Vermont Senate’s bend to the left could shift power dynamic

Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell. VTD/Josh Larkin

Senate President Pro-Tem John Campbell. VTD/Josh Larkin

Five newcomers to the Vermont Senate could have a profound impact on the dynamics of the Green Room this coming session.

The old guard — Randy Brock, Vince Illuzzi, Sara Kittell, Harold Giard and Hinda Miller — have made way for a group of new lawmakers who could, as a contingent, have major influence on the way the body functions.

For one thing, Democrats may have further strengthened their majority. Unless Dustin Degree, the Republican candidate in Franklin County, wins a recount, the Dems will have 23 seats, and Republicans will have seven. In the last biennium, the Republicans had eight representatives in Senate.

If Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell retains his role as leader of the group of 30 lawmakers, the power dynamic could change considerably. That’s because, observers say, a liberal majority among the Democrats, could challenge Campbell’s tenuous hold on control of the already difficult-to-manage egos in the Senate.

The four new Democrats include Christopher Bray, D-Addison, David Zuckerman, D-Chittenden, John Rodgers, D-Essex Orleans, and Don Collins, D-Franklin. Collins’ victory, with just 26 votes over Republican candidate Degree, could be overturned. Degree says he will ask for a recount.

The sole new Senate Republican, at this point, is dairy farmer and Highgate resident Norm McAllister, who served in the House from 2003-2012.

Lobbyists and political analysts say the emergence of a large liberal and progressive bloc could shift the power balance in the Senate and lead to more chaotic debate.

Sen.-elect David Zuckerman, P-Burlington

Zuckerman’s election to the 30-member body could prove particularly challenging for Campbell, who openly dissed the candidate, when he ran as a Progressive first and Democrat second in the most recent election.

Campbell didn’t back Zuckerman in the General Election, despite his Democratic affiliation, deciding instead to back Zuckerman’s unsuccessful Chittenden County opponent Debbie Ingram.

Downs Rachlin Martin lobbyist and Montpelier Mayor John Hollar said the new personalities could spell trouble for Campbell. “I think the Senate is going to continue to be a very difficult body to manage, because of the clear divisions between the moderate Democrats and the far-left-leaning Democrats,” said “The election has, in my view, exacerbated that split in the party.”

“It’s clearly a big division, as many as 13, who are pretty liberal, and another 10 to 11 who are more moderate,” Hollar said. “That split is more evident and it’s deeper than any I’ve seen in the Senate, in the 20 years I’ve been in the business.”

While Hollar wouldn’t name specific senators, obvious candidates are the three Progressives in the mix, Tim Ashe, Anthony Pollina and the newly elected Zuckerman. Others known for leaning visibly left include Peter Galbraith, Phil Baruth, Ginnie Lyons, Sally Fox and Dick McCormack.

Political analyst Eric Davis called Zuckerman’s election “by far the most significant change” in the Senate for Democrats.

“It’ll be very interesting to see how Zuckerman and Campbell get along or don’t get along,” said Davis. He continued: “I think there may be a critical mass of people – I’d call them Progressives and progressive Democrats – who, particularly on taxing and spending issues, may take some position together.”

Davis also said this liberal faction could be a prime source of opposition to Gov. Peter Shumlin in the next session in lieu of a weakened Republican presence in the Legislature and statewide offices.

As for Campbell, Davis said factionalism wasn’t a problem last year, compared to problems with how the committee system functioned and how bills were bottled up in committees, but, he said, “It’s going to be a difficult job for whoever is president pro tem, whether it’s John Campbell or Ann Cummings, keeping a very large Democratic caucus working together.

“They’re not going to agree on every issue, but even having them proceeding in the same direction, that’s the big problem next year,” he said.

Both Zuckerman and Campbell insisted they could overcome their differences and work together well. Campbell played down potential political divides in the Senate, and expressed confidence he could beat back a potential leadership contest from current Senate finance chair Cummings, as reported by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz last month.

“I would imagine that there would be certain people whose priorities may be a little different,” said Campbell. “But not so different that it’d create a chasm of some sort. I’m not really overly concerned about that.”

As for Cummings’ challenge, Campbell said he’d already contacted senators, securing votes and promises, for a majority of members both in his caucus and in the Senate as a whole. “So I feel comfortable that I’d be re-elected,” he told VTDigger, though he wouldn’t specify how many senators had backed him.

Zuckerman’s view? “Certainly the adjustment from Hinda Miller to me does bring a different perspective, particularly on some fiscal issues, and probably on how to organize around some social justice issues. And I think there’s some pent-up interest by a number of senators around pieces of legislation, like the child [care] worker’s bill and other issues, that may gain some momentum.”

“In the last two years,” Zuckerman said, “I think, it was difficult to get things done in the Senate, and this maybe will unlock some of that difficulty. I don’t think my election will radically change things, but if it can help shift the dynamic, then hopefully that’s progress.”

View the most updated elections results at VPR’s website, which has more complete results than the Secretary of State’s website.

The Republican perspective

Republicans have a new face in the Senate thanks to Norm McAllister, who won the Franklin County seat alongside Don Collins. He replaces retiring state Sen. Randy Brock, who lost his gubernatorial bid Tuesday.

Meanwhile, GOP candidate Bob Lewis’ defeat in Essex-Orleans, a place formerly represented by respected political maverick and Republican Illuzzi, comes as a hard loss to Republicans in the state, according to Davis.

“The Northeast Kingdom used to be nearly monolithically Republican in the Legislature,” he said. “But now, if you look at a map, that part of the state is becoming increasingly Democratic,” said Davis. “The Republican core is retreating into the more northerly parts of the Northeast Kingdom,” said Davis.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland

With two high profile Republican losses in the Senate thanks to Illuzzi and Brock’s failed statewide bids, the interesting question for Davis becomes: “Who replaces those two as the major spokesperson of the Republican Party in the Senate?”

Davis cites Kevin Mullin, a Rutland senator, as a likely up-and-coming Republican leader, saying that Mullin represents the sort of moderate Republicanism that can be successful in Vermont. Campbell described Mullin as “an extremely talented Republican,” while Davis highlights his successful politicking with Democrats, and his more moderate positions, like a 2009 vote for marriage equality.

Illuzzi himself is worried about who will fill his former chairmanship of the Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs, because he believes that any replacement will need a depth of private sector business experience, not commonly found.

As for a divided Democratic caucus, Illuzzi offered these words: “I don’t think the Democratic caucus ever came together as a unified body over the last two years, which, of course, has an impact on Campbell’s ability to lead – because you’re leading a divided caucus.”

He said it would be premature to comment on potential coalitions among Senate Democrats.

Zuckerman’s final take is similarly speculative.

“I honestly don’t exactly know yet how all the changes are going to play out. But it’s going to be really interesting to see,” he said.

For comparison, read a past analysis of what experts considered the most competitive and important state Senate contests this year.

Committee chairmanships

Besides the question of who might fill Ann Cummings’ place as finance chair if she becomes president pro tem, there’s even a question over whether Campbell will take that position away from Cummings, should he retain his leadership position.

Sen. Ann Cummings. VTD/Josh Larkin

Sen. Ann Cummings. VTD/Josh Larkin

Campbell wouldn’t say directly whether he’d strip Cummings of the finance chair, arguing that the decision isn’t his solely; he receives input from the Committee on Committees.

“If any move was made with any of the committees, it would have nothing to do with whether or not somebody was running for a certain position – in this case, running against me,” he said. “That would not enter into my decision-making at all.”

He added, “Again, it’s premature until the Committee on Committees has been re-elected. It’s up to us to discuss the various options, but any time a new biennium starts, every chairmanship, every vice chairmanship, is up for discussion.”

Campbell hoped to maintain at least one Republican chair, though he wouldn’t say if a Republican would replace Illuzzi as either economic development or institutions chair. Campbell said that political party membership doesn’t generally matter for chair and committee assignments.

“I think what the Committee on Committees will be looking for is who will be the best suited for individual committees,” he said.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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  • Tim Cansfield

    Soon the financial chickens will come home to roost, and one-party rule is going to be revealed as a very bad idea indeed. Notwithstanding our dreamer democrat legislators contentions otherwise, wealthy people are fleeing Vermont for states with saner fiscal policies. Guess what that means? That’s right. Higher taxes for all of us left behind. Except for the “most vulernable” and “at risk” of course. They will still be supported for free by you and me.

    • John Gallagher

      Who, pray tell, are all these wealthy people leaving Vermont? That’s a myth, plain and simple. If it were not, people who spout this garbage would be able to point to actual cases. They cannot, and hence, have no basis for this hysterical claim.

  • walter carpenter

    “wealthy people are fleeing Vermont for states with saner fiscal policies”

    They might even be coming back in because we have saner fiscal policies than most places.

  • Nat Rudarakanchana wrote (last sentence of third paragraph)

    “… In the last biennium, the Republicans had eight representatives in Senate.”

    Although it is understood how it might have been meant or intended, members of the Senate are senators, not “representatives”. For future reference, rather than using the term “representatives”, using the term “members” might work better in instances along these lines.

    • Christian Noll

      Hey yeah Nat didn’t you mean to say eight Represenatives in the House? and not “senate?”


  • Renée Carpenter

    “View the most updated elections results at VPR’s website, which has more complete results than the Secretary of State’s website.”

    That is a disturbing statement!

  • Renée Carpenter

    “Davis cites Kevin Mullin, a Rutland senator, as a likely up-and-coming Republican leader, saying that Mullin represents the sort of moderate Republicanism that can be successful in Vermont. Campbell described Mullin as ‘an extremely talented Republican…’

    This is another disturbing item in this article, given Kevin Mullin’s role as Vermont chair of ALEC- not a moderate group at all. Funded by large corporations and right-wing “think tanks”s with a self-interest quite separate from democratic process, the role of ALEC in state legislatures across the country has been a coordinated effort to insinuate extreme policies, behind the scenes. This is no minor association and should be clearly understood.

  • senator to watch:

    Tim Ashe.

    Will the smartest guy in the room become the bridge between progressives and moderate Democrats. He has the experience, political skills, relationships, understanding of the process and a set of core values that reflect where Vermont is right now.

  • Bob Stannard

    I think it might be helpful if we could see concrete evidence that “wealthy people are fleeing Vermont”. This has been a battle cry since I served in the Vt. House back in the ’80’s, yet after 9/11, and now after Hurricane Sandy, people of means look to Vermont as a safe haven.

    I might also point out that those moving here tend to be more aligned with the Democractic Party. It may not be proof, but I would argue that Tuesday’s election might invalidate the claim raised by Mr. Cansfield.

    • Tim Cansfield

      This is the same line toed by all liberals in power when they are called to account for their zealous tax and spend policies. Concrete evidence is easy, but you really don’t want to know it do you? Just of the top of my head I can name three high-profile mulit-millionaires who have changed their residencies to Florida recently. Your party’s refusal to acknowledge this push-back against unreasonable taxation is akin to the Chinese strategy of maintaining the Tieneman Square massacre never happened as a way of explaining it to their citizens. Democrats in power live in denial while the rest of us are required to live in the real world of being the highest taxed state in the union. Don’t believe that either? Here’s a link to a liberal Orange County Press Club blog and the first place honor detailed below. You must be very proud, Mr. Stannard.

      #1. Vermont: $3,861 per capita

      The second-least populated state in the country collected $91 million in property taxes — 38% of total state tax collected. There is both a school property tax and a municipal property tax for personal property and a statewide education tax imposed on all nonresidential property at a rate of $1.35 for every $100 of the assessed value. The state that pumps out more maple syrup than any other has a 6% sales tax, 9% on restaurant meals, and anyone earning more than $372,950 pays 8.9% of their personal income to the state.

      • Tim Cansfield

        It is good to see that you have assumed some modicom of civility. Your suggestion that I move from the state my family has inhabited for 7 generations is as rude as it is absent of intellect. But, see if you can control your emotions well enough to use my correct name.

        As far as the rest of your vacuous response, you and the rest of the entitlement babies are going to have a very rude awakening in the not too distant future when your house of spending cards all come floating down. I realize that your ostrich approach to governing tells you that you are right and omniscient and erudite and intellectually elite, but all that adds up to squat when the money runs out. And the money WILL run out because even confiscating every cent those hated rich have will not pay enough of the debt to forestall the economic collapse that is coming. So just keep voting for the big spenders and you will see. And keep in mind there is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity.

        • David Bell

          Nope, you and the rest of the kill the poor and dance on their graves fanatics will still by shaking your fists and bawling all through your sad, depressing and miserable lives.

        • Tim Cansfield

          Mr. Bell, really? That is the best you can do? Really? Nothing of intellectual value to add, so you resort to hysterical rants? There is no better example of the angry rhetoric that divides our nation that your nasty post. Just think if set aside your intolerance for opposing viewpoints for a moment and contemplated a rational, reasoned response. And just think if everyone did the same. No name-calling, no false accusations, no distortions just to support your point of view.

        • Marty McMahon

          “even confiscating every cent those hated rich have will not pay enough of the debt to forestall the economic collapse that is coming”

          I agree a lot is coming but it is from the vast gap in wealth – however, to be accurate, if you do the math, confiscating every cent will pay off the debt and allow for a tax free America for years to come. That is just how much wealth has been sequestered.

      • John French

        Careful Roy, your liberal tolerance is in danger of being displayed.

    • Karl Riemer

      No need. It’s a self-evident statement. Self-evidently true for those who believe it, and believe that belief makes things so. Self-evidently false for those who not only live here but actually interact with the full spectrum of people who also live here. Refutation on the basis of evidence has little influence on the former and assertions unsupported by evidence have little influence on the latter. In other words, as with all specious reactionary assertions, the most effective invalidation is by ballot.

  • Tim Cansfield

    Of those who say nothing, few are silent. Thanks for your input Mr. Moss. Have a nice day.

  • Cheryl Pariseau

    While people of wealth may be moving to this state. They are not people of wealth with earned income. Instead it is assist/investment based income, which is counted very differently than earning income. A family of 4 who have $4 million in savings earning 1% interest compounded monthly would make $40,183.84 per year off those funds, which is below 185% of the federal poverty guidelines of $42,642.50 for a family of 4. This then make the family eligible for 3squares (food stamps), Fuel Assistance, Discounted health insurance via Catamount Health and property tax prebates. If we are going to increase the income thresholds for these types of programs we need to have an assists test. I have no issue helping those who actually need help, but I am feel that more and more are receiving assistance that truly do not need it.

  • Walter Carpenter

    “This is another disturbing item in this article, given Kevin Mullin’s role as Vermont chair of ALEC.”

    Good point, Renee.

  • Renee,

    The Election Nite Reporting system on the Sec of State’s web site is brand new this year – and it is in beta or test phase. VT’s hard-working Town Clerks input the data via a password protected web portal – not the SoS office. It is at this point purely voluntary on the part of the clerks.

    • Christian Noll

      Mr Condos,

      If that’s the case then you should STATE THAT on your web page that’s taking the information and distributing it.

      Come on Mr “Transparency!”

  • David Bell


    Tim says I have: “Nothing of intellectual value to add, so you resort to hysterical rants.”

    But Tim also says that the Democrats tax policy in light of a clear win in Vermont is “akin to the Chinese strategy of maintaining the Tieneman Square massacre never happened”.

    So Tim, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    But keep clinging to those right wing delusions, keep telling us that the overwhelming majority of Vermonters who voted for Shumlin are nothing but a bunch of worthless moochers who want free stuff.

    In short, keep up your own hysterical rants and prophesies of imminent Galtian destruction.

    As a wise man once said “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

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