Tag Archives: Bill Doyle

Our Sclerotic Senate [UPDATED]

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

Note: In the original version of this post, I failed to include Ron Horton in the Essex-Orleans district. This post is now updated to include him.

The Vermont state Senate, our most self-absorbed deliberative body, is a study in stasis. Turnover is rare. Incumbents are virtually assured of re-election, usually without much effort. (The last sitting senators to lose were Bill Doyle and Norm McAllister in 2016 — but Doyle was 90 years old, quite frail and had a reputation for nodding off during meetings, and McAllister faced a daunting array of criminal charges at the time. That’s about what it takes for an incumbent to lose.

Anyway.)

This year promises to be same song, new verse. A rough and semi-educated review of the field of candidates shows that 27 of the 30 senators are strong or prohibitive favorites to win re-election — and that includes one incumbent who didn’t bother filing his candidacy papers, and will have to run a write-in campaign. The forgetful fellow is NEK Democrat and snippy little bitch John Rodgers, who represents the two-seat Essex-Orleans district along with perpetual incumbent Bobby Starr, who did manage to file — along with “Democrat” Ron Horton, who ran this race under the banner of the American Party in 2018.

The American Party, FYI, is a fringe conservative organization that traces its roots back to the American Independent Party founded by hardcore segregationist George Wallace. Horton finished a distant third in 2018 behind Starr and Rodgers. He stands a puncher’s chance in this year’s primary because his name is on the ballot and Rodgers’ is not. But Rodgers’ cavailer attitude toward the simple act of filing papers (and this year he didn’t even need to gather signatures) precisely illustrates the problem: Senate incumbents are virtually bulletproof.

I said 27 of the 30 are favorites. The other three — Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram of Chittenden County and James McNeil of Rutland — are voluntarily giving up their seats. Indeed, voluntary retirement is just about the only way there’s ever any turnover in the Vermont Senate.

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Freeway Vermont, Two-Lane Vermont

Something struck me in last night’s election returns. Specifically, the two-seat switch from R to D in the state senate, the Republicans losing their last remaining seats in Chittenden and Washington Counties.

Those two seats had been held for years by moderate Republicans Diane Snelling and Bill Doyle. In the absence of those popular stalwarts, it’s hard to see the R’s being competitive in Chittenden or Washington anytime soon. Meanwhile, the VTGOP strengthened its grip in Franklin and Rutland Counties, which used to be prime D/R battlegrounds.

I see a clear political topography emerging. There’s Freeway Vermont, which stretches along I-89 from northern Chittenden County to White River Junction, and along I-91 from Thetford or thereabouts all the way to the Massachusetts border. That’s solid Democratic territory, with Republicans struggling to even recruit candidates, let alone win.

Then there’s Two-Lane Vermont, the back roads and small towns plus a few cities that have been, to a large extent, left behind by the tide of progress. Rutland is the prime example. I include St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, and Barre in that number.

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Ding Dong, the Pro Tem is Dead

(And by “dead” I mean in the purely political sense.) 

Yes, one of my political betes noires is leaving us. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell today told VTDigger’s Mark Johnson that he will not run for re-election. Which almost certainly means he won’t be Pro Tem next year, although with the Committee on Committees being what it is, that’s not a sure thing.

Campbell will become chief of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs “soon after this year’s legislative session concludes,” in Johnson’s words. He does not specify, but this sounds like he would resign in May. Would that leave a vacancy for the rest of the term? Would Governor Shumlin get to name Campbell’s successor? Inquiring minds want to know. Update: Johnson’s story indicates that Campbell will not resign; so he’ll apparently work both jobs from May till next January. 

Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about Campbell. He’s been a lousy leader, often ineffective and kept afloat by an expanded office staff. He almost got turfed in 2012 after his first stint as Senate leader; since then, the unrest has been muted but the results have remained pretty much the same: the Senate is the body most likely to break down into turf battles and legislative scrums. The most recent example was last week’s out-of-control debate over S.230, the energy siting bill.

If you don’t believe me, just check out the Praising With Faint Damns treatment he’s getting from one of his closest colleagues.

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Gleanings from campaign finance reports

Some very interesting stuff in today’s campaign finance filings. This is the first reporting deadline for Vermont candidates since last July, an eternity in political terms. (Perhaps the Legislature will deign to create a few more reporting periods for the next cycle?)

Reactions, in rough order of importance:

Yes, Bruce Lisman is serious about this running-for-governor thing. He has poured $454,000 of his own money into his campaign, and he raised a non-inconsequential $171,000 from other people, for a healthy total of $625,000. On the other hand, his campaign has a very high burn rate; he’s already spent $571,000. He’s been spending heavily and consistently since the early fall of last year –much of it on staff salaries, consultant firms, and the services of Capital Connections, the PR/lobby shop fronted by his spokesperson Shawn Shouldice.

Because of his high burn rate, Lisman has by far the least cash on hand of all the four major candidates for governor. Of course, he can always write himself a bunch more checks, so weep not for Bruce.

Fun fact: Lisman scored a $2,500 contribution from Wall Street TV shouter Lawrence Kudlow.

Phil Scott is doing just fine, thanks for asking. He’s raised $414,000 and spent a little more than half that. And all of that 414K came from other people — so, as expected, he’s got a lot more fundraising clout than Lisman. It must be noted that, of the four major candidates for governor, Scott has raised the smallest amount of money. But somehow I expect he can kick it into a higher gear when he needs to.

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The Republicans have sharpened their elbows

It’s been a tough few years for legislative Republicans. They’re a perpetual minority with little influence. Push comes to shove, about all they can do is call a press conference and let Don Turner bemoan the latest actions of the Democratic majority.

This year, things are looking a little different. Well, they’re still in a minority, but they seem to have gotten a little bit feisty — looking for opportunities to throw their weight around. I’m guessing it as something to do with Phil Scott’s candidacy for governor:

— It’s their best prospect for retaking the corner office since 2010*, which has to boost their morale, and

— The more trouble they cause, the better it is for Scott. (Who, as the Nice Guy in the room, would never ever stoop to chicanery, no sir. Ahem. See below.)

*Yes, Scott Milne almost won in 2014, but nobody thought he stood a chance. He wasn’t considered a prospect until election night. Until then, he was actually a drag on Republicans’ view of their chances.

We’re still early in the session, and we’ve seen two very high-profile spots where Republican lawmakers went out of their way to throw a wrench in the works.

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A respected politician is making a fool of himself

One of the unfortunate traits of Vermont’s Political Media is their tendency to kinda-sorta protect officeholders and officials. Keep a discreet distance when it comes to things they have decided It Is Not Our Business To Know. There’s a certain dignity in it, but they take it too far.

Please understand, I’m not asking them to start checking the sleeping arrangements at the Capitol Plaza or devise spreadsheets of politicians’ liquor consumption. But there are times when the private does touch on public interest. You’d think this would be perfectly clear in the Norm McAllister era. But it still happens; I have heard rumors of an affair between a citizen and the state official responsible for overseeing the state-funded activities of said citizen. That would seem to be something we have a right to know, since it directly impacts public responsibilities.

This week, the media silence was broken on one such issue: State Senator Bill Doyle simply isn’t up to the job anymore.

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Good grief, Bill Doyle.

Crusty Statehouse institution Bill Doyle, Republican Senator from Washington County and close personal friend of Ethan Allen, has executed a downright elegant political pirouette. Well, it’d be elegant if it wasn’t intellectually dishonest.

Doyle told Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck that he’d changed his mind on the gubernatorial election. He was going to go with the top vote-getter, Gov. Shumlin, but he’s now changed his mind: he’s voting with his constituency. Washington County gave Scott Milne a substantial majority. (Of course, Milne owns a substantial business based in Barre, so he’s kind of a favorite son, but whatever.)

That’s not the pirouette part, however.

Doyle is also the author of a Constitutional amendment that would lower the threshold for election from the current 50% plus one to 40%. And this isn’t a new idea for Doyle; he first proposed this in 1974.

Put it another way: he has advocated for this change for 41 years. But when push came to shove in real life, he’s going the other way.

In the words of Mr. Spock: Fascinating. But highly illogical.

Suddenly, everybody wants to amend the Constitution

Funny thing has happened in recent days, as we approach the legislature’s vote for governor:  Everyone’s talking about a Constitutional change to make sure this never happens again.

Bill Doyle must be enjoying a quiet “told you so” moment, considering that he first proposed such a change in 1974.

Nineteen seventy-four. Hell, a lot of you whippersnappers weren’t even born yet.

But did anyone listen to The Perpetual Senator? Nope, this is Vermont; we don’t fix things until they convincingly prove they’re broken. As the joke goes,

“How many Vermonters does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Change it? That was my grandfather’s light bulb!”

There are many ideas for a new way of electing a governor when no candidate receives a majority. Doyle would lower the threshold for election from the current 50% plus one to 40%. Some, including Sen. Joe Benning (on VPR yesterday) would prefer a runoff election. Some see an opening for Instant Runoff Voting, to avoid the hassle of a second vote. Some, such as outgoing State Rep. Tom Koch, simply say “We’ve gotta change this” without endorsing a new course.

The common ground, after weeks of uncertainty? We can’t let this happen again, ever.

Even those who’ve supported Scott Milne’s stubborn refusal to concede have concluded that We can’t let this happen again, ever.

Does that seem the least bit contradictory to you? People who are encouraging and enabling Milne’s pursuit of the governorship don’t want anyone else to do what he’s doing. Perhaps they’ve realized the slow corrosive effect of such machinations.

The system, as outdated as it is, was working fine as long as there was a tacit understanding among Vermont politicians: I’ll concede to a plurality winner if you will. Former Gov. Jim Douglas realizes the expediency of this approach, and advised Milne to concede the race after the election results were made official.

But Milne, stomping to the beat of his own drummer as always, forged ahead. Which has forced the state’s political class to confront a flaw in our system, and contemplate changing the Constitution.

Which brings up another contradiction. Milne supporters have carefully parsed every word of the Constitution in search of the hidden wisdom of our predecessors, in much the same way as federal Originalists treat the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text dictated by God himself. But now that they’re facing the consequences of a rickety process created in very different times* — a process that puts us in a class with only Mississippi in how we settle majority-free gubernatorial elections, and that’s a class you never want to be in — they want to tear that bit out of the Constitution and, as Rep. Heidi Scheuermann would say, bring it into the 21st century. I guess that bit wasn’t so sacred after all.

*Tom Koch’s opinion piece, posted on VTDigger, nails the anachronistic character of our current process. “Relic,” he calls it. 

Well, it’s progress, and I’ll take it.

However, I’m doubtful that the legislature will greenlight a Constitutional change. Tempers will cool after Milne has been dispatched back to the business world. There will be squabbles over the best process. There will be many whose knee-jerk reaction to change is “But that was my grandfather’s light bulb!”

And that, combined with the Legislature’s tendency to postpone action whenever possible, will kill any and all amendments.

And we’ll go back to living with a bad process and hoping we never get another Scott Milne again.

 

Bring me the head of Anthony Pollina

We received a pair of campaign mailers the other day. (One for each Household Voter.)

Which isn’t at all unusual; it’s rush season for political postage, which gives the USPS a nice little bump in bulk mail. But there was an unusual twist to this one. See if you can spot it:

EPSON MFP image

If you didn’t know the players, you’d think this was a standard piece of party-line bumpf. But it’s not.

This mailer, for the three-seat Washington County State Senate district, endorses two Republicans and one Democrat. Ann Cummings is a Democratic incumbent; Bill Doyle, Our Eternal Senator, is a Republican incumbent; Pat McDonald is a Republican challenger.

Who’s missing? Why, none other than Prog/Dem incumbent Anthony Pollina.

The mailer wasn’t sent by any political party, but by four separate business groups working together: the Campaign Research Center (a.k.a. VT Chamber PAC), the Vermont Ski Areas Association, the Association of General Contractors PAC, and Vermont Realtors PAC. Four groups not known for prioritizing Environmental Protection.

You’d expect these guys to promote Republicans, wouldn’t you? Why no love for Republican Dexter Lefavour? Aside from, y’know, the fact that he’s nothing more than slot-filler.

And why Ann Cummings?

A couple ideas present themselves.

— Tony Pollina is the most liberal of the incumbents, and the most vulnerable — having finished in third place in each of the last two elections. Mind you, there was plenty of room between Pollina and the next Republican finisher each time. But McDonald has a high profile and plenty of connections, and the VTGOP has high hopes for her.

I think they’re wrong, but that’s how they see it.

— Ann Cummings is a liberal Democrat, but (a) she’s a longtime incumbent and a strong vote-getter, and (b) well, she’s a Realtor.

I don’t think her profession was the deciding factor in this cunning plan. More likely, it’s a tactical maneuver to try to isolate Pollina as the weakest link. And by listing a popular, established Democratic incumbent plus the immovable Bill Doyle, they might just trick a few liberals into thinking that McDonald is on their “team.”

It’s clever. Kinda squicky, but clever.

One more thing. Do you suppose the Realtors checked with Realtor Cummings before sending this mailer? If not, it seems discourteous to me. If so, and Cummings approved it, then she ought to explain herself to her fellow Dems.

The saddest political advertisement I’ve seen in a very long time

No, it didn’t come from Scott Milne’s campaign. Nor Hempily Peyton’s.

No, it came from a Democrat. And a Democrat with a strong track record who happens to represent my county.

Without further ado, here is the saddest political ad I’ve seen in maybe forever.

Ann Cummings print ad

Ecccch.

The quality’s a bit degraded because it appeared in a local free newspaper. But still: this is the best Ann Cummings could do? Cheesy, slipshod graphics? A grim, dark, uninviting photo? Lots of wasted space?

This is bad, very bad.

I hope it’s not an indication of the Cummings effort. She’s one of three incumbent state Senators from Washington County — along with eternal Republican Bill “Survey Says” Doyle and Prog/Dem Anthony Pollina. She’s running for a fifth term, and was the district’s top vote-getter in each of the last three races. fourth term; she’s been a strong candidate in her first three races, finishing first once (2010) and second twice (to then-Sen. Phil Scott in2008 and to Doyle in 2012).

So maybe she thinks she doesn’t have to try. But the Republicans have themselves a solid candidate in Pat McDonald this time. She’s a former state representative and state GOP chair, and she held administrative positions under Governors Snelling, Dean, and Douglas. Republicans have high hopes that she can turn a second Washington County seat to the GOP.

If past results are anything to go by, McDonald is a bigger threat to Pollina than to Cummings. But this ad doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.