On a frigid December night last year with snowing piling high on the mountain passes, Peter Shumlin had a rendezvous with voters — a small group of the Democratic faithful, gathered in a home in Lincoln for a party cum meet-and-greet. High on the Appalachian Gap, Shumlin ran into trouble. His car couldn’t make through the snowdrifts. So he hiked, suit and all, up over the gap and down into Lincoln, abandoning his car by the side of the road. He wasn’t going to let a snowstorm get in the way of his campaign.
By all accounts, this is an ambitious man who has served on the Putney Selectboard, the Vermont House and the Vermont Senate in that order, all while running a successful travel business that sends students all over the world.
To hear Shumlin tell it, though, he is a reluctant politician, and his current foray into gubernatorial politics is more a function of circumstance than of choice. He says he left politics nearly a decade ago, never to return, and that only a friend’s illness drew him back into the fray. Never mind his 20 years in the Vermont Senate and his decade as president of that august body. Never mind his failed shot at the lieutenant governor’s seat in 2002. People have got him wrong, he says.
“I’m perceived as ambitious,” Shumlin admits, “but that’s not my story. When I left the Senate, I had no intention of going back. I was very happily running my business.”
Shumlin had recruited Marlboro College President Rod Gander to take over his Senate spot when he left to run for lieutenant governor in 2002. But when Gander was diagnosed with cancer and his health began to fail, he implored Shumlin to get back in four years later.
“I had to do it,” says Shumlin. “He was my friend. I couldn’t say no.”
Still, the ambition perceivers might be forgiven their wrong-headedness. Shumlin has a talent for grabbing the limelight: During Burlington’s Mardi Gras parade in February, he took an exuberant leap onto VPRIG’s anti-Vermont Yankee float, causing VPIRG’s executive director, Paul Burns, to later apologize for “a significant breach of protocol.”
Capturing the limelight may be just what it takes to succeed now that the Democratic primary is less than three months away, and each of the five members of the field is struggling mightily to break away from the pack.
On the stump, Shumlin makes a strong impression. Built like a greyhound, he has the body of a runner and cross-country skier, which he is, and an apparently extensive wardrobe of suits – he never leaves home without one. He answers questions forcefully and directly with a minimum of words, so the listener is never left in doubt about the answer. Clarity may well be his strong suit.
On occasion, his forceful delivery belies his command of the facts. He recently told Fox News that Germans get 30 percent of their power from solar, while the actual number is 1 percent. Last week on VPR, he said cesium when he meant strontium in an answer about Vermont Yankee.
Like Shumlin, Doug Racine and Susan Bartlett are current state senators, Matt Dunne is a former state senator and Deb Markowitz is comfortably ensconced as secretary of state. Shumlin, Racine and Markowitz all have greater name recognition than the others, and Racine has the Chittenden County hometown advantage. But as yet this pack has no obvious leader.
From Putney to Montpelier
For reasons of geography, Shumlin, 54, is the southerner in this slugfest. Born in Brattleboro, he lives in Putney where he runs a successful travel business, Putney Student Travel, with his brother Jeff. Together, the brothers kicked the modest travel service, inherited from their parents, into high gear by forging a partnership with National Geographic Expeditions, and PST now runs programs all over the world including such far-flung spots as Rwanda and Nusa Penida, an island near Bali.
According to the story, Shumlins started it in 1952; the brothers have run it since 1985. Peter’s comings and goings have not caused any problems, according to Jeff Shumlin, who runs the day-to-day operations of PST.
“Peter makes a great contribution,” says his younger brother. “He helps us with our strategy of mission, creating new programs like the collaboration with National Geographic. When he steps through the door, he is fully engaged.”
Currently, Putney Student Travel has 14 full-time employees who work out of the barn but travel frequently. During the summer, when the programs are running, the company employs over 200 people in the field. All told, it makes between $8 million and $9 million in sales a year, a 30 percent growth since 1985 according to Jeff Shumlin’s estimate.
Shumlin’s personal wealth according to his 2009 income tax returns, was almost $1 million and it included income from all his businesses. That includes Putney Student Travel and several real estate LLCs that he has built over the years. He, along his wife, his brother and a friend, own commercial and residential property in Putney and downtown Brattleboro, a result of investments they made starting 30 years ago.
While his May 24 campaign kickoff in Burlington drew a sparse crowd, the mood was different when he took the road show home to Putney. Speaking from the front steps of the Putney Tavern, Shumlin drew a classic Putney crowd of 100 or so aging hippies, along with their children and grandchildren. On that balmy evening, his supporters came to nibble on tortilla chips and salsa while Shumlin reminded them of his Putney past and laid out his plans for the future.
Shumlin served on the Putney Selectboard for 13 years, and he takes credit for halting a plan to bring a prison to town, instead signing up Landmark College to take over the campus left abandoned when Windham College went belly up. Being dyslexic himself, he proclaimed his learning disability “a gift that motivated me” to pursue Landmark, with its programming which is specifically for dyslexics. Indeed, his dyslexia has become one of the main talking points of his campaign, a disability that, he says, has made him “tough and determined to succeed at whatever I set out to do.”
Reaching further back into the town’s past, he invoked the spirit of Putney’s own George Aiken, the governor and U.S. senator who brought electricity to the most remote corners of Vermont under the auspices of the federal Rural Electrification Administration. Shumlin promises to do the same thing for broadband access and cell service so that every nook and cranny of Vermont is brought into the 21st century.
“I promise that there will be high-speed Internet and cell service on every dirt road in Vermont by 2012,” pledged Shumlin.
He was appointed to the Vermont House in 1989 by then Gov. Madeleine Kunin to fill an empty seat and then won election to the House in 1990. Two years later, he went to the Vermont Senate, became majority leader in 1994 and senate president three years after that – a startling rise in one so young at the time.
When Gov. Howard Dean left office in 2002, Shumlin originally threw his hat into the gubernatorial ring but lowered his sights to lieutenant governor rather than become engaged in a pitched battle with Doug Racine. Both Racine and Shumlin lost that race, and Shumlin settled down to business until Gander’s illness brought him back to Montpelier. Upon his return, he reclaimed the role of Senate president even though the smart money at the time was on Sen. John Campbell, who held the job of Senate Majority Leader.
Part of a “circular firing squad”
Shumlin’s biggest problem at the moment is not one of his own making. The primary field is too large for anybody’s own good – except maybe Brian Dubie’s. University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson says the size of the field was understandable at the outset.
“There’s an opening in the governor’s seat maybe once a decade,” notes Nelson. “When one governor steps down, the opposing party usually wins. That’s why this primary is so contested. All five are capable; four have run for statewide office. There are no fringe candidates.”
Several months in, though, says Nelson, “I was waiting for a shakeout. These candidates are all going to the same people for money – they’re cannibalizing each other financially. This could end up being a circular firing squad.”
The other obstacle they all face, in his view, is the late August primary. “Who cares about an August primary?” he wants to know. “Everybody’s on vacation; the students are gone. I’m expecting an incredibly low turnout. The candidates are also going to miss out on the county fairs, which are the quintessential events of retail politics in this state – and retail politics still matter here. They’re going to miss out on all that schmoozing and handshaking.”
Although initial filings aren’t due until July, it seems likely that all five candidates are facing financial challenges. Thus far, Shumlin’s staff consists of his campaign manager, Alex MacLean, and a field coordinator, Katherine Betzer. He’s certainly no worse off than his impoverished Democratic colleagues, while Brian Dubie, by comparison, has rented a large office space in Williston and has four campaign employees.
Shumlin also claims help on the homefront. Although he and his wife, Deb, are living separately, he says she and his two daughters, Olivia and Rebecca, are on board. “My family is completely behind me,” he says. “Deb and the girls are working hard.”
The Shumlin marriage appears to have had its challenges, and this isn’t the first time the couple has split up. The candidate has acknowledged that they lived apart about six or seven years ago.
The earlier separation lasted about a year, Shumlin said.
Dealmaker, debater, operator
The only safe thing to say about the primary at this point is that even the prognosticators are divided. One Chittenden County pundit, who did not want his name used, believes that Racine and Markowitz are the current frontrunners. Nelson, on the other hand, believes that honor goes to Racine and Shumlin. “People know Deb (Markowitz’s) name,” he says, “but they don’t know quite what she does.”
The knock on Racine may be that “he’s too nice,” Nelson adds. “Peter is the best debater and he’s a quick study, but his image is more political. His image is mixed. People see him as an a dealmaker, as an operator.”
In fact, the image of political dealmaker is one that Shumlin himself promotes, touting his success in pulling together the votes needed to pass the Marriage Equality Act and then to override the governor’s veto.
A sworn enemy of Entergy, he was a prime mover in the vote to deny the Louisiana-based operator an extended license for the Vermont Yankee plant; lest anyone miss the point, he tags every reference to the Entergy with the phrase “the company that couldn’t tell the truth.”
That’s a 180-degree turn from the days when “the anti-nuclear critics used to call me the senator from Vermont Yankee. I helped them get preferential treatment, I helped them be in my county. When I turned on Vermont Yankee, it was really for one simple reason: I have never had a Vermont company not tell me the truth. And I don’t think we should put our future in the hands of a company we can’t trust.”
But even Shumlin will acknowledge that an ability to make deals is not necessarily the trait that voters most want in their governor. “I’m convinced that Vermonters think differently about the governor. It’s like the head of the table at Thanksgiving. That person must have a presence that prevents food fights from breaking out. The public in this election cycle wants a politician with a spine, a candidate who will take a tough stand even if it’s unpopular. People know I can do that.”
He also acknowledges that he is sometimes seen as untrustworthy or “ethically challenged” as a Seven Days story put it. Although the story was a joke, the label stuck. That’s a perception he considers an occupational hazard. “When you’ve been Senate president for 10 years, for everything you get done, you’ve left some people disappointed,” he says. “My colleagues re-elected me five times. What does that say about me? Would they vote for somebody they didn’t trust?”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, agrees with his assessment. “We re-elected him because we trust him to get things done,” says Ayer. “He’s a chess player. He always knows where he wants to be.”
Ayer also credits Shumlin with “an uncanny instinct for timing. He knows when to move and when to wait. The timing happens on his own clock.”
Shumlin as fiscal conservative
On some issues, Shumlin runs with the Democratic pack. All of the candidates have declared their opposition to extending the Vermont Yankee license, for instance, and most have taken issue with the budget-tightening maneuver known as Challenges for Change, albeit sometimes for different reasons. He favors what he calls a “single-pool health-care system” for Vermont, designed to contain costs by eliminating the fee-for-service model of payment.
However, he has broken with fellow Democrats on some points that are traditionally within the Democratic canon. He does not, for example, favor raising taxes on anything or anybody, arguing that “Vermonters are already overtaxed” and that taxes act as “a disincentive to the creation of wealth.”
In a recent Q&A at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce Expo, Shumlin stressed that “I label myself as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. You cannot spend a dollar and take in 80 cents. It doesn’t work.”
His own experience meeting payrolls, paying taxes and struggling with health-care costs has convinced him that “government’s role in business” is to “give business the tools it needs and then stay out of the way.” One such tool he championed was the creation of a $5 million risk-capital fund using federal stimulus money to help small businesses that are just short of being creditworthy by banking standards – in effect, a microfinance fund. He hammers hard on the need to bring manufacturing jobs back to the state, and worker retraining is high on this to-do list.
Throughout the campaign, he has been espousing state-funded distance learning for primary and secondary schools – an interconnected web of teachers and students – facilitating school-district consolidation, which “can’t be done from the top down. It cannot come out of Montpelier. You have to give carrots to local communities with tax incentives and money for economic analyses.”
The X factor
In a primary like this, however, good ideas will only get a candidate so far. Those ideas have to be sold to a crowd of potential voters, many of whom are wondering one thing only: Who can beat Brian Dubie?
While past primaries on both sides often have been driven by ideological concerns, Liz Bankowski, a long-time Democratic activist and Shumlin campaign adviser, surmises that the “Anybody But Dubie” mood of the Democratic electorate “may make this a more pragmatic decision than we usually see.”
She believes her candidate “is well positioned, largely because of his credentials and experience. He has the shortest learning curve. He also has a compelling personal story to tell – about his childhood and his learning disability and how it motivated him to see opportunities. I think he represents the best of what can happen for a kid from a small Vermont town – and he wants to make that happen for other Vermont kids.”
But she says Brian Dubie is the X factor in this primary, and his effect on the election is a great unknown. “What I hear anecdotally is that people want to nominate someone who can win in the general election,” says Bankowski, “It’s hard to understand what the dynamic of the primary will be.”
Archival video clips of Shumlin in action
Shumlin on Vermont Yankee’s most recent leak
Shumlin talks about his fiscal conservatism at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce Business EXPO
Shumlin and House Speaker talk about what they say they accomplished during the legislative session
Shumlin on partial reinstatement of the capital gains tax
Shumlin on the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund fix
Shumlin answers questions about current use, waste incineration at a gubernatorial candidates’ forum at the Environmental Action conference at Vermont Technical College in Randolph on Nov. 7, 2009.