Vermont’s Democratic and Republican parties selected new state chairs this fall. We have previously dealt with the Republican, Paul Dame, former state lawmaker and the “brains” behind that lamentable “Let’s Go Brandon” rally (btw, the VTGOP is offering leftover LGB merch at big discounts, heh) and Chief Cook and Bottle Washer of his one-man YouTube commentaries.
Now, let’s meet the other new chair. Anne Lezak stepped quietly into her leadership role at the VDP. While Dame’s election drew some coverage and he has since made news a couple of times for dubious reasons, I don’t recall a single story about Lezak. Indeed, she is so not in the news that it’s hard to find a photograph of her. The image at the top of this column is from the VDP’s website.
The lack of coverage is a shame because Lezak is far more likely than Dame to have a significant impact on Vermont’s political scene. She’s the best qualified Democratic chair in years. By her resumé, she possesses all the skills and experience you’d want in a party chair. She has every chance to end the game of musical chairs at the top of the organization and put the party in a much stronger position.
Let’s start with this. The job of a party chair is not to make headlines or develop policy. It’s the dirty, thankless, unglamorous work of building a strong organization, raising the necessary funds, fostering a sense of unity in a party that’s famously fractious, and making sure that everyone is doing their jobs. If you don’t see Lezak in the news, well, that’s because it’s not her job to be in the news and she knows it.
Lezak is an organizational consultant who has worked mainly with mission-driven organizations. She’s created strategic plans, raised money, and advised on the nuts and bolts of running an organization. She’s also a former chair of the Rutland County Democrats and a three-time campaign manager who won all three races.
Ticks all the boxes, right?
Oh, she’s also married to Dr. Harry Chen, former state lawmaker and health commissioner who recently penned an essay calling on Gov. Phil Scott to take stronger action against Covid-19. Just a biographical note; it has nothing to do with her qualifications for leadership.
I recently interviewed Lezak via Zoom. She apparently read from notes for much of our chat; either that or she has a habit of casting her eyes down and to the left during conversations. But that’s okay; given my track record of bashing Vermont Democratic leadership (for all kinds of valid reasons), she had to be a little on edge in speaking to me. Plus, as noted above, she’s not a newsmaker. Being a good chair means staying in your lane and not giving anyone a reason to dislike you.
In spite of the canned answers, I was impressed. It’s hard not to be when you hear about Lezak’s background.
Her entry into politics came in 2002 when Dr. Chen became a Democratic candidate for the House in a conservative district that included the towns of Killington, Chittenden, Mendon and Bridgewater. He served three terms; Lezak managed each of his successful campaigns. “The Vermont Democratic Party said ‘Good luck,’ basically. They didn’t expect him to win,” she recalls. “He went to every single house. I learned every trick.”
Then she took on a bigger challenge: the down-at-heel Rutland Democrats. “There were some wonderful people, but they’d been decimated,” Lezak says. “We spent a long time as a team rebuilding the county committee.” She spent three and a half years as county chair. “Our slogan was ‘Let’s Turn Rutland Purple,’ and we did.”
When Dr. Chen became health commissioner, the couple relocated to Burlington. Lezak had her own consultancy. After Chen left state government, he and Lezak spent a year in Uganda helping to develop health care institutions.
Lezak’s re-entry into Democratic politics came at a moment of change in her life. “I was asked [to be party chair] on the day when I was back in Oregon for my mother’s celebration of life.” Her mother’s death at age 90 left Lezak open to a new challenge.
“I sat with it for a few days,” she says. “I realized [politics] was an amazing experience that engaged all my skills and brain in a way that almost nothing else has. Done a lot of advising nonprofits, developing strategic plans, advising boards. I feel like I have one more big thing left in me. I’m just thrilled and delighted that this is it.”
Despite the VDP’s recent struggles with constant turnover and poor fundraising, Lezak is optimistic: “I would never take this job if I felt the party was in a downward spiral. I felt the opposite,” thanks in part to the Democrats’ “tremendous amount of talent and people who care.”
She specifically notes an injection of youth in the ranks. “We have eight new county chairs,” she said. “Five of them are under 40, and three of those are under 30. That’s really exciting.”
Lezak sees her job as being chief cheerleader for the party, building the party organizationally and money-wise, recruiting and supporting candidates at every level.” Instead of cutting cheap online videos, she’s having “lots of meetings with lots of people,” including county chairs, party staff, and members of the state committee.
She doesn’t shy away from the big question: Can the Democratic beat Gov. Scott?
“You know, you have to say he’s a nice guy,” Lezak responded. “But you know, you don’t have to look very far to realize he may be a nice guy, but he’s not doing the things Democrats care about.
“He did a good job with Covid in the first year, but something has really shifted,” she says. “We are in a world of trouble now. And if you look closely at his other policies, he has not served our state well in many areas.”
Lezak believes the party has “a wealth of candidates” and expects “a very strong, strong race for governor.”
That’d be nice. And if anybody can encourage a good candidate to take on the challenge and provide the necessary backing, it’s Lezak. I think the VDP is in good hands.