The Vermont Progressive Party isn’t champing at the bit to make a run for the governor’s seat in 2014, but party leaders say their displeasure with Gov. Peter Shumlin might leave them no choice.
“We’ve stayed out [of the past two elections] in sort of mild support of him,” said Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, who leads the Progressive caucus in the House. “I would say he is making it harder and harder for us to maintain that level of support.”
The last time the Vermont Progressive Party threw its weight behind its own candidate was in 2008, when Anthony Pollina, now a state senator, swept up more than 20 percent of the vote.
Shumlin’s pledges to set up a single-payer health care system and to shutter Vermont Yankee helped cement the party’s support for him in the past two elections.
Shumlin undercut that allegiance during the 2013 legislative session, Progressives say, and they are weighing a challenge in 2014.
The falling out
The disillusionment among Progressives is rooted in two issues: they are dismayed by Shumlin’s “aggressive stance” toward anti-poverty programs, and they’ve begun to doubt Shumlin’s commitment to single-payer health care.
Shumlin proposed to cut nearly $17 million from the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which benefits low-income working Vermonters, and that riled a number of legislators.
“That was probably the most egregious example of things he’s done that we don’t agree with,” Pearson said.
The governor also spearheaded the push to put time limits on Reach Up, the state’s family welfare program, and he squashed a tax code proposal that would have shifted more of the burden to higher-income Vermonters. Both moves soured Progressives.
“I think it’s no secret Progressives have been really disappointed in Shumlin and the attacks on the working poor that were so intrinsic in his budget proposal,” said Selene Colburn, a member of the Progressive state coordinating committee.
Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, said Progressive lawmakers stayed mostly aligned with Democrats on social issues, but “when it came to economic issues and health care, it was a very frustrating session.”
Progressive Party Chairwoman Martha Abbott described misgivings among party members about Shumlin’s dedication to developing a single payer system.
“The finance plan was supposed to come out in January, and people are beginning to wonder about that,” Abbott said.
The Shumlin administration, Zuckerman said, appears to be “making negative strides” toward that goal. Pollina, Pearson and Colburn mentioned similar concerns.
Extent of the discontent
Progressive leaders and political experts say the discontent isn’t confined to their party — a number of left-leaning Democrats left the Statehouse disenchanted with the governor.
Pollina, P/D-Washington, who heads the Progressive caucus in the Senate, said, “I do think that some of the dissatisfaction or the disappointment is shared by a lot of Democrats who are progressive minded and believe in social justice. … I do think some of the discouragement is shared by a broader spectrum of people.”
Pollina said he isn’t considering a run in 2014, but he’s not writing off another stab at the governorship down the road.
Retired Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis offered a similar assessment.
“There is also discontent amongst small ‘p’ progressive Democrats,” he said. “I think the message that’s coming to Shumlin from both is ‘pay attention to the base, pay attention to the people who elected you.’ There is a growing amount of dissatisfaction on taxing and spending issues and concerns that Shumlin has been focused on standing up for the business community.”
Abbott said Shumlin’s approach toward low-income Vermonters was especially disheartening in light of the fact that he enjoys a solid Democratic majority in the Legislature. “If that’s the best you can do, why bother to have a Democratic majority? You might as well have a Republican majority.”
Progressives still harbor concerns about pouring resources into a gubernatorial campaign that’s nearly guaranteed to fail. The party claims three senators and five representatives and some party members worry that backing a candidate for governor could stymie their influence in the Statehouse. One statewide official — auditor Doug Hoffer — ran as a D/P and his victory is viewed as a win for Progressives.
“It takes a lot of energy. We don’t have a national party sending us hundred of thousands of dollars … doing that [backing a gubernatorial candidate] undoubtedly detracts from our focus on legislative races,” Pearson said.
Abbott said the decision will depend, in part, on the depth of the applicant pool. “Wanting to put the candidate and having a candidate are two different things.”
“I would much rather see us gain seats in the Legislature rather than run a strong campaign for governor that doesn’t win,” Pearson said. “The challenge is that Shumlin has been disregarding our issues.”
The 20 percent-of-the-vote days are over for the Progressive Party, according to Eric Davis. Davis said he thinks a Progressive candidate could clinch between 3 percent and 7 percent of the vote — not enough to change the race’s outcome.
But there are enough people looking for an alternative on the ballot that Davis doesn’t think what he calls the “Martha Abbott 2012 strategy” (Abbott ran in the primary but withdrew her bid in support of Shumlin) will suffice for the Progressives in 2014.
Party officials say they are a long way from making a decision, but the discussions have started — Thursday, the party asked followers on Twitter to weigh in on whether they should field a candidate.