Category Archives: Vermont Democratic Party

I’m Sure Vermont Democrats Think They’re Trying. They’re not.

On the surface, the Vermont Democratic Party did just fine this election. Sure, Phil Scott cruised to re-election and they lost a few legislative seats. But Scott was virtually unbeatable thanks to his patient, measured response to the pandemic. Besides, it wasn’t one of their own who took the bullet, it was David Zuckerman, a Prog/Dem with the emphasis on Prog. And they elected a bright new hope, Molly Gray, to the lieutenant governorship, held onto the other statewide offices, and held on to lopsided majorities in the House and Senate.

But when you take a closer look, this was a sneaky bad year for the Dems. They once again let Scott steal their lunch money. This was a bad year to take him on, but they’ve barely tried to beat Scott in the last several cycles. Since the 2010 race for lieutenant governor, they’ve put up a parade of under-resourced first-timers against Scott, and he’s barely had to break a sweat.

Gray’s victory is nice, but she was up against a terrible Republican candidate. As for the Legislature, if this wasn’t the year to rack up gains, I don’t know what is. They had the benefit of widespread anti-Trump animus to drive support for down-ballot races, and failed to capitalize.

I didn’t realize how much the Vermont Dems were resting on their structural advantages until I listened to a pair of podcast interviews from the fine folks at Crooked Media. The first featured Ben Wikler, head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the second was with Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, founder of of Project Fair Fight. Both have taken state parties that faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and both have turned those states into Democratic success stories.

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A Hero’s Journey

He has a hobbit’s chance.

David Zuckerman, that is. Having won the Democratic gubernatorial primary, he now faces an epic adventure in his attempt to defeat Gov. Phil Smau– I mean, Scott.

If the election were held today, Scott would win in a walk. But there is a path to victory for our friend the Zuckerhobbit. Not gonna be easy, though. And quite a few factors are largely out of his control.

As I get to play the role of J.R.R. Tolkien, here’s the long and winding road to a Zuckerman victory.

First, he needs a bunch of money right quick. Zuckerman’s campaign entered the month of August with a cash balance of $42,000. He also had a $26,000 surplus from previous campaigns. At the end of July, he reported several mass media buys totaling $15,000 that weren’t included in his August 1 financial report. I conclude that his actual cash balance on 8/1 was $27,000. Add in the surplus, and you’ve got $53,000.

To be competitive in a statewide race for governor, you need to have — conservatively — at least a million bucks. Preferably a million and a half. Between the launch of his candidacy and the end of July, Zuckerman raised $347,000. In the 2016 cycle, which had some different deadlines, Dem nominee Sue Minter had raised over a million bucks by mid-August. He has to pick up the pace at a time when liberal donors have plenty of calls for their money, including the race for president, the battle for a U.S. Senate majority, and efforts to turn state legislatures blue in time for the 2022 redistricting wars.

Second, he needs not to wake the dragon. In this case, the Republican Governors Association. So far, the RGA has committed very little money to defending Scott. But that could change in an instant. If the RGA sees evidence of a rising Zuckerman insurgency, it can pour in boatloads of cash in an instant. In 2016, it spent more than $3 million to get Scott into the corner office. It can, and will, do so again if Scott looks vulnerable. Zuckerman has to hope that the dragon doesn’t wake up until late October or thereabouts. Seems unlikely; the RGA is smarter than that.

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The Dems’ Campaign Begins With a (Literal) Bang

Besides that, Mr. Sullivan, how did you like the play?

When outgoing state Rep. Mary Sullivan agreed to emcee this morning’s post-primary Democratic unity rally, I doubt that she realized she was taking her life into her hands. But there, right in the middle of her introductory remarks, came a-tumblin’ the state flag of Vermont, crashing down within inches of her head, rattling the podium on its way to the earth.

Undaunted, Sullivan continued to speak. Although afterward, there might have been some sharp words for whoever set up that flag.

That wasn’t the only cock-up of the morning. The microphone was not correctly tied into the Facebook Live feed of the proceedings, so most of the speakers could barely be heard. A note must also be passed to whoever wrangled that podium, which was too tall for a couple of the speakers — Sen. Debbie Ingram and President Pro Tem In Waiting Becca Balint. They looked like old drivers peeking over the wheel to get a glimpse of the road.

The speakers’ list was comprehensive. The winning and losing candidates for governor and lieutenant governor were there (except for Carcajou), as were the rest of the party’s candidates for statewide office, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, designated hitters for our two U.S. Senators, and legislative caucus leaders.

All the speakers touted unity. Not all were specific about their calls. In fact, it wasn’t until the sixth speaker that someone actually endorsed the party’s nominee for governor, Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. It was Attorney General T.J. Donovan who broke the ice, “proudly” endorsing Zuckerman and lite-guv nominee Molly Gray and devoting the bulk of his remarks to praise for the Democratic ticket.

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Initial Thoughts on a Robust Primary

So many votes, they barely fit

With the exception of the 462-candidate pile-up that was the Chittenden County Democratic Senate primary, it was an election night bereft of drama. The big races turned out to be uncompetitive, and all were called early in the evening. Which is not to say it wasn’t interesting, at least not to political dead-enders like me. So, thoughts in no particular order:

The Laracey Effect is strong. My own invention, the Laracey Effect is named for Mel Laracey, a deputy city treasurer in Ann Arbor, Michigan many moons ago. He decided to run for State House in an extremely competitive primary. It did not go well; he finished in the back of the pack. Because everyone in and around City Hall knew him, he thought that meant everyone knew him. But in truth, the vast majority of voters had no connection to City Hall.

Tim Ashe is well known in Burlington and Montpelier. He and pretty much everyone else thought that made him well known across the state. Not true. And when the pandemic prevented him from campaigning until the end of June, his fate was sealed.

I thought Molly Gray was going to win, but I was far from certain about it. Turned out she won easily. More easily in a competitive four-way race, in fact, than David Zuckerman did in (effectively) a two-way race. Zuckerman beat Rebecca Holcombe by 10,552 votes. Gray beat Ashe by 11,679, and came within 510 votes of Zuckerman’s total.

Ingram, by the way, was an even bigger victim of the Laracey Effect, believing she had a substantial statewide profile. She finished a distant fourth, and was never a factor in the race. So was former legislative counsel Peter Griffin, who ran for the House seat being vacated by Kitty Toll and finished a poor second.

Expanded mail-in voting was a resounding success. Record turnout when neither of our Senate seats were on the ballot, and with little apparent drama in either race for governor. With universal mail voting available in November, we’re on course to set another turnout record. It’s also a strong argument for mail voting everywhere — that is, if you like maximizing participation in our democracy. At least two of our three political parties do.

There was a lot of unhappiness with the Democratic gubernatorial choices. There were 6,569 write-in votes, more than six percent of the total. (Most of them presumably cast for Gov. Phil Scott.) There were 7,739 blank ballots for governor. Think of that: Seven percent of those who bothered to cast votes couldn’t be bothered to choose a gubernatorial candidate. That’s stunning. And seems to reveal a broad dissatisfaction with the choices on offer. One more sign that Zuckerman has some serious work to do.

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EVERYTHING IS AWESOME

VT Dems assemble for reorg meeting. [Not exactly as illustrated]

The Vermont Democratic Party state committee met Saturday in Stowe, and did their level best to put the Unfortunate Incidents of this year behind them. The elections for party officer positions were uncontested, and every vote but one was unanimous. There was not a single mention of the Brandon Batham embezzlement case until the elections were safely over. At that point, one committee member asked if the party was making efforts to recoup the stolen funds. The answer: Not right away, but maybe after the criminal investigation of Batham concludes.

Otherwise, the two-and-a-half hour meeting was practically a Lego Movie singalong.

There had been some efforts before the meeting to identify other candidates, but nothing eventuated. If state committee members harbored any doubts about the handling of the Batham case, the overly lax management structure that opened the door to his theft, other leadership issues laid bare by the Batham case (including the complete lack of a vetting process for hiring party employees) or the party’s embarrassing fundraising performance over the last three-ish years, they kept those doubts behind zipped lips.

Because… Everything Is Awesome When You’re Part Of A Team!

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U Mad, Bro?

So I hear that some Vermont Democrats are upset with me for… um… telling the truth?

The party’s executive committee met this week, and from what I hear, there was some grumbling about my recent posts concerning the Brandon Batham embezzlement case and the management issues revealed thereby.

If true, my response: Quit whining and get your house in order.

Or, if you’re going to complain, summon up your courage and tell me how I’m wrong. Because until proven otherwise, I stand by what I’ve written.

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VT Dems go trolling for candidates

So, according to VTDigger, the Vermont Democratic Party is conducting a poll to see how well Attorney General TJ Donovan and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman would do in hypothetical matchups with Gov. Phil Scott.

I have no inside information on this, but here’s how it looks from my view.

It’s a sign of desperation and a waste of money. Also, Donovan and Zuckerman are still Hamletting it up.

Let’s take desperation first. I’m assuming that party leaders initiated this poll, not Donovan or Zuckerman. If so, it says that leadership — whatever their public protestations — fears what will happen if former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe is the party’s nominee, because (a) they think she’d lose badly and (b) might actually hurt their prospects in legislative races.

Well, it’s really (b) they’re most concerned with. The experiences of Peter Clavelle, Scudder Parker, Gaye Symington, Sue Minter and Christine Hallquist show that the party is perfectly content to toss a nominee off the sled when the wolves are closing in.

They’d much rather go to battle in 2020 with Donovan or Zuckerman leading the charge. Which is understandable, given that Holcombe is untested in the political arena and virtually unknown outside policy circles. But when party leaders are willing to spend scarce party resources — at a time when they’re not exactly swimming in money — they reveal a certain unseemly desperation. This is a Hail Mary pass: If the poll shows unexpected weakness for Scott, or significant strength for one of the two Hamlets, then one or both might be enticed to make a run.

Of course, the poll is unlikely to provide that kind of evidence. Scott has done nothing to diminish his popularity — nor have legislative Dems done anything to push him in that direction — and his two potential rivals are much less well-known statewide. (Those of us inside the #vtpoli bubble vastly overestimate the public’s engagement in state politics.) Donovan lacks a policy profile outside of law enforcement, and both men lack any significant record outside of their jobs.

Both are better positioned than Holcombe to overcome Scott’s lead because they are statewide officeholders, and that’s by far the best launch pad for a gubernatorial bid. (The last six Vermont governors were either statewide officeholders or top legislative leaders before assuming the top job.) Both also have better fundraising potential: Donovan because of his political lineage and national connections, and Zuckerman as the state’s leading Bernie Bro.

Right now, I doubt their poll numbers would be much different from Generic Democrat. What they do have is a chance at being competitive, after running a vigorous statewide campaign for a solid year. So I don’t expect the poll will provide any real insight. Hence, waste of money.

And if Donovan and Zuckerman, in the middle of very successful political careers, lack the self-confidence to make that decision without a marginally meaningful poll, then they’re really not cut out to carry the banner.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

When last I left you, I signed off with

Vermont already has an oversupply of cautious Democrats.

Let’s pick it up from there. Now, I could be talking about legislative leadership, which has developed a habit of scoring own goals in its “battles” with Gov. Phil Scott. But in this case, I’m talking about campaigns for governor, in which the Democrats have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

Over the past 20 years, the Vermont Democratic Party has nominated a top-shelf candidate for governor a mere five times — incumbent Howard Dean in 2000, Doug Racine in 2002 and Peter Shumlin in 2010, ’12 and ’14.

(I’m calling the 2014 Shumlin “top shelf” only because he was the incumbent. Otherwise he was a deeply flawed candidate who came within an eyelash of losing to Scott Milne, objectively the worst major-party gubernatorial candidate in living memory.)

Otherwise it’s been a parade of worthies with good intentions but few resources and no real hope. Whenever a popular Republican occupies the corner office, the Democrats’ A-Team scurries away like cockroaches when the light goes on.

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VT Dems tiptoe around embezzlement case

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. On Saturday, the Vermont Democratic Party’s state committee held its first meeting since the full extent of the Brandon Batham embezzlement came to light. But there seemed little taste for confrontation or tough questions. The majority seemed content with party leadership’s promises to tighten up financial and management controls and generally lock the barn door after they’d lost a horse.

Recapping the basics: In July, party officials discovered that Batham had paid himself nearly $3,000 for apparently nonexistent expenses and mileage. Batham resigned on the spot. A couple weeks later, party leaders discovered another $15,500 in extra paychecks Batham apparently cut to himself. The matter was referred to the Montpelier Police Department for investigation. The incident also raised questions about financial and managerial oversight, or the lack thereof.

At Saturday’s meeting, party chair Terje Anderson gave a thorough, convincing case that Things Would Be Different From Now On. An outside firm, Political CFOs, has been hired to do all the VDP’s accounting and financial reporting. (The firm has submitted the VDP’s overdue August financial report to the Federal Elections Commission and filed the September report on time.) At least two people must approve every check issued from party funds. Anderson has been communicating with donors and party officials, and offered to meet with any activist, county committee or donor in an effort to “regain trust.”

(Keeping the books had been an internal staff function, and the quality of the work depended on the person responsible. Former staffer and financial whiz Selene Hofer-Shall “ran a very tight ship,” said Anderson. “After she left, there were a lot of internal struggles to keep it on track.”)

One more big thing: Anderson said he’d pored over every expense for the past two and a half years, and found about $850 in transactions with insufficient documentation. Whether that’s a matter of theft or mere sloppiness, Anderson’s review seems to rule out additional large-scale embezzlements. (He did admit, however, that there was no way to retroactively vet requests for mileage reimbursements.)

Anderson also took full responsibility for the matter. “I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I’d caught it sooner,” he told the state committee.

In the process of being as transparent as possible, Anderson revealed a couple of disturbing facts about party administration.

First, Anderson said, Batham was able to cut himself checks without oversight or review because, somehow, Batham had become “the only person with access to our bank information.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for embezzlement.

Second, Anderson acknowledged that the VDP’s staff hiring process was… well… not a process at all. “We have a history in this party of hiring people with no process,” he said. “No interview, no checking of references.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for hiring embezzlers. Anderson promised that things had changed.

This level of mismanagement should be embarrassing at least — and perhaps disqualifying — for those who exercised authority during this time. But most state committee members were in a forgiving mood. Many praised the hard work of party officials and applauded the new reforms. A couple of members blamed the media for publicizing the case — which, c’mon, folks. If embezzlement strikes a prominent Vermont organization, then reporters are gonna report.

Honestly, if the party was this badly managed and organized, Democrats ought to be thanking the media for shining some light in the dark corners instead of thanking leadership for having the decency to clean up its own messes.

Welcome to Vermont, Mr. McNeil

Oh boy, there’s more bad news from the Vermont Democratic Party. The latest from Team Turmoil is an official notice from the Federal Election Commission informing the VDP that it has yet to file its required monthly financial report for July, and warning of serious consequences.

The failure to timely file a complete report may result in civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action. The civil money penalty calculation for late reports does not include a grace period and begins on the day following the due date for the report.

The July report was due August 20, so the fines have been piling up, potentially, since August 21. (The fines are assessed, or not, on a case-by-case basis. There’s no set dollar amount.) And the August report is due on September 20. If it doesn’t go in on time, the daily fines could double.

These filings are a royal pain (says anyone who’s had to prepare them), but are a necessary function for a political party. Failure to file is, well, a violation of federal law.

Party spokesperson R. Christopher DiMezzo offers words of assurance. “The FEC knows about the situation,’ he said. “We’re in contact.”

The delay in filing, he explained, is entirely due to alleged embezzlements by former staffer Brandon Batham, which is under investigation by Montpelier police. “The filing is held up because of the law enforcement investigation,” he said. “The report will go in when we figure out how to handle it.”

Well, maybe, but my bullshit detector is pinging. The party could always submit a report and revise it later if necessary. Happens all the time. Plus, does the financial filing really depend on the police investigation? We already know how much money is involved, don’t we?

Don’t we?

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