You know, I’d hate to be new Vermont Democratic Party Chair Anne Lezak right about now. She took on the job with hopes of ending a long period of internal turmoil at the ought-to-be-prosperous party.
And now, at the beginning of campaign season, she’s dealing with something of a staff exodus. Three party employees have left in recent weeks, leaving only three paid staffers who have a combined tenure of less than one year. Executive Director Claire Cummings came on board in April 2021; Senate Caucus Aide Sally Short was hired in January; and Data Director Madison Thomas joined the staff less than two weeks ago. And speaking of brief tenures, a reminder that Lezak herself just became party chair in December. They’re probably still wearing name tags at the party offices.
The good news, kinda-sorta: This doesn’t seem to be a case of stampeding to the lifeboats or disappearing in shame, as has happened at VDP HQ in the recent past. Rather, all three have left the VDP for better professional opportunities.
Still, their departures are a big setback for the VDP’s campaign machine at a critical time.
The departees: Party finance chair Kate Olney, who’s given notice that she’s taking a job in VTDigger’s fundraising operation; Spencer Dole, who coordinated the Dems’ House campaign for the last two election cycles, is now field director for Lt. Gov. Molly Gray’s Congressional campaign; and party comms chief Asha Carroll, who’s landed a gig with a national nonprofit organization.
“We’re actively looking to fill all three vacancies as quickly as possible to maintain our momentum,” said Cummings.
Dole’s departure comes at an especially tough time. Running the House campaign requires a deep knowledge of — and connections within — every House district in the state. Dole’s been through the process twice. That kind of institutional knowledge simply can’t be replaced, certainly not in time to run this year’s campaign. House Majority Leader Emily Long has called Dole “the critical connection between the Vermont Democratic Party and the House Democratic caucus.” House leadership is taking the lead on hiring his successor; Cummings said they hope to identify a candidate within a couple of weeks.
The biggest immediate challenge for whoever takes over Dole’s position is recruiting new candidates for House. The effort is complicated, and the timeline severely compressed, by this year’s legislative redistricting. As of right now, we don’t know where the district boundaries will be. Makes it tough to plan ahead.
Dole’s knowledge of the entire state makes him invaluable to a statewide campaign. And, if he is so inclined, the shortest route to Washington, D.C. is working on the campaign of a newly-elected member of Congress. Assuming Gray wins, of course.
Carroll is now working for Shatterproof, a national nonprofit that advocates for addiction treatment and recovery. Her title is Director of Social Media Engagement for Shatterproof’s National Stigma Initiative. From her Shatterproof bio: “In this role, Asha is responsible for creating, growing, and managing the paid and organic social media strategy of the National Stigma Initiative’s statewide stigma reduction campaigns.” Hard to argue against taking a national-level job with such an important mission.
Olney is still on the job, but has given notice that she’s accepted a job as VTDigger’s Director of Donor Engagement. (“Engagement” — everyone’s favorite job-title buzzword.) She’s drawn rave reviews for her work rebuilding the VDP’s finances; Cummings cites Olney’s “incredible job building our monthly donor program,” which the party has been struggling with for years.
These departures have nothing to do with party finances, which seem to be healthy. In fact, Cummings says the party will soon be adding staff for the campaign season: A director of the VDP’s Coordinated Campaign, and possibly a couple of grassroots organizers.
Getting everyone on board will be a big step. Then, they’ll have to get to know each other and learn to work together even as they dive into the deep end of the pool in an election year.
Of course, it could be worse. The Vermont Republican Party can only wish they had a staff exodus to deal with. As it stands, they seem to have had no paid staff at all since former executive director Jeff Bartley resigned (cough) more than three years ago.