Republicans in the state Senate have picked a new leader after a split over the “simmering” ouster of Sen. Norm McAllister and marijuana legalization.
Despite their caucus’s small size — there are only seven Republicans in the 30-member Senate — the Republicans were deeply divided over McAllister’s suspension from the Senate early last year after allegations he sexually assaulted two women, including one who worked for him.
Last year, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, was the minority leader and an outspoken critic of McAllister, a fellow party member. Benning urged the Franklin County senator to resign. Later, Benning supported marijuana legalization, a position a majority of the Senate Republicans did not hold.
Friday — unsure whether he had the support of a majority of his caucus and not interested in leading a divided group — Benning nominated Sen. Dustin Degree, of Franklin County, to take the leadership post. Degree, who said he was surprised he emerged as the consensus candidate, was approved unanimously.
Benning said his condemnation of McAllister and support for marijuana legalization were among the primary issues that “left some ruffled feathers.”
“I suspect had it not been for McAllister, we would have been a unified caucus. That issue was still simmering,” said Benning, who was elected minority leader in 2013.
“Some good friends of his were supporting him. I was standing out in the public eye proclaiming that kind of behavior was unacceptable. It’s a small caucus, and people have different viewpoints,” Benning said Monday.
Degree and Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, agreed the McAllister case had caused a divide within the caucus, though Flory said discussions about replacing Benning had begun even before the suspension vote a year ago. The McAllister case only increased the discussions.
“It was a rough year for Republicans” in the Senate last year, Flory said.
Even though they were from the same county, Degree voted to suspend McAllister and said he did not hold Benning’s statements about McAllister against him. Flory, an attorney, was McAllister’s biggest supporter throughout the proceedings and was one of 10 senators to oppose the suspension. She said the McAllister case was a factor but not the only one in her interest in new leadership.
Benning, Degree and Flory also said a change in leadership made sense to try to boost the small number of Republicans in the Senate. They also noted that a new administration, a Republican one, had taken over the governor’s office.
As points in Degree’s favor, all three pointed to his youth — he’s 31 — and his statewide connections, having worked on political campaigns, including Randy Brock’s 2016 loss in the lieutenant governor’s race, and as an executive assistant to former Gov. Jim Douglas. Flory also said it made sense to have leadership from either Rutland or Franklin County, because five of the seven senators are from one of those areas.
Flory and Degree said part of the rift was also caused by Benning taking positions that were interpreted as speaking for all the Republican senators. Benning has also acknowledged the problem of making clear that some positions he expressed were his own and not the view of the caucus.
For example, Flory mentioned that Benning not only spoke out against McAllister, he also wrote op-eds and was sought out by the media for his position. She noted a majority of Senate Republicans did not support marijuana legalization.
Flory said she sympathized, as the former Republican leader in the House, with how difficult it was for Benning to make clear when he was speaking his own opinion and not for the group.
“It’s a difficult position to be thrust into,” she said.
Flory said of Benning’s belief the McAllister case cost him the post: “I know he felt that way. For me, that didn’t really weigh that heavily into my consideration, although I had the exact opposite position from him.”
Flory said being in a leadership position might not have made sense for Benning. “When you’re the leader, the Senate Republican leader, it’s not fair to Joe and it’s not fair to the caucus to have a bright, outspoken person like him have to take into consideration the caucus position and have to bite his tongue,” she said.
“I’m sure it was as difficult for Joe as it was for me,” she said.
Criminal charges against McAllister in one case were dropped; he goes on trial in a separate case later this week.