Tag Archives: Democratic State Committee

First Look: Brandon Who?, candidate for Lieutenant Governor

The Candidate, against the obligatory Vermont landscape.

The Candidate, in the obligatory Vermont landscape setting.

Last Saturday, after the Democratic State Committee meeting, I got the chance to sit down with Brandon Riker, who is (I think) the only declared candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont. (See campaign website here.)

The 28-year-old Marlboro resident made waves on July 15, when he reported a campaign warchest of over $100,000. Granted, 90% of that came from himself and his family, but it made a statement of serious intent.

Quick impression: he’s energetic, full of ideas, and wants to make a difference. Whether that and a self-financed campaign will get him anywhere is another question. For him, unlike most candidates, raising the money was the simple part. Now he has to make a name for himself in Democratic circles, build an organization, attract support across the state, and almost certainly fend off some better-known Democrats in what promises to be a lively Lite-Gov primary.

Riker may be young, and may never have run for office before, but he cites more than a decade of political experience:

I’ve campaigned for progressive causes since I was 16 years old. John Kerry, Barack Obama, Jon Tester [in Montana], Mark Begich [in Alaska]. I’ve wanted to work on the hard races — the ones critical for Democratic control. It’s been 14 years since a Democrat was Lieutenant Governor, and we haven’t mounted a serious challenge in years.

Which is true, but probably won’t be true in 2016. With incumbent Phil Scott persistently hinting at a run for governor, top Democrats are sniffing opportunity. We’ve heard names like Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, among others, as possible candidates (as well as Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning on the Republican side). That would seem to put Riker at a huge disadvantage in terms of name recognition and established credibility among Democratic voters and donors.

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VT Dems to pioneer trans-inclusive bylaws

Funny thing about gender-inclusive language in various settings — like, for instance, political party bylaws. It’s necessary to ensure equitable treatment of women, but it can have the unintended consequence of limiting transgender participation.

How so? Well, take the Vermont Democratic Party bylaw mandating that its chair and vice-chair be of “opposite” gender. Which is fine if you’re only considering males and females. But what about those who are “crossing the river,” or even choosing to live on an island in the river? They aren’t the “opposite” of anybody.

They’d seem to be SOL, right? After all, if a person is in transition, or considers themselves to be something other than absolutely male or female, they’d be left out of the “opposite gender” mandate.

At the very least, when the party’s own rules define gender as a male/female construct, there’s a tacit exclusion of transgender people.

Well, at its meeting on Saturday, the Democratic State Committee asked its Bylaws Subcommittee to propose trans-inclusive language in three specific places in the bylaws. And apparently it’s the first Democratic state party to initiate this process. “We’ve queried other state committees across the country,” said State Committee member Matt Levin, “and no one has figured this out.”

So the Vermont Democrats will be the pioneers, it seems.

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Shap addresses the faithful

If the Democratic State Committee meeting was short of drama on the wind energy front, there were still a couple of interesting developments to report. I’lll write about one of them — some news about the future of H.76, the bill to ban teacher strikes — in my next post.

My subject this time: House Speaker Shap Smith addressed the gathering. That’s more noteworthy than it seems; the top elected Democrats rarely attend the DSC meetings, especially when it’s not a campaign year.

But Smith had a prominent place on the agenda, and he delivered an effective speech with two purposes: to buck up the party faithful, and to present himself as a person and leader.

Which immediately raises the question, yet again: is he running for Governor?

My own view is that he is not — yet. But he is ticking off the items on the Running For Governor To-Do List, and this was one more check box filled in.

In style, he was reasoned, earnest, articulate, and straightforward. Well, he plausibly appeared so, which is the most you can say for sure about a politician. In substance, he pointed out areas of significant accomplishment for the Democratic regime — things “not reported very much in the media.” They include:

— An improving economy with a low unemployment rate and (finally) some growth in wages.

— On health care, Vermont now has the second-lowest uninsured rate in the country at 3.7%. It was 7% before the Obama/Shumlin reforms took effect. The national rate is still 12%. “We are close to universal coverage in Vermont,” he said. “That’s a good story, and it gets lost in the problems with Vermont Health Connect.”

— Vermont has one of the healthiest populations in the country.

— Our public education system is in the top three nationally. “In the conversation around property tax, we lose sight of the fact that that money is spent for the next generation, and spent successfully.”

— The state has kept its promise to fully fund public-sector pensions and, in fact, “we’re making up for the sins of the past.”

— The Legislature has “kept our commitments” on a range of other issues, in spite of intense budget pressures.

The Speaker then moved to personal narrative, recalling that his parents moved to Vermont in 1970 as part of the “Back to the land” movement, in search of “the promise of Vermont.” As an adult he himself, after working in New York City, moved back to Vermont in search of that same promise. He concluded by saying “I’m proud to be in the House; I’m proud to be a Democrat; most of all, I’m proud to be a Vermonter.”

If he’s testing out a future stump speech, he’s definitely on the right track.

He took some unfriendly questions, especially on the administration’s fractious relationship (in both tone and substance) with labor. The two areas of concern were Gov. Shumlin’s desire to reopen the state workers’ contract, and legislation aimed at barring teacher strikes, usually accompanied by blasts of anti-teacher and anti-union language. One questioner complained about the “barrage of abuse from my leaders” toward teachers and local school boards.

On the former, Smith stood his ground, saying that given the budget situation, “we have to make some adjustments. We’re having ongoing conversations with the VSEA, trying to work things out, but we aren’t going to be able to make everybody happy.”

On the latter, he offered some news on H.76, the bill that would ban teacher strikes and bar the imposition of contract terms by school boards. The bill is seen by many as being much harder on the unions than on the boards. Smith said that “it will not pass the House in its present form.”

All in all, an impressive performance. I haven’t changed my view; it’s too soon to say whether he will run for Governor in 2016 or ever. Heck, we’re less than a year removed from the guy actively considering an exit from the Legislature. But is he positioning himself as a credible candidate for the corner office?

He sure is.

The wind fizzle

There were some rumblings of possible excitement at today’s Democratic State Committee meeting. Word was, the anti-wind energy crowd would push the Committee to adopt a resolution opposing ridgeline wind. And, to add impetus to the push, they might attend the meeting in force.

Well, not so much. There was a resolution on the agenda, courtesy of the Caledonia County Democratic Committee. But attendance was moderate. No busloads from the shadow of Grandpa’s Knob. There was brief and polite discussion, after which the resolution was defeated on a 26-7 vote. Arguments against the resolution mostly cited procedural grounds, arguing that the State Committee is a party-organizing operation, not a place for policy debates and decisions.

And that was it. No confrontations, no immediate blowback; the meeting went on without incident. The after-meeting chatter was no more or less heated than usual.

The resolution was crafted to downplay its anti-wind origins, but its clear intent was to put the Democratic Party on record opposing ridgeline wind.

The Caledonia County Democratic Committee proposes the following resolution that the State Democratic Committee call on the Vermont Legislature and Governor Shumlin to: 

Reassess Vermont’s energy policy to include appropriate changes to Statute 248 to account for high-elevation industrial-scale power projects that are attentive and accountable on issues of environmental destruction, wildlife habitat and human health impacts.

Propose a transparent, sustainable energy policy that preserves the irreplaceable ecosystems of Vermont’s highest elevations.

Okay, well. Aside from the fact that the second paragraph isn’t really a coherent sentence, here’s the problem. The resolution’s purpose is to effectively ban ridgeline wind under the guise of permitting reform. The language is highly inflammatory, written from an extreme anti-wind viewpoint and accepting the anti-wind arguments as fact.

And there’s the rub. If you believe that wind turbines cause unique harm to human health, wildlife and ecosystems and that they somehow cause irreparable and permanent damage to mountaintops, then ridgeline wind is unacceptable.

The rest of us, of course, don’t agree. We see wind power as part of the solution to climate change, and we see the preponderance of scientific evidence as supporting wind energy. Anti-wind people, like anti-vaxxers, are so convinced of their rightness that they unquestioningly accept any evidence that seems to support them (no matter how thin, anecdotal, or unscientific), and instantly dismiss any evidence that undercuts their views.

That’s the faulty foundation of this resolution. I am relieved that it was quickly sent packing by the DSC, even if it used the convenient dodge of a process argument to do so. The Committee, I’m sure, was even more relieved to avoid a public confrontation with one of the party’s extreme elements.

The absurd extremities of the public financing law

The Vermont Democratic Party, having lopsidedly endorsed Prog/Dem Dean Corren as its candidate for Lieutenant Governor, seems to be doing all it can to strip away any value from that endorsement.

The Vermont Democratic Party this week sent glossy color mailings to reliably Democratic voters, urging them to vote for its slate of statewide candidates. But Corren wasn’t mentioned.

Dean Corren at the Democratic State Committee meeting in September.

Dean Corren at the Democratic State Committee meeting in September. Photo courtesy of… well… me.

When the Democratic State Committee endorsed Corren, party officials made it clear that there were significant restrictions on their ability to offer him any tangible support — voter data, Coordinated Campaign, etc. — because by accepting public financing, Corren had to forswear all other fundraising avenues. Including in-kind support. Indeed, they said they would have adhered to the same limits if the Democratic hopeful, John Bauer, had qualified for public financing.

The Dems were advised by their lawyers to steer clear of anything that might run afoul of the law. Which allowed them to circumvent questions about the wisdom of sharing the party’s legendary database with a Progressive, who might then share it with his party. A valid concern, when the Progressive Party often runs candidates against Democrats.

But to exclude any mention of Dean Corren from mailings? To me, that seems an excess of caution. And a serious handicap for his campaign.

And while Corren was in full agreement with the Dems on their withholding of voter data and the Coordinated Campaign, he seems less satisfied with this move:

Corren said he’s prevailing upon Democratic officials to include him on the next round of mailings.

“The conversations go on,” Corren said. “We’re in the midst of conversations. So it’s not like it’s a one-shot deal.”

Corren has dutifully played nice, and I commend him for that. But excluding Corren from a mass mailing, to me, is stretching the legal point. It raises doubts about the Dems’ real motives.

I’ve been told that the Dems don’t want to turn “tangible assistance” into an issue for Phil Scott; but issues like that are inside baseball, and have little or no effect on voters. Maybe the risk is small enough to merit the potential reward.

At the very least, it points out a serious shortcoming with the public financing law. The qualification standards need to be loosened, so more candidates can qualify. And, apparently, there needs to be a better definition of “tangible assistance” so that parties don’t have to pretend that one of their own doesn’t exist, just because s/he qualified for public financing.

School consolidation: It’s coming

Interesting sidelight from Saturday’s meeting of the Democratic State Committee. Various candidates for statewide office spoke to the Committee, seeking its endorsement… including Governor Shumlin. He delivered an energetic stem-winder of a speech, citing accomplishments and goals and thanking the party faithful for making it all possible.

There was one glaring omission from his list of issues: Public school funding and organization. Not a word.

Then he took a few questions, and longtime committee member Bill Sander asked directly about school consolidation. He’s not a fan.

The Governor’s answer was a masterpiece of pointillism, the technique in which, sez Wikipedia, “small, distinct dots of pure color are applied in patterns to form an image.”

The image that emerged: School consolidation is on the way.

He first credited legislative leaders for their “courage” in bringing up the idea earlier this year. Of course, they showed equal amounts of the opposite of courage in ditching the idea when the negative reaction came in waves.

That negative reaction in mind, Shumlin offered a “collaborative” approach which, boiled down to essentials, consists of “We’ll convince you that our plan is right.”

“I’ve asked my Education Secretary to sit down with local schools and show them the math,” he said, “and let the local communities discuss how best to proceed.” He calls this “a partnership, especially with schools that are becoming too small.”

He spoke, not of saving money or centralizing decision-making, but of educational opportunities. He pointed to schools too small to field a football team or cast a theatrical production; of a lack of “a critical mass to provide an educational experience” in classes with only a handful of students.

“Take it from that perspective,” he concluded, “Providing a quality educational experience, plus cost, and we’ll work through it together.”

Yes we will. We’ll work through it to a preformed conclusion.

I’m not necessarily against consolidation, but let’s be honest: as far as the Governor is concerned, the debate on the big question is fundamentally over. Now, it’s a PR blitz and detail work.