Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Elizabeth Miller as his chief of staff this month, after only two years in state government as the commissioner of the Department of Public Service.
Last week, VTDigger reporter Andrew Stein spoke to the former private attorney about why she entered the public sector, what her future political aspirations are, why she took Shumlin’s offer and how her department will fare after her departure.
Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: The Department of Public Service created the first comprehensive energy plan in more than a decade and now much of the department’s leadership is leaving or has recently left. Will that present any issues for implementing the plan?
A: No, the architects of the energy plan went across state government and that’s what was so satisfying about that process. It wasn’t just the department who orchestrated and pulled off the energy plan, it was folks at the Agency of Natural Resources and Commerce and Tax and Buildings and General Services and Ag. Chris Recchia, who will take my position as commissioner, was our ANR partner on the plan.
Q: Speaking of Chris, what makes him qualified to take over your role?
A: He ran the Department of Environmental Conservation under the Dean administration, so he’s already been a commissioner of a department in state government and has that administrative and oversight experience. He has worked as an energy policy expert at the Biomass Energy Resource Center and as the Deputy Secretary of ANR he has been involved with us on the mutual energy and environment initiatives Gov. Shumlin has put into place since he came into office.
Q: John Beling was the director of public advocacy at your department, and he left this summer. Who took his place?
A: Geoff Commons, who is the longest serving attorney in the department, took over the position. Geoff had been a senior litigator here, so for him to step up into this management role is really good for the department from a continuity point of view. There is nobody here more knowledgeable about utility regulation and rates than Geoff.
Q: When do you expect to fill the deputy commissioner’s position that Sarah Hofmann just left?
A: I know Chris is prioritizing it. He will really be the primary person looking to fill that position now, since he’s coming in as commissioner.
Q: Do you see the position of chief of staff as a more political position?
A: Not necessarily. The way that I think of the chief of staff role is to carry out Gov. Shumlin’s initiatives and missions across departments and agencies from a policy point of view. While politics certainly plays a role, the chief of staff’s primary duty is to make sure that the job gets done.
The challenge of moving to the governor’s office will be to manage and help direct policy across the agencies and departments from the top level and work with the commissioners and secretaries and help them do what I do now, which is taking high-level policy directives and turning them into action through their staff.
Q: As you understand the position, what will be your primary responsibilities as chief?
A: There is a staff in the governor’s office of about a dozen people and those folks fulfill a variety of job functions, such as legal counsel and scheduling and board and commission appointments and others, and the chief of staff coordinates the governor’s staff to make sure things are getting done. It’s really day-in day-out coordinating closely with the governor to make sure his priorities are coming through at the agency and department levels.
Q: You’ve steadfastly supported many of the governor’s energy initiatives from wind policies to the CVPS-GMP utility merger. Do you think this appointment is a reward for your support of his stances?
A: Not at all, I think Gov. Shumlin wanted somebody to come into the chief of staff role that he would work well with, that he had trust in, that he believed would be a good manager, because he’s losing really talented people in his current chief Bill Lofy and, down the road, his deputy chief Alex MacLean. So, I believe he asked me to take on this role because I have management qualities that would fit well with how he works.
Q: Do you have any idea who will take Alex’s position?
A: We’re first and foremost looking to Alex to help out over the next few months. I’d love to work with Alex as long as she’s willing to stay. She’s fantastic, really talented, sharp and has been a real asset to the administration. I understand she wants to try other things professionally, but I’ll be looking forward to working with her in the interim.
Q: Alex is looking to go from the government sector to the private sector, and you went from the private sector to the government sector. Why did you decide to go into state government with your successful track record as a private attorney?
A: I really wanted to try public service. I got to a point in my career where although I enjoyed being a private attorney — doing commercial litigation and running a business — I wanted to see whether I could have a greater impact in the public sector. I think the government is well served by pulling in individuals who have had private sector experience and vice versa.
Q: What is it about the chief of staff position that appeals to you?
A: It’s a completely different challenge. Right now my job focuses on a relatively narrow set of issues: energy and telecom policy. The challenge of moving to the governor’s office will be to manage and help direct policy across the agencies and departments from the top level and work with the commissioners and secretaries and help them do what I do now, which is taking high-level policy directives and turning them into action through their staff.
Frankly, I leapt at the opportunity because I believe in Gov. Shumlin’s agenda. Working for a governor with his agenda and style will be interesting, and I’ll learn a lot.
Q: What will be your top priorities moving into the position?
A: Obviously my top priority is furthering Gov. Shumlin’s agenda, but my personal priorities will be to work well with the staff and make sure the structures we put in place continues the great progress we’ve already had. I really have to look at what was working really well and that absolutely must be fostered and continued.
Q: How involved do you think you’ll be in health care reform?
A: I don’t know if I can answer that right now. I just don’t know. Obviously that’s at the top of the governor’s agenda, so I’ll be involved in whatever role he wants me to play.
Q: Shifting topics to politics, what role have you and your husband — attorney Eric Miller of the Burlington-based firm Sheehey, Furlong and Behm — played as fundraisers for the Democratic Party?
A: We have for a number of years given to political candidates that we support, including Gov. Shumlin, and we did so this year. Eric co-hosted one fundraiser, but I didn’t do anything myself, and I don’t know if he did anything else.
I also support Beth Pearce. I gave to Beth and was happy to see her elected. We’ve given for years, and frankly I think that’s an important part of the political process. I’d much rather see Vermonters who can give give generously than see corporate influence and all the rest of it. I made a decision, personally, eight or nine years ago, to actually start giving politically, rather than just give to non-profits and charities because I actually believe giving to the political process, as an individual, is an important thing to do if you can.
Q: I was listening to former Gov. Madeleine Kunin on the radio the other day, and she spoke about Vermont needing more women politicians, particularly congresswomen. This beckons the question: Are you considering a future political career of any sort, whether it’s running for governor, a congressional seat or attorney general?
A: No, I’m not. My philosophy generally is that folks should contribute in the ways they’re best suited. In terms of service, I think there’s a lot I can do to contribute, but I don’t have in mind to run for office. I agree with Madeleine Kunin that we should have more female candidates running for office, and, as I said, I’m happy to support those who do and help foster it. But that doesn’t mean I see myself in one of those roles.