2022 is looking like a critical campaign season for the Vermont Progressive Party, full of peril and possibilities.
The peril is obvious. The two state senators who identify as Progressive/Democratic, Anthony Pollina and Chris Pearson, are stepping out of elective office. Cheryl Hooker, one of three senators who wear the Democratic/Progressive label, is also retiring. (The others are Phil Baruth and Andrew Perchlik.)
If the Progs don’t pick up seats somewhere, that would leave them with fractions of Baruth and Perchlik as their entire Senate caucus. That wouldn’t be good.
The Progs have some possibilities for shoring up their numbers. They have real hopes in the newly created Chittenden Central district, which includes the liberal parts of Burlington and Essex, and all of WInooski. Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky of Essex is running in the Democratic primary, and should stand a decent chance given the political nature of the district.
Other Democrats could pick up the Dem/Prog label, which would help. At least a couple of Pollina’s potential successors, Anne Watson and Jeremy Hansen, seem inclined to do so. Windham County senate candidate Wichie Artu seems cut from similar cloth.
We may also see, for the first time in years, a slate of Progressive candidates at the top of the ballot.
The Progressive Victory Fund recently sent out a social media message urging supporters to sign the candidacy petitions of a number of potential statewide hopefuls, including: Former Progressive Party chair Martha Abbott for Congress; former state representative Susan Hatch Davis for governor; former representative Cindy Weed for lieutenant governor; five-time candidate for treasurer Don Schramm giving it another go; and former House candidate and party executive director Robert Millar running for secretary of state.
This message does not imply any endorsement by the party or the Fund. It simply wants to help candidates get on the primary ballot.
And yes, there’s likely to be an actual Progressive primary this year.
There are two reasons for this activity. First, with all the turnover in statewide offices, there’s more of an opportunity than in the incumbent-heavy recent past. Second, the Progs desperately need to hold onto major-party status. That requires the party to win at least 5% of the vote in at least one statewide contest. Their biggest hope is Zuckerman, but if he loses the Democratic primary they need fallback options.
(There’s no guarantee that all these candidates will run in the fall even if they win their primaries. The party will pursue the best strategy for increasing visibility and winning that crucial 5% in at least one election. Some candidates may withdraw after the August vote.)
There’s a little tinge of sadness around this list of statewide hopefuls. Most are formers — former candidates, officeholders, party leaders. It’s a group that mainly looks backward, not forward. The Progs desperately need younger leaders capable of achieving statewide viability.
Pollina’s departure in itself signals the end of an era and, the party hopes, the beginning of another. He’s been the lion of the Progressive Party for nearly four decades. He can easily claim to be the second most influential progressive figure in that time, trailing only Bernie Sanders. Pollina has always fought the good fight, usually against long odds. Just ticking off his resumé gives you a sense of his wide-ranging footprint. He is in his sixth term in the state Senate. He’s also run for Congress, U.S. Senate, lieutenant governor, governor, and Vermont House. In the 2008 race for governor, he finished second behind Jim Douglas and ahead of Democrat Gaye Symington. No pure Progressive has accomplished that feat in the years since.
For five years Pollina was senior policy advisor to then-Congressman Sanders. He was executive director of VPIRG in the late 90s and early 00s. He was creator and host of Equal Time Radio, a daily talk show on WDEV in Waterbury.
His retirement also exacerbates a growing problem for the Progressive Party. It’s more and more a Burlington-centric outfit with little representation outside of Chittenden County. There used to be pockets of Prog support scattered around the state in addition to the Burlington area, but those pockets no longer seem capable of winning elections.
Indeed, the party as a whole has lost ground in the last few years. Almost all its candidates compete in Democratic primaries and carry a Prog/Dem or Dem/Prog label. Rarely, outside of Burlington City Council elections, does any candidate carry the Prog banner alone. Its most prominent officeholders, Zuckerman and Tim Ashe, failed in bids for higher office in 2020 and left politics for at least a time. This year’s retirements threaten to diminish the party’s already tiny caucuses.
To be sure, there are opportunities as well. But the Progressive Party needs some victories this year. And it needs to develop the next generation of moose.