State auditor’s race: Policy wonk vs. politician

Doug Hoffer, Photo by Terry J. Allen

In close elections, the difference between victory and defeat sometimes comes down to campaign style and political personality.

In the auditor’s race, those intangibles could be a determining factor.

The two candidates — Doug Hoffer, a Burlington Democrat/Progressive, and longtime state Sen. Vince Illuzzi, a Northeast Kingdom Republican — are on the opposite ends of the Myers/Briggs personality scale. Hoffer, a policy analyst by trade who has a great deal of experience in the world of finance, is the first to admit campaigning is not his “primary” skillset. Illuzzi, on the other hand, is a seasoned politician and an energetic, gladhanding campaigner who has no financial experience, aside from his role as a member of the Senate appropriations committee. Illuzzi is, by profession, a lawyer.

Perhaps Hoffer’s campaign slogan best sums up his approach: “I’m a numbers guy. If you want a career politician, don’t vote for me.”

Is Hoffer’s focus on policy a liability, in light of Illuzzi’s grasp on campaigning and nitty gritty politics? Or will the letter D, in a presidential election year in which most Vermonters will likely cast ballots for Barack Obama, carry him to victory?

Political observers say the race could go either way, but Hoffer could better his chances if he drew more media attention to his campaign.

Though Hoffer says he’s working a lot harder this year than he did in 2010, much of that effort has been behind the scenes. He has been meeting with the Democratic and Progressive activists around the state “who staff the county headquarters, make the phone calls, do the canvassing, and all the other tasks associated with campaigns.”

In an email, Hoffer wrote, “I need those folks and I feel strongly that they’ll work that much harder if they’ve met me and gotten a sense of who I am and what I bring to the job.”

Hoffer has not hosted an official campaign launch, in contrast to his opponent Vince Illuzzi’s recent well-publicized event in Barre, and a high-profile fundraiser in Burlington.

A sometime favorite among labor groups, Hoffer has received just one union endorsement — from the AFL-CIO. Illuzzi, meanwhile, has racked up backing from the state’s two largest unions, the Vermont NEA and the Vermont State Employees Association, because of his pro-labor stances in the Senate. Though endorsements don’t always spell victory for candidates (rewind to the TJ Donovan-Bill Sorrell race), union support can give candidates a short media boost and boots on the ground the day of the election.

Last month, Hoffer raised about $5,600 while his opponent brought in $12,400. Illuzzi has brought in about $83,000, about a third of which is a personal loan. Hoffer, has drawn about $42,000 in total contributions (including a $10,000 personal loan). He said he plans to step up fundraising in the seven weeks before Election Day.

Neither Illuzzi nor Hoffer have hired a campaign manager – both say they can’t afford it — and prefer to spend money on ad buys.

Political scientist Eric Davis describes the race as “very close,” and he said if Hoffer wants to beat Illuzzi, “he needs someone to help him with strategy and visibility.” Davis added that the Illuzzi endorsements from the state employees and the teacher’s unions were somewhat unusual, since these groups are often pro-Democratic.

“Doug is not a particularly politically oriented person,” explained Davis. “Policy is his thing, not politics. He needs someone more politically connected to help him.”

Davis said Hoffer’s campaign would benefit from more news coverage, either through a formal launch or a major press event in which senior Democratic officials like Gov. Peter Shumlin or a member of the congressional delegation publicly back him.

Hoffer, dismissed concerns about the energy level of his campaign as distracting from “matters of substance.” He ticked off a list of media interviews with Seven Days, WCAX, the Newport Daily News, the Barton Chronicle and the Waterbury Record, among others.

“I didn’t know that it was a requirement to become state auditor — to have a campaign launch … I haven’t done one: does that make me any more or less qualified?” Hoffer said. “I am a policy guy, yes. That is the point. Whether I’m a better campaigner…That’s not my primary skillset. My skillset is about numbers, analysis, judgment. It depends on if you want to make a decision based on who’s the best campaigner, or on someone best suited to the job.”

One longtime Statehouse observer criticized Hoffer for simply appearing at campaign events hosted by other politicians, including one for Bernie Sanders earlier this month, and another for state treasurer Beth Pearce later this week, rather than running his own events.

A campaign log provided by Hoffer indicates he has been campaigning across the state, and has invested much of his effort in meetings with the media and party activists.

Vermont Democratic Party chair Jake Perkinson says if Hoffer’s campaign is less visible than others it’s because he’s “operating with less resources than a lot of candidates.” Perkinson said Hoffer is also focused on new media instead of traditional communications structures. Hoffer paid over $800 for Facebook ads last month, state campaign finance filings show.

Perkinson described Hoffer’s strategy as a grassroots, door-to-door approach. “That’s the kind of quiet work, not something that gets reported on,” said Perkinson. “The guy’s out there, making connections. I’ve seen just how effective that sort of campaign can be, that boots on the ground work.”

While several Democratic Party members support Illuzzi, including Sen. Dick Mazza, Perkinson said that cross party backing stems from personal loyalty developed over years working together, said Perkinson, rather than divisions among Democrats.

“Although Doug may not be adept at the traditional outgoing campaigning sort of schtick, I think there’s a lot of people it doesn’t come naturally to,” Perkinson said. “It’s really kind of the tension in American politics. The skills required to get elected aren’t necessarily going to be the skills best used in the position. The auditor’s office might be a good example of that sort of tension.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday Illuzzi was preparing footage and photos for a television commercial planned for next month. (Hoffer also has ads in the works.)

Illuzzi says he is trying to meet as many Vermonters as possible, often through introductions from people he has worked with in the Legislature. He maintains that the state auditor doesn’t need to have a financial background to be effective. (Several politicians who have held the post, including Liz Ready and Ed Flanagan, were not accountants or financial analysts.) Illuzzi says the competent staff in the auditor’s office, and firms contracted to do auditing work, like KPMG, could handle much of the daily work. Illuzzi says his strength is understanding how state government works.

Editor’s note: Anne Galloway contributed to this report.

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Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • Here’s the primary difference I see between these two candidates: Illuzi went looking for a statewide office to run for and settled on Auditor – Hoffer, on the other hand, wants to be an Auditor.

    That is the biggest reason I’m at this point planning on voting for Hoffer.

  • Liz Curry

    It’s dismaying to see a “People” magazine type story on VT Digger given all of the substantive differences between Hoffer and Illuzzi. This is far from a style & personality campaign. Hoffer has been in the trenches analyzing economic, demographic and financial data for decades and identifying weaknesses in state policy based on cumulative trends and impacts. The reporter accurately describes Illuzzi as the glad-hander politician who often votes with the direction of the wind in the NEK to please his constituents despite his values and beliefts. This type of reporting furthers “politics as fame seekers” and does nothing to further civic engagement so badly needed in a fledging democracy.

  • Cynthia Browning

    I agree with Rama Schneider completely: we need a state auditor who actually wants to be state auditor, not one that settled on that office after prolonged consideration of alternatives.

    Also, what did Senator Illuzzi mean on the WCAX program “You Can Quote Me” when he said that he would continue to do the state’s attorney job at the same time as taking office as auditor for some period? Will he then be working part time as auditor but collecting full time pay during that time?

    Is this another sign of a certain ambivalence on his part about the job?

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

  • Mike Curtis

    Note to Doug Hoffer:

    You can’t be the State Auditor unless you get elected.

    Getting elected requires you to run a vigorous, energetic campaign.

    Campaign events matter
    Hoopla matters
    Visuals matter (smile for photos!)
    Tone matters
    Shake hands, hold babies, pan for cameras. Make a splash. It all matters.

    New media is great … but still doesn’t have the reach required to win a campaign in a rural state.

    I’m on your side all the way, but if you’re going to win any political office, you have to mount a better campaign.

  • Charles Merriman

    I have had personal experience with Doug Hoffer. I do not trust him. I find him mean-spirited, cynical, and motivated by his political leanings, not by a moral code. I will not vote for him. Vince, on the other hand, is a wildman. He is not my first choice for auditor but–to be frank–I think Vince will make things extremely interesting. I am thankful that the Democrats control State government and I hope that control continues. It is good, though, for our democracy to have someone from the other party in a watchdog position. So I will vote for Vince and brace myself for Toad’s Wild Ride if he wins.

  • John Fairbanks

    I have a great deal of personal and professional experience with Doug Hoffer, which has engendered a great deal of respect for his intelligence and analytic abilities. He practices a dogged attitude towards uncovering and presenting the facts and has the ability to interpret his findings in real-world terms.

    Vermont deserves someone like Doug, and I hope, now that we have the character profile behind us, Digger and other news outlets will get in there and write and broadcast about the stuff that matters.

  • While Vince is known by everyone it seems, including myself, when it comes to auditing our State Government practices, there is no better person than Doug Hoffer. He has played this role as an outsider. Wouldn’t it be great to have him working FOR US? He put in a good showing on WCAX this morning. He has my vote!
    Mary Alice Bisbee

  • Mari Cordes,

    We at Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals have worked with Doug Hoffer for the past few years, and know him to be very bright, and dogged (ditto to John Fairbanks above) about knowing, understanding, and communicating about – to the detail – complex systems. He has regularly provided Vermonters with astute economic and policy analyses of health care reform and other issues important to the state. He will work very hard in this position, and will be very capable.

  • walter carpenter

    Doug Hoffer would be a fantastic auditor for the state. I have met him. He is a genius at making all these inscrutable numbers beyond the grasp of understanding for the rest of us understandable so that even a numbers ignoramus like me can make sense of them — something that is no easy feat.