The Shumlin Legacy: A governor who wasn’t afraid to think big

Peter Shumlin
Gov. Peter Shumlin attends an event Wednesday at Ehrmann Commonwealth Dairy where it was announced that the company plans a $20 million expansion at its Brattleboro plant. Photo by Kristopher Radder/Brattleboro Reformer
When Peter Shumlin was growing up in Putney, his mother worried he’d wind up pumping gas at the local Texaco station.

Today, many decades later, as he completes his third and final term as governor of Vermont, Shumlin and his mother reminisced about her dire childhood prediction in a recent phone conversation. Her fear could have just as easily come true.

“She wasn’t far off,” he said.

Sitting in his spacious, fifth-floor office suite in Montpelier on a recent sunny December afternoon — the gold-domed Statehouse filling the view — Shumlin remarked how thin the line is between failure and success.

The difference between jail and serving as the state’s chief executive, he said, was his determination to overcome a profound case of dyslexia, a learning disability that caused letters to jumble on the page. The affliction left him unable to read and he suffered from low self-esteem.

Conquering that mountain-high personal challenge, Shumlin said, motivated him to “think big” on policy proposals throughout his two-decade plus political career.

“I had an usual beginning,” he said of his childhood. “I had to fight hard to make big things happen for me. And I’ve always wanted to fight hard to make big things happen for people like me. And that’s what drives me.”

Supporters and critics agree Shumlin never went halfway, whether it was his call to shut down Vermont Yankee, his push for a first-in-the-nation, single payer health care system or when he helicoptered from town to town after Tropical Storm Irene his first year in office.

Political friend and foe say his post-Irene work — comforting devastated residents, leading a recovery of washed-out roads and torn-apart lives, setting high expectations for state workers and oozing empathy for flood victims — was his finest hour.

Personally charismatic, engaging in one-on-one conversations, his political style was upfront, ambitious, and as House Speaker Shap Smith said, “a bit in your face.” He could also soothe and frequently called Vermonters who had suffered a loss. To some Vermonters, he came off as too slick, too sure of himself.

There are two types of governor, Shumlin said: caretakers who set modest goals, act like “nice guys” and claim they achieved everything; or those with big agendas, who are willing to make enemies, and may get knocked for not attaining every goal they sought. Being a caretaker, he said, was never his objective.

“People are going to react to change and they are not always going to like it. That’s part of being governor. If you want to be popular all the time, don’t run for governor unless you don’t want to do anything. You can always clip ribbons,” he said. “That’s popular.”

Peter Shumlin
Gov. Peter Shumlin and B&J Fossil Fuel ice cream. VTDigger photo by Mark Johnson.

Shumlin’s predecessor — four-term Republican Jim Douglas — was dubbed “Governor Scissorhands” for attending so many ribbon-cutting events. Shumlin and Douglas tangled when Shumlin ran the Vermont Senate before being elected governor in 2010.

When observers, including himself, describe Shumlin’s agenda, they most commonly use the word “ambitious.” Some use the term positively; others critically.

Taken as a whole, with one notable exception — the failure to institute a single-payer health care system — the socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democrat argues he and his team were successful. Others wildly disagree.

“I know it sounds like political poppycock talk when I say that I never wanted to be a full-time public servant. I never wanted to go to Washington. I wanted to come in, give back to the state that has given me so much, that I love so much, get real things done and get out of the way,” he said. Shumlin and key aides insist he planned to serve no more than three terms.

The governor and key members of his administration scroll a long list accomplishments — holding the line on broad-based taxes, expanding wind and solar power and shutting down Vermont Yankee.

They also point to positive job growth as the state clawed out of the Great Recession and Shumlin’s constant push for health insurance and medical payment reform. The governor has lowered the number of uninsured Vermonters, raised the minimum wage, lowered unemployment, and signed the Death with Dignity and GMO labelling legislation into law.

There were low moments too: the deaths of two children who had been under state custody, a social worker gunned down at work, five popular Central Vermont teenagers recently killed by a wrong-way driver, the seven Vermonters who died during Tropical Storm Irene.

There were several black eyes as well — accusations that he took advantage of his neighbor Jerry Dodge in a private land deal, the anger of the left when he abandoned single payer, chronic problems with the health care exhange website, and questions about whether his administration did enough to stop a cancerous fraud in the Northeast Kingdom.

Some of the darkest days, his advisors said, came after the November 2014 election when Shumlin beat newcomer Scott Milne by a hair. The governor finally concluded that a state-administered health insurance system funded by taxes instead of premiums would hurt the economy. That decision meant pulling the plug on one of three major planks he ran on in 2010. (The other two were closing Vermont Yankee and job growth.)

Peter Shumlin, solar
Gov. Peter Shumlin announces grants for renewable energy projects at Northern Reliability’s facilities in Waitsfield. File Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

A primary team

Shumlin said he was surprised to win the 2010 election over Republican Brian Dubie, particularly because it was a low-turnout, non-presidential election year.

Shortly after the win, Shumlin hired three of his four opponents in the Democratic Party primary, which he won by only 200 votes.

The primary “Team of Rivals” included Doug Racine, the runner-up, who ran the Agency of Human Services until he was later fired; Deb Markowitz, who finished third, ran the Agency of Natural Resources for Shumlin’s entire six years in office. Susan Bartlett, who finished fifth, served as a special advisor. Matt Dunne was never offered a job and worked for Google.

Markowitz, Shumlin and Racine, left to right
Markowitz, Shumlin and Racine, left to right

“I think they’ll remember him as having high ambitions for the state of Vermont,” Markowitz said. “And that he was unafraid to shoot high, shoot the moon, and he had some successes and failures, and we’ll probably remember them both.”

An enthusiastic fan, she added later: “He didn’t worry about the risk of failure.”

Markowitz and former Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said Shumlin’s legacy could include starting the massive cleanup of Lake Champlain. The administration and EPA reached an agreement and lawmakers approved the effort in 2015. The two environmental leaders also applaud Shumlin’s focus on climate change as one of his hallmarks too.

“One of his strengths was he had vision, he had bold ideas,” Racine said. “It was also a weakness in that they weren’t always real or well implemented. Maybe he was trying to do too much.”

“At the same time, if you don’t shoot high, you don’t get very far,” Racine continued. “That’s just human nature. Every baseball season starts with 30 teams aiming for the World Series. Well, it’s not realistic. I don’t fault them for aiming high at all. I think it was exciting to be part of that. It was exciting to get the support to be doing good things. I just wish that, for me, he had stayed as focused the next two years as he did the first two years, that’s all.”

Racine spoke with pride of his and Shumlin’s shared interest in addressing “root causes and not just the symptoms,” trying to develop programs to help get people out of poverty, for example, instead of just handing out food stamps.

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, who served as Shumlin’s lieutenant in the Senate, summed up the governor as “a progressive civil servant who was neither afraid nor abashed to call things the way he saw them. “

One of the blessings in disguise after Tropical Storm Irene, which wiped out the state’s mental hospital and scattered Racine’s agency and other departments to offices all over the state, was that many agencies that traditionally kept to their own turf were forced to work together. To complete the rebuild, the agencies of Transportation, Natural Resources, and Agriculture, for example, had to collaborate.

The “breaking down the silos” extended, Racine said, to the Agency of Human Services, with the goal to consolidate the number of case workers, in part so clients would stop getting conflicting advice. Racine still feels frustrated that he was canned, unfairly he said, in 2014. “I miss my job. I wish I could have continued the work we were doing.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin addresses a volunteer crew in Waterbury cleaning up after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Gov. Peter Shumlin addresses a volunteer crew in Waterbury cleaning up after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Crisis management skills put to the test

On the day Tropical Storm Irene hit, all eyes, including Shumlin’s, were focused south of the border. Predictions were the storm would hit hard in New York City. Shumlin said he knew southern Vermont was in trouble when he spoke with his brother Jeff — who runs the family travel business where Shumlin will return — in the afternoon. He said downtown Brattleboro was completely under water.

Back and forth on the phone with Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, Shumlin said the severity and breadth of the storm became more apparent as it moved north and cut a huge swath through the middle of the state, reaching Waterbury, where state hospital patients had to be quickly evacuated as the Winooski River rose.

AHS Secretary Racine said had it not been for a sharp information technology expert, who had moved the agency computer servers to higher ground, the recovery would have taken an additional six months.

Meanwhile, so many roads were washed away that some towns were cut off. Shortly after the storm passed, Shumlin ordered state highway workers to build emergency access to 11 stranded towns within 24 hours. In all but one town, the Agency of Transportation hit that goal. The last town was reached the following day. Another key benchmark was to have all the roads repaired well enough and in time to be maintained over the winter. That goal, too, was successfully completed.

“He’s very decisive, quite demanding. He set very high standards and can be impatient,” said Bill Lofy, his first chief-of-staff. “Those were not easy days, not only because of the stress that we were all under but because the governor was very much in control of state government and had very high expectations. He understood quite clearly the gravity of this and what it would mean to the long-term recovery if we did not get some really core things right at the outset.”

Lofy said politicians are rarely put “in a real-time test where you can’t fake it” and that Shumlin excelled because of his “crisis management” skills.

“He is someone who thrives on almost chaotic environment and that’s what Irene presented, this day to day crisis situation where that played directly to his strengths as a manager, to react quickly … and a mentality of ‘get things done and deliver,’” Lofy said.

Racine also described the aftermath of Irene as Shumlin’s finest hour.

“They truly were his best days. Talk about sincere. This guy was visibly moved. It takes a lot to move a politician, to see it in a politician,” Racine said. “Those stories mattered to him.
I can be critical of him and say he’s not my best friend, and I don’t think he’s always sincere, but I think that was him at his best.”

Sue Allen, his press secretary and later deputy chief of staff, said Shumlin’s empathy and energy made him “exactly the right governor” after Irene.

“He was optimistic. He was active. He was all over the state. He was in helicopters. He was in planes. He was in fields with (Adjutant) General (Michael) Dubie. He was lifting people’s spirits. He was just the right guy,” she said.

Seven Vermonters lost their lives in the storm. Shumlin said the “memory that will be forever etched in my mind’’ was the death of a father and son, the Garafanos, swept away when they went to check the Rutland public water supply.

A silver lining after the disaster was that the destruction was so widespread that state agencies that normally worked on their own were now coordinating efforts, like the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Agency of Agriculture, and Transportation. That “breaking down the silos” would prove helpful when Mears and Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross worked together to develop a Lake Champlain cleanup plan, according to Markowitz.

The storm also resolved a decades-old question about what to do with the antiquated state hospital. Instead of rebuilding another central facility, the state decentralized mental health services, with mixed results. Some seeking help continue to have to wait in hospital emergency rooms because there are not enough beds in outside facilities.

Riding the post-storm popularity, Shumlin cruised to victory in the 2012 race, beating Randy Brock by 20 percentage points, 58-38, winning high praise for leading the post-Irene recovery.

Brock recently summed up Shumlin’s legacy this way: “Arrogance plus incompetence squared, minus transparency, equals dysfunction.”

He said Shumlin got his agenda through largely because he benefited from a Legislature overwhelmingly dominated by fellow Democrats. Brock sees the state spending increases under Shumlin as having long-term negative effects.

“He was good at running a supermajority,” Brock said, in a final dig.

Irene Brattleboro
Downtown Brattleboro’s Flat Street swims in several feet of storm water Aug. 28, 2011, after the remnants of Hurricane Irene swelled the town’s Whetstone Brook. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Learning ‘on the job’

Chief of Staff Lofy, who agreed to stay two years, warned that the second term would be more difficult to get legislation passed with the first-term honeymoon over.

Shumlin stumbled at the start of the 2013 session when, without a heads-up to legislative leaders, he proposed shifting money from the Earned Income Tax Credit to what he saw as a greater need for low-income Vermonters — child care subsidies. Advocates were outraged any EITC funds would be redistributed.

Christopher Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, led the fight against the proposal, which the governor dropped several days later.

“I think Peter Shumlin really listened and learned on the job. I went from being pretty critical of the administration on some of these early calls and early challenges” to supporting the governor’s poverty-reduction efforts. Curtis praised Shumlin’s decision, after the policy misstep, to form a poverty council on which Curtis serves to get more input on ideas.

Curtis had mixed feelings about Shumlin’s overall efforts to help low-income people. He praised the administration’s work immediately after assuming office.

“They deserve a lot of credit for really maximizing the monies that were available to help take what could have been a precarious recovery that could have gone backwards and really help stabilize the situation for many thousands and thousands of people,” he said.

On spending, Curtis said Shumlin and lawmakers operated with a “budgetary straightjacket” and that there was too much reluctance to discuss raising taxes.

“We’ve been fighting budget battles with one hand tied behind our back for a long time. We’ve had 40 years in this country of people saying public investment is bad, taxes are bad, without a robust discussion,” he said. “Part of the deal with a social contract is that we do together as a community what we can’t do individually.”

Several top administrators, including Racine and DEC’s Mears, said they were frequently frustrated with the budget constraints. Racine also cited out-dated computer technology as a major problem still unresolved.

Peter Shumlin, Vermont Psychiatric Care Center
Gov. Peter Shumlin is joined by lawmakers Tuesday as they cut the ribbon opening the new state psychiatric hospital in Berlin. Joining Shumlin (from left) are Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia; Rep. Shap Smith, D-Morristown; Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield; and Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Others, including House Minority Leader Don Turner, think Shumlin proposed budgets that were too high.

According to Joint Fiscal Office figures, state spending has increased by 3.9 percent over the past five years.

Turner summed up Shumlin’s six years in office as a “failure.”

“He overspent the state’s capacity to pay. People can’t afford to live here. Their health care is a total mess and he’s been very good to his supporters,” Turner said. “I would consider his legacy is that he was a bad governor, and I think it’s disappointing that we’re in the position that we are and it’s going to take a decade to straighten out some of the stuff that Peter Shumlin has done.”

Republican activist Darcie Johnston can’t believe Republicans couldn’t make a better case that spending was too high.

“He changed the way Vermont governors governed,” Johnston said. “He was willing to open up the checkbook and spend in areas of his projects or political priorities and he used the goodwill after Irene and the action of Irene to speed up that process, and it’s disappointing and shocking that Republicans weren’t able to stand up and make the case. And still can’t.”

One example of how Shumlin used Irene to achieve a policy goal was closing down the state hospital, she said.

Shumlin scratches his head at claims he mismanaged state spending.

“That one’s been a puzzle to me, I would argue that we’ve been blessed in Vermont with fiscally responsible governors as long as I can remember, Republican and Democrat,” Shumlin said. “Vermonters don’t elect people that promise to raise their taxes and run the budget into the dumpster. The first promise I made is that I was going to run this like a business, like I’ve run my businesses, all of which have made a lot of money. And we did.”

Shumlin argues the addition of federal funds after Irene were the only time the budget was bloated. Otherwise, he said his administration held the line.

One of the achievements he touts is keeping his pledge to not raise broad-based taxes, including the income, sales and rooms and meals taxes. He also mentions the state’s strong bond rating.

In the middle of Shumlin’s second term, Vermont Yankee’s owners announced they would shut down the plant at the end of 2014 because the power became too costly to produce. Shumlin, once a Yankee supporter as a Windham County senator, made closing the plant a priority as state senator and then when elected governor. His change in view, he said, came when company officials lied about radioactive leaks at the plant.

While acknowledging economics drove the decision, Shumlin said: “We made their lives very, very unhappy.” The closure, he said, was “not a coincidence.”

Peter Shumlin, Vermont Yankee
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell (left), Gov. Peter Shumlin and Mike Twomey, vice president of external affairs for Entergy, announced an agreement to close Vermont Yankee in December 2013. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

‘Too clever by half’

Halfway through Shumlin’s second term, the Jerry Dodge story broke.

The Times Argus reported in 2013 that Shumlin had bought his neighbor’s house and land in East Montpelier at a quarter of the assessed value. After the sale, Dodge thought he “got ripped off.” Even some members of Shumlin’s inner circle rolled their eyes at the deal. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott called Dodge “one of our vulnerable citizens.” The governor insisted he was “helping a friend” whose house was about to sold in a tax sale. After ethical questions were raised, Shumlin agreed to let Dodge buy the property back.

Shumlin — with a net worth of $12 million including significant real estate holdings — initially insisted the land deal was no one’s business. He argues today it had no impact on his ability to work with lawmakers nor damaged his reputation. Others disagree. For better or worse, observers say, the story is part of the Shumlin legacy.

“I really understood and strongly believe he was trying to help a neighbor,” said Lofy, a former chief of staff. “What it spoke to was it reaffirmed for some people in their mind an image they had (of him) as someone who was a private sector developer, who was effective at deal making, a savvy businessperson. Some people were ready to see him as taking advantage of someone.”

Racine thought the story damaged Shumlin.

“I think it was a big deal. Peter had his negatives. He had his reputation before. For better or for nil, I think that sort of reinforced some of the negative impressions that people had,” Racine said.

Key aide Allen sighed deeply when asked about impact of the Dodge story.

“I don’t think anybody in the public knows the truth about that,” Allen said. “They were neighbors and they were friends. That’s ancient history. People will think what they want to think.”

Shumlin called “absurd” any suggestion the story damaged his influence with lawmakers and disputed it dented his overall popularity.

“No, I don’t think it’s a non-story, I’m not saying that,” he said. “I think Vermonters judge their governor by what they get done for them and what results they’re getting. So my deal is that it didn’t change the outcomes of any of the things we wanted to get done.”

Jeremy Dodge, Peter Shumlin
Jeremy Dodge of East Montpelier holds the folder on which Gov. Peter Shumlin sketched out the details on the sale of Dodge’s property. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

He said the story was exploited by his opponents, though “no more than anything else that we did. In other words, listen, if you’re not going to be the safety governor, the one that looks at the polls, you accept going in that you’re going to spend your political capital to accomplish your mission. That’s what I did.”

Lofy said the Dodge story gave political opponents “another argument to use.” He said he didn’t think the story badly damaged his former boss — any decline in Shumlin’s popularity, he said, were more likely caused by “sands going through the hourglass” and decisions the “ambitious and outspoken” Shumlin made that drew opposition.

Political analyst Eric Davis said the Dodge story hurt Shumlin, that it solidified the perception by many Vermonters that he was “someone who was too clever by half and not always candid and forthcoming.”

Shumlin said it was inevitable he would lose popularity. For example, during his tenure, industrial wind development took off, stirring a backlash. The governor also took heat from opponents of a gas pipeline in Addison County.

Darren Springer, the current chief of staff, touted Shumlin’s commitment to renewable energy. The state’s “Comprehensive Energy Plan, first adopted in 2011, set a goal of achieving 90 percent of Vermont’s total energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. If successful, Springer said, that effort may be one of Shumlin’s biggest accomplishments.

There is 10 times as much solar power and 20 times as much wind power being generated today compared to six years ago, Shumlin said. Some of those project carried deep opposition that made its way to the Statehouse.

Peter Shumlin
Gov. Peter Shumlin and Cassandra Gekas, director of operations for Vermont Health Connect. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

Backlash over health care

Looking back, Shumlin said the anger that fueled Trump to the presidency was already beginning when he ran for re-election in 2014. Shumlin said internal polling showed he was in trouble if his supporters stayed home. They did, Shumlin said, and he squeaked by Milne. Fortunately, Shumlin said, the Republican Governors Association didn’t catch wind how close the race was — $500,000 to $1 million in advertising, he said, would have put Milne over the top.

“I was one of the survivors,” Shumlin said, noting other incumbent Democratic governors went down to defeat. “I was at the polls. Our people did not come out. They just didn’t show up.”

Shumlin said Milne ran “a pretty brilliant campaign.”

“His message was slow down, stop moving so fast, take a deep breath, don’t do all these controversial things and just be a nice guy,” Shumlin said. “It was the right message.”

Shortly after the 2014 election, Shumlin pulled the plug on one of his primary goals: a state-administered “single payer” health care system. Milne claimed during the campaign Shumlin had already decided the plan wouldn’t work. Shumlin and his aides say they were still trying to make the numbers work in the weeks after the election.

Time and again, Susan Allen said, Shumlin would request developers to come back with another proposal, and like Sisyphus and the rock, each one failed. Allen said the governor was the last one to give up on the idea.

“Those were dark days,” she said of late 2014.

Lawrence Miller, who Shumlin had brought in earlier in the year to head up health care reform — to advance single payer and fix the ongoing problems at Vermont Health Connect — said dropping single payer was “a tremendous disappointment.”

“The sense in the room when we made that final decision was just dismal, a terrible moment, but you have to make the responsible decision with the information you have,” Miller said. But based on what they knew, he said “it would have been beyond reckless to take the next step.”

What ultimately killed the idea, Shumlin said, was the payroll rates would have to be too high. Medical costs that are too high, he said, drove those rates up. But more importantly, Shumlin said, there was no way to recoup the benefit Vermonters and businesses receive by having health insurance costs tax deductible as a business expense. That benefit, Shumlin said, amounts to $500 million to $600 million a year in “savings” and was the difference between go and no go.

Republican Sen. Joe Benning, the Senate minority leader, said the push for single payer was a classic example of Shumlin reaching too high.

“My grandmother used to tell me when I ate at her dining room table that my eyes were much bigger than my stomach. I never really quite understood what that meant until this whole discussion came about,” Benning said of single payer. “There was a lot of idealism and the idealism drove the conversation rather than the wisdom behind it. And people weren’t willing to spend the time to discuss the wisdom because they were so enamored with the idea that we could be first in something. In the long run, that’s problematic.”

Peter Shumlin
Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that single payer health care will not go forward in the next legislative session. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Campbell called the criticism Shumlin received after dumping single payer to be “unwarranted and misdirected.” Instead, the “true villain in this story was economics,” he said.

Shumlin is proud of the low uninsured rate, less than 3 percent, the efforts by the Green Mountain Care Board to hold the line on hospital spending and commercial insurance rate increases. He is also hopeful a recently-cut deal with the federal government will break the “fee for service” medical payment model and instead have payments go to providers based on their ability to keep people healthy.

Lofy said dropping single payer was a “huge disappointment,” but 22,000 more Vermonters have health insurance than when Shumlin took office.

Vermont Health Connect, plagued by problems for years, is running better now, Shumlin insists. Johnston and others said Shumlin lost credibility dismissing problems in 2013 as a “nothing burger” and because deadlines and waiting times continued to be issues for years afterward.

“He overpromised,” said Johnston, who ran Vermonters for Health Care Freedom. “And when it didn’t work out, people ran out of trust and patience.”

Health czar Miller blames the problems with Vermont Health Connect largely on unrealistic deadlines from the federal government and a dearth of companies capable of handling the computer work.

Racine says the administration worried at times too much about public perception, particularly with the troubled website.

“It was managed more as a political issue. It was like the command was always get it done and if you can’t get it done, find the smart people who can figure it out. That’s not management,” he said. “It was run out of the fifth floor.”

Sometimes, Racine said, he was ordered to sign contracts for web site fixes without having any time to review them.

While Shumlin said progress on health care reform was made despite not implementing single payer, Brock, who served in the state Senate before losing to Shumlin, said the extended discussion “created uncertainty” that “cast a pall over the economy.” Businesses, Brock said, want predictability.

Peter Shumlin
Gov. Peter Shumlin enters the Democratic Party room at the Hilton Nov. 5, 2014, after narrowly beating Scott Milne. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Taking a stand on opiate addiction

Shumlin stunned staff, lawmakers and many Vermonters when he decided to devote his entire 2014 State of the State speech to spotlight Vermonters’ addiction to painkillers and heroin.

Allen, his key aide, said: “I’ll be honest. My first reaction was: ‘Really, the whole speech?”

Shumlin said the extent of painkiller abuse became apparent when he kept being approached after speaking events by parents who had lost a child or were addicted themselves. He talked to prisoners, judges, mental health counselors to learn more.

“Everything we were doing was wrong,” Shumlin said. “We had it absolutely backwards. And we were in denial and we were discriminating against (those with) the disease. Had the discrimination against opiate addiction applied to any other disease, there would have been riots in the streets.”

Shumlin reframed opiate addiction as a medical problem, not criminal, and put the focus on treatment instead of jailing users.

Shumlin’s focus on opiate addiction, long before others did across the country, is a source of great pride for many of his staff, including Allen, and Elizabeth Miller, his second chief of staff, and AHS Secretary Racine, who like many was surprised at the single focus of the speech, which he called inspired.

Peter Shumlin
Gov. Peter Shumlin announced an opiate addiction center in Bennington on Friday. Photo courtesy of Bennington Office of Economic and Community Development

“That was genuine,” Racine said. “Peter doesn’t always get praise for being a genuine person, but I’ve seen him genuine sometimes and that was one of those. I think those stories really affected him. He took a political risk and he took private heat, but I think it was one of his most inspired moves to focus on that because it’s out there and it’s getting worse. He started a national conversation.”

Tourism boosters, for example, worried the speech would give Vermont a black eye. Miller said Shumlin believed with “heart and head” the importance of dealing with the crisis out loud. No one, she said, anticipated the national discussion the Vermont story would provoke.

“I don’t think any of us fully anticipated how much it would change the conversation beyond our borders. I’m really proud of what he did on that,” Miller said.

The number of Vermonters being treated with replacement drugs has tripled since the governor’s speech, though law enforcement officials say the epidemic hasn’t peaked. Low cost and high availability has prompted a surge in heroin use.

Allen said Shumlin’s most important contribution was bringing the opiate addiction crisis out in the open, leading to an attitude change.

“It’s not just the numbers” of people in treatment that is important, she said. “Now you don’t have to be ashamed anymore to say ‘My son is a heroin addict or I am a heroin addict.’ When we started six years ago, no one would say those words out loud.”

Speaker Smith said Shumlin’s efforts have been impressive.

“I think a lot of people want to sweep it under the rug,” Smith said. “They want to pretend it doesn’t exist, that it’s not a health care problem. They want to define it as ‘The Other.’ He was willing to say these are our friends, these are our neighbors, these are our families and we have a responsibility to look this issue in the face and deal with it.”

Shumlin says ‘dark chapter’ won’t affect legacy

A spectacular fraud allegedly committed by two Northeast Kingdom developers whom Shumlin had, along with every other Vermont politician, touted and praised, was exposed in the governor’s last year in office when federal and state authorities filed charges against Ariel Quiros and Bill Stenger.

Shumlin dismisses questions about whether his administration should have exposed the fraud sooner. He says the Department of Financial Regulation made a heroic effort and played a key role in the federal and state securities fraud investigation.

Lofy, his first chief of staff, is more philosophical about a “dark chapter” in the state’s history.

“No one looks good in this, no one, and that includes anyone that was a part of the administration who had not taken action sooner,” Lofy said, noting the state’s two senators and congressman missed the scandal, too. “I don’t know, we all bear responsibility for this really, really dark chapter in Vermont history. There were a lot of well meaning people who should have dug deeper and asked tougher questions,” including himself.

Lofy and others say Shumlin, however, deserves credit for “unearthing” the alleged fraud by shifting regulation of the EB-5 program away from the Commerce Department to the Department of Financial Regulation, which along with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, filed charges against the developers in April of this year.

Lawrence Miller, who was commerce secretary before moving to health care reform, acknowledged EB-5 investors and others were raising questions several years before the charges were filed. He cited credibility problems with an early whistleblower when asked why the state didn’t act sooner.

Shumlin insists the EB-5 story will not stain his legacy. Unlike other EB-5 frauds, where no construction occurred, many of the projects in the Northeast Kingdom, including the water park and new hotel at Jay Peak, were completed before the “Ponzi-like” scheme was exposed, he said.

Political analyst Davis dubbed EB-5 one of Shumlin’s administrative failures.

There was “inadequate state oversight to begin with, then a lack of transparency on the administration’s part once the problems with the project started to come to light,” Davis said.

The EB-5 story was among those that led to press scrutiny of the administration. Lofy said Shumlin’s relationship with the press “frayed” over the six years. Lofy cited coverage of the Vermont Health Connect problems and dropping single payer, along with the Dodge story, as creating “tension” between Shumlin and the press.

Shumlin insisted: “I always had fun with the press.” The governor says he didn’t change over his six years in office. The media, he believes, sensationalized news to draw more readers.

Ariel Quiros, Peter Shumlin, Ary Quiros, Bill Stenger
Gov. Peter Shumlin, Jay Peak CEO Bill Stenger, Ariel Quiros, the owner of Jay Peak, and his son Ary Quiros at a ribbon cutting. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

‘Mission accomplished’

Some parts of Shumlin’s legacy will have to wait to be evaluated. For example, the cleanup of Lake Champlain, cited by Markowitz and Mears, could take decades to produce results.

He also appointed two Supreme Court justices during his tenure, Beth Robinson and Harold “Duke” Eaton Jr., whose influence will outlive the governor’s time in office. Shumlin, as he heads out the door, is trying to appoint a third member before he leaves in January. (That effort was recently put on hold by the Supreme Court.)

Shumlin argues initiatives like the redevelopment of downtowns including Barre, Brattleboro and Northfield, some paid for with post-Irene federal funds, could have major long-lasting effects. Act 46, which encourages consolidation of school administration, could help turn the corner on school spending, he argued.

Aides also point to accomplishments including a minimum wage increase, same-day voter registration and paid sick leave as important legislation with an impact long after Shumlin leaves office.

Speaker Smith spoke of Shumlin with fondness. The two collaborated when Shumlin led the Senate and Republican Jim Douglas was governor; more often they negotiated when Shumlin took the new role as chief executive.

“To a certain degree, it was like dealing with an older sibling who you both want to be successful and sometimes you were striving for different things. I think that made the relationship difficult at times, but at the end of the day, I found it hard not to like Peter,” Smith said. “It’s a pretty high stress environment and it is susceptible to emotional outbursts and fraying friendships. I think at the end of the day both of us know each other better after our eight years working together and I think we’re pretty good friends as a result of it.”

Smith added: ”Peter is not someone who likes to take no for an answer. His enthusiasm for issues and his willingness to suspend disbelief whether an issue can happen is, I think, unusual in many politicians. I think it allowed him to be successful in pushing for the rebuilding after Irene and pushing even after the single payer part of health care reform was done.”

Political analyst Eric Davis, who has covered Vermont politics for more than 30 years, believes Shumlin leaves office less popular than his predecessors, including Govs. Madeleine Kunin, Richard Snelling, Howard Dean and Jim Douglas. He points to administrative mistakes, like Vermont Health Connect, plus, he posited Shumlin never developed a core constituency beyond Windham County “who admired him personally and were willing to stick with him through thick and thin.”

By 2014, Shumlin’s campaign contributions were dominated by “businesses subsidized by, regulated by, or doing business with the state, or out-of-state organizations and firms that Shumlin came to know as chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association,” according to Davis.

How will history judge Shumlin’s tenure decades from now?

“He aimed for the moon and he got 80 percent of the way to the moon and people tend to focus on the 20 percent that didn’t get accomplished,” Allen said. “There was so much progress made it’s stunning. Had he aimed low and accomplished everything, he’d probably be a hero, but that’s not the kind of guy he is.”

“Mission accomplished,” said Shumlin, who wants to go down as “a governor who saw a need and got it done with his team and gracefully headed into the sunset never to be noticed again.”

Incoming House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, as well as Davis, said Shumlin’s legacy predated his governorship. They pointed to his push as a state senator for marriage equality, the fight he and Speaker Smith waged in 2009 to override Gov. Douglas’ veto, as an achievement that spread across the country and an important note in a political career that started in 1990 when Gov. Kunin appointed Shumlin to serve in the Vermont House.

Shumlin, 60, said he is spent.

Satisfied he accomplished his goals — except single payer– he is excited to return to the family travel business and spend more time with his wife (they married in late 2015) and two grown daughters, who Allen said “burn up his phone” staying in touch. Shumlin has said repeatedly he never wanted to serve in Washington, DC.

“You won’t see me around looking for another chicken supper,” he said.

Shumlin relished being governor, but said he is ready to step down. Time to rekindle friendships put on hold for six years. Time to get back to the family business, with programs, including New York Times Odyssey, sending students abroad to build schools and houses in places like Africa and Vietnam.

“I always say it takes forever to change anything in public policy,” Shumlin said. “In five weeks, we can change a kid’s life.”

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that he will not seek a fourth term at a news conference Monday in Montpelier. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin announces that he will not seek a fourth term at a news conference Monday in Montpelier. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
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Mark Johnson

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  • Gary Murdock

    The Shumlin legacy is deficits covered annually with creative ways to squeeze more out of us. He began building his legacy during his last year in the Senate by orchestrating the reversal of Governor Douglas’s budget veto. His legacy is far reaching and lasting, and is his parting gift to Governor Elect Scott and the people of Vermont that have to pick up the tab.

    • Gary Murdock

      An interesting report in WCAX today. The US Census Bureau reports that Vermont’s population continues to decline, down 1494 over the last year. Add that to his list of legacies.

      • Randy Jorgensen

        Which happens to be twice what it lost the rear before. In 2015 Vermont lost 725 people.

        I can say that 5 of those were of my family. We moved to a low cost of living state and it’s been the financial move for my family.

  • edward letourneau

    He left out how he showed the nation that you can drive the elderly citizens and people with brains out, through excessive taxes and fees.

  • Bob Zeliff

    On the whole Mark Johnson has done a very good job of summarizing Peter Shumlin’s tenure in office. I am very glad he took the risks (and the hard knocks that risk takers receive) and accomplished much.
    While not accomplishing single payer disappointed me, many of the side benefits has resulted in Vermont have amoung the very LOWEST health care cost increases in the nation while achieving health coverage of all but about 4% of Vermonters. Not perfect but outstanding when compared to the rest of the nation.

    History will have a kinder remembrance of Mr Shumlin that the aggregate holds today.

    We will be moving into a “care taker” period. We will be served comfort food for out minds and ambitions. The status quo will be maintained. Not bad, but not progress either.

    • edward letourneau

      We have reported low health care costs because the money is not coming from the people seeking health care, but from the taxpayers and Washington. — Those costs are nopt reported in the figures.

    • Was this posted with a straight face or is it sarcasm ?

      • edward letourneau

        Who is paying for the 1/3 of Vermont citizen that are now on Medicaid?

    • Mark Keefe

      Sometimes we need to “take care”. As the saying goes; for everything there is a season. Progress can be obtained in many ways. Doing maintenance on what we have built, cleaning up the mess in the pond, prepare to pay for our commitment to the under-insured, pay the bills currently due, and maybe save some money for the future “risk takers” at less risk to the “care takers”. Who, while not content, savor our comfort food that fuels our minds and feeds our personal ambitions.

    • Chris LaMothe

      Yeah Bob, right up until the point where the truth eventually comes out about his involvement with Stenger And Quiros. Then add to that his very cozy relationships with GMP and VTGas that have covered usable farm fields with solar panels, green ridge lines with wind mills and a pipeline that the ratepayers will be paying for for the next 30 years, all so that clean energy credits can get sold out of state to benefit the utilities, not the residents!

    • Peter Bormann

      Must be that your not paying for a family plan Bob.

  • tom burke

    Sounds like the “legacy” is so amazing it should not be hidden by exec privilege and sealed until a democratic president could be elected in Washington. Mark, you mentioned in review of low points in his legacy, the firing of AHS secretary, Doug Racine. I wish you had included the disrespectful way Shulin had one of his lackeys fire Sec. Racine. Like for thousands of democrats, it was perhaps the proverbial straw as the major reason to vote for Milne. Milne did not run a brilliant campaign but Shumlin’s arrogance was getting out of control.

    • Richard M Roderick

      As I have said before, people were not voting for Milne, they were voting against Shumlin. We would have been worst off with Milne. Fortunately there were other candidates for whom you could vote.

  • chris halpin

    Godspeed, Peter. Thank you, good and faithful Servant. Hope you can choose a Vermont Supreme Court Judge who Serves Long.

    • Tom Grout

      And… dont fall behind on your property taxes Chris (Shumln loves high taxes) or the ex govennor will be there bidding for you home!

  • Cynthia Browning

    To my mind Shumlin’s biggest failure was his complete lack of interest in fundamental tax reform. Tax reform that made our system simpler, more efficient, and more equitable could have led to lower tax rates — including property tax rates — and could have meant that all programs, including health insurance, were paid for more reasonably.

    The financing problems of single payer were obvious from the start. He has only himself to blame that he could not see what he did not want to see, nor listen to those who did not already agree with him.

    I will note that just like single payer, the Lake Champlain cleanup is not actually funded, nor is the achievement of the Comprehensive Energy Plan goals.

    In terms of Irene, I believe that the Waterbury State Office Complex was rebuilt with occupied floors below the level of the 1927 flood, and with parts in the fluvial erosion hazard zone. The new state hospital is clearly too small.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

    • Rep. Browning, you can protect the substantial investment in the rebuilt Waterbury Office complex by constructing a rail loop around it, on the edge of the river. The berm supporting the track would be constructed from boulders, the waste scrap rock you find over in the spoilage mounds adjacent to the granite quarries upstream. Use the boulders as rip-rap and you have a sturdy flood barrier. You will need a new rail passing track anyway, against the day that commuter DMU railcars are running Barre-Montpelier-Waterbury-Burlington, another industrial product to be manufactured in Vermont. Put a platform on each track and you have NB and SB stations for the line.

      Don’t forget to dredge out some of the spoil (gravel and sand) that is silting up the river bed and raising the level of the bottom. You will need that extra capacity to handle future water movement. Happy New Year, folks.

      • Cynthia Browning

        I do not believe that what you propose would work overall. Such a berm would force floodwaters to back up into tributaries and elsewhere in surrounding land. When the water levels are really high, they would come over the berm or come in around it upstream or downstream and you would have flooding anyway. Berms do not usually work in the long run and when they are really needed. Giving rivers room works. CB

        • Arthur Hamlin

          I agree with Rep. Browning. During Irene, the 3rd branch of the White River took out the CV rail bed along Route 12A in Braintree and flooded a few houses. I don’t know how many rail beds were destroyed by Irene statewide but I suspect it wasn’t the only one.
          I believe the new state office building was designed with flood mitigation and will be much safer than the old complex.

  • One of the most enduring legacies of his term in office is the incredibly poor service currently being inflicted on the public when trying to buy their health insurance through the Vermont Health Connect. Three years of complete misery, while continuing to spin lies and falsehoods to the public, about how great the VHC is and how much they have improved it. This whole exercise in itself shows how “big thinking” clouds rational judgement at times.

    I will judge Gov. Shumlin’s legacy based on this one fiasco because he mandated that we have NO choice but to use the VHC. How incredibly arrogant and misguided his “big thinking” was in this particular instance.

  • Richard M Roderick

    One word describes who Peter was and is: Opportunist

    • robert bristow-johnson

      that’s an apt word for everyone elected to high office.

  • Peter Galbraith

    Employer paid payroll taxes are a tax deductible business expense no different than employer paid premiums for health care. So, this cannot be the reason that Gov. Shumlin abandoned single payer.

    And, as a correction, Randy Brock served in the Senate before running for Governor in 2012, not after as said in this story.

    • Moshe Braner

      “… payroll rates would have to be too high. Medical costs that are too high, he said…”

      – why should it be payroll taxes (exempting non-payroll income)? Why should it have anything at all to do with employment? Personal income tax too is deductible. And of course the costs are too high, and ever higher – as if, without single-payer, we’re not paying those costs? I don’t accept these excuses. We still need an income-tax based single payer system, and we need to cut the costs. Yes that means that we cannot afford all the health care that can be invented, especially when the vendors charge whatever they want.

      • Gary Murdock

        “Yes that means that we cannot afford all the health care that can be invented,”

        But yet, the single payer supporters will never admit that rationing is the predictable outcome.

        • Moshe Braner

          Rationing is happening now, and will happen more and more as the costs keep rising, whether we have Single Payer or not. At least with Single Payer the rationing can (potentially) be rational (e.g., help the sickest) instead of by ability to pay. In any case, without cost containment, the system is unsustainable. The good news is that most of the very expensive drugs and procedures have much cheaper alternatives that are almost as effective.

      • i grew up in Vermont and have had several jobs since the late 60’s. My earlier jobs usually offered no benefits at all. No work, no pay. Some employers offered benefits in order to recruit qualified employees. There is no rule saying that insurance has to be payed for by employers. Things like paid time off, sick days, retirement contributions, insurance and other things used to be considered benefits. Today in Vermont, it seems that our politicians have changed things that I call benefits into mandated required expenses for employers.

        • Jim Manahan

          You make an excellent point David. I have often wondered why is it an employer’s (or the business sector’s) responsibility to provide private citizen’s health insurance coverage?

    • Jake maddocks

      I figure he abandoned it because it would have been unsustainable.

      • Neil Johnson

        We’ve afforded most of health care for decades without too much trouble. Yes we needed to pick up some who don’t have coverage, provide an affordable option. But amazingly when we do health care reform, it causes prices to go up not down. Of course it is set up by those who prosper from the set up. That is the flaw.

    • Lee Stirling

      The reason for the costs of single payer being too high to push forward the employer and employee payroll taxes needed to pay for it is this: There are too many people in VT employed in the private and public sector that have high-value health insurance plans with actuarial values above 90%, including very low premium costs to employees.

      If a reasonably priced single payer plan (like 80-85% actuarial value) was to be financed by employee and employer payroll taxes, then a substantial number of Vermonters, including many high-wage earners and public-sector union members, would be paying much more out of pocket for a health plan that covers less than their current high-value plan.

      Gov. Shumlin was not willing to propose an 80-85% actuarial value single payer plan for this reason, but the sticker shock of the 90+% plan caused the Gov. to drop single payer altogether.

  • Kim Fried

    You got it exactly right=big ideas big failures. Bye bye bye. ….

  • While Pete spent his time thinking big and flying around the world with the EB5 fraudsters, he solved none of Vermont’s most crucial challenges.

  • The next generation will thank Gov. Shumlin for his ambitious development of our state’s renewable energy resources and for proposing the 90% by 2050 goal. This goal of reaching 90% renewable energy by 2050 is something that Gov-elect Scott has supported on the record.
    Unfortunately, Gov-elect Scott also supports a temporary moratorium on further wind development. The one (potentially) good take away from this scenario is that the Scott administration should hopefully support further development of large scale solar projects and further investments in electrifying the transportation sector.

    As long as Scott supports the premise behind 90% by 2050, the fact that wind may be taking a backseat for the next few years may not be the worst thing if it spurs increased increased investment in and development of our state’s solar resources.

    • Neil Johnson

      These solar projects were totally bankrolled by the tax payers, it’s not too hard when you let the lobbyists into the cookie jar to “get tough things done”

  • Gerry Silverstein

    Perhaps I read to fast, but I did not see any discussion of the VGS gas pipeline expansion to Addison Country that will cost 50,000 current ratepayers $134 million dollars so that 3,000-4,000 new customers can have access to natural gas. The right call was to have Gaz Metro (the parent of VGS) pay for the expansion, as they would be the entity reaping all the profits. But Shumlin, the DPS, and the PSB thought otherwise (as does Phil Scott unfortunately).

    With regard to the low rate of health uninsured individuals, lets remember that the price for that led to 90% of the budget deficits in the last 2 years (and that will continue) and an enormous dependence on the federal government for financial support. And as well all (sadly) know, the future of that support is very much uncertain.

    Overall this is a very informative commentary, but I think much too kind to an individual who certainly had Vermont’s best interests in mind, but who marginalized or ignored alternative viewpoints.

    • John Dupee

      I, too, marvel at the ratepayers being tapped for the expansion of the VGS pipeline while VGS reaps the eventual profits resulting from the expanded line. Try that technique in the private sector.

      • Wall Street does that all day long. Take a hard look at the mortgage securitization/syndication process, where vast profits (basically, thefts) are privatized, and the losses from bad mortgage bets are socialized. Wasll Street has that game fine-tuned; cost the taxpayers a few trillion so far. Those VGS guys are chump-change in comparison to the players on the Street.

  • Jack Ewell

    Undeniably some significant negative and thematic failures of leadership are associated with Shumlin’s tenure. Still, this story essentially paints a flattering portrait through the perspective of aides and others who associated with the Governor. Peppered throughout the article are colloquial expressions of endearment such as “eyes bigger than his stomach,” or “too clever by half,” and “shooting high to go far” normally ascribed to a type of reckless, youthful immaturity. When holding the office of Governor, Vermonters lives and futures depend on the governor for leadership and service which reflects an understanding of the complete calculus of your reach, grasp and the utility of that which you hold in your hand. Being the “eyes bigger than your stomach” governor is hardly a flattering legacy.

  • Frank Beardsley

    Shumlin and Crew rewrote the Rules on Holes. When they found themselves in one, they threw away the shovels and brought in excavators.

  • Peter Shumlin had my support, though thick and thin, up to the moment he –and Howard Dean–supported Clinton over Sanders, notwithstanding Sanders’s overwhelming support among Vermont voters. Both Shumlin and Dean have exhibited great dexterity at rationalizing their Clinton endorsements, but their rationalizations are hollow. It was an unprincipled position that they took, and I–for one–will never support either again. For anything.

  • James Conklin

    If thinking big translates to obliterating Vermont’s mental health system, then, yes, Peter did succeed.

  • Jim Manahan

    “accusations that he took advantage of his neighbor Jerry Dodge in a private land deal…”

    Accusations? It was obvious to anyone with an 8th grade education that a sitting Governor Shumlin shamelessly took advantage of his down-on-his-luck neighbor. Why would he do that? Because he lacks ethics, has no honor and he thought he could make a buck at his neighbor’s expense without anyone being the wiser.

    Gov. Shumlin’s legacy is that of an opportunistic person who lacks integrity, common sense or moral fortitude.

  • Wendy Wilton

    The information and analysis to show that single payer healthcare was unsustainable was available long before Shumlin abandoned his signature plan. I believe he knew early on that it would not work. Yet more money was put into various studies and other flawed reforms (like VHC) under the guise of establishing the foundation for single payer. This was not about dreaming big. It was about stringing the supporters along so he would continue to have their vote.
    My personal belief is that he is the most damaging governor our state has ever had for the reasons articulated by others who have commented in the well done article.

  • Stu Lindberg

    Two thirds of voters in Vermont embraced the corruption and incompetence of Shumlin and the Vermont Democratic Party. Not sure if this will ever change.

  • William Geller

    The important talk about leaders in general is the quality and independent thinking of their staff in this situation it looks to me that in many cases the staff either did not do the homework or for some reason was not very assertive

  • patricia crocker

    Vermont Health Connect working better now? Although you go to a website, info. Is still manually imputed on the other end. What a waste of money this has been. Took hours and several phone calls to get on Health Connect. Then find out there are family members not listed as having coverage. If Amazon had worked like that, or any other business, they would be filing for chapter 11 or going out of business. I can’t wait for Phil Scott to take over and clean up the mess that Shumlin made of this state.