Last December, around the time of the fabled Chris Christie fundraiser for the Vermont Republican Party (projected take, a quarter mill or so; actual take, less than 50K as far as I can tell from the party’s financial filings), I posited that there was one figure in the downtrodden VTGOP who could pose a threat to the Democrats as a statewide candidate. It wasn’t Phil Scott; it was the closest thing we have to a Chris Christie — a short-tempered, get-things-done, “willing to work with both sides” kind of guy named Thom Lauzon, Republican Mayor of Barre.
I still think he’s a solid potential statewide candidate, should he ever choose to climb the ladder. But another name has been suggested to me, and it’s an excellent choice. In fact, offhand I’d have to say he’s an even better Most Dangerous Republican than Lauzon.
I’ll give you the name, but first it’s Story Time, kids!
Starting in 2002, Craig Benson spent two disastrous years as Republican Governor of New Hampshire. While he was Governor, he appointed a little-known lawyer named Kelly Ayotte to the post of Attorney General. (In NH, the AG is an appointed position with a five-year term.) By the time her first term had come to an end, John Lynch was Governor. He was a Democrat but he liked to play the bipartisan game, so he nominated her for a second term.
Before she served out that term, she resigned to run for U.S. Senate. And she won. And she’s now the only Republican member of NH’s four-member Congressional delegation.
The key moment in her ascendancy was her renomination by John Lynch. If he’d appointed a Democrat and sent her packing as a one-term Benson functionary, she would’ve had a much harder time continuing her political career. I firmly believe that there would never have been a Senator Kelly Ayotte if not for John Lynch being too clever for his own good.
Thus endeth the lesson. Back to Vermont, and the new nominee for Most Dangerous Republican.
At one time, he was the chief hothead on Jim Douglas’ team. He and Jim Barnett, who’s gone on to a very unsuccessful career as a balls-to-the-wall campaign manager, were dubbed “the Nasty Boys” by the late great Peter Freyne for their skilled knifework in Douglas’ campaigns.
Since then, little Neale has grown up — and gotten two great big helping hands from Democratic officeholders. Governor Shumlin chose him to be recovery czar after Tropical Storm Irene, and now Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has engineered his hiring as interim head of the Burlington Electric Department.
In the process, the Nasty Boy has acquired a solid nonpartisan reputation as the go-to guy when trouble strikes. He’s been chosen by not one, but two, top Democrats to take on big administrative challenges.
Okay, here’s a hypothetical for you. In the next biennium, the Shumlin administration will unveil its plan for single-payer health care. It’ll be big, expensive, controversial, and a tough sell, even in a lopsided Democratic legislature. Win or lose, Shumlin will expend a lot of his political capital in the fight.
He also faces the whole issue of school funding and organization. Whatever he and the legislature do, more enemies will be made and more people will be alienated.
At best, Shumlin would enter 2016 having fought two extremely tough battles. Even if he wins on single-payer, he’ll be in that very dangerous period between passage and implementation, where everybody will be aware of the cost and the controversy but won’t have experienced any benefit from the new system. And if the implementation process for single payer OR school reform is difficult, contentious, or includes any stumbles, the Governor’s managerial reputation will take more hits.
And now comes, on a shiny white horse, Neale Lunderville.
Well, Lunderville 2.0, New and Improved with a track record for working under Democratic executives and managing the biggest challenges. In short, he’s Vermont’s Mr. Fix-It. The Governor won’t be able to depict Lunderville as a partisan ideologue because, after all, he chose the guy to manage the aftermath of Irene. At the same time, Lunderville will have solid Republican credentials from his tenure in the Douglas Administration. He’ll be more appealing to the conservative base than a Phil Scott will ever be.
The VTGOP won’t be in any shape to challenge the Democrats’ overall dominance in 2016. But Lunderville could do what Scott Milne can’t do and Randy Brock couldn’t: topple Governor Shumlin.
Farfetched or believable? Just remember, if it happens, you can thank Peter Shumlin and Miro Weinberger for making Governor Lunderville a possibility.