The Enjoyable Weight of Massive Talent

Vermont’s Democratic electorate is yet again spoiled for choice. Not only do we have multiple credible candidates for U.S. Congress; now we have a three-way race for the party’s Secretary of State nomination among candidates with differing, but equally impressive, qualifications and political associations.

Yesterday, State Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas entered the fray, joining Montpelier City Clerk John Odum and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters in the running to succeed the retiring Jim Condos. Each would make a great nominee and a worthy successor to Condos.

Each also has a different set of experiences and political associations. The latter will likely have the most impact in a party primary, and I frankly don’t know how the political stuff will play out. So let’s bullet-point the three of ’em, shall we?

Winters. Pluses: Top deputy to Condos, who turned out to be a strong and capable Secretary. Winters knows the job, and ought to have a handle on where the office needs to go next. Condos isn’t endorsing, but he’s made no secret that he wants Winters to succeed him, and Condos is very popular. Nice guy.

Minuses: Dynastic successions don’t always go well. He knows the job, but does he have the independent vision to see the enterprise as if he’s new to the place? As for politics, Winters has never run for office and Condos’ coattails are unproven. Mr. Secretary hasn’t always made himself popular in the Statehouse when he comes around lobbying on touchy subjects like transparency, ethics, and campaign finance. It’s worth noting that in Winters’ initial campaign finance report (submitted only weeks after he declared his candidacy), there were no state lawmakers on the donor list. That surprised me.

Odum. Pluses: A successful and lengthy tenure as Montpelier City Clerk. Great experience running elections. More political connections than you might think; he’s been active in party circles for a long time, and never underestimate the influence of the clerks’ grapevine. As founder of the now-dormant Green Mountain Daily, he was a prominent voice in politics before becoming city clerk. Nice guy.

Minuses: Despite his political connections, his lack of state-level experience makes him the outsider in the race. As with Winters, there might be a forest-and-trees problem here. Clerks have often opposed election reform efforts for fear of, well, change. A clerk’s viewpoint in the Secretary of State’s office is a good thing for the most part, but not entirely. Odum’s work on GMD could be a two-edged sword since he was never afraid to criticize anyone who earned it.

Copeland Hanzas. Pluses: Spent the last two sessions as chair of the House Government Operations Committee, which deals with a lot of Secretary of State stuff: elections, campaign law, open meetings, public records, as well as legislative reapportionment. She’s been in the House since 2005, served in caucus leadership, ran for Speaker in 2016 and considered another bid in 2020, so she’s well known in party circles. I’ve thought of her as a potential statewide candidate for years; this is really the first opportunity she’s had.

Minuses. Her pluses all come with flip sides. Her committee has often been the place reforms go to die. Would she act differently as Secretary, or would she bring a lawmaker’s self-interested point of view to the office? Politically, while she’s been in leadership for a long time, she has been pipped at the post in two bids for Speaker. Is that bad timing, or is she less popular inside the caucus than one might think?

In terms of name recognition, all three have strengths and weaknesses.

Now let’s consider name recognition for all three. Each is known and respected within their circles and pretty unknown otherwise. Winters is well known in state government and gets a rub from Condos at every opportunity. But otherwise, he’s practically anonymous. Odum is very well known in Montpelier and has residual recognition from his years in the VDP and on GMD. Copeland Hanzas is well known in her town of Bradford and in the Legislature, but Statehouse fame simply does not translate into the broader spaces of Vermont politics. All three of ’em have serious work to do if they’re going to win a statewide primary. I don’t see a clear favorite.

I’ve written before that I plan to vote for Odum for purely personal reasons; he recruited me to GMD. Without him, I wouldn’t have had this great and occasionally awful adventure I’ve been on for the last 10-plus years. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have trouble casting a vote for any of the three.

And then there’s the Republican Party. Deputy Labor Secretary Dustin Degree, former aide to Gov. Phil Scott and state senator, says he is considering a run. If he does run, he should win the primary easily but he’d be a decided underdog in the general election. For all his experience, his profile is even lower than Winters’ or Copeland Hanzas’. Scott aides tend to stay in the shadows.

Politically speaking, the VTGOP is weak and won’t lend him much support. In fact, many in the party would rather have a candidate more in the John Klar mode than the Phil Scott style. Also, it’s been a long time since any Republican besides Scott won a statewide election. And although Degree does have experience running for office, it was a long time ago and only in Franklin County.

If I were Degree, I’d be cautious. The opportunity is there for him, but what is it really worth? Senate candidate Christina Nolan and lieutenant governor hopeful Sen. Joe Benning have performed dismally in fundraising so far. Could Degree hope for better? The Scott association helps, but Scott’s coattails have failed to propel anyone else to victory.

Still, I hope Degree gives it a shot. Politics are better when more than one party can field credible candidates. We’ve had the Brooke Paige Experience already. But Degree would have to go into the race expecting to work really hard with little support from the party, all to have nothing more than a puncher’s chance at succeeding Condos. Whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will be the heavy favorite in November.


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