Well, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray kinda stepped in it, as she tried a little too hard to celebrate Vermont and Vermonters yesterday. In response to the news that we’ve passed the 80% vaccination mark, Gray tweeted out a quote from Calvin Coolidge, staunch conservative and native Vermonter.
I love Vermont… most of all, because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others. If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the union and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.
Seems benign, right? Nice gesture by a prominent Democrat to promote a famous Republican (albeit a dead one)?
Well, maybe not if you’re a Vermonter of Native American heritage.
The people of Vermont “are a race of pioneers,” huh? That pretty well covers white Vermonters. But it excludes the people who were here first, and who were nearly exterminated by that doughty “race of pioneers.”
Lt. Gov. Molly Gray is, as far as I can tell, an unprecedented phenomenon in Vermont politics. (Someone with longer tenure than I may recall a comp.) In a state where “Wait Your Turn” is the norm, she entered the arena at the age of 36, ran for a statewide office, defeated a strong field in the Democratic primary, and defeated Republican Scott Milne by a comfortable margin in the general election. Considering the dominance of Democratic men in higher offices, her gender makes the accomplishment even more impressive.
Somehow, I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated how rare and special this was. In February 2020, as she was preparing to launch her campaign, she was an almost complete unknown. (Well, she was an assistant attorney general, but there are dozens of those.) Nobody in the Statehouse had a clue, nor did they take her seriously at first. The betting favorite, and it wasn’t close, was then-Senate president pro tem Tim Ashe.
Once in the race, Gray ran a nearly flawless campaign despite having no experience in electoral politics. That’s immensely difficult to do.
But Gray has often received more criticism than credit. (Yes, including from me.) There are good reasons for some of that; but much of it has to do with two things about Gray that are rare in our politics: Her age and her gender. And that’s troubling.
The House Democrats’ ill-considered pension reform plan was the icing on the cake, the topper in a series of events that expose the fundamentally centrist nature of the party and its officeholders.
And this I trace to the all-encompassing influence of one Harlan Sylvester.
For those just tuning in, Sylvester is a longtime money manager who shuns the limelight — but for decades, he has been the kingmaker of Vermont politics. You don’t get to the top of the heap without his blessing. And it sure seems like the modern Democratic Party has been fashioned according to his fiscally conservative taste.
There have been occasional press profiles about him, and they all describe him the same way. Peter Freyne, 2000: “Mr. Sylvester has had the cocked ear of Vermont governors going all the way back to Tom Salmon in the 1970s.” Freyne quoted then-UVM political science professor Garrison Nelson thusly: “Harlan loves conservative Democrats. He wants to erase the gap between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.”
Rutland Herald, 2002: “it was Harlan Sylvester’s considerable influence and strategic skills that helped put [Republican Jim Douglas,] the apparent underdog candidate, in office.”
In 2010, Freyne’s successor Shay Totten described Sylvester as “The most powerful man in Vermont politics.” Totten also quoted Prof. Nelson: “He’s got access to people with real money, and those people with real money will invest in politicians who will protect their interests.”
So that’s Mr. Sylvester, who is in his late 80s but his power has not been visibly diminished. From what I’ve heard, he remains the power behind the throne.
And now let’s look at what the Democratic Party has become.
Well, it looked like the Vermont Senate (a.k.a. The State’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body) was in for something of a makeover. New leadership! All female! Two new members on the three-person Committee on Committees! An Actual PERSON OF COLOR!!!
But an irresistible undertow drags the Senate, like boats against the current, back ceaselessly into the past. (Finally, that liberal arts degree is paying off.)
Because the 2021-22 version of the Senate looks a lot like the 2019-20 edition. Lots of old folks in positions of authority, and the weight of tradition hanging like an iron albatross around its neck. Except that in some ways, it might be even worse.
It’s not the most promising of debuts for new President Pro Tem Becca Balint. But in her defense, this is far from your typical legislative year. The pandemic has forced the Legislature to meet remotely, which puts a damper on everything — and emphasizes the value of experience in committee leadership.
(Reminder: Each Senator serves on two committees.)
Still. Out of 14 standing committees, there’s a new chair on precisely one. And that one, former Education Committee chair Phil Baruth, (1) voluntarily vacated the post and (2) was, hard to believe, the youngest committee chair in the Senate. He turns 59 next month.
Last time I checked, the average Senate committee chair was 72 years old. Baruth’s successor Brian Campion brings down the average just a bit — although everybody else is another year older. It’s probably a wash.
There are some new, and younger, vice chairs. That would seem to indicate that some of our most senior Senators may be moving toward the exit in 2022. Relatively junior Senators Ruth Hardy, Andrew Perchlik and Cheryl Hooker are now vice chair of Health and Welfare, Transportation and Education respectively. And Baruth, vice chair of Judiciary, remains on the younger side of the demographic.
But that’s where the youth movement ends in committee leadership. Other vice chairs include longtime Social Security recipients Alice Nitka (Appropriations), Mark MacDonald (Finance),, Anthony Pollina (Government Operations), Dick McCormack (Institutions) and Dick Mazza (Rules).
This is, I write with a heavy sigh, business as usual. On top of all that, there are a few puzzling things about the new committee lineup.
On the surface, the Vermont Democratic Party did just fine this election. Sure, Phil Scott cruised to re-election and they lost a few legislative seats. But Scott was virtually unbeatable thanks to his patient, measured response to the pandemic. Besides, it wasn’t one of their own who took the bullet, it was David Zuckerman, a Prog/Dem with the emphasis on Prog. And they elected a bright new hope, Molly Gray, to the lieutenant governorship, held onto the other statewide offices, and held on to lopsided majorities in the House and Senate.
But when you take a closer look, this was a sneaky bad year for the Dems. They once again let Scott steal their lunch money. This was a bad year to take him on, but they’ve barely tried to beat Scott in the last several cycles. Since the 2010 race for lieutenant governor, they’ve put up a parade of under-resourced first-timers against Scott, and he’s barely had to break a sweat.
Gray’s victory is nice, but she was up against a terrible Republican candidate. As for the Legislature, if this wasn’t the year to rack up gains, I don’t know what is. They had the benefit of widespread anti-Trump animus to drive support for down-ballot races, and failed to capitalize.
I didn’t realize how much the Vermont Dems were resting on their structural advantages until I listened to a pair of podcast interviews from the fine folks at Crooked Media. The first featured Ben Wikler, head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the second was with Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, founder of of Project Fair Fight. Both have taken state parties that faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and both have turned those states into Democratic success stories.
Election Day. Seems like it took forever to get here, but it’s still a shock that the day is finally here. And while all the attention and anxiety is focused on the national scene, this little outpost of the Internets is all about the #vtpoli. So here are my ridiculously low-stakes takes on what’s going to happen tonight in Vermont. Refunds cheerfully offered; please keep your receipt for presentation at Customer Service.
The most likely outcome is an even-more-ridiculous version of the past four years: Phil Scott and a whole lot of Democrats. Scott seems to be a lock to win a third term. Personally, I think a Dave Zuckerman win is at least a possibility, but much more well-informed folks than me believe otherwise.
Who? Well, Scott himself for one. He conducted an entire gubernatorial campaign on the absurdly tiny budget of $307,000 (as of October 30). He never bought a single television ad. This is the closest thing to a nickel-and-dime George Aiken campaign budget that the modern era will allow.
Beyond Scott, there’s the wise guys at the Republican Governors Association, who spent almost as much on polling as Scott did for his entire campaign. The RGA’s Vermont branch, Our Vermont, kept on polling right up to the closing weeks, and never saw the need to buy a single ad — in any medium.
If you’re a Republican, that’s the good news. The rest of it could be really, really bad. We’re looking at an historically high turnout, which is customarily good news for the Democrats.
Something is happening that almost certainly has never happened before. In the general election campaign (post-primary), the candidates for lieutenant governor have outspent the candidates for governor.
This is mainly because Republican Scott Milne continues to drop large amounts of cash for TV ads. In the past week, Milne has reported mass media buys totaling roughly $140,000, with all but $1,600 going for TV spots. (The remainder was for robo-calls.)
Campaigns filing mass media reports are required to list any candidates mentioned in the material. Milne’s October ads mention himself and Democrat Molly Gray. I’ll assume they don’t paint Gray in a flattering light… and I’ll assume we have heard the last of Milne’s whining about negative campaigning, since he’s gone ham on the whole attack thing.
Since the August primary, Milne has spent a total of $102,000 on TV ads alone. He’s spent nothing on radio, and hardly anything on newspaper ads.
Gray hasn’t reported any mass media buys since 10/15, and has spent $52,000 since the August primary. Her media buys are widely distributed among TV, online and mailing, and she spends a lot more than Milne on staffing, organization and events. As I wrote earlier, Milne has adopted the Disembodied Head style of campaigning.
The race for governor, meanwhile, has been running on the cheap. Gov. Phil Scott has spent $11,000 for online advertising since 10/15, while Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s most recent mass media buy was on the 16th — $25,000 for TV ads. Nothing since.
In case you were wondering why all the commotion last night — the rowdy partying, the fireworks, the parades, the desperate closing-time hookups — well, the mid-October campaign finance reports are in.
There’s nothing that changes the complexion of the Vermont political season, but there are a lot of fascinating details. Let’s get started!
The Governor is in cruise control. Phil Scott’s campaign didn’t even break a sweat in the first half of October. He pulled in $41K, bringing his campaign total to a measly $376K. (For those just joining us, conventional wisdom has it that you need at least seven figures to seriously compete, and $2 million is a better starting point.) What’s really telling, though, is that he only spent $14K in the past two weeks. He did a bunch of small newspaper ad buys and no TV. He didn’t pay a dime to his big national campaign outfit, Optimus Consulting. He has over $100,000 in the bank, and shows no sign of making a serious dent in it.
Zuckerman fights the good fight. The Democratic/Progressive nominee is a spider monkey battling a gorilla: Impressively crafty, but likely to get squashed. Zuckerman raised a healthy $62K in the two weeks since October 1, for a campaign total of $629K. And there’s the problem: it’s really not enough money to fuel a statewide campaign against an entrenched incumbent.
If you look at his donor list, you see where his problem lies. He’s getting a ton of small gifts, but the Democratic power players are sitting it out.
Look at these numbers. Scott has 1,141 unique donors, and has taken in 768 “small” donations of $100 or less. Zuckerman has 5,234 donors, and has accepted 6,055 donations of $100 or less. (The latter number is higher because many of his donors have made multiple gifts.)
Even with Scott’s late entry into active campaigning because of the coronavirus, those are some telling numbers. Despite his broad popularity, Scott doesn’t have people lining up to give him money. Zuckerman has a much larger base of enthusiastic donors.
But his problem is, he isn’t getting the big money to augment the small fry. The state’s two largest public sector unions wrote big checks to Beth Pearce, Doug Hoffer, Jim Condos and TJ Donovan — but nothing, as far as I can tell, for Zuckerman.
Meanwhile, Democratic megadonor Jane Stetson donated $500 to Zuckerman’s campaign. That’s a buck in the tip jar for Stetson. If she was committed, she and her husband WIlliam would have each kicked in the maximum $4,160.
That’s only one data point, but it illustrates the disconnect between Zuckerman and the Democratic moneybags. He also, apparently, hasn’t received any money from Vermont’s Congressional delegation. (Bernie has done his bit for Zuckerman on the intangible front, but no direct contributions.)
Zuckerman has received a healthy $13,000 from the Vermont Progressive Party, which makes the absence of Democratic cash all the more glaring. And he’s given $22K to his own campaign. He’s needed every dime.
Still to come: The LG race and the PACs, including a surprise entry for most impactful PAC of the cycle.
To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early out there. Almost three weeks remain until Election Day, but we’re closing in on 100,000 ballots already cast in Vermont. That’s likely to be between one-third and one-quarter of all the votes. Which means that political spending will be less and less impactful as the ballots keep on rolling in.
So, where’s the big money? It’s absent, for the most part. The next round of campaign finance reports isn’t due until Thursday night, but we’re in the Mass Media reporting window: Within 45 days of an election, any mass media buys over $500 must be reported immediately to the Secretary of State’s office. In recent weeks, there’s little sign of big spends.
This would seem to be terrible news for Scott Milne, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. On September 24, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent $210,000 on TV ads backing Milne. I took it as a sign that national Republicans saw Milne as a credible contender — perhaps even a future successor to Gov. Phil Scott, whenever he rides off into the sunset or Congress, depending.
But the ballots are pouring in, and the RSLC hasn’t spent a dime here in three weeks. Either they have bigger fish to fry, or they’ve decided that Milne is a lost cause.
“Tis the season for complaints about dirty campaign tactics. It’s a game we love to play in Vermont, because we so ardently cherish the belief that Our Politics Are Better. Smaller scale, personal connections, trust, character, etc., etc. None of that nasty big-money negative attack stuff.
But we have our very own twist on “negative campaigning” — the ever-popular double reverse “accuse your opponent of negative campaigning.”
This has become a dominant theme in the race for lieutenant governor. Scott Milne accuses Molly Gray of being backed by a “shady” political action committee and hints at illegal collusion — without offering any proof. The PAC, Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund, produces ads that tie Milne to a national conservative PAC (Republican State Leadership Committee Vermont) that’s spending big money on his behalf — but cannot prove that Milne will feel any obligation to toe the RSLC’s line. Gray offers a selectively-phrased invitation to Milne to stop the negative talk and campaign on the issues. MIlne replies that the only negative advertisements are from the ABVAF, while all his advertisements are positive. Which is true, his ads have been positive*; but his own campaign traffics heavily in attacks on Gray. Gray drops hints that the multi-millionaire Milne is trying to buy the lieutenant governorship with his own money. Yes, Milne has spent roughly $100,000 on his campaign, but that’s far from “buying the election” territory.
*So far. On Friday, Milne reported spending $30,000 on TV ads that mention himself and Gray. Presumably they won’t mention Gray in a positive light.
In the race for governor, incumbent Phil Scott is indirectly (the Phil Scott way) accusing opponent David Zuckerman of negative campaigning — by saying that he would never stoop to such tactics himself, cough, ahem, harrumph.
The truth is, all these attacks about attack politics aren’t going to move the needle.