Tag Archives: Phil Baruth

Meet the New Senate, Distressingly Similar to the Old Senate

One of the younger members of the Vermont Senate (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

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.

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Where Are The Ashes Of Yesteryear?

Objects In The Mirror May Be Fuzzier Than They Appear

The following was written in 2003. I’d ask you to guess the author, but I’ve already given away that game.

I should be a Democrat. From Massachusetts, mother a teacher and father a civil servant, family of Kennedy-philes… I’ve got a long life of political activism ahead of me. My loyalties are to ideas and not a party, so if my energies are not going to the Dems, they’ll be going somewhere else.

… Younger people like myself can understand the importance of getting the message to different types of voters. But we also understand the nature of a chameleon, and we don’t want to vote for a leaf and elect a reptile.

That’s a short excerpt from “Letter from a Democratic Party Pooper, and it was indeed penned by Young Tim Ashe, progressive firebrand. The letter was included in Crossroads: The Future of American Politics, written in 2003 by the future governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. (This tidbit came to my attention courtesy of urban archeologist and Twitter buddy Ed Adrian.)

In the letter, Ashe bemoans the Democratic Party’s habit of tacking to the center. He certainly sounds like a former Bernie Sanders staffer and future Progressive Party officeholder. He doesn’t sound much like Ashe the Senate President Pro Tem, who’s known for cosseting the chamber’s old guard, a cadre of change-averse centrists.

So. Which Tim Ashe is running for lieutenant governor?

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For a minute, I thought this was a thing (and other senatorial thoughts)

This is a mailer sent to voters in the Chittenden County Senate district. It features three of the four incumbents who are seeking re-election, running as a ticket.

The fourth? Sen. Phil Baruth.

Hmm. Was he excised, like Trump from that Jeffrey Epstein photo on Fox News? Is he persona non grata?

Nope. No conspiracy, no coup, nothing juicy. In this pandemic season, he explained, “I made a pledge not to raise or spend any money. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for money when everybody’s finances have taken a massive hit.” And since taking part in the joint mailer would have cost a couple thousand dollars or so, he withdrew from the enterprise. In fact, just today he posted a message on Facebook about his decision.

It’s not entirely a selfless decision; two of the six seats are open, which increases the odds that the four incumbents will sail through a crowded Democratic field. Baruth feels confident he will survive the August vote. “If, after five cycles, I haven’t accrued enough goodwill [to win], maybe that’s for the best.”

He’s almost certainly right. I expect the four incumbents to be the top four finishers in the primary. As for the rest of the Chittenden County Senate field, handicapping the primary is a fool’s game. Normal campaigning is off the table, so how do people get their names out there? Judging by the mid-July finance reports, only one candidate has enough money to make a major media push.

Besides, this primary is a mystery. These affairs are usually low-key and low-turnout, but a massive number of Vermonters have requested absentee ballots. We could easily see a record turnout, which makes for an unpredictable election.

Even the campaign finance filings are harder than usual to interpret. Some candidates, like Baruth and Rep. Dylan Giambatista, who’s running for Senate, have eschewed fundraising. Many others have shifted to passive mode, accepting donations that come in but doing little or nothing to solicit funds.

But hey, the reports are there, so let’s give ’em a look.

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No Gurlz Alowd

Early next week, the State Senate Democratic caucus will hold its organizational meeting for the new biennium. They will elect a new President Pro Tem to replace John Campbell; a new Majority Leader to replace Phil Baruth; and they will name the three members of the organizationally crucial Committee on Committees, which will later dole out committee memberships and appoint chairs and vice chairs.

Scuttlebutt has it that Sen. Tim Ashe has the Pro Tem job wrapped up, and that Windham County’s Becca Balint will succeed Baruth.

And it seems inevitable that Dick Mazza will retain his spot on the CoC, in spite of his long and loud advocacy for Republican Phil Scott’s gubernatorial bid. (And before that, Brian Dubie’s.) Honestly, Mazza might as well have spent 2016 just flipping the bird to the Democratic Party.

But all indications are that he’ll be reappointed. Which is weird in a lot of ways. First, the aforementioned display of apostasy.

Second, the other two members of the CoC are the President Pro Tem and the Lieutenant Governor. When that was John Campbell and Phil Scott respectively, they were like peas in a pod with Mazza.

But two guys who came out of the Progressive Party making common cause with Mazza? What that says to me is that Ashe and Zuckerman are more invested in the institution of the Senate than in advancing progressive policies.

Third, they’d all be from Chittenden County. Shouldn’t we be interested in a little geographic balance?

Fourth, and most striking to me, is that they’re all men.

Seriously? This doesn’t trouble Ashe or Zuckerman in the least?

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Two incumbent Senators fail to make the environmental grade

Yet another slate of endorsements graces my inbox today. This time, from Vermont Conservation Voters, the nonprofit organization that lobbies the Legislature and educates voters on its environmental priorities.

VCV’s list focused on contested primaries in the House and Senate, “looking for candidates with demonstrated leadership on environmental issues,” according to VCV political director Lauren Hierl.

My cynical eye immediately turned to the absences on the list, and there are a couple of notable ones.

The group is not endorsing incumbent Democratic Senators Phil Baruth and Alice Nitka.

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Toward a more Progressive Senate

I welcome Chris Pearson’s entry into the race for State Senate from Chittenden County. The Progressive state rep is the Progs’ sharpest policy voice in the House, and he should be a formidable candidate for Senate.

For those just joining us, the Chittenden County district elects six Senators, and it’s usually a free ride for incumbents. This time, two of the six seats will be voluntarily vacated; David Zuckerman is running for Lite-Gov, and Helen Riehle (appointed to fill out Diane Snelling’s term) is not running for a full term.

The openings are sure to attract a strong Democratic field, while Republicans are desperately searching for someone who might retain Snelling’s position. Searching in vain, methinks.

But the race on the left will be lively. It’ll be interesting to see how Pearson will fare in fundraising — I suspect he’ll do quite well. He’ll certainly have better name recognition than the Democratic non-incumbents.

And should he win, there is the potential for a real shift in Senatorial power.

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Ding Dong, the Pro Tem is Dead

(And by “dead” I mean in the purely political sense.) 

Yes, one of my political betes noires is leaving us. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell today told VTDigger’s Mark Johnson that he will not run for re-election. Which almost certainly means he won’t be Pro Tem next year, although with the Committee on Committees being what it is, that’s not a sure thing.

Campbell will become chief of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs “soon after this year’s legislative session concludes,” in Johnson’s words. He does not specify, but this sounds like he would resign in May. Would that leave a vacancy for the rest of the term? Would Governor Shumlin get to name Campbell’s successor? Inquiring minds want to know. Update: Johnson’s story indicates that Campbell will not resign; so he’ll apparently work both jobs from May till next January. 

Regular readers of this blog know how I feel about Campbell. He’s been a lousy leader, often ineffective and kept afloat by an expanded office staff. He almost got turfed in 2012 after his first stint as Senate leader; since then, the unrest has been muted but the results have remained pretty much the same: the Senate is the body most likely to break down into turf battles and legislative scrums. The most recent example was last week’s out-of-control debate over S.230, the energy siting bill.

If you don’t believe me, just check out the Praising With Faint Damns treatment he’s getting from one of his closest colleagues.

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Senate ethics discussion devolves into farce

Well, now we know why the Senate Rules Committee likes to meet behind closed doors. Because yesterday, with reporters in the room, things got so badly out of control that they had to abruptly pack up and leave. Fortunately, VTDigger’s Mark Johnson was on hand to chronicle the chaos. His report is a classic case of “this would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.”

Senate Rules, a committee designed to defend the status quo, has been forced by events to take up the issue of ethics regulation — the very idea of which seems to offend at least three of the panel’s five members.

The saddest thing? The shambolic performance didn’t even concern a really tough issue. To anyone hoping for genuine ethics reform — like, for example, a state Ethics Commission — yesterday’s meeting was a knife in the back. The five Senators couldn’t even handle the much less impactful idea of an in-house Ethics Panel using the House’s toothless joke of a watchdog as a model.

Instead, they got stuck in the weeds of disclosure requirements.

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A child’s treasury of thoughts about David Zuckerman

Hey Dave, I went to the Burlington Winter Market on Saturday. Bought some of your fine veggies, but you weren’t there. Presumably spending a happy Saturday at the Senate Dems’ Convocation of Cowards. Maybe next time.

Anyway, organic farmer and state senator Dave Zuckerman is now a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, running in the Democratic primary and seeking the Progressive nomination as well. I didn’t attend his kickoff event last Thursday; but here are a few thoughts on Zuckerman and the Lite-Gov race.

The most interesting participant in Thursday’s festivities, per media reports, was Senate Minority Leader Phil Baruth, who gave a hearty endorsement — “come hell or high water” — of the Prog/Dem Zuckerman. This was a big surprise to me; given the level of Dem>Prog antipathy up Burlington way, I assumed that area Democrats would stand behind Kesha Ram. Without regard to quality; just on the basis of not wanting to help a Progressive win.

Baruth’s stated reasoning boiled down to “I trust him,” a phrase he repeated at least three times. So, he doesn’t trust Kesha Ram?

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Your next lieutenant governor might just be an anti-vaxxer

Note for those freshly landing on this page: Please also see subsequent post with response from Rep. Kesha Ram.

Interesting factoid about the Democratic candidates to succeed Phil Scott. One, Garrett Graff, is in day three of radio silence following reports that he may not qualify to run. One, Brandon Riker, must prove he can be competitive despite a lack of experience and little name recognition. As for the other two?

They each voted “No” on the bill that removes the philosophical exemption to childhood vaccinations.

State Sen. David Zuckerman’s opposition was widely noted, as he made a last-ditch maneuver to derail the bill in the Senate, asserting that the science on vaccine safety is “disputed.”

Well, I guess he’s right that it’s “disputed.” But not by the broad scientific consensus and decades of real-world experience.

Less noted at the time was the “No” vote cast by State Rep. Kesha Ram. As far as I can tell, she kind of went under the radar with her opposition.

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