Editor’s note: On the Trail is an occasional political analysis.
Vince Illuzzi made his formal campaign announcement for his bid to become state auditor at the Barre granite shed where his father carved monuments decades ago.
The assembly of clay models of saints and angels arrayed behind Illuzzi at the Vermont Granite Museum (the former Jones Brothers shed) was the distinguishing feature that separated the campaign gathering from one of the senator’s Economic Development Committee room hearings.
An eclectic mix of people made an appearance at the launch: union representatives (from the Vermont State Employees Association and the AFL-CIO), Republican stalwarts (Sen. Bill Doyle, Jimmy and Darcie Johnston), at least one prominent Democrat (Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Colchester) and individual lobbyists of a various stripes (from the Vermont Realtors Association, Downs Rachlin Martin, MacLean Meehan Rice). The venerable Lola Aiken, former Sen. George D. Aiken’s widow, now 100, was also in attendance (and serves as the honorary chair of Illuzzi’s campaign).
Republicans Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and the current state auditor, Tom Salmon, took turns extolling the virtues of the 16-term state senator from the Northeast Kingdom who is well known for his shrewd political calculations in the Senate.
In stark contrast to the partisan rancor in other states in Washington, D.C., the GOPers at this rally emphasized Illuzzi’s willingness to get along and go along with Democrats.
Bipartisanship was the the buzzword of the event. From Lauzon: “I’ve always looked up to Vince because he’s loyal, and he’s bipartisan. Because he works hard (for the state of Vermont), and he wants to make it better.”
From Scott: “Vince and I share a lot in common. He grew up not far from here and I grew up not far from here. We have blue collar roots. He’s objective. He did his research, and everyone who came in to his committee got a fair hearing. If you look at the people here, it tells you a lot about Vince Illuzzi. He’s a maverick. You don’t always know exactly what he’s going to do, but it’s not about party, it’s about the people of Vermont. Where else would this group of people — Democrats and Republicans — share the common goal of electing Vince Illuzzi as auditor.”
In his first statewide race since he entered politics 32 years ago, Illuzzi, a centrist, appears to be trying to appeal to independent voters in a bid to outrun Doug Hoffer, a Democrat/Progressive, who ran for state auditor in 2010 and lost to Republican Tom Salmon.
Illuzzi has been a staunch supporter of labor, small business and economic development issues. He says he has good working relationships inside and outside Montpelier that he says will enable him to serve as an effective state auditor.
“Lola Aiken told me you have to work with the other side, otherwise you paint yourself into a corner,” Illuzzi said. That early advice, in the 1980s, helped the lawmaker develop connections with Democrats and organized labor at a time when Republicans held majorities in the Legislature. “What I’ve learned from Bill Doyle and Dick Mazza is that bipartisanship is how you get the job done,” Illuzzi continued. “It’s important to work with other legislators, regardless of political stripe.”
It was a Democrat, Gov. Thomas P. Salmon, who got Illuzzi into politics in the 1970s; and his son, Thomas M. Salmon, now a Republican (he switched parties in 2009), who enthusiastically endorsed Illuzzi at the campaign launch.
Salmon, who is stepping down as state auditor after three terms in office, said the “strong and positive relationships,” which Illuzzi has developed over the course of his career in the Legislature, will stand him in good stead. “If you can improve the performance of government, you can improve the lives of citizens and no one cares more about that than Vince Illuzzi,” Salmon said in a brief statement.
Scott painted Illuzzi as the ultimate Statehouse insider. “I don’t know anyone who knows the inner workings of state government better than Vince Illuzzi,” Scott said. “That’s why I know he’ll make a great auditor. He’ll protect the pocketbooks of Vermonters.”
In an interview, Illuzzi said he would follow three general guidelines as auditor: He would ensure that state money is spent as directed by the General Assembly, that it is spent as efficiently as possible, and that state programs, agencies and departments function effectively.
He is interested in working with the Legislature to determine if the state auditor should take a more proactive role in embezzlement cases involving municipal officials and nonprofits that receive government money. Illuzzi said the auditor’s office could hire Vermont accountants to conduct random audits and to investigate fraud cases. He suggested at a forum later that day in Burlington that he would need $100,000 to $150,000 to pursue such a project.
What separates Illuzzi from Hoffer, who has deep experience in policy and financial analysis work? The state senator describes his rival as a “good number cruncher.” He compares Hoffer’s role to that of an “X-ray technician” who provides information that’s an important part of a diagnosis, but who couldn’t design the “treatment plan for the patient.”
Illuzzi, who has no background in finance, other than his role as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, holds a law degree from Vermont Law School and has long served as Essex County state’s attorney. He says he doesn’t need to be a certified public accountant to be an effective auditor. (Several state auditors, including Democrats Ed Flanagan and Elizabeth Ready, have not been CPAs.)
His membership to the Vermont bar was suspended twice in the 1990s. In 1992, he settled a case directly with an insurance adjuster in a personal injury case, and the opposing attorney filed a complaint. Illuzzi lost his ability to practice for six months. The second time was a year later, when he had a legal standoff with a family court judge, whose wife filed the previous complaint, that went to the Vermont Supreme Court. The high court suspended Illuzzi from practicing law in 1994. He wasn’t reinstated until 1998, according to a Boston Globe article by Jon Margolis.
Illuzzi talked to reporters about the suspensions at his campaign launch. “I think some people learn from their mistakes, and I’m one of those people,” he said.
Illuzzi reported about $75,000 in campaign funds in August. Of that amount, he loaned $25,000 to himself and carried over more in funds from his previous Senate and Essex state’s attorney campaigns. He says he spent $10,000 on a poll to see if he could beat incumbent Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell in the General Election. The results showed Sorrell would defeat a Republican challenger.
The state senator has endorsement of the Vermont Troopers Association and a number of his colleagues, including: Democratic Sens. Dick Sears, Bob Hartwell, Peter Galbraith, Dick Mazza and Jeannette White. He said Peg Flory and Kevin Mullin, both Republicans from Rutland, support his run for auditor.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:23 a.m. and 6:50 a.m.