Tag Archives: Jeremy Dodge

The limits of introspection

It sounds like Governor Shumlin has reached the end of his post-election navelgazing after ten entire days, and he has found that the reasons for his shocking near-defeat are largely external. Yes, he accepts responsibility for failing to listen to Vermonters and he promises to do better on that score. But as for the widely-held notion that there was a personal message in the election results? Not so much.

You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

Shumlin appeared on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning (podcast should be up shortly), and Mark opened the hour with a pretty solid grilling of the Governor about the whys and wherefores of the gubernatorial election.

When asked what messages he took from the returns, Shumlin named two:

— On policy, “there’s a feeling that folks are frustrated” on pocketbook issues, school spending, and continuing wage stagnation for middle- and working-class people. Which is not just a Vermont problem, he was quick to point out, but a national trend, for which he can bear no special responsibility.

— A vaguely-defined brace of regional and local issues. The Vermont Gas pipeline may have cost him votes in Addison County, and his support for ridgeline wind was a problem in the Kingdom. Aside from those two examples, no specifics.

I can accept that Shumlin was confronted by local concerns as he campaigned around the state, but I haven’t seen any evidence for a localized rejection of him. When I looked at four state senate districts, in different parts of the state, I saw a very clear trend: the Governor polled consistently behind Democratic senate candidates, by a similar margin in each of the four counties.

The general message, he said, was “You’ve got to listen more… Don’t get too far out in front of the troops.”

And then Mark tried to explore the personal dimension. Was the election about policies, or about Shumlin personally?

Safe to say he didn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. “I’ll leave that to the pundits,” he said.

Mark followed up with a direct reference to the Jeremy Dodge land deal, which seemed to resonate with a lot of voters. And not in a good way. Shumlin pivoted immediately to generalities: “I’ve got to do my job better going forward.”

Mark: Was this all about policy, then?

Shumlin: I’ll  leave that to the pundits.

Earlier in the interview, Shumlin had said he fully expected a close election because of what he heard on the campaign trail, and his own campaign’s internal research (which he wouldn’t give any details about). At this point, Mark returned to that idea: Didn’t you hear anything from Vermonters about your own style, your personality? Why not talk about it?

Shumlin: “I have talked about it.” Back to generalities: “There were lots of messages in this election.” And then it was eyes forward to the “tough decisions” that lie ahead. “I’ve got to roll up my sleeves and get back to work.”

A bit later, Mark noted that while Vermont Gas might have cost him votes in Addison County, that didn’t explain Shumlin’s troubles in the Burlington suburbs, where he polled poorly and the Dems lost multiple House seats. His only response was another reference to general “economic frustration.”

All in all, he made it pretty clear that he’s closed the book on the past and is ready to “roll up his sleeves and get back to work.” Nothing more to see here folks, move it along.

I can’t say I’m surprised by the lack of personal introspection, but I am disappointed.

If this election was about policy not personality, then I’m left wondering why one individual so badly underperformed the rest of the Democratic ticket. Why the Governor was almost thrown out of office, while his party retained a strong grip on the legislature?

He did admit that he’d gotten a bit distant, that he was listening to the same small group of people too much. And he committed himself to getting around the state more, and holding open public events (of an unspecified kind) that would get him in touch with a broader variety of viewpoints. And that’s a good thing, as far as it goes (and if it really happens).

But clearly, there are dysfunctional elements in his administration and his own conduct, and it sounds like he’s unwilling to go there. Which, in my view, is a huge opportunity missed.

The new polls, part 2: The only thing Shumlin has to fear is Shumlin himself

(See also part 1, which addressed the Phil Scott/Dean Corren results.)

The latest gubernatorial poll from the Castleton Polling Institute (courtesy of WCAX-TV) is a picture of stagnation, with an electorate disappointed in the incumbent, but finding no acceptable alternatives. The results are right in line with other recent surveys, with the helpful addition of Dan Feliciano clarifying the picture somewhat.

The numbers: Shumlin 47, Milne 35, Feliciano 6, and undecided at 8.

A secondary result, underpinning the above: 45% approve of Governor Shumlin’s performance, 41% disapprove. Bad numbers for an established incumbent, especially for one who was in the 60s at his height.

But while the poll is bad for Shumlin, it’s also bad for his challengers. As WCAX’s dueling analysts put it:

“I don’t think Mr. Milne has given the public a reason to vote for him and that is what Mr. Milne’s challenge is going to be in the next six weeks,” said Mike Smith, Republican political analyst.

How about a shot of 5-Hour Energy?

How about a shot of 5-Hour Energy?

“I think these numbers show that there’s one candidate against Peter Shumlin and that is Peter Shumlin,” said Steve Terry, Democratic political analyst.

Milne is stuck in the mid-30s. And Feliciano, for all the insider buzz about his candidacy, is only taking a small chunk of the conservative vote. Six percent is a lot for a Libertarian, but not much for someone who’d positioned himself as the real alternative to Shumlin. As I wrote before, there’s a whole lot of value in the Republican brand, and a deep loyalty among core Republican voters.

As for the independents and undecideds, they’re stuck. Given the 41% Milne/Feliciano total, I infer that Milne has gained a small number of centrists simply by Not Being Shumlin, while he’s lost a few percentage points to Feliciano among the True Believers. Overall it’s a wash, and not nearly enough to win. And the Governor is the only candidate with the resources to get his message out between now and Election Day. Although the big headline was that Shumlin is under the 50% mark, he still stands a solid chance of not only gaining a pure majority, but getting up into the mid-50s. That’d be a decent, if not overwhelming, mandate.

So, in a solidly blue state, why are Shumlin’s numbers so mediocre? The experts point to the obvious: Vermont Health Connect, the human services troubles, and the Jeremy Dodge land deal.

The first two I buy. The last, nope. I don’t think anybody outside the political media remembers that deal. After initial missteps, Shumlin dealt with it wisely and effectively. Remember “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup”? Well, in the Dodge deal, there was no coverup. There was a fast and fair resolution.

All right, so now I have to offer my own explanation. In two words:

The doldrums.

Which is partly the VHC and human services problems. But more than that, it’s the lack of real, tangible, landmark achievements.

Which is reflected in Shumlin’s third campaign commercial, focusing on the GMO bill. Now, nice as that bill was, it was a sideshow in this year’s legislative session. And, as Paul Heintz pointed out, it’s a stretch to give the Governor much credit:

For years, Shumlin said he backed GMO labeling in concept, but believed that mandating it was legally perilous. He argued that any such attempt would suffer the same fate as Vermont’s 1994 law requiring dairy products produced with recombinant bovine growth hormone to be labeled as such. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down in 1996 and awarded damages.

But leave that aside for the moment. The bigger question: Is the GMO bill really the Governor’s signature accomplishment for 2014?

I guess it is. Given the size of the Democratic majority and the big issues facing Vermont, that’s a little bit underwhelming. And I think the voters are underwhelmed. One of Scott Milne’s best lines in yesterday’s WCAX debate concerned school funding: “The Governor had huge approval ratings and big majorities, and he didn’t do anything.”

Shumlin’s signature issue, single-payer health care, is still a mystery shrouded in an enigma. He can’t brag about it, because he hasn’t done it yet. Or even offered a plan. That’s not exactly motivational.

There are solid reasons to defend the Governor’s record. He’s dealt with the aftermath of the 2008 recession and Tropical Storm Irene. He’s had to pull rabbits out of his hat to keep the state budget under control as the federal stimulus funds ebbed away. He’s also taken some good, incremental steps in areas like human services and college affordability. The minimum wage hike was nice. He’s done a lot on renewable energy. His opioid initiative holds great promise, but has yet to bear fruit.

Those are not accomplishments to be sneezed at. They are strong indications of substantial administrative competence. That’s important. But it’s not inspirational.

I think that, more than anything else, Vermont voters are uninspired. When Shumlin launched his active campaign in early September, his challenge was to light a fire in his supporters — and perhaps even in himself. So far, he hasn’t really done it.

IF he does it between now and Election Day, he’ll get into the mid-50s. If he doesn’t, he’ll limp across the finish line in the 50-52% range.