Less than a month ago, after Claire Cummings’s departure as executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, I wrote that the party was at a crossroads and had to think long and hard about its recent administrative failures. Regarding the qualities needed in the next ED, I wrote “I can think of at least one person who fits that descriptor to a tee.”
Well, glory be, mirabile dictu, heavens to Murgatroyd, they hired that guy!
They did something right? The Vermont Democratic Party?
So it would seem.
The new ED, hired as an interim in order to bypass a lengthy search process, is Jim Dandeneau, lobbyist for Primmer Piper and former VDP staffer. He ran the Dems’ very successful 2018 House campaign and was a staffer on Sue Minter’s 2016 gubernatorial campaign, which looks better in retrospect than it did at the time. Before coming to Vermont, Dandeneau spent 15 years in New York politics, a much bigger and more shark-infested political pool. The oft-fraught internal dynamics of the VDP are not going to phase him in the least.
In short, he’s got the goods. His hiring is a sign that VDP leadership realizes how badly they’ve been screwing up, and how much they need a swift kick in the organizational ass. Dandeneau is capable of delivering that kick, and it seems like the party is ready to take it. That’s a very positive sign. He and new party chair Anne Lezak should make a powerful team.
If you want to know how dysfunctional the VDP has been of late, Dandeneau is the seventh person to hold the ED position in six years, and Lezak is the fifth chair in six years. How the hell can you build an organization when the revolving door never stops spinning?
Now, Dandeneau has to hit the ground running in a campaign season with what has to be a record amount of turnover: Two of Vermont’s three Congressional seats, four of the six statewide offices (and Gov. Phil Scott still undeclared), and very likely more than one-third of House and Senate seats are all up for grabs. It’s already mid-May; we’re ten days away from the deadline for major party candidates to file their petitions. Recruitment season is effectively over.
So what does Dandeneau do? Fundraise like hell. The Dems have pottered along money-wise, doing well enough to get by but no more. With all that turnover, this is going to be an expensive campaign. And, with the Republicans perpetually poverty-adjacent, this is the Dems’ chance to really put some distance between themselves and the VTGOP.
Which, by the way, has a huge disadvantage in recruiting candidates. If the Dems capitalize, this could be a year when they make big gains in the Legislature.
Usual caveat: Money doesn’t buy elections. But it sure helps.
More money would also mean better pay for VDP staff. The party has had a serious staff retention problem. Every time someone leaves, the party says “There’s always a lot of turnover.” Well, sure, but how much is too much? Right now, the most senior paid staffer has a whole five months of seniority. What can you build if you’re constantly losing people? Part of the solution is to pay them what they’re worth. Then they might stick around a little longer, and you’ll get a better crop of applicants when you do have an opening.
I know the Republicans have it far worse. They still, last I checked, have no paid staff. (That may have changed; this is the season when parties make temporary hires through Election Day.) But that’s their problem. The VDP has no excuse for underpaying their staff.
In the longer term, the party has to make positive steps to diversify the staff and hierarchy. They also need to do much more to make people feel welcome, especially young people. The VDP needs more karass and less granfalloon.
Another thing that might be nice? Citizen lobbyist training. As it stands now, businesses and major institutions have a big edge in lobbying. Just imagine if, the next time law enforcement floods the zone on criminal justice reform, or business groups go all-out to defeat paid family leave or workplace safety, or fossil fuel interests block climate change initiatives, the party could call on a cohort of citizen lobbyists. Like, some from each “swing” district making personal appeals to key lawmakers. Might make centrist Dems a little more brave about taking the occasional political risk.
But that’s for down the road. Right now, it’s organize, fundraise, organize, fundraise, fundraise. For all its shortcomings, the Vermont Democratic Party is poised for an historically good year. Now they have leadership capable of delivering.