This year politics as usual gave way to a new normal. Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, who held the Vermont’s chief post for eight years, stepped down, and Democrat Peter Shumlin seized the reins of state government. The new governor campaigned on policy reforms in health care, energy and economic development. He also pledged to pursue fiscally conservative policies. With the help of the Democratic leadership and an overwhelming majority of party faithful in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Shumlin easily mustered the support he needed from lawmakers in his first four months in office to make good on those initiatives in the 2011. Meanwhile, the House GOP scrambled to make an impact on legislation without the support from the governor’s office they had come to rely on.
In June, First Lady Michelle Obama visited the state to give her thanks to the Vermont National Guard. Though a number of the military personnel who attended the ceremony said they didn’t vote for President Barack Obama in 2008, the packed-out crowd surged toward the First Lady after she gave a rousing speech about how much she appreciated the personal sacrifices soldiers had made in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This fall, we said good-bye to U.S. Rep. Richard Mallary, a nonpartisan politician, who saw public service “as a high calling and a noble venture.” Mallary was highly regarded for his “moderate-to-liberal” Republican values.
The Progressive Party lost the seat of its political control in Vermont — the Burlington mayor’s office — this December when voters elected Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, over Tim Ashe, a Progressive/Democratic fusion candidate, as the standard-bearer for the Democrats in the March election against Republican Kurt Wright.
In the coming year, moderate Democrats will continue to be the dominant force in the Legislature, and the Progressives and left-leaning Democrats will likely be relegated to the sidelines. Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to have little trouble defeating Republican candidate Sen. Randy Brock.
Gov. Jim Douglas has been saying goodbye for a while now. His portrait was unveiled last month in a moving ceremony; he lighted the Statehouse Christmas tree for the last time in December; and he held a final press conference before the holidays in which he gave a fond, if guarded, auf wiedersehen performance for reporters, complete with a real dog and pony show (not to mention Kool-Aid).
In the coming days he’ll greet lawmakers in his ceremonial office, give his parting address to the state and walk up the five flights to his office on the top floor of the Pavilion Building for the last time.
Over the course of his remarkable 38-year political career, including four terms as governor, Douglas has made an indelible mark on the state. Douglas has been in office longer than any other Vermont politician in recent history, with the exception of Sen. Patrick Leahy, who started his career as a state’s attorney in 1966. (Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, the longest-serving member of the House, is in a dead heat with Douglas – he’s also been in office for 38 years, and he’s stepping down to take a job in the Shumlin administration.)
The transition is over, and the transformation is complete.
Peter Shumlin was sworn in as the 81st governor of the state of Vermont on Jan. 6, 2011, before his family, his predecessors and his former colleagues in the Legislature, amid the gracious 19th century formalities of Statehouse protocol.
As Shumlin walked into the crowded well of the House Chamber, with a military escort, he enthusiastically shook hands with — and occasionally hugged — lawmakers and well-wishers who greeted him in unison with a sustained standing ovation.
Once Shumlin reached the podium, he turned to the crowd, held both hands up in the air and grinned, irrepressibly. The applause intensified, and then abated after several minutes.
It’s not easy being a Vermont Republican, and it just got harder.
And that’s not even the bad news. The bad news is that it’s likely to get harder yet.
For the last several years, Republicans in the Vermont Legislature, or at least in the House of Representatives, could cling to one comforting reality. There may not have been very many of them, but they had an obvious purpose in life – to uphold a veto by Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.
Just by the numbers, the Republicans didn’t quite have the 50 votes they’d need to keep the 150-member House from overriding a veto. But they were close, and with a couple of GOP-leaning independents and a dissident Democrat or two, a united Republican caucus at least posed the threat of sustaining a veto, a threat the Democratic leaders had to take seriously.
But that was then. This (“this,” in the present context, commencing a few minutes after 2 p.m. Thursday) is now. Now there is no Republican governor whose veto needs to be sustained.
For Republicans, then, just what is the purpose of life?
As a rookie governor, Democrat Peter Shumlin got just about everything he wanted from the 2011 session of the Legislature.
Now his troubles really begin.
That’s because most of the major bills passed by the Democratic majority in the House and Senate don’t change much in and of themselves. For the governor and his fellow-Democrats with big margins in both houses, legislating was the easy part. Implementation is going to be hard.
When a legislature passes and a governor signs a tax bill, some tax goes up or down as ordered. Passage of a criminal justice bill lengthens or shortens sentences for the listed offenses. As soon as a governor signs legislation establishing new parks, for example, land is set aside for a park.
Not so with most of Shumlin’s agenda. Passage of the telecom bill will not immediately bring high-speed Internet to anyone’s house. The jobs bill will not put anyone to work Monday morning, the energy bill itself will not produce a kilowatt hour of power, and not a single convict is likely to be released just because Shumlin signs the recidivism bill, which was finally approved by both houses Friday.
For Vermont, the first day of the next presidential election season began yesterday, with the First Lady, Michelle Obama, addressing three audiences in rapid succession during a six hour visit to the state. En route to the Green Mountains, she met with a select audience of about 125 people on Thursday, including Gov. Deval Patrick and his wife, at a private house in Chestnut Hill, Mass. That fundraiser was expected to garner about $600,000. Here in Vermont, two sold-out events, one with tickets beginning at $100 and the other with a cost of $2,500 to $5,000 per person, produced an estimated $500,000.
Mrs. Obama also visited with Vermont National Guard members and their families in a distinctly nonpolitical event.
At all three venues her rock star presence wowed the small crowds. In South Burlington, at the Vermont National Guard event, Mrs. Obama gave a candid and personal speech that lasted about 15 minutes. When she stopped speaking, the audience of about 700 — veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their families — quietly surged toward Mrs. Obama en masse for an opportunity to see her face to face and shake her hand.
At the reception that followed at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Burlington, Mrs. Obama took the stage to rapturous applause. In a 25-minute speech, she conveyed a sense of empathy with Americans who have fallen on hard times, and she communicated her husband’s commitment to bettering the lives of middle class Americans. She also expressed a keen awareness that the coming re-election campaign will be a long, hard-fought battle set against the backdrop of a conservative backlash that has gripped much of the country. Though the Tea Party movement has had little influence on Vermont politics, far-right entrenchment in Congress and states across the country has led to radical policy and budgetary proposals. The president, who is a Democrat, has tried to find middle ground with the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. Last week, however, he assailed super-rich Americans who aren’t contributing their fair share to the nation’s coffers.
The death of Richard W. Mallary last week brought forth a flood of genuine appreciation for this “gentleman,” “statesman,” (“elder statesman,” according to one headline, and “humble statesman” in Rep. Peter Welch’s words). For others: A “public spirited Vermonter” with a “dry wit,” who was an inspiration to many, and, as former Gov. Jim Douglas told Vermont Public Radio, “a very nonpartisan Republican.”
A review of the high praise finds the word “politician” nowhere in evidence. The tenor of the admiration was for a man for whom, in one former reporter’s words, “public service was a high calling and a noble venture. He never sought personal recognition for his work. It was simply what you did to be a good Vermonter.” This from Steven Terry, who covered the Statehouse for the Rutland Herald when Mallary was beginning his career there.
There are many still serving the state who were inspired by Dick Mallary who died at the age of 82 last week. But something set him and a handful of other Republicans from his era apart. And an account by Mallary himself, from a 2001 interview from the Snelling Center Project Collection of the Vermont Folklife Center Archive conducted by Jane Beck, serves to provide a clear look at what Vermont Republicans of that era stood for.
When it comes to politics, very little is more dangerous than making predictions, especially about the future. Something bizarre can always happen.
With that caveat in mind, consider two potentially significant ramifications of last weekend’s political caucuses in Burlington:
- State Sen. Tim Ashe, who lost his bid to become the Democratic candidate for mayor, nonetheless is now effectively a Democrat. Oh, he may continue to run for his Senate seat as a “fusion” candidate supported by both the Democrats and his original political family, the Progressive Party. But should he seek higher office again – and he will – he made his bed as a Democrat by promising to back Democratic nominee Miro Weinberger “every step of the way,” even against a Progressive candidate. Having made that bed, Ashe will have to lie in it.
- The next mayor of Burlington is almost surely going to be either Democrat Weinberger or Republican City Councilor Kurt Wright. The Progressives may field a nominee, but whoever he or she is won’t be as well-known, won’t be as well-financed, will obviously by the party’s second choice (after Ashe), and will bear the burden of a discredited incumbent Progressive administration. And there’s no more of this “instant runoff voting” that enabled Progressive Bob Kiss to win last time. While not impossible, a Progressive win would seem highly unlikely.
That’s a big change for Burlington, which has had a Progressive mayor for 18 of the last 20 years, and maybe even a bigger one for the Progressive Party. Burlington’s City Hall is the party’s power base.
The Vermont GOP and Randy Brock have ended speculation about who will run on the Republican ticket for governor in 2012.
Brock, 68, a state senator from Franklin County, will be the GOP contender against Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, in the 2012 election.
After months of behind-the-scenes jockeying for position, the other potential contenders for the top slot – former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, state Auditor Tom Salmon, former candidate for lieutenant governor Mark Snelling and Pat McDonald, chair of the Vermont GOP – threw their support behind Brock in a press conference at the Statehouse on Wednesday. Even Gov. Jim Douglas, who left office a year ago, put in an appearance (and joked that his portrait in the nearby hallway should be retouched because he’d aged a year since the painting was finished).
Brock, 68, a former state auditor, who is well respected for his business acumen and policy knowledge, is not exactly a household name in Vermont. He admitted in an interview with the press that he is the underdog in a race against Shumlin, the newly elected incumbent, but Brock said he “loves a challenge.” The state senator will hold his seat through the legislative session and launch his campaign in earnest in the late spring or early summer.