The Senate doesn’t formally reconvene until the first Tuesday in January, but the Green Room drama is already in full swing.
Lawmakers are split over who should lead the Senate for the next two years, and they’re bickering over the date for the Democratic caucus set this week (some say traditionally it’s held on the first Saturday in December).
The in-fighting is a holdover from the last session which ended with contentious parliamentary battles that devolved into childish slights over procedure and substantive fights over death with dignity legislation and a child-care center unionization bill, both of which John Campbell, the new Senate president pro tempore, attempted to turn his way instead of wisely staying out of the fray.
Insiders say Campbell, a moderate, blue dog Democrat, had a hard time managing the more liberal wing of his party, especially the new members in the Senate, though in the end, he and his like-minded colleagues — Dick Sears, Dick Mazza and Bill Carris — prevailed and both socially liberal pieces of legislation failed.
There were also complaints throughout the session that Campbell was disorganized. On many days, the Senate was in session for less than an hour. Campbell repeatedly put off discussion on key legislation and by April the Senate was faced with a bigger than usual bottleneck of bills.
Campbell says the “stars were not aligned” in his first term, and he in part blames his failings on a shift in leadership. When he first took the helm in 2010 it had been nearly two decades since the Senate had had a new pro tem. Peter Shumlin served as leader for 14 years before he became governor. His predecessor, Peter Welch, now a Democratic representative in Congress, was pro tem for 10 years total — six in the 1980s and four years in the 2000s. Together, Shumlin and Welch, both Democrats, held the position for 18 years.
Campbell’s biggest difficulty managing the Senate where egos abound, patience is limited and oration has a tendency to continue on unbidden? “I’m someone who wants to make everyone happy.”
Still, some members of the Democratic caucus say Campbell deserves another chance. Dick Sears chalked up the pro tem’s problems last year to inexperience. “No one can dispute it was a tough year,” Sears said. “It was a learning two years. We had a brand new lieutenant governor (Republican Phil Scott), a new pro tem and the sitting pro tem was gone to be governor. That put a little press on John.”
Campbell says he has learned from his rookie mistakes. After the last session he reached out, he says, in a “coming to Jesus moment” to several committee chairs who took a hard look at his deficiencies as the Senate’s leader. “I did a lot of soul searching,” he said. “I think you’re going to see a totally different Senate. One that is extremely productive, in which we’re working in a common direction.”
Despite Campbell’s reassurances, some of his colleagues clearly have doubts. Though Campbell ran unopposed for the top slot in 2010, this time around he is facing a challenge from two colleagues — fellow Democrat Ann Cummings, the Senate Finance Committee chair who has her own detractors, and Republican Diane Snelling who has little chance of winning (there are only seven Republicans in the body) but wants to see the Senate substantively change the way it functions. For months there have also been rumors that Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, might run for pro tem, though now it looks likely he will seek the chairmanship of the Senate Economic Development Committee left vacant by former Sen. Vince Illuzzi, a Republican who made a failed bid for state auditor this fall.
Campbell says he believes he has 14 to 15 votes out of the 23 Democratic caucus votes to beat Cummings for the nomination on Tuesday. He says he can count on all but four of the 13 committee chairs (excepting Cummings, Ginnie Lyons, Illuzzi and Sara Kittell, who also retired). He doesn’t expect to get support from the small “p” progressive wing of the caucus, which has grown by one vote and has a vocal contingent — Anthony Pollina, Philip Baruth, David Zuckerman and Dick McCormack.
In the spirit of inclusiveness, Campbell has invited the Senate’s two Progressives to the caucus — Pollina and Zuckerman (a first termer) — though he refused in the last election to help the two candidates who also ran as Democrats. Pollina, a Progressive Democrat from Washington County, says he’ll back Cummings or abstain from voting.
Several moderate Republicans may show up on Tuesday as well to see if the Democratic caucus will allow them to participate in the pro tem vote. Peg Flory and Kevin Mullin, both from Rutland County, nominally won Democratic support in the last election and have said they want to vote for Campbell. That would be an unusual move, and could be an all or nothing gamble for the pair, according to Campbell, who says he thinks if Flory and Mullin attend the Dems caucus they should be required to stick with the party for the rest of the session.
Democratic senators are scheduled to hold their biennial organizational caucus from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier (in the Boardroom) to hash out who will be the next pro tem and the chair of the Committee on Committees. Typically, the caucus would also include selection of the majority leader and the assistant majority leader, but those decisions have been put off for now.
Though the notice was sent out more than a week ago, a number of lawmakers are miffed that Campbell didn’t give them a variety of scheduling options. At least three members of the Senate won’t be able to attend and several more may not show up. Several senators said even if a minimum of three members are absent (10 percent of the body) and vote by proxy, that it could have an impact on the outcome and set the wrong tone for the upcoming session.
“If one of his goals is to be better organized and inclusive, then don’t schedule a caucus without giving people a choice,” Pollina said.
How the senators vote could be as important as when they vote. Several senators said secret or Australian voting would affect the outcome.
“It’s a small group of people who don’t like to rock the boat, especially if they fear retribution,” Zuckerman said. “There’s a history of retribution when you take on leadership. I happen to think it should be a secret vote. I think people should be able to vote freely without fear, regardless of who they’re supporting.”
Change is hard for political leaders, who tend to be a cautious bunch, Pollina says, and the specter of retribution (some senators could stand to lose committee chairmanships) will likely incentivize senators in the caucus to stick with the status quo.
Whoever emerges from the caucus — Cummings or Campbell — faces a run against Diane Snelling when the Senate meets in January. Though Snelling, the daughter of the late Gov. Richard Snelling, is part of the GOP minority and doesn’t stand to win, the floor vote gives her an opportunity to make a case for procedural changes. (It also leaves a window open for a coup, several senators say, should a Progressive or Democrat wish to challenge the winner of the Democratic caucus.)
Her objective, Snelling wrote in a memo to senators last week, is to “create a predictable and positive work environment in the Senate.” The most controversial part of Snelling’s plan? To allow two minority leaders — one representing the GOP and another for the Progressive Party.
Snelling’s five-point plea for mutual respect, cooperation, civil debate and fairness from leadership reads like a grade school good conduct pledge. But maybe that’s what it will take to bring the Senate back to the main order of business — the people’s business.
Snelling’s Senate Proposal:
Elect a President Pro Tempore who will create a predictable and positive work environment in the Senate. The best public policy requires discipline to focus daily on our primary accountability to every Vermont citizen.
Acknowledge the political agendas of different groups within the Senate – Majority Democrats; Majority Leader, Assistant Majority Leader – Progressive Democrats; Minority Leader, or other Leadership position within the Majority Democratic — Republican; Minority Leader
The Majority and Minority Caucus will bring forward their top priorities for Senate action. All Senators will review those priorities together, and vote to set an agenda that allocates Committee time for the Session. The Senate Chamber will set its own priorities, in collaboration with, but separate from, the House or the Governor.
1. Each Senator agrees to conduct themselves according to the rules of the Senate, as well as the guide of common courtesy and mutual respect.
2. The President Pro Tempore will have an open door policy, and be committed to a fair, and equal process.
3. The Committee on Committees will consider each Senator’s requests, expertise, and seniority when making assignments.
4. The Chairs and their Committees will work cooperatively to determine the floor schedule. Respect for the Committee process will be fundamental to the work of the Senate.
5. Bills will come to the floor ready for action, and the Senate will complete its business appropriately and effectively. The Senate will be a Chamber for civil debate among different perspectives on the issues of greatest importance to the people of Vermont.