Speaker’s right-hand man heading for new challenges in D.C.

Tom Cheney

Tom Cheney, aide to Speaker Shap Smith, takes notes during a press conference in the Cedar Creek Room at the Statehouse on the penultimate day of the 2012 legislative session. VTD/Taylor Dobbs

The state’s lawmakers may be settling back into their regular jobs this week or and perhaps taking a short breather before the campaign season heats up. But Speaker of the House Shap Smith will have more than elections to worry about.

After four years in the halls of the Statehouse, under then-Sen. Peter Shumlin and now Smith, Aide to the Speaker Tom Cheney is leaving the golden dome behind and heading to Washington, D.C.

Cheney, a 25-year-old University of Vermont alumnus, has spent the last three years working as Shap Smith’s right-hand man, speaking with the legislators and the public on the Speaker’s behalf, setting the House schedule, and making sure everything is running smoothly behind the scenes.

Despite being well-liked in the Statehouse and enjoying the work, Cheney is headed to D.C. in June to work as a legislative assistant for Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont’s only congressman.

“I love my job,” Cheney said. “[Vermont democracy] is the best democracy in the world as far as I’m concerned. I’m just thrilled to be here, and wish that I could stay forever, but I’ve got to spread my wings and fly, and I guess I’m going to take a path down to D.C.”

Smith and many of his colleagues said they are sad to see Cheney go.

Ashley Grant, Cheney’s counterpart in the Senate, said Cheney was a force in the Statehouse. She said his cheer and goodwill were assets, but he could also bear down and get things done.

“He’s not all sugarplum fairy,” she said, laughing about the often tense conversations between them. Ultimately, she said, Cheney is the quintessential Vermonter, and he will “elevate the standard of “Vermonty-ness” in D.C. politics.

“He doesn’t drink coffee, but if he did, he would put maple syrup in that coffee,” she said.

The Speaker said he will work on hiring a replacement for Cheney in the next four to six weeks.

“I’m looking for a clone of Tom,” Smith said. He said Cheney was extremely important in the everyday operations of the legislative session, and his replacement will have big shoes to fill.

“He’s a jack of all trades,” Smith said. “He’s answering phones, he’s helping me think through policy, he’s helping me think through political strategy, he’s interacting with members of the House, he’s interacting with the governor’s staff, members of the Senate. I mean, I see Tom as sort of the glue that keeps it all together.”

Smith has no doubts that the same qualities that have allowed him to thrive in the Statehouse will help him in the Capitol.

“If I were Peter Welch’s chief of staff, I would be worried that he’s got a potential competitor for the job,” Smith said.

Welch’s chief of staff, Bob Rogan, said Cheney’s experience in Vermont made him a great candidate for the job.

“Tom brings a unique understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing Vermont,” he said in an email. “He’ll continue to be an effective advocate for Vermonters in this job and we’re thrilled to have him join the team.”

When he begins work in Washington in June, Cheney will become one of a small group of assistants to Congressman Welch. He says he will be assigned a portfolio of issues on which he will advise Welch.

Before working for Smith, Cheney was an intern for Gov. Peter Shumlin, when he was Senate president pro tem in 2009.

Shumlin seemed to agree that Vermont’s democracy is the best, and he joked that Cheney’s decision was a lapse in judgement.

“He is one of the most effective, hard-working, bright people that Congressman Welch could have on his staff,” Shumlin said. “And we wish him a lot of luck down there in that cesspool.”

Taylor Dobbs

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