Senate GOP changes leadership as last year’s divisions linger

Joe Benning
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, speaks before fellow Republicans. File photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
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.

Dustin Degree
Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, talks strategy with other Republicans and observers last spring. File photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger
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.

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  • Dan Luneau

    Good luck Dustin in your new role. I have every confidence that you will do a good job.

  • As a mother and as a voter, I was and am grateful that my senator took the stand he did in the face of such reprehensible behaviors (and even more reprehensible “justifications” of those behaviors) by Norm McAllister. However, as a mother and a voter and taxpayer, I am appalled at my senator’s willingness to put the interests of out of state promoters of the marijuana industry ahead of the safety of my family when we are on the road, and that of vulnerable young Vermonters, whose brains are still in flux, and in the face of protests from our police, who are stretched past the limit trying to control the drug trafficking, to legalize a drug that has been shown to be a first step to opioids and a danger in itself. I have a son who was an altar boy and a high school athletic team member and swim team member in the 10th grade, got introduced to marijuana, and became high school drop out in the 11th grade and at age 23 is now on probation as a convicted drug dealing felon,

    • Jason Brisson

      Not everyone who tries cannabis moves on to opium. Not everyone who tries cannabis becomes a “drug dealing felon”. Cannabis is not the parent that let the kid drop out of school.

  • Richard M Roderick

    I hope Senator Benning will continue to write commentaries on issues facing Vermont. I find them refreshing as well as being well-written, thoughtful and nonpartisan.

  • robert bristow-johnson

    Seems to me that Joe is vindicated (certainly regarding Norm). Seems like the kinda Aiken GOP that Vermont fosters and that fosters Vermont.

    Seems to me that Joe and the guv are from a similar mold.

    Peg says that “It was a rough year for Republicans” last year. Uh… what?? Your guy’s the guv.

    Come January 20, we’re all gonna start to get a feel for what a rough year is. When the excrement hits the fan, then you’ll know what rough is.

    Why would the rest of the VT Senate GOP eschew the model of Vermont success that is manifest? Phil Scott: Success. (at least so far.) Looks like Joe Benning called it spot on. Why argue with that?