The House Democrats’ ill-considered pension reform plan was the icing on the cake, the topper in a series of events that expose the fundamentally centrist nature of the party and its officeholders.
And this I trace to the all-encompassing influence of one Harlan Sylvester.
For those just tuning in, Sylvester is a longtime money manager who shuns the limelight — but for decades, he has been the kingmaker of Vermont politics. You don’t get to the top of the heap without his blessing. And it sure seems like the modern Democratic Party has been fashioned according to his fiscally conservative taste.
There have been occasional press profiles about him, and they all describe him the same way. Peter Freyne, 2000: “Mr. Sylvester has had the cocked ear of Vermont governors going all the way back to Tom Salmon in the 1970s.” Freyne quoted then-UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson thusly: “Harlan loves conservative Democrats. He wants to erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”
Rutland Herald, 2002: “it was Harlan Sylvester’s considerable influence and strategic skills that helped put [Republican Jim Douglas,] the apparent underdog candidate, in office.”
In 2010, Freyne’s successor Shay Totten described Sylvester as “The most powerful man in Vermont politics.” Totten also quoted Prof. Nelson: “He’s got access to people with real money, and those people with real money will invest in politicians who will protect their interests.”
So that’s Mr. Sylvester, who is in his late 80s but his power has not been visibly diminished. From what I’ve heard, he remains the power behind the throne.
And now let’s look at what the Democratic Party has become.
Okay, so I offended some people with my post about sexist shadings, and the prospect of more to come, in the coverage of House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint. The complaints concerned the use of the term “catfight” and the accompanying illustration of two teenagers pulling each other’s hair. I’m accused of, essentially, committing exactly the offense I was criticizing in the post. For some, the use of “catfight” in such a context is out of bounds.
I can see your point of view. But if you’ve read me for any length of time at all, you’ll know It’s What I Do.
I’ve often described my blogger persona as 90% analyst/commentator and 10% poo-flinging monkey. I’ve sometimes upped the “monkey” percentage. I bring a certain fearlessness and wildness to a #vtpoli that is overly polite, reticent to offend anyone.
It’s great that our politics are not as destructive as the national version. But there are times when politeness simply won’t do the trick.
So I have yet to weigh in on “Vermont Has Her Back,” the petition drive seeking gender equity in the state’s media corps. Until now.
I certainly agree with the substance of the letter. There are too many men and not enough women (or people of color, ftm) in the political reporting sphere and, perhaps even worse, on the editorial plane. (Editors make assignments and have final review of stories.) This isn’t a matter of overt misogyny; it’s the result of structural barriers and unconscious bias in hiring and promotion.
(Not addressed in the letter are similar and even more impactful biases in our politics. Something must be wrong (and not just with our media) when Vermont has yet to send a woman to Congress, while New Hampshire ‘s delegation has three women and one man — and not that long ago, all four were women. Plus the governor. Vermont offers a stark contrast.)
The unconscious bias is becoming apparent in coverage of legislative leadership. Now that the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem are both women, the press is on high alert for signs of discord between the two.
A catfight, in other words.
Jill Krowinski and Becca Balint are doing their best to create a positive House/Senate relationship, but differences will inevitably surface. The two leaders will be under intense scrutiny over how they handle conflict. Opportunities for sexist blather will abound.
Well, it looked like the Vermont Senate (a.k.a. The State’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body) was in for something of a makeover. New leadership! All female! Two new members on the three-person Committee on Committees! An Actual PERSON OF COLOR!!!
But an irresistible undertow drags the Senate, like boats against the current, back ceaselessly into the past. (Finally, that liberal arts degree is paying off.)
Because the 2021-22 version of the Senate looks a lot like the 2019-20 edition. Lots of old folks in positions of authority, and the weight of tradition hanging like an iron albatross around its neck. Except that in some ways, it might be even worse.
It’s not the most promising of debuts for new President Pro Tem Becca Balint. But in her defense, this is far from your typical legislative year. The pandemic has forced the Legislature to meet remotely, which puts a damper on everything — and emphasizes the value of experience in committee leadership.
(Reminder: Each Senator serves on two committees.)
Still. Out of 14 standing committees, there’s a new chair on precisely one. And that one, former Education Committee chair Phil Baruth, (1) voluntarily vacated the post and (2) was, hard to believe, the youngest committee chair in the Senate. He turns 59 next month.
Last time I checked, the average Senate committee chair was 72 years old. Baruth’s successor Brian Campion brings down the average just a bit — although everybody else is another year older. It’s probably a wash.
There are some new, and younger, vice chairs. That would seem to indicate that some of our most senior Senators may be moving toward the exit in 2022. Relatively junior Senators Ruth Hardy, Andrew Perchlik and Cheryl Hooker are now vice chair of Health and Welfare, Transportation and Education respectively. And Baruth, vice chair of Judiciary, remains on the younger side of the demographic.
But that’s where the youth movement ends in committee leadership. Other vice chairs include longtime Social Security recipients Alice Nitka (Appropriations), Mark MacDonald (Finance),, Anthony Pollina (Government Operations), Dick McCormack (Institutions) and Dick Mazza (Rules).
This is, I write with a heavy sigh, business as usual. On top of all that, there are a few puzzling things about the new committee lineup.
Well, the incoming leaders of the House and Senate are pouring buckets of cold water on any hopes of a progressive agenda in the next two years.
In some ways, this makes perfect sense. In others, it’s a continuation of the squishy-soft stylings of the outgoing leadership. And that’s disappointing for anyone who was looking forward to the possibility of change.
My former colleagues Xander Landen and Kit Norton have posted a legislative preview, and it’s chock full of Business As Usual — the kind of Democratic strategerizing that’s helped Phil Scott remain governor. Or, shall we say, done little to nothing to draw a clear contrast between Scott and the Dems.
Now, these are extraordinary times. And I have no quarrel with the idea that coronavirus will be first and foremost on the agenda until we’ve vaccinated our way back to normality. The budget alone could occupy the available time between now and adjournment.
So yeah, when Speaker-In-Waiting Jill Krowinski says her top priority is “to bring people together and create a plan of action to beat the virus and it needs to be a recovery plan that leaves no one behind,” I completely agree. Save for the grammatical tic.
But 2022 ought to be a completely different story.
As promised, my lukewarm takes on the Vermont election results in the customary slash lazy columnist “Winners and Losers” style.
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner: Gov. Phil Scott. Highest vote total in history for any gubernatorial candidate. Rode his adequate handling of the pandemic to a lopsided victory over a game but under-resourced Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. More than half of the Joe Biden voters crossed party lines to elect Scott.
Just to pin that down, Scott unofficially has 248,248 votes while Zuckerman failed to crack six figures. Biden finished with 242,680. Or compare Scott to his Republican ticketmates: Donald Trump took 112,507 votes, Miriam Berry (sacrificial lamb to Peter Welch) 95,763. The voters returned lopsided (and only marginally diminished) Dem/Prog majorities to the Legislature.
Scott also saw the Dems’ chances of overriding his frequent vetoes take a hit, with the loss of a few House seats. Every single seat matters when you’re trying to get to 100. Plus, the Dems and Progs will have to identify new House leadership. A new Speaker needs at least a year to learn the ropes.
If there’s a formula for defeating Phil Scott, the Democrats have yet to identify it. Hell, this year they kinda stopped trying. Which will come back to bite them if Scott makes a run for the next U.S. Senate opening. Successor to Bernie Sanders? There’s some bitter irony for you. (He’d have to relinquish the governorship in 2021 to take on Pat Leahy or [insert Democrat here] in 2022. I don’t see him doing that.)
Losers: Capital-P Progressives and their infrastructure. The good news for the Progs is that they managed to add a seat in the House. Otherwise, 2020 has been a disaster. Tim Ashe bombed out in the LG primary, Zuckerman cratered last night, they lost their two House caucus leaders, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman and Diana Gonzalez*, and Sen. Chris Pearson continues to be the least popular member of the Chittenden delegation.
*Note: After she announced she was stepping away from the Legislature, Gonzalez was replaced by Selene Colburn in the deputy leader role. So it’s incorrect to say that the Progs lost both leaders in the election, although they did lose both during the course of the year.
Until proven otherwise, Bernie Sanders has no coattails. There is no evidence that he can push a Progressive or progressive to victory in Vermont. If he’s building a legacy or a movement that will survive his personal appeal, he ain’t doing it here.
I also have to ask: What exactly does Rights & Democracy accomplish? They spend a lot of money, much of it from Sts. Ben and Jerry, to no visible effect. I see little sign that they’re building a movement that can influence Vermont politics. Or New Hampshire politics, for that matter, since R&D is a twin-state organization. The NH Dems held serve in Congress, but failed to take down Gov. Chris Sununu and are on track for minority status in the NH House and Senate.
I’m sure the progressive Twitterverse will be all over me for this, but look, I’d love to live in a world where we’ve just elected Bernie or (my choice) Elizabeth Warren and we won 55 U.S. Senate seats and we were poised to create the Green Economy and enact universal health care and some serious regulation of the financial sector and court reforms and voting rights protections. But we don’t. And I see no objective evidence to support the notion that there’s an invisible army of progressive voters just waiting for the right “messaging” to get them stampeding to the polls.
After the jump: Room on the Democratic ladder, limited gains for the VTGOP, and more.
Democratic Lt. Gov. candidate Molly Gray kicked off the new week with an Endorse-O-Rama on the Statehouse lawn. She’s won the backing of 15 Democratic/Progressive Senators, including Senate Majority Leader (and President Pro Tem-in-waiting) Becca Balint.
Which is great. But it means she didn’t get endorsed by eight members of the majority caucus. Not so good.
The abstainers include fully half of Chittenden County’s delegation: unsuccessful Lite-Gov candidates slash grudge-nurturers Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram plus Michael Sirotkin. The rest include some of the most senior and most centrist of Senators: Bobby Starr, John Rodgers, Alice Nitka and Jeanette White.
The final absentee is the most surprising: Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina. I’ve tried to reach him, and will update this post if/when he returns my call.
The roster of Senate abstainers is not a good look. But it has more to do with the foibles of Vermont’s Worst Deliberative Body than it has to do with the merits or demerits of Young Ms. Gray.
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.
Precisely as it was foreseen in the sacred portents, Tim Ashe will succeed John Campbell as Senate President Pro Tem.
That’s not the bad part. The bad part is the other half of the presumed backroom deal, which allows Democrat In Name Only Dick Mazza to keep his plum post as the third member of the Senate’s Committee on Committees.
One can only hope that his ability to wreak mischief with committee appointments will be reined in by Ashe and the CoC’s third member, Lt. Gov-elect David Zuckerman.
Early next week, the State Senate Democratic caucus will hold its organizational meeting for the new biennium. They will elect a new President Pro Tem to replace John Campbell; a new Majority Leader to replace Phil Baruth; and they will name the three members of the organizationally crucial Committee on Committees, which will later dole out committee memberships and appoint chairs and vice chairs.
Scuttlebutt has it that Sen. Tim Ashe has the Pro Tem job wrapped up, and that Windham County’s Becca Balint will succeed Baruth.
And it seems inevitable that Dick Mazza will retain his spot on the CoC, in spite of his long and loud advocacy for Republican Phil Scott’s gubernatorial bid. (And before that, Brian Dubie’s.) Honestly, Mazza might as well have spent 2016 just flipping the bird to the Democratic Party.
But all indications are that he’ll be reappointed. Which is weird in a lot of ways. First, the aforementioned display of apostasy.
Second, the other two members of the CoC are the President Pro Tem and the Lieutenant Governor. When that was John Campbell and Phil Scott respectively, they were like peas in a pod with Mazza.
But two guys who came out of the Progressive Party making common cause with Mazza? What that says to me is that Ashe and Zuckerman are more invested in the institution of the Senate than in advancing progressive policies.
Third, they’d all be from Chittenden County. Shouldn’t we be interested in a little geographic balance?
Fourth, and most striking to me, is that they’re all men.
Seriously? This doesn’t trouble Ashe or Zuckerman in the least?