Five newcomers to the Vermont Senate could have a profound impact on the dynamics of the Green Room this coming session.
The old guard — Randy Brock, Vince Illuzzi, Sara Kittell, Harold Giard and Hinda Miller — have made way for a group of new lawmakers who could, as a contingent, have major influence on the way the body functions.
For one thing, Democrats may have further strengthened their majority. Unless Dustin Degree, the Republican candidate in Franklin County, wins a recount, the Dems will have 23 seats, and Republicans will have seven. In the last biennium, the Republicans had eight representatives in Senate.
If Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell retains his role as leader of the group of 30 lawmakers, the power dynamic could change considerably. That’s because, observers say, a liberal majority among the Democrats, could challenge Campbell’s tenuous hold on control of the already difficult-to-manage egos in the Senate.
The four new Democrats include Christopher Bray, D-Addison, David Zuckerman, D-Chittenden, John Rodgers, D-Essex Orleans, and Don Collins, D-Franklin. Collins’ victory, with just 26 votes over Republican candidate Degree, could be overturned. Degree says he will ask for a recount.
The sole new Senate Republican, at this point, is dairy farmer and Highgate resident Norm McAllister, who served in the House from 2003-2012.
Lobbyists and political analysts say the emergence of a large liberal and progressive bloc could shift the power balance in the Senate and lead to more chaotic debate.
Zuckerman’s election to the 30-member body could prove particularly challenging for Campbell, who openly dissed the candidate, when he ran as a Progressive first and Democrat second in the most recent election.
Campbell didn’t back Zuckerman in the General Election, despite his Democratic affiliation, deciding instead to back Zuckerman’s unsuccessful Chittenden County opponent Debbie Ingram.
Downs Rachlin Martin lobbyist and Montpelier Mayor John Hollar said the new personalities could spell trouble for Campbell. “I think the Senate is going to continue to be a very difficult body to manage, because of the clear divisions between the moderate Democrats and the far-left-leaning Democrats,” said “The election has, in my view, exacerbated that split in the party.”
“It’s clearly a big division, as many as 13, who are pretty liberal, and another 10 to 11 who are more moderate,” Hollar said. “That split is more evident and it’s deeper than any I’ve seen in the Senate, in the 20 years I’ve been in the business.”
While Hollar wouldn’t name specific senators, obvious candidates are the three Progressives in the mix, Tim Ashe, Anthony Pollina and the newly elected Zuckerman. Others known for leaning visibly left include Peter Galbraith, Phil Baruth, Ginnie Lyons, Sally Fox and Dick McCormack.
Political analyst Eric Davis called Zuckerman’s election “by far the most significant change” in the Senate for Democrats.
“It’ll be very interesting to see how Zuckerman and Campbell get along or don’t get along,” said Davis. He continued: “I think there may be a critical mass of people – I’d call them Progressives and progressive Democrats – who, particularly on taxing and spending issues, may take some position together.”
Davis also said this liberal faction could be a prime source of opposition to Gov. Peter Shumlin in the next session in lieu of a weakened Republican presence in the Legislature and statewide offices.
As for Campbell, Davis said factionalism wasn’t a problem last year, compared to problems with how the committee system functioned and how bills were bottled up in committees, but, he said, “It’s going to be a difficult job for whoever is president pro tem, whether it’s John Campbell or Ann Cummings, keeping a very large Democratic caucus working together.
“They’re not going to agree on every issue, but even having them proceeding in the same direction, that’s the big problem next year,” he said.
Both Zuckerman and Campbell insisted they could overcome their differences and work together well. Campbell played down potential political divides in the Senate, and expressed confidence he could beat back a potential leadership contest from current Senate finance chair Cummings, as reported by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz last month.
“I would imagine that there would be certain people whose priorities may be a little different,” said Campbell. “But not so different that it’d create a chasm of some sort. I’m not really overly concerned about that.”
As for Cummings’ challenge, Campbell said he’d already contacted senators, securing votes and promises, for a majority of members both in his caucus and in the Senate as a whole. “So I feel comfortable that I’d be re-elected,” he told VTDigger, though he wouldn’t specify how many senators had backed him.
Zuckerman’s view? “Certainly the adjustment from Hinda Miller to me does bring a different perspective, particularly on some fiscal issues, and probably on how to organize around some social justice issues. And I think there’s some pent-up interest by a number of senators around pieces of legislation, like the child [care] worker’s bill and other issues, that may gain some momentum.”
“In the last two years,” Zuckerman said, “I think, it was difficult to get things done in the Senate, and this maybe will unlock some of that difficulty. I don’t think my election will radically change things, but if it can help shift the dynamic, then hopefully that’s progress.”
The Republican perspective
Republicans have a new face in the Senate thanks to Norm McAllister, who won the Franklin County seat alongside Don Collins. He replaces retiring state Sen. Randy Brock, who lost his gubernatorial bid Tuesday.
Meanwhile, GOP candidate Bob Lewis’ defeat in Essex-Orleans, a place formerly represented by respected political maverick and Republican Illuzzi, comes as a hard loss to Republicans in the state, according to Davis.
“The Northeast Kingdom used to be nearly monolithically Republican in the Legislature,” he said. “But now, if you look at a map, that part of the state is becoming increasingly Democratic,” said Davis. “The Republican core is retreating into the more northerly parts of the Northeast Kingdom,” said Davis.
With two high profile Republican losses in the Senate thanks to Illuzzi and Brock’s failed statewide bids, the interesting question for Davis becomes: “Who replaces those two as the major spokesperson of the Republican Party in the Senate?”
Davis cites Kevin Mullin, a Rutland senator, as a likely up-and-coming Republican leader, saying that Mullin represents the sort of moderate Republicanism that can be successful in Vermont. Campbell described Mullin as “an extremely talented Republican,” while Davis highlights his successful politicking with Democrats, and his more moderate positions, like a 2009 vote for marriage equality.
Illuzzi himself is worried about who will fill his former chairmanship of the Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs, because he believes that any replacement will need a depth of private sector business experience, not commonly found.
As for a divided Democratic caucus, Illuzzi offered these words: “I don’t think the Democratic caucus ever came together as a unified body over the last two years, which, of course, has an impact on Campbell’s ability to lead – because you’re leading a divided caucus.”
He said it would be premature to comment on potential coalitions among Senate Democrats.
Zuckerman’s final take is similarly speculative.
“I honestly don’t exactly know yet how all the changes are going to play out. But it’s going to be really interesting to see,” he said.
Besides the question of who might fill Ann Cummings’ place as finance chair if she becomes president pro tem, there’s even a question over whether Campbell will take that position away from Cummings, should he retain his leadership position.
Campbell wouldn’t say directly whether he’d strip Cummings of the finance chair, arguing that the decision isn’t his solely; he receives input from the Committee on Committees.
“If any move was made with any of the committees, it would have nothing to do with whether or not somebody was running for a certain position – in this case, running against me,” he said. “That would not enter into my decision-making at all.”
He added, “Again, it’s premature until the Committee on Committees has been re-elected. It’s up to us to discuss the various options, but any time a new biennium starts, every chairmanship, every vice chairmanship, is up for discussion.”
Campbell hoped to maintain at least one Republican chair, though he wouldn’t say if a Republican would replace Illuzzi as either economic development or institutions chair. Campbell said that political party membership doesn’t generally matter for chair and committee assignments.
“I think what the Committee on Committees will be looking for is who will be the best suited for individual committees,” he said.