Politics

In Profile: Race car champ Phil Scott prefers low-gear political style

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and his other car, a late model sportsman's division Chevrolet he drives at tracks around the region. Photo courtesy Phil Scott for Lieutenant Governor campaign

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and his other car, a late model sportsman’s division Chevrolet he drives at tracks around the region. Photo courtesy Phil Scott for Lieutenant Governor campaign

Phil Scott would rather do battle on the dark gray asphalt in Turn 3 at Thunder Road than fight with lawmakers and the governor in the colorfully carpeted confines of the Vermont Statehouse. Even though he’s served 14 years in Montpelier, Scott says he’s not entirely comfortable with the sausage-making process he’s had his hands in as a state senator for 10 years and as lieutenant governor for the last four.

Scott says he’d rather be running his construction business than pounding the Senate gavel. He prefers raising money for charity than raising his voice and he sometimes shakes his head in wonder at the tactics some of his politically smoother colleagues use, maneuvers he’s more used to seeing at the racetrack.

“I’ve never described myself as a politician,” Scott says. “I don’t think it’s an attribute that is fulfilling for me. I’m always surprised when people think it’s such a big deal.”

Scott’s self-effacing response belies that, as the only Republican holding a statewide office, he is the titular head of the Vermont Republican Party. Scott has succeeded where other Republicans have failed, in one of the country’s most liberal states, defeating Democrat Steve Howard with a 49 percent to 42 percent margin in 2010 and crushing Progressive/Democrat Cassandra Gekas in 2012 by a 57 percent to 40 percent margin.

Phil Scott, left, and Cassandra Gekas

Phil Scott, left, and Cassandra Gekas

Although it might be popular to show a certain disdain for politics, for Scott, it seems to be more than a strategic appeal. Unlike many policy makers, Scott doesn’t thrive on the process. And, unlike at Thunder Road, where he’s seen more checkered flags than anyone in his class, Scott doesn’t seem to focus on winning at all costs at the Statehouse. He shies away from controversy, is not interested in lengthy debate (he only agreed to four this election cycle) and doesn’t like to “stand on a soapbox and scream” about his stance on the issues.

His opponent this year is Dean Corren, a Progressive endorsed by the Vermont Democratic Party, and who provides a clear contrast to Scott in style and on the issues. Corren, a former state representative, is a policy wonk and an outspoken proponent of issues popular with the left-leaning majority, including health care reform, renewable energy and the new economy. Scott’s positions are less clear, less vocal and more nuanced.

Historically, incumbents fare well in Vermont elections, especially those with Scott’s personal, down-to-earth appeal. Corren, however, is better known than Scott’s two previous opponents, has ample money to spend having qualified for $200,000 in public financing for his campaign, and he hails from the state’s most populated county. Observers say Corren may present Scott with his most difficult electoral challenge to date.

Scott’s reputation as “a nice guy” is so deep that it’s almost universally the first comment made about the Barre native. And that’s from both supporters and opponents. In a business where sharp elbows can fly and egos get bruised, Scott has avoided the brinkmanship and conflict many politicians thrive on. His style has prompted some to wonder whether he has the fire in his belly to run for governor; Scott insists he’s not holding down the #2 job to line himself up for an eventual run, and he states emphatically that his life would be complete without seeking or serving in the top job.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott marches in the Lyndonville Stars and Stripes parade. Photo courtesy Phil Scott for Lieutenant Governor campaign

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott marches in the Lyndonville Stars and Stripes parade. Photo courtesy Phil Scott for Lieutenant Governor campaign

“Everyone just assumes I want to run for governor. I may never run for governor, I don’t know,” Scott said in an interview last summer. “I enjoy being lieutenant governor at this point in time. In the future, if all the stars aligned for me personally and for Vermont as a whole, maybe I’ll do it. If I don’t ever run for governor, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in my life.”

Scott says he is more a doer than a talker. He owns a construction business, and when he isn’t working at the Statehouse or meeting with constituents, he is biking or racing his #14 car at Thunder Road in Barre. He also likes to work with his hands and after a long day at the Statehouse has been known to wind down by painting earth-moving equipment at his shop at Dubois Construction in Middlesex.

“It’s instant gratification for me, as opposed to the Legislature where it takes a long time to see the fruits of your labor,” he said.

When Tropical Storm Irene devastated the state, the governor took on the role as Sympathizer-in-Chief, visiting affected communities. Scott meanwhile, took on a major problem caused when the trailer parks in his hometown of Berlin and other parts of the state were flooded. Scott led the clean-up effort and raised money to demolish and remove the damaged mobile homes. He used his experience in road and infrastructure construction equipment to help solve other problems caused by flooding.

“When I arrived in Brandon, Route 7 was closed through town with a pizza shop sitting right there in the middle of the street,” Scott said. “Emergency officials were frustrated and didn’t know what to do.” Scott made calls to the Agency of Transportation and a friend in the rigging and crane business. “Within 24 hours, Route 7 was reopened.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott shovels debris into a bucket loader at a worksite in Berlin's Weston Mobil Home Park, Oct. 31, 2011. VTD/Josh Larkin

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott shovels debris into a bucket loader at a worksite in Berlin’s Weston Mobile Home Park, Oct. 31, 2011. File photo by Josh Larkin/VTDigger

As lieutenant governor, where he serves as the presiding officer of the Vermont Senate, Scott has a reputation for being cautious, fair and accommodating. He fits right in with the clubby atmosphere of the state Senate where personal relationships are paramount, especially when floor debate turns fractious. He established deep relationships during his 10 years serving Washington County before taking his current job.

Unlike his predecessors though, Scott hasn’t used the lieutenant governor’s office as a platform to build consensus or highlight certain issues. (Howard Dean focused on affordable housing and teen suicide; Doug Racine made child poverty his central issue; and Brian Dubie, a professional pilot, brought together aviation industry companies.)

Scott says the issue he is most passionate about is the “affordability crisis” in Vermont.  Each month, he spends a day working hands-on at a Vermont business. His purpose is to promote “the hard work Vermonters do every day.” He has bagged groceries, delivered heating fuel, milked cows, dehorned baby goats, cleaned microchips at IBM, installed rail ties and carved granite at Rock of Ages.

“In many different ways, I feel as though I’m a link to the outside world,” Scott says. “I get out to talk with many throughout Vermont and bring what I hear and feel back to the Senate. My role as a facilitator is to make sure the business of the people is taken care of. When structural issues arise, I’m here to shepherd some things to make sure our work gets completed.”

Constituent work is very important to Scott, and his frustration with the functionality of the health care exchange website stems from trying to help people get insurance through the system. And yet, given his position as head of the opposition party, he was one of the last prominent Republicans to publicly complain about Vermont Health Connect.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott on a tour of IBM.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott on a tour of IBM.

“I’m not an activist, I’m a problem solver,” Scott says. “I get in the trenches, I do the work, I get things accomplished. I think keeping track of everything you’ve accomplished so you can tell everyone what you’ve done isn’t part of my makeup.”

His accomplishments in the Senate are limited to the relatively safe zone of capital bill expenditures and transportation spending proposals.

His critics within the Republican Party, who declined to speak on the record, say they wish that Scott would take a more activist, political role in support of free market, Republican values. Some of those critics believe Scott has been co-opted by Gov. Peter Shumlin, who made Scott a member of his cabinet. They say, for example, that Scott should have blasted the governor and his administration for bungling the state’s health care exchange.

Peter Shumlin and Phil Scott.

Peter Shumlin and Phil Scott. Photo by Terry J. Allen

Darcie Johnston, a party activist who has been critical of Shumlin’s health care reform efforts, said the relationship between Shumlin, a Democratic governor, and Scott, a Republican lieutenant governor, is unique. In the past, she said, the lieutenant governor has played a watchdog role and the position can be a proving ground for building the candidate who is next going to run for governor.

“I think it’s been hard because he hasn’t wanted to be critical and so it has left a void of people who are credible going after the governor,” Johnston said. “It’s left almost no one and that’s hard when you want to hold a governor accountable.”

In general, Johnston and others say, Scott isn’t Republican enough and does not draw enough of a distinction between himself and Blue Dog Democrats.

Scott says in his defense that’s just not how he operates.

“I know that does frustrate some, that’s just the way I am,” Scott said in an interview last summer. “I’m not going to change my style and who I am for someone else. I’m quite comfortable doing things the way I’m doing them.”

Eric Davis, a retired professor of political science who taught at Middlebury College, says other Republicans leaders, including Govs. Jim Douglas and Dick Snelling, were personally popular like Scott, but that they also held particular positions that were clear to voters.

Douglas and Snelling were outspoken about the need to restrain the growth of state spending, for example. Douglas was never a supporter of single-payer health care. In contrast, Scott has not come out against the initiative. He will only say that he is “skeptical” about the administration’s health care reform efforts, and he wants to see the details.

“Douglas was associated with a certain set of issue positions, and you don’t see that with Phil Scott,” Davis says. “If you talk about issues, some like what you say and some not.”

A can-do attitude

Phillip Scott was born in Barre in 1958. His father, Scotty, was a World War II veteran who lost both his legs in the D-Day invasion.

Scott said in a 2010 VTDigger interview with Sally West Johnson that he never thought of his dad’s disability as abnormal, or as an impediment to a regular childhood. Scotty took his kids camping and fishing, and played catch with them. That can-do ethic was passed on to him through his father’s example.

His dad died when he was 11. Scott told Johnson that an uncle taught him how to hunt and bought him his first shotgun. Another uncle taught him to ride snowmobiles, which began Scott’s passion for motor sports. An aunt had a farm in Elmore and introduced him to the agrarian lifestyle. He spent the weekends with relatives and learned how to pack his bags and take care of himself.

“I guess I was pretty independent from a young age,” he recalled in a 2010 interview.

It was his mother who introduced Scott to Thunder Road. She remains a huge fan of race car driving and now lives in Florida, right near the site of the Daytona 500.

“It was in my blood when we were kids growing up in Barre,” Scott says. “Thunder Road was prevalent in the social fabric in central Vermont. We had neighbors who raced, it was part of the natural thing growing up.”

Scott stuck with it and he enjoys his status as all-time wins leader at the Road. Putting the right team together, he says, is what it’s all about. “I love competition, I love all facets of racing,” Scott says.

Track co-owner Ken Squier said of Scott: “The ones that persevere are the ones that can take it to the limit, go deep (on the track) and yet stay in control. He’s also patient and lets the race come to him.”

Scott graduated from Spaulding High School, and then attended the University of Vermont where he studied to become a shop teacher. After he graduated in 1980, he opened a motorcycle shop in Morrisville, delivered fuel oil, and worked as a plumber, welder and carpenter to make ends meet.

Phil Scott

Phil Scott

Eventually, the motorcycle operation became successful enough for an expansion on property owned by Howard Manosh. Scott obtained a local zoning permit and was nearly finished with construction of the new building when he received a cease-and-desist order from the regional Act 250 commission. “I had no idea what an Act 250 permit was,” he told Johnson, “or why you had to have one.”

That experience would prove to be the match that lit his political fire.

By the time he received the permit a year later, he had been offered a job with his uncle’s firm, DuBois Construction Inc. So he scrapped the bike shop plan and joined the company. But the Act 250 experience stuck with him. In the late 1990s he became a member of House Speaker Michael Obuchowski’s advisory group, and in 2000, he ran for the Washington County state Senate seat.

Eventually he became an owner in DuBois, which specializes in earth construction and now has about 30 employees. The company, which largely focuses on municipal work, does everything from drilling postholes for mailboxes to installing artesian wells to paving.

Between managing the company and fulfilling his duties as lieutenant governor, as well as his appearances at Thunder Road, Scott stays in shape by biking 20 miles a day.

Another example of his desire to take on projects instead of talking about a problem, Scott founded a major charity event  — Wheels for Warmth — in 2004, which resells  used snow tires. The profits, which have totaled about $200,000 over the past 10 years, go to provide fuel assistance for low-income Vermonters.

Scott has two adult daughters. He and his second wife, a nurse, live in Berlin.

A nonpolitical, political career

When Scott ran for state Senate in 2000, he told a gathering at the Barre Labor Hall that he wasn’t a politician. Rep. Paul Poirier, a longtime Barre representative and one-time majority leader, sent him a note and insisted that he was now a politician, and “you’re not going to get away with that.”

While he may not have been motivated by politics, Scott was certainly driven by personal experience. In his first Senate term, Scott served on the Land Use Permitting Process Interim Committee. It took a year and a half to get changes to Act 250 through both the House and the Senate, and the final bill was a result of substantial compromises on both sides.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, presides over the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dick Sears (left) of Bennington is one of his biggest supporters. Photo courtesy Phil Scott for Lieutenant Governor campaign

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, presides over the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dick Sears (left) of Bennington is one of his biggest supporters. Photo courtesy Phil Scott for Lieutenant Governor campaign

He is also willing to change his position, something many politicians are loathe to do. During the first physician-assisted suicide debate, he was in favor of giving people the right to make the choice to die. But after he heard the impassioned pleas of opponents and considered his father’s experience in Walter Reed General Hospital, where he came very close to dying from hepatitis, Scott changed his mind. “Had he been given that choice then,” he says of his father, “he might have given up.” The legislation eventually passed in 2012.

He is not easy to politically pigeonhole. As a senator he voted for gay marriage, sustained Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of the 2009 budget and voted against a proposal Shumlin engineered that helped to force Vermont Yankee to close. He has also been endorsed by the Vermont Right to Life Committee, even though he’s pro-choice, because he supports parental notification requirements for underage girls seeking abortions.

As chair of the Senate Institutions Committee, Scott pushed for a grant application system for distributing annual grant funds to municipalities. Previously, the money was doled out somewhat capriciously based on grantees access to the members of the committee. He helped to develop a similar system for the Agency of Transportation.

“Many would agree it has changed the dynamics and created a more equitable process,” Scott says. “I’m proud of that. It’s better for politics in general and builds trust in government.”

He also helped to create a biomass heating program for schools and an investment of about $50 million in state park infrastructure.

As lieutenant governor, Scott plays the role of arbiter in the staid 30-member Senate, which prides itself on collegiality, and he is largely trusted by Senate Democrats, Progressives and the GOP. His tack and leadership were particularly crucial in the 2010 biennium when the Senate president, Sen. John Campbell, struggled to maintain control over fellow Democrats.

Phil  Scott finishes up his bike tour of Vermont's 14 counties on Tuesday in Barre. VTD Photo/Alicia Freese

Phil Scott finishes up a bike tour of Vermont’s 14 counties in Barre. File photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Sen. Dick Mazza, a Democrat who represents Grand Isle and Franklin counties, works closely with Scott and raises money for him even though he’s from the opposition party. At the last “garage” fundraiser with 150 people, he brought in about $25,000 for Scott. “I’m never bashful about it,” Mazza says. “I’m doing it because I believe in the guy.”

Jason Gibbs, the secretary of civil and military affairs under Gov. Jim Douglas, campaigned with Scott in 2010 when Gibbs ran for Secretary of State. Gibbs said Scott’s style of leadership is unique. In a media world dominated by sound bites, he said it’s easy to confuse “thoughtfulness with indecision and with Phil Scott it is pure thoughtfulness.”

“He makes a point of listening to all points of view on every issue, and he learns from those conversations, and I personally admire Phil because he takes what he learns and he applies it to his leadership,” Gibbs says. “In political parlance, it’s the willingness to reach across the aisle on a personal level.”

Others disagree, particularly those on the political left. Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Democrat and Progressive who represents Washington County, characterizes Scott’s Mr. Nice Guy reputation as a distraction from his unwillingness to take strong positions on issues.

“People talk about the fact that Phil Scott is a nice guy,” Pollina says. “That is true, however, the Senate and the Legislature is full of nice guys and nice women. The constant refrain that Phil Scott is a nice guy tends to imply that the rest of us are not.”

Scott, however, also gets heat from some fellow Republicans, who say Scott needs to set the tone for the party and that he needs to take a stand on issues. They also grumble that Scott is not a team player, despite protestations otherwise, and describe him as a “solo campaigner” who is unwilling to appear with other GOP candidates. Scott flatly denies this charge.

Phil Scott and Jack Lindley (left) confer before the start of the Vermont GOP state committee convention. Photo by Alicia Freese

Phil Scott and Jack Lindley (left) confer before the start of the Vermont GOP state committee convention. File photo by Alicia Freese/VTDigger

Scott didn’t get involved in the politics of the state party until about a year ago when he decided he wanted to change the Vermont GOP leadership. Darcie Johnston, former staffer for Sen. Jim Jeffords and campaign manager for state Sen. Randy Brock, says Scott was smart to build a political foundation with the party.

His approach to building the party is less about galvanizing the base, and more about shifting the Vermont GOP toward more moderate positions. The leadership shake-up divided the party last year and ultimately resulted in the decision to back gubernatorial candidate Scott Milne, who has no political experience, instead of Brock, who had a previous campaign under his belt and name recognition. Subsequently, the party had difficulty recruiting additional statewide candidates for office. In the aftermath, Scott and the new chair, Dave Sunderland, have said they want to unite factions within the GOP. Johnston says they have to do more than pay lip service to the idea.

“To do that you’ve got to include the people you differ from, and I’m not sure that anyone’s done that,” Johnston says.

Despite her misgivings and her decision to back a Libertarian candidate over the Republican standard bearer in the governor’s race, Johnston says of Scott: “He is a far better lieutenant governor than Dean Corren is going to be for businesses and for individuals who are concerned about health care reform.”

For Scott, it all comes down to service.

First and foremost, he said: “I want to be thought of as a Vermonter.”

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor of VTDigger and the executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 25. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

Email: [email protected]

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