Category Archives: Vermont Democratic Party

The Chittenden Trap

One of the top items on the Vermont Democratic Party’s to-do list is a makeover of its relationship with the Progressive Party. Nothing drastic, just some overdue maintenance. The core issue: how to deal with Progs running as Dems — and, in some cases, running as Dems and then re-entering the fray as Progs after losing a Democratic primary.

But I would argue that another issue might be more urgent: the party’s increasingly Chittenden-centric orientation.

Writing this post was in the works before today’s news that Rep. Mitzi Johnson has edged out Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas to be the next Speaker of the House. Now, it seems even more pertinent. The leaders of both houses will come from Chittenden County’s sphere of influence: Johnson from South Hero (basically a bedroom community for Burlington), Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe from Chittenden County. And the three members of the Senate’s Committee on Committees all being from Chittenden.

When I say “Chittenden County,” I define it broadly; from the southern half of the Champlain Islands down to Shelburne at least, and southwestward to Richmond if not Waterbury.

Chittenden County itself accounts for one-fourth of Vermont’s population. Its Senate delegation is twice as large as the next biggest county — and in fact, based purely on population, it ought to have one more Senator. (And will certainly get at least one more after the 2020 Census.)

Beyond the mere numbers, Chittenden is home turf for the Democratic Party’s urban-ish, tech-oriented core. And its donor base.

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Do campaigns matter anymore?

On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.

Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.

And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.

Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.

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A tale of two parties

For the third weekend in a row, Vermont’s top Democrats are touring the state, rallying their voters and presenting a unified front behind Sue Minter. Pat Leahy, Peter Welch, David Zuckerman, TJ Donovan, Doug Hoffer, Beth Pearce, and Jim Condos have done more than their share to help carry Minter across the finish line.

And most crucially, Bernie Sanders, who not only spent two weekends on the stump with Minter*, he gave her a tremendous infusion of campaign cash thanks to his millions of supporters across the country. It really has been a great display of unity — far beyond anything I’d hoped for when I advocated a one-weekend Bus Tour. It’s also an impressive show of the Democrats’ political star power, the depth of their talent and the breadth of their appeal.

*This weekend, he’s campaigning for Hillary Clinton in other states. 

Meanwhile, on the other side, we’ve got Phil Scott. And, um…

Phil Scott.

Bravely soldiering on, pretty much carrying the entire VTGOP on his broad, manly shoulders. Or trying to.

Really, who else is there? What other Vermont Republican might hope to draw a crowd or inspire the voters?

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Two bites of the apple

The Progressive Party doesn’t have much of a ticket this year. Many of its candidates are running as Democrats because they stand a better chance of winning. Smart tactics in the short term, and something of a worry for Dems. They’re seeing previously “safe” seats peeled off by the Progs, potentially weakening their legislative caucuses.

This year, we have a new twist on that technique: Progressives running as Democrats, losing the primary, and then refiling as Progs for the same contest.

There are four such candidates (that I know of), all running for the House, and all in “safe” Democratic districts. The Two-Biters:

— Jill Charbonneau, Addison-1

— Steve May, Chittenden-1

— Marci Young, Lamoille-Washington

— Carl Etnier, Washington-5

This is of direct interest to me, because I live in one of those districts.

Each person must make up their own mind. Me personally, I’m disinclined to vote for a Two-Biter.

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Get on the bus

I have this crazy notion.

I see a luxury bus, decked out with signs and photos of the Democrats’ statewide candidates. I see it spending a long weekend barnstorming around Vermont, stopping in various towns and cities.

Inside the bus, I see Sue Minter, Pat Leahy, Peter Welch, and Bernie Sanders, plus David Zuckerman, TJ Donovan, Jim Condos, Beth Pearce, and Doug Hoffer*. Legislative candidates join them for rallies held within their districts.

*Random order. Please take no offense, Doug.  

The events draw substantial media coverage and energize the party faithful. They showcase liberal politicians united behind a single ticket — and, most crucially, a gubernatorial candidate in an uphill battle against a popular Republican.

What would it do for Sue Minter to have Vermont’s very popular heavyweights actively showing their support? It might just be the thing to put her over the top.

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I’d say these two guys deserve each other

In this corner, wearing the red trunks, a compulsively litigious Vermont attorney who’s a partner in a D.C.-based law firm with a lengthy rap sheet as a conservative attack dog.

In the far corner, in the blue Spandex, Vermont’e Eternal General, who would have passed his sell-by date years ago if not for the voters’ generous attitude toward incumbency AND a last-ditch bailout from out-of-state donors in 2014.

And whoops, there’s the bell, and the guy with the legal authority wins by TKO.

Such was the result of VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing’s most recent complaint against a liberal politician. Attorney General Bill Sorrell brusquely dismissed his argument that Bernie Sanders’ email blast was a material contribution to the State Senate candidacy of Rep. Chris Pearson, and thus subject to campaign finance limits.

But frankly, neither party covered himself in glory here. Toensing is exhibiting a pattern of politically-motivated legal filings, and Sorrell’s dismissal revealed the weakness of his relentless persecution of Dean Corren.

So, a pox on both their houses. May they spend the afterlife in whatever circle of Hell is reserved for lawyers, shackled together in a vat of fire.

Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. How about this: a featureless Limbo where they debate fine legal points for all eternity?

Yeah, that’ll do.

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@VTDems: The Odd Couple, and other observations

Mixed bag on the Democratic ticket: Sue Minter for governor, David Zuckerman for Lite-Guv. Not that there’s usually much coordination between the #1 and #2 candidates, but I expect little to none from this pairing.

Indeed, one question worth asking: Now that Zuckerman is the Democratic nominee, will the party share its voter database with him?

But let’s take a step back and ponder tonight’s results and what they mean for Democratic politics. In no particular order:

A good night for the mainstream Democratic Party. I say so despite Zuckerman’s win; he took a plurality of the vote, nowhere near a majority. If he’d been matched up with Shap Smith alone, he would have lost badly. (Yes, I’m assuming that the bulk of Kesha Ram’s votes would have gone to Shap.)

And, of course, Minter had little trouble outpacing Matt Dunne. Some of this was due to Dunne’s Six Days of Hell, but it’s impossible to know how much.

Bernie’s coattails proved surprisingly short. Dunne believed that turning himself into Bernie Lite was the key to victory. We know how that turned out, don’t we?

Truth is, as we can see from the Lite-Guv totals, much of the Democratic electorate is moderate to liberal, not progressive. Bernie’s popularity is partly a matter of policy, but more a matter of persona. Bernie is extremely popular. It’s yet to be proven that his policies alone are a winning formula in Vermont.

Matt Dunne blew it. Last fall, he seemed the clear favorite. Minter was untested and tied directly to the Shumlin administration. Dunne was the more experienced candidate. He raced out to an early fundraising advantage.

He should have won the primary.

Why didn’t he?

Well, part of it was the Six Days of Hell — his position shift on renewable energy siting, his restatement/retraction of said shift, the blatant hypocrisy of his stand against self-funded campaigns even after he self-funded his own, the scorched-earth tactics of blaming the media and “the establishment” for problems of his own making.

But even before that, I’d argue he blew the primary by deciding not to be himself. There’s a Matt Dunne who could have won this race. It’s the plausibly liberal technocrat with high-tech chops who would have brought managerial know-how and broad experience in government and the private sector. That’s a pretty appealing candidate, especially after the administrative misfires of the Shumlin years.

But he simply wasn’t plausible as Bernie II. He had too much of a track record. His policies were part Bernie, part moderate Dem. His personality was a poor fit. And, to the extent that Bernie and the Vermont Democratic Party have a touchy relationship, his embrace of Berniedom did nothing for his own standing with party regulars.

His late-days mistakes only reinforced his reputation in many minds as an overly ambitious pol willing to say anything to become governor. He is now a three-time loser who burned quite a few bridges; a political comeback is possible but seems unlikely. He might have to be satisfied with being a well-paid Google executive. Such a burden.

Sue Minter has a lot of work to do. She’ll have to unify the party, which should be easier since Matt Dunne prioritized party unity in his concession speech. But she will be the underdog against Phil Scott. She spent heavily to fend off Dunne. She’s got some political seasoning in the primary, but now she’s in the spotlight. It’s a big step up for someone who hasn’t run a general election campaign outside of Waterbury.

I’m sure I will have some thoughts on possible strategy for Minter and the Democrats, but all in due time.

The VTGOP will use Zuckerman to attack Democrats. Actually, that’s not a prediction; it’s already begun.

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Zuckerman’s nomination increases the chances that Randy Brock will be our next Lieutenant Governor. Zuckerman’s still the favorite, but he’ll be a weaker general-election candidate than Shap Smith would have been.

And the stakes are high in that race. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, sits on the influential Committee on Committees, and casts tie-breaking votes. Brock would be a strong conservative presence; On the other hand…

If Zuckerman does win, we could have a very different Senate. Zuckerman as presiding officer, potentially Tim Ashe as President Pro Tem, and Chris Pearson a very capable lawmaker. Although Zuckerman has been in the Senate for a while, I can’t see him supporting the status quo. He’d have very little patience for the niceties and obscure mores of the Senate.

And whither the omnipresent Dick Mazza? The perennial kingmaker will have to adapt to — or try to conquer — a changed landscape. Will he continue to serve on the influential Committee on Committees? How would he get along with Zuckerman and Ashe as the other two members?

I know one thing. I’m voting for Zuckerman, if only for the entertainment value.

No sign of the Energy Rebellion much touted by the likes of Annette Smith and Mark Whitworth. Peter Galbraith is pulling less than 10 percent of the vote. One might presume that some of Matt Dunne’s 37 percent was due to his last-days revision of his renewables siting policy, but that seems a stretch. Smith and Galbraith loudly denounced Dunne after he re-explained his revision. It’s unlikely that their core supporters would have stuck with Dunne.

Whither Shap? I have no idea, but I’d be shocked if this was the end of his political career. He entered the Lite-Guv race very late, and he was hampered by Kesha Ram’s presence in the race. She’d garnered quite a few endorsements from the House Dem caucus, and many of them stuck with her.

Shap’s young enough to regroup and restart. He remains very popular in Democratic circles. He is highly respected for his shepherding of the House caucus. I doubt he’ll be tagged as a loser; he finished a strong second after a late entry, and he’ll get a lot of credit for that.

If Phil Scott wins the governorship, Shap ’s the early favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2018 — or maybe he’d wait until 2020, a presidential year.

The question will be, what role does he play in the near future? I don’t know, and I doubt that he knows right now. If Minter wins, he could probably have his pick of cabinet posts. Otherwise, he could run silent, run deep: continue to build relationships across the state and prepare for his next political venture.

I think that’s about enough for primary night. I’l turn to the Republicans next.