. Sylvester, who is in his late 80s but his power has not been visibly diminished. From what I’ve heard, he remains the power behind the throne.
And now let’s look at what the Democratic Party has become.
We must first mention the House Dems’ public sector pension reform plan, which puts virtually all the burden on teachers and state employees. There is not a hint of finding a new revenue source such as, hahaha, an income tax surcharge for top earners. Only a handful of lawmakers (who consider themselves Progressives first and Democrats second) have been brave enough to float the idea, and it’s been received with utter silence by leadership.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint are widely believed to be eager to run for higher office. That would explain why an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature has kiboshed any talk of revenue increases, even when the option is to alienate their base. Sure, they say it’s because Gov. Phil Scott would veto any such measure; but that doesn’t usually stop legislatures from passing bills they believe in. Besides, what better way to draw a contrast between the Legislature and the governor than by forcing him to shoot down measures that are popular with your base?
In truth, the inaction has as much to do with Harlan Sylvester as it does with the prospect of vetoes.
Now, let’s recall that Sylvester, a self-professed Democrat, was the power behind Jim Douglas’ ascendancy. Isn’t Phil Scott pretty much a Douglas clone? A putatively moderate Republican who tends to “erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party”?
I think I understand why the Democrats have rarely put up a fight against either man. Whenever either governor has sought re-election, the party has failed to throw its weight behind its own candidate. And the top-drawer candidates have stayed out of the fray. That makes all the sense in the world if they couldn’t get Sylvester’s backing.
Now let’s look at the top contenders for the next top-shelf opening — in the governor’s office or the Congressional delegation. All of them are clearly acting as though they are angling for Sylvester’s approval.
Attorney General TJ Donovan was a leading criminal justice reform advocate when he was Chittenden County State’s Attorney. But he’s changed since he became our top law enforcement official. He never brings charges in cases of police-involved violence. He has repeatedly taken the state’s side in public-records cases — including his refusal to disclose large quantities of documents in the EB-5 scandal. He doesn’t speak out, or he does so in the quietest of tones, on reform issues like reducing incarceration, eliminating bail, or changing the culture of the Department of Corrections. He has now overruled his successor Sarah Fair George and refiled charges in three cases involving mentally ill suspects.
And as far as I can tell, he hasn’t even called for the immediate Covid vaccination of inmates. His “progressive” actions mainly involve multi-state lawsuits against misbehaving corporations or the Trump administrations. Outside our borders, he’s a fighter. Within Vermont, he’s a protector of the status quo.
Now let’s turn to Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, who went from unknown one year ago to a heartbeat away from the governor’s office. Her brief political career has been marked by a studious avoidance of taking strong stands. She’s big on platitudes and generalities. It’s still early days for her, to be fair, but she’s shown no sign of political courage or independence.
The other two top names are Krowinski and Balint, about which see above. Again, it’s still early in their tenures, but they’ve been cautious stewards of the status quo. Public sector pension reform is the signature issue of the 2021 session, and they are acting precisely how Harlan Sylvester would like them to act.
On the other hand, Progressive hopefuls like David Zuckerman and Tim Ashe, not to mention progressive Democrats like Rebecca Holcombe, Brenda Siegel and Christine Hallquist, have hit the electoral brick wall.
On the pension issue, I thought the unions would have substantial input. Well, they haven’t. The simplest explanation is that, as important as the unions are to the party’s fortunes, the approval of people like Harlan Sylvester is even more crucial.
The clearest way to view our politics is that it has been thoroughly Sylvestered. Governing the state occurs in a narrow centrist band. Revenue increases are rarely enacted — rarely even talked about. On issue after issue, incrementalism is the rule of the day. The last time a Democrat proposed something really bold, it was Peter Shumlin’s single-payer health care. And we know what happened to him.
Minimal progress seems to be the most we can hope for. We kick the can all the way to the end of the road on waterways cleanup. We might make substantial progress on broadband, but only with a lot of federal money. The Global Warming Solutions Act set ambitious goals, but did nothing to clarify how we achieve them. Dems have been trying for years to get some kind of hike in the minimum wage.I rarely hear them defending the public schools against a series of threats.
If I were Harlan Sylvester, I’d be very pleased with what I have wrought. Since I’m me, I can only hope that the future will see his sneer of cold command shattered on a desolate plain.
My name is Harlan, King of Kingmakers;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!