House Democrats were in high spirits at their biennial nomination of new leaders on Saturday. The Democrats who gathered at the Statehouse for a caucus a month before the session starts reveled in their numbers — they are now 96 strong out of 150 representatives.
Rep. John Malcom prompted the most boisterous laughter during his speech for Shap Smith, who clinched the nomination for Speaker of the House without a contest. “They say to be good at Speaker you have to be good at herding cats. I like this man named Smith because he’s got the tuna fish,” Malcom said.
There were references to the work ahead — Malcom characterized the end of the session as a “unique Vermont mixture of ballet and demolition derby” — and recurrent standing ovations.
Smith will face a challenger, Rep. Paul Poirer, an independent, in January when the session starts. Smith, who has the overwhelming backing of his caucus, is expected to win.
Despite the convivial tone of the caucus, Smith, who won his third nomination for Speaker on Saturday, struck a somber note. He told the caucus Vermont must address climate change — even if other states and the federal government don’t move ahead with initiatives to mitigate human impacts on world’s rising temperature.
“We can’t bury our heads in the sand because we don’t understand … we can’t shy away from it because other people are,” Smith said.
Smith said the gathering was “bittersweet” for him because of the goodbyes it necessitated. He praised outgoing Majority Leader Lucy Leriche, who became part of the Democrats’ leadership team at the same time that he started his speakership in 2009. “We are sort of seared in the fire together,” Smith said.
The somber focus on climate change and farewells to departing lawmakers didn’t dampen the spirits of the assembled for long, however. The atmosphere stayed convivial right on through the only contested vote of the day between Rep. Therese Taylor of Barre and Rep. Rebecca Ellis of Waterbury for the Assistant Majority Leader, or whip position. Taylor got 49 votes; Ellis finished with 37. In her victory speech, Taylor touted Ellis’s more impressive academic credentials (magna cum laude at Harvard and Georgetown Law), saying, “I was just a hippie in a teepee at St. Mike’s.”
Guests at the caucus included state Treasurer Beth Pearce; Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding; Jake Perkinson, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party; Louis Porter, the incoming secretary of Civil and Military Affairs; and Gov. Peter Shumlin. Pearce took the podium to chants of “Beth, Beth, Beth!” and thanked the roomful of representatives for helping her beat Republican Wendy Wilton during the November election.
Shumlin strolled in to rally enthusiasm for his vision for the upcoming session. After some verbal back-patting about the last two years — weathering the recession and passing single payer health care legislation — he launched into an outline of his upcoming agenda. “We will do things together over the next two years that other states don’t have the vision or courage to do,” Shumlin said.
The governor urged lawmakers to balance the budget, which this year includes a $50 million to $70 million gap, without raising broad-based taxes (i.e. sales, income or rooms and meals taxes). Shumlin said it won’t be “fun,” but it “sets the foundations, builds the confidence and gives us the support of Vermonters that allows us to do the other things that I say other states don’t dare do to really grow jobs and economic opportunities.”
Shumlin also told House Democrats to “focus like a laser” on health care implementation. He also wants the Legislature to address what he sees as a crucial education issue, namely the dearth of students with credentials in science, technology, engineering and math skills and increase Vermonters’ access to higher education (“not enough poor kids are moving beyond high school in Vermont”). Renewable energy and energy efficiency are also major issues he wants to address again this session. “We are doing abysmally on thermal efficiency,” he said.
Willem Jewett made a seamless transition from Assistant Majority Leader to Majority Leader. The caucus unanimously voted him in to succeed former Majority Leader, Lucy Leriche.
Kathryn Webb, who also received unanimous support to adopt the role of Deputy Assistant Leader, jokingly questioned the desirability the position, saying she felt like “the dog that caught the bus.” Two more unanimous votes installed Rebecca Ellis as clerk and David Deen as the caucus’ at-large member of the House Rules Committee.
At several points, the representatives remembered their recently deceased colleague, Republican Greg Clark. Smith recalled being on the receiving end of Clark’s “gentle ribbing” but he said the representative from Vergennes “was one of us.”
Correction: The original story stated that Smith was elected. He will not be elected until January.