The Vermont Senate’s seniority-heavy lineup is about to become a serious problem. That’s because current Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, seen above possibly contemplating the task of herding the caucus cats, is leaving the Senate to pursue a bid for Congress. And win or lose, she won’t be in the Senate beyond this term.
Which means the Senate will have to replace her no later than next January. And I’m here to tell you exactly how shallow the talent pool is. And that’s because so many senators have overstayed their sell-by dates.
Out of the 30 senators, a full 16 are basically too old to step into the top spot*. They’re not necessarily too old to be effective lawmakers, but they’re clearly on the downslope and I doubt that any of them would even want the job.
*For the record: Brock, Clarkson, Collamore, Cummings, Kitchel, Lyons, MacDonald, Mazza, McCormack, Nitka, Pollina, Sears, Sirotkin, Starr, White.
Before I get accused of ageism, let me expand on that cold assessment. Most of the senior senators are comfortable in their roles. They are not looking to take on a new level of responsibility. Heading the Senate caucus is a big, troublesome job. You’re always putting out fires or facing the press or twisting a fellow senator’s arm. It’s also something you tend to take on when you’re set on climbing the political ladder, not when you’re fat and happy.
Look at the last several Pro Tems. John Campbell was 47 years old when he assumed the office. Peter Shumlin and Peter Welch were in their primes, and clearly had their eyes on higher positions. There were a couple of short-time Republicans in the mid-90s; John H. Bloomer served from 1993-95; Stephen Webster succeeded him for a single term. Bloomer was 63 when he became Pro Tem; he had had a successful political career and would certainly had continued if he hadn’t been killed in a car crash in January 1995. Webster was 52 when he succeeded Bloomer; he would continue his political career well beyond his time as Pro Tem.
Before them, and four years of Peter Welch, there was Doug Racine, a relative youngster when he became Pro Tem. Tim Ashe was in his early 40s, and Balint was 53. All these folks, save Webster, were far younger than today’s cohort when they led the chamber. It’s no job for old men. It is a job for the ambitious. Of the past seven Pro Tems who survived their tenures, only two (Webster, Campbell) did not seek higher office. And Campbell got the job largely because of his lack of ambition; senior Senators had a very free hand under his, cough, “leadership.”
Returning to our present situation. The obvious next-in-line is Balint’s #2, Majority Leader Alison Clarkson. She’s a colorful presence in the oft-staid Senate chamber, but she shows no sign of ambition beyond re-election.
After Clarkson, the most obvious candidates would come from the ranks of committee chairs. Whose average age is 73, for Pete’s sake. All the chairs save two are in the “too old” category. At 66, Chris Bray is just below my vaguely-defined cutoff for the list. Brian Campion is plenty young enough but doesn’t seem to possess the necessary oomph to lead the oft-unruly caucus. He seems a little too… nice?
Okay, who else can we eliminate immediately? Well, three senators are leaving to run for other offices: Balint, Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Joe Benning. No Republican is getting the job; that eliminates Corey Parent, Joshua Terenzini, Russ Ingalls, Richard Westman, plus two guys on the “old” list, Randy Brock and Brian Collamore.
A moment on Westman. He’s the only Republican with the diplomatic skills and ideological flexibility to become Pro Tem, but I don’t see any signs of ambition in the guy. He seems to be quite happy where he is.
We’re now down to seven senators. Tom Chittenden is a rookie, so it’s not his turn if it will ever be. That leaves us six.
Here’s the list: Phil Baruth, Christopher Bray, Campion, Ruth Hardy, Chris Pearson and Andrew Perchlik. They are the cream of this very slender crop, and I can think of good reasons not to think that any of the six will get the nod. (Note: These evaluations are based on how I think the caucus would react to their candidacies for Pro Tem, not on my own assessment of their qualifications.
Baruth has the seniority and heft and he’s a strong policy advocate, which makes him a good senator but an unlikely Pro Tem. He’d probably make too many colleagues uncomfortable. They don’t want a firebrand; they want someone who will treat them with kid gloves and won’t force them out of their comfort zones. Tim Ashe didn’t push the Senate too hard; Balint has done so sparingly and with off-the-charts diplomatic skills.
Bray has the experience, but also has the feel of someone who’s achieved exactly what he wants to achieve. He loves chairing the Natural Resources and Energy Committee and leading policy on climate change.
Hardy seems like a bad fit. She’s committed to her issues and can be headstrong, which makes for effective policymaking but uncomfortable leadership. Senators don’t like leaders who make them uncomfortable. .
Pearson has seniority and good policy chops. But he labels himself a Progressive/Democrat, while Ashe gained the office as a Democrat/Progressive. For mainstream Democrats, there’s a world of difference between D/P and P/D. There’s also the fact that Pearson keeps barely winning re-election. He routinely finishes a poor sixth in races for six seats. That doesn’t give him a secure platform to stand on.
By process of elimination, we are down to Andrew Perchlik. His biggest drawback is lack of seniority; he’s in his second term in office. That’s too soon to be Pro Tem.
Unless they’re desperate.
If I were running odds on this thing, well, nobody would be the favorite. But here’s a very short list of the real possibilities.
Baruth could win it if Senators value seniority over comfort. He’d also have to provide assurances that he wouldn’t push the caucus too hard. And the caucus would have to trust those assurances.
Clarkson would be an acceptable caretaker if caucus members assess the field and decide there’s nobody they want to run the place for very long.
By process of elimination, Perchlik might be the least unacceptable choice. He’s a benign presence in the Senate; he doesn’t rock the boat, at least not publicly. Senators might see him as another John Campbell type: Knows the ways of the Senate, and too nice to push anyone around.
Any of Balint’s successors will likely underwhelm by comparison. She keeps the caucus mollified while getting some important things done, and she has tamped down the overt disdain that senators normally feel toward the House. Because of that, and because she and Speaker Jill Krowinski seem to have a solid relationship, the House and Senate have worked together better than they have in many a moon.
Given the options for Pro Tem, it’s likely that the Senate disdain and the House/Senate friction will return to normal levels. That will make it harder to push through Democratic priorities. And that probably means a couple years (at least) of tepid compromises.
They say “elections have consequences.” Well, all those re-election rollovers for Senate incumbents have a big consequence: a real shortage of leaders in our most barnacle-enctrusted deliberative body.
Great analysis. But knowing and respecting both Ruth Hardy and Chris Bray, I think they are both viable (and appropriately ambitious) choices for the role.
I wouldn’t disagree. I’d take Baruth or Pearson as well. But there’s a big difference between “qualified” and “acceptable to the caucus.” They don’t like people who challenge their prerogatives.
Thanks for the analysis. This is a problem throughout Vermont. Leahy had his seat for 40 years and Aiken had it for 40 years before that. Two people in that senate seat in 80 years! Generations of Vermonters pass without seeing a contemporary serve in Congress. Non-profit boards of all kinds are bogged down by elderly people who are past their leadership years but hang around and block new blood. We need a culture of informal term limits – serve a couple terms in office or on a board and then move along to make room for someone else. Blocking younger generations is a bad long term plan – and just plain impolite.