Taking a pause from my ongoing series about stealth conservatives and other extremists who litter the Vermont Republican Party’s ticket this year, to note that these people can’t be classed as the exception. They are the norm. It’s Phil Scott who’s the exception. The party he once knew and loved is no longer with us and it ain’t coming back.
For example, take the above photograph and focus on the four centermost figures. The fellow with the bright red bowtie is Samuel Douglass, stealth conservative candidate previously uncovered in this space as a guy who thinks Fox News isn’t conservative enough. The gent to his right is the Patron Saint of Plausibly Moderate Republicanism, Jim Douglas. Behind Douglas is VTGOP chair Paul Dame. To Douglas’ right is state Rep. Samantha Lefebvre, one of 2020’s successful crop of stealth candidates.
Oh, and she’s now the vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party.
Yeah, I missed the memo. The VTGOP website includes no information about party officials, presumably to avoid embarrassing any of them. But the original caption to this photo identified her as vice chair.
It’s another sad step toward the outer boundaries of political sensibility for the once-dominant party. Its top positions are held by extremists of various kinds, and its slate of candidates is lousy with election truthers, QAnon adherents, Covid deniers and hard-core Trumpers. And maybe the odd militia type. Not to mention the virulently anti-trans chair of the biggest city party in the state.
Ladies, gentlemen and others, this is your VTGOP. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
The second-biggest winner of the campaign cycle so far is (I would argue) Mike Pieciak, newly-minted Democratic nominee for Treasurer. (Lovely 8-bit illo courtesy of Epicenter, a podcast devoted to blockchain, cryptofinance, and other stuff I am blissfully ignorant about.)
I say so despite, and because of, the fact that he sailed unopposed to the nomination.
I completely underestimated the guy. When he entered the race, I saw him as the unknown technocrat who, like Chris Winters, would be vulnerable to a Democratic officeholder with relevant expertise. Kitty Toll, perhaps. Shap Smith. Mitzi Johnson. Etc.
Turned out he wasn’t another Winters. He was another Beth Pearce, a technocrat who blossomed into a political force.
Or maybe it was there all along, and I wasn’t in a position to see his appeal to Democrats of all stripes. As it turned out, Pearce quickly endorsed Pieciak and nobody else even tried to enter the race. (H. Brooke Paige falls into the category of “nobody.”)
Pieciak will be our next Treasurer, and it’s absolutely not out of bounds to see him as a viable gubernatorial candidate in a few years’ time. Maybe even 2024.
Well, primary night turned out to be quite a bit less exciting than we thought. With a few exceptions, the races that seemed unpredictable weren’t, in the end, very close at all. What follows is a selection of post-midnight thoughts, none of which are about the gubernatorial race because the primaries were uncompetitive.
1. Those unbelievable polls were right about the Democratic primary for Congress. Becca Balint beat the metaphorical pants off Molly Gray. In the end, the margin was 23 percentage points. Remember back in January, when Gray had gotten off to a hot start and Balint was entering the race at the same time she had to manage the Senate Democratic Caucus? Seemed like Gray had the edge. Hell, it seemed like Balint might get squeezed between centrist Gray and progressive Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.
I think Gray did have the edge at the time. So what happened? Balint caught fire with the Democratic electorate while Gray’s bio-heavy, policy-lite approach wore out its welcome. When it became clear that Balint was pulling ahead, Gray started flailing around, presenting herself as a pragmatist (be still, my heart) while depicting Balint as a Bernie Sanders clone. Yes, Bernie, Vermont’s most popular politician. Gray’s attack lines were implausible from the get-go. Did anyone really believe that Balint was an uncompromising ideologue or a captive of shady out-of-state money? No. For an attack to be effective, it has to be plausibly based in a candidate’s real or perceived weaknesses.
2. Everyone involved in Gray’s campaign has some soul-searching to do. Not only because they lost badly despite the very public blessing of St. Patrick Leahy, but also because they burned a lot of bridges in Democratic circles by going negative.
2a. Is this the end of Team Leahy’s dominance in Democratic politics? They bet big on Gray, and she rolled snake eyes. Leahy will remain a beloved figure but a sidelined one. His team, meanwhile, soiled themselves and dragged Leahy down with them. If there was any belief that they had the corner on political savvy in Vermont, well, that balloon has burst.
3. Oh Lord, the Republicans. They emerge from the primary with a statewide “ticket” of Gerald Malloy, Liam Madden, Phil Scott, Joe Benning, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, and H. Brooke Paige. The VTGOP now has a few days to cobble together a slate of candidates to supplant Paige, and none of them will have a prayer of a chance. Besides Scott, Benning is the only winner who’s not a walking, talking joke, and his campaign is operating on a shoestring. He’ll be a decent candidate, but he’s not going to win.
Well, the lively Democratic primary contests for attorney general and secretary of state continue to be lively, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
…with one sad exception. To judge by his campaign finance filing, Montpelier City Clerk John Odum has pretty much folded his bid for secretary of state. He’d been trailing in the money race with his two competitors, Deputy Secretary Chris Winters and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, but in July he fell off a cliff. Odum raised $375 (from four donors) and spent $653. His only donation of more than $100 came from Montpelier property owner Fred Bashara, who kicked in $250.
As for the front-runners, Winters has modest edges on Copeland Hanzas with one exception: He has more than $25,000 in cash on hand to SCH’s $4,545. What he’s going to accomplish with that money between now and next Tuesday, I don’t know. If he loses, he may regret opportunities missed. The winner, after all, won’t need much of a bankroll to defeat whoever the Republicans dig up. And unspent cash won’t do the loser any good at all.
From the top: Winters raised $13,100 in July for a campaign total of $73,763. Copeland Hanzas netted $12,004 to reach $51,116 for the campaign. Not bad considering that she got a late start in the race.
Fourth in a series on the July `1 campaign finance reports. Yes, it’s still relevant because the general media coverage of the filings was disgracefully thin. Previously: Lieutenant Governor, Governor, Attorney General. Final installment pending: a look at select legislative races.
The Democratic primary for Secretary of State attracted three very qualified candidates after incumbent Jim Condos decided it was time to retire. One has a clear lead thanks to being the first candidate to declare; the second is catching up in a hurry; the third is lagging far behind.
That should be a substantial intangible factor in Winters’ favor. He also leads in the tangibles, having raised $39,000 in the reporting period and a total of $61,000 for the campaign to date. He has spent $23K so far, which leaves him with $38K in the bank. $5,500 of his spends went to the Vermont Democratic Party: $1,500 for placement at the party’s Curtis-Hoff fundraiser, and $4,000 for access to the VDP’s extortionately priced and indispensable voter database. He also spent $1,500 on yard signs from the Texas-based firm Super Cheap Signs. Union shop, I trust.
Notable donors on Winters’ list: $4175 from Martha Allen, former head of the VT-NEA; $4,210 from the Vermont Association of Realtors; $4,000 from Ernie Pomerleau, Burlington developer and friend of moderate Democrats everywhere; $500 from outgoing Treasurer Beth Pearce; and $101 from former governor Howard Dean.
Second place in the money race is Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, who didn’t announce until late April. She’s done well since then, receiving $39K in donations in a month and a half. She has spent $22K, so she has $17K in cash on hand.
Topping her donor list are a bunch of people named Copeland, presumably family, who gave a combined $11K. She got $1,000 apiece from renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf and former ANR deputy secretary Peter Walke. There’s a gaggle of current and former lawmakers including Shap Smith, John Gannon, Carol Ode, Leslie Goldman, Becca White, Sarita Austin, Amy Sheldon, Maxine Grad, Don Hooper, Mary Sullivan, Janet Ancel, Tony Klein, and Mike Yantachka.
Other notable names: $1,050 from Lisa Senecal, co-host of “We’re Speaking,” a podcast produced by The Lincoln Project; $500 from Democratic donor Billi Gosh and $300 from progressive donor Crea Lintilhac; $500 from Will Raap, founder of Gardeners’ Supply; $300 from former lobbyist turned bluesman Bob Stannard; $500 from the Leonine lobbying firm and $250 from lobbyist Heidi Tringe; and $150 from attorney general candidate Charity Clark. Her expenditure list is topped by $13,463 for postcards (and presumably mailing) from the Print & Mailing Center of Barre.
Finishing a distant third in fundraising is Montpelier City Clerk John Odum, who entered the race shortly before the March 15 filing deadline. He raised $13K during the latest reporting period and a total of $20K for the campaign to date. He’s spent $14,494, which leaves him with $5K and some change.
But wait, it gets worse. Odum received $8,400 from Elizabeth Shayne, partner of state Rep. Tiff Bluemle. Now, a donor can’t give a candidate more than $4,210 for the primary. I have to assume that half of Shayne’s money is earmarked for the general election campaign and can’t be spent until after the primary. If that’s true, then Odum only has about $1,000 in cash on hand. He’d better have one crackerjack of a grassroots/field operation, is all I can say.
(Update! The $8,400 was a clerical error. Shayne donated a total of $4,200. Odum’s financial report has been corrected. His amended report indicates that his campaign has about $1,900 in cash on hand.)
Overall, Copeland Hanzas has a clear advantage among Democratic officeholders and party mainstays. Winters has outraised the field and has more cash on hand plus Condos’ imprimatur, but his donor list is short on Democratic stalwarts. Odum is far behind in fundraising and cash on hand; unless he’s got hidden advantages, he’s looking like the third place finisher in the primary.
Otherwise, how do I see the race from here to Primary Day, now less than a month away? Hard to tell. Neither Winters nor Copeland Hanzas has a high profile outside of Montpelier. Winters has Condos behind him; Copeland Hanzas has a lot of lawmakers in her corner, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Members of the House are very plugged in to their districts. Get enough of them in your corner, you’ve got a head start on a statewide network.
So. If anyone claims to know how this is going to turn out, they’re probably blowing smoke.
There’s something about immortality, about escaping the finite bounds of a lifetime. If not in corporeal form, at least in lasting impact. Making a mark, leaving a legacy, your name remembered long after your contemporaries have returned to the dust. Escaping the curse of Adam and Eve. It’s an almost universal human yearning, reflected in the appeal of religious belief and, well, superhero comics.
Well, you didn’t come here for the warmed-over philosophy. Let’s get to Jim Condos.
The outgoing Secretary of State put his thumb on the sca — I should say, smashed his fist on the scale and jumped up and down on it with all his considerable weight* when he endorsed his deputy Chris Winters to succeed him when he leaves office.
He wants that legacy, doesn’t he? He wants his impact on the office to last beyond his physical tenure. He wants one final validation from the voters, who have treated him kindly over the years.
Did Beth Pearce just hand the treasurer’s office to Michael Pieciak? Consider the timing.
April 27: Gov. Phil Scott’s office announces that Pieciak would step down as Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation in mid-May “to pursue other opportunities” of the unspecified variety.
May 4: Pearce announces she will not seek re-election as treasurer. Her decision, she said, was made after being diagnosed with cancer three weeks earlier. Or about two weeks before Pieciak’s departure from the administration.
May 6: Pieciak launches a campaign for treasurer as a Democrat. (He served under Republican Scott, but he was brought into state government by Dem Peter Shumlin.)
Here’s what it looks like: Pearce realizes she’s stepping down and essentially handpicks Pieciak as her successor. How could you look at the sequence of events and think otherwise?
Pearce took a couple weeks after her diagnosis, more than enough time to drop a word to Pieciak. He steps down as commissioner “to pursue other opportunities” only a week before Pearce’s surprise announcement. And he launches his candidacy only two days after Pearce’s announcement.
Charity Clark stepped down today as Attorney General TJ Donovan’s chief of staff. The remarkably coy announcement of the move said she “has stepped down from her post to explore new opportunities” and would “make an announcement about her plans in the near future.”
Yuh-huh. She’s running for AG. She’s hinted as much, and it’s the most obvious reason for her sudden departure, which (a) apparently took immediate effect and (b) came only four days after Donovan announced he would leave office at the end of his term or possibly before.
I guess it ends all speculation that Clark might be elevated to acting attorney general should Donovan depart before Election Day, thus giving her the kinda-sorta incumbent’s edge. If so, it’s a noble and selfless move.
And it raises questions about Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, who remains in office nearly three months after he announced his candidacy to succeed his boss, Jim Condos.
If Clark thought it best to resign before she even opened the doors on her campaign, why hasn’t Winters?
Vermont’s Democratic electorate is yet again spoiled for choice. Not only do we have multiple credible candidates for U.S. Congress; now we have a three-way race for the party’s Secretary of State nomination among candidates with differing, but equally impressive, qualifications and political associations.
Yesterday, State Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas entered the fray, joining Montpelier City Clerk John Odum and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters in the running to succeed the retiring Jim Condos. Each would make a great nominee and a worthy successor to Condos.
Each also has a different set of experiences and political associations. The latter will likely have the most impact in a party primary, and I frankly don’t know how the political stuff will play out. So let’s bullet-point the three of ’em, shall we?
Winters.Pluses: Top deputy to Condos, who turned out to be a strong and capable Secretary. Winters knows the job, and ought to have a handle on where the office needs to go next. Condos isn’t endorsing, but he’s made no secret that he wants Winters to succeed him, and Condos is very popular. Nice guy.
The big takeaway from the first campaign finance deadline of 2022 (for state candidates only, not federal) is that the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor is going to be a heated affair. All four candidates raised respectable amounts of money, with a couple of them clearly rising to the top.
Disclaimer: Fundraising is not the only measure of a campaign’s health. Organization and grassroots appeal are also key, but it’s very hard to measure those and very simple to read financial filings, So we look for the missing keys under the streetlight where we can see.
Leading the pack is former state Rep. Kitty Toll, widely believed to be the choice of most party regulars. She raised $118,000, which is quite a lot for this early in an LG race. She had 323 separate donors, 227 of them giving less than $100 apiece.
Coming in a sollid second is former LG David Zuckerman, with $92,000. Patricia Preston, head of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, raised $89,000 with a big fat asterisk: $23,000 of her total came from in-kind donations. That’s a very high total, and it means she has far less cash on hand than it appears at first glance. Rep. Charlie Kimbell is a distant fourth with $44,000 raised.