Category Archives: Vermont Democratic Party

New Jockey, Same Ride

Belated best wishes and condolences to Claire Cummings, the new executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. I trust she has an idea of what she’s walking into, since she worked on the VDP’s 2020 campaign.

You know how it seems like a certain storefront or commercial building seems to be cursed? One business after another opens up, gives it a shot, and then vanishes? Well, that’s the leadership of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Cummings is the fourth person to hold the job in less than four years — and the fifth, if you count then-party chair Terje Anderson’s unfortunate tenure as interim ED in 2019. (The five, in chronological order: Conor Casey, Josh Massey, Terje Anderson, Scott McNeil, and now Cummings.) The VDP has also seen chronic turnover in staff positions. The “senior” staff member is Spencer Dole, who was hired in February 2019.

Party chair has also been a revolving door of late as well. The VDP is on its fourth chair in five years. (Dottie Deans, Faisal Gill, Anderson and current occupant Bruce Olsson.)

The casual observer might expect the VDP to be a powerhouse, given the party’s dominance in state politics. But no. If anything, it’s fat, lazy and stuck in a rut. You hear a lot of talk about energizing the VDP, winning back the governorship, and opening the door to young Democrats and BIPOC Vermonters. But when it comes time to put words into action, it’s pretty much the same ol’, same ol’.

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Phil Scott’s Getting a Free Pass on Pensions, and the Democrats Are Letting Him Get Away With It

Legislative leadership is rightly getting an earful from teachers, state employees and union supporters over the emerging make-workers-pay pension reform plan. But let’s not overlook the fact that Gov. Phil Scott is playing no role whatsoever in devising a solution to this very large problem.

As he has done on issue after issue throughout his governorship, he is sitting back and letting the Legislature do the hard work and take the punishment. Then, after all their blood, sweat and tears, he saunters in, gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and ambles away. If it’s thumbs down, the Legislature gets another try at guessing what will be acceptable to him.

This isn’t my idea of leadership. But who can blame the gov, considering that it works so well for him?

Over and over again, Scott sits out a tough policy debate — and the Democrats let him get away with it. They bargain against themselves. They begin with a position that’s more than halfway to his side, and they only give ground from there. The governor doesn’t get exactly what he wants, but the Democrats get far less. And they look weak in the process.

You’d think the Democrats would have learned by now. But no, here they are doing the same damn thing on pensions — and in the process, betraying one of their core constituencies.

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More Carnage at the VDP

According to sources in Vermont Democratic circles, the party’s executive director Scott McNeil has resigned after a vote of “no confidence” from the other paid staffers.

His resignation follows that of ex-staffer Kevin Burgess, who left the party because the organization essentially had its head up its ass.

McNeil came on board in the fall of 2019 after the most recent party scandal — the embezzlement of party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. McNeil was touted by then-VDP chair Terje Anderson as a bright young man who would organize the hell out of the place.

Guess not.

Unlike Burgess, McNeil has yet to be scrubbed from the party’s website. They’re probably hoping to keep this under wraps until the VDP’s executive committee meets Tuesday night, when the mucky-mucks will presumably try to get their story straight.

Putting the “Ick” in “Democratic”

Well, it finally happened. After years and years of Vermont Democratic Party staffers walking out the door at a rapid rate while keeping their mouths shut for the sake of future career prospects, one of ’em finally busted loose.

Last week, Kevin Burgess resigned from his party post, and his resignation letter was full of words like “toxic,” “failure,” “unorganized,” “poorly managed,” “old boys club,” and “no vision, no plan, and no structure.”

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

Burgess must have been well and truly fed up, considering that he moved to Vermont less than six months ago — and he knew that sending his letter would ensure that he’d have to move back out of state. Hope he had a short-term lease.

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Pearce’s Pivot

Still proud of her, @vtdemocrats?

At the end of last week, we got a sizeable Friday newsdump from an unusual source: State Treasurer Beth Pearce. In a report on the state’s public pension funds, she called for new limits on pensions for state employees and teachers. It was duly reported, first by VPR and then by VTDigger, but neither story captured the significance of Pearce’s pivot.

This is, in my view, the single biggest position shift by a top Democratic officeholder since Peter Shumlin abandoned single-payer health care in 2014. That move brought Shumlin’s political career to an ignoble conclusion, since he’d staked his governorship on delivering single-payer. I doubt that Pearce will have to slink off into the darkness, but she might not get the rapturous receptions at party functions that she’s gotten used to.

The pension plans don’t have enough funds to pay promised benefits because, through most of Howard Dean’s governorship and about half of Jim Douglas’, the state consistently shorted its annual contribution. Many have called for a shift from defined-benefit to a 401K-style defined-contribution plan. The former promises definite retirement benefits; the latter only promises to contribute money to the plan. Actual benefits depend on the health of the pension fund.

Pearce had been a champion of retaining defined-benefit. She’s an expert at public finance, so her view has carried a lot of weight. Now, she has abandoned that position. She still supports defined-benefit plans… but she has effectively changed her definition of the term. That’s a big, hairy deal. It puts legislative Democrats under pressure to go along with pension cuts — and that threatens to drive a wedge between the Vermont Democratic Party and two of its biggest supporters: the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont National Education Association.

I can’t say I blame her, given her recitation of the facts. But this could touch off a political shitstorm.

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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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