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.”
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.)
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
‘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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”