New Jockey, Same Ride

Belated best wishes and condolences to Claire Cummings, the new executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. I trust she has an idea of what she’s walking into, since she worked on the VDP’s 2020 campaign.

You know how it seems like a certain storefront or commercial building seems to be cursed? One business after another opens up, gives it a shot, and then vanishes? Well, that’s the leadership of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Cummings is the fourth person to hold the job in less than four years — and the fifth, if you count then-party chair Terje Anderson’s unfortunate tenure as interim ED in 2019. (The five, in chronological order: Conor Casey, Josh Massey, Terje Anderson, Scott McNeil, and now Cummings.) The VDP has also seen chronic turnover in staff positions. The “senior” staff member is Spencer Dole, who was hired in February 2019.

Party chair has also been a revolving door of late as well. The VDP is on its fourth chair in five years. (Dottie Deans, Faisal Gill, Anderson and current occupant Bruce Olsson.)

The casual observer might expect the VDP to be a powerhouse, given the party’s dominance in state politics. But no. If anything, it’s fat, lazy and stuck in a rut. You hear a lot of talk about energizing the VDP, winning back the governorship, and opening the door to young Democrats and BIPOC Vermonters. But when it comes time to put words into action, it’s pretty much the same ol’, same ol’.

The party is a victim of its own success. Given the weakness of the Vermont Republican Party and the struggles of the Progressive Party to escape niche status, the Dems can pretty much roll out of bed and win.

Except the governorship, of course. But that’s purely a Phil Scott phenomenon, and he’s practically divorced from his own party. It’s hard to imagine any other Republican winning a statewide election, or the party winning a legislative majority. So the Democrats don’t have to be on top of their game.

This sustained success, earned or not, makes party officials think far too highly of themselves. They have no real motivation to get outside their comfort zone or, for that matter, change anything they do. (Insert obligatory reference to “Grandfather’s Lightbulb” here.) I’ve talked to disaffected young Democrats and former staffers, and they all have the same diagnosis: A resistance to change that’s so deep-seated, party officials don’t even realize they’re doing it. It’s like an odor; after breathing it in for a while, you don’t smell it any more.

But if you come in from the outside, sheesh, something stinks in there. Recall the embezzlement scandal of 2019, smack dab in the middle of Anderson’s leadership. Anderson explained ruefully that for several months, Brandon Batham was writing checks on his own because he was “the only person with access to our bank information.” He also admitted that the party didn’t have a hiring process and didn’t vet job applicants. Did the party face up to its inadequacies? Nope. They couldn’t wait to put the whole unpleasantness behind them.

More recently, we have the words of Kevin Burgess, the only former staffer fed up enough to go on the record. He resigned in February, and his resignation letter was full of words like “toxic,” “failure,” “unorganized,” “poorly managed,” “old boys club,” and “no vision, no plan, and no structure.”

Shortly thereafter, then-ED Scott McNeil — who was touted as an organizational mastermind when he arrived less than two years ago — made a quick, ungraceful exit. So now we have Claire Cummings. And that’s the mess she’s expected to clean up. Probably with little support from party leaders, who’ve been unable to fix their problems (or even face them) for years.

If she can, bully for her. She can go on to bigger and better things. If she can’t, she won’t be any different than all the well-meaning people who have come and gone (and vow never to return). By themselves, they couldn’t contend with the inertial forces within the party.

It’s true that the VDP is better-organized and functional than the Vermont Republicans, but that’s an extremely low bar. The Dems ought to have higher expectations than that. Especially since they can’t win the governorship in a deep blue state. Or even come close.

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