After it became clear that current Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman would be leaving the post in 2020 to run for governor, Republican lawmakers envisioned replacing the Progressive Democrat with a member of the GOP.
Meg Hansen, a political newcomer from Manchester, had already announced she would seek the Republican nomination. But in conversations among legislators in the winter that continued into the spring, Scott Milne came up repeatedly as a potential candidate with demonstrated statewide success.
In 2014, Milne, the president of the travel agency Milne Travel, came within 2,434 votes of unseating two-term incumbent Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who stepped down two years later.
Milne also ran for U.S. Senate in 2016 against Patrick Leahy, and though he was handily defeated by the 42-year incumbent, it was another statewide contest that Milne says showed he can win broad support.
During that race, Milne tried the same playbook he used to great effect against Shumlin two years earlier — running a political campaign with few outlined policy proposals, and simply presenting himself as an uncontroversial alternative for voters tired of an incumbent.
“Scott’s name started coming up probably a little before Covid broke,” said Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, of those discussions earlier in the year.
With the seat open, “to me it was really an opportunity to win the lieutenant governor’s seat for the Republican Party and get a centrist in there — someone who could work with Gov. Scott,” he added.
Parent reached out to Milne and told him he would support him if he decided to make a bid. A couple of weeks later Milne asked if the state senator would manage his campaign — a position Parent accepted.
The Vermont businessman also spoke with Gov. Phil Scott about potentially seeking statewide office and on May 28, just hours before the filing deadline for candidates, Milne officially announced he would seek the number two spot.
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Since then Republican public officials have coalesced behind Milne, including the popular governor and 38 lawmakers.
“Scott has the ability to connect with Vermonters. He’s very pragmatic and very practical,” said Rep. Robert LaClair, R-Barre.
In an interview Wednesday, Scott threw his support behind Milne in the primary and in the general election.
“At this moment, at this point in time, I think he’s the right person to take over as lieutenant governor,” Scott said.
The governor added that Milne’s candidacy “gives the Republican Party some hope” as it looks to put forward serious contenders for the number two slot.
“I think he brings some legitimacy to the Republican Party,” Scott said. The governor is the only Republican who holds a statewide office.
Milne faces a full field to win the nomination, including Hansen, Dwayne Tucker, Dana Colson Jr. and Jim Hogue.
The 61-year-old Milne has the calm, measured personality and the physical appearance of a classic northern New England politician. He stands a shade over 6 feet tall, squints inquisitively when he speaks and has an easy crooked smile.
While he suffered a stroke in 2006, there is no sign that it affects him today.
At the time, Milne received a drug to burst a small clot in his brain and although doctors initially thought he would be impaired for life, he had a full and swift recovery.
Milne talks easily about state politics, discussing at length his ultimately unsuccessful 2014 bid at unseating Shumlin, but he is quick to take credit for helping to end the Democrat’s career in politics.
His humor is often deadpan. After his two statewide defeats, Milne decided to sit out 2018. He considered running against Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., but says he decided to “take a break from kamikaze missions.”
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Milne thinks 2020 could be his time to break through.
“Obviously, I know more about how to lose campaigns than winning campaigns,” Milne said, letting his eyes do the smiling, in a recent interview at Tuckerbox Cafe in White River Junction.
“This time, I think I have a very, very, good chance of winning this election,” he said.
As lieutenant governor, Milne said he would focus on using his experience as a business owner to rebuild the state’s economy while also acting as a partner for Scott. He warns of tough economic times ahead for the state and Vermonters because of the effects of pandemic.
As of now, Milne has no intention of stepping away from his business if he wins, but he would be willing to change his mind if he hears a compelling contrary argument.
“I see my being fully engaged in my business is an asset for Vermont,” Milne said. “We’re totally plugged into the global economy.”
Milne did say his travel agency — founded by his mother Marion Milne — would not be involved in bids for contracts with the state of Vermont or other potential conflicts of interest.
“Clearly there would have to be some sort of line there,” he said.
As Milne discussed his business and the economy, he sounded similar to Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Milne said that before the economic crisis brought on by Covid-19, the U.S. was already headed towards a “jobs catastrophe.”
“With artificial intelligence, automation, the third revolution of blockchain, the third revolution to the economy. All these things that were before Covid — now Covid is going to accelerate those changes,” Milne said.
“Anything I can do as lieutenant governor to understand what those changes are, to help Vermont be as prepared as possible to avoid the damage and take advantage of any opportunity is going to be what I’ll be focused on as lieutenant governor,” he added.
His other focus will be to work hand in hand with Scott.
“I believe Phil’s going to be reelected. And that he deserves an ally and clearly not an adversary in the lieutenant governor’s office,” Milne said. Zuckerman and Scott have not enjoyed a close working relationship.
Meanwhile, Milne and Scott, while not always close, have a parallel history.
Both attended Spaulding High School in Barre — Milne was two years behind Scott — and they share roots in the town of Washington, Vermont, where the Milne family lived and the governor’s father was born.
“Phil’s dad and my brother died within a few months of each other in the early 1970s,” Milne said. “Phil’s dad is buried probably about 50 feet from where my brother and my mom and dad are buried.”
In 2014, when Scott was running for lieutenant governor and Milne running for governor, one of the campaign slogans Milne used was: “When you vote, just think of Phil, Scott, Milne. Just put the emphasis wherever you want.”
“There’s a little bit of deja vu here with Phil being perhaps the most popular governor in the country right now — and me, trying to help him,” Milne said of his 2020 bid.
Milne has, however, criticized Scott in the past, including his decision to enact gun control measures in 2018.
“Phil’s got a problem, because you shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep,” Milne said two years ago, according to Seven Days, of Scott’s reversal from opposing to supporting the policy.
Now Milne says “Vermont’s gun laws are fine and don’t need to change,” adding that he has no intention of “going back to fight old battles.”
The Milne family has been involved with state politics for much of the second half of the 20th century.
Marion Milne served three terms before she and other Republicans were ousted in 2000 for their support of Vermont’s groundbreaking civil unions bill.
That year, she gave a speech saying she was willing to give up her political career for her “yes” vote on civil unions.
“I cast this vote because it is the right thing to do,” Marion Milne said. “I will not be silenced by hatred and intolerance, and if I am measured by this one vote in my entire public life, I will have served the best interest of the people of Vermont by casting it.”
His father Don Milne had his own deep political history.
He served as the clerk of the Vermont House of Representatives from 1993 until his retirement at the end of the 2015 legislative session.
(In 1966, then-Rep. Don Milne was charged with embezzlement, attempted fraud and forgery for the use of his clients’ money while in private law practice. After serving several months at the prison farm in Windsor, he escaped, turned himself and was paroled after 18 months. Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin pardoned him in 1991.)
In 2014, the race against Shumlin was a family affair with Milne’s daughter Elise and son Keith returning to Vermont to help run the campaign. Both children are from Milne’s marriage to Deborah Kane that ended in divorce in 2006. He has not remarried.
While the 2020 primary remains more than two weeks away, Milne is already planning for the general election — thinking about the strategies he will use against his Democratic opponent, who he thinks will be either Ashe or Gray.
But the cagey Milne won’t tip his hand about what his strategy will be.
“They both have weak points” is all Milne would say.
He also hasn’t been overly concerned with fundraising. As of the beginning of July, he had a war chest of just $5,297 — $5,000 coming from his own pocket, according to campaign finance filings.
“By virtue of having a statewide travel agency that advertises,” Rep. Jim Harrison, R-North Chittenden said, “he has excellent name reputation recognition. So I think that’s a plus in a statewide race, and everything else being equal today, I think he would have to be right there in terms of if the vote were held today.”
The Vermont Democratic Party sees Milne as a potentially strong adversary.
In June, the party accused Milne of skirting campaign finance law by continuing to run ads for his company. A VTDigger fact-check found that claim to be false.
Then on July 24, the Democrats lobbed another salvo, claiming Milne’s business experience is overblown because it was founded by his parents. The party also claimed “there is nothing historic about losing a political campaign,” referencing the tight race with Shumlin.
Rep. Felisha Leffler, R-Enosburg, who endorsed Milne, said the candidate from North Pomfret could help boost the Republican Party.
“It’s no secret that just based on the sheer numbers, Republicans deal with problems of viability of candidates,” Leffler said. “It’s important to stand behind the ones that really do the party credit.”
Leffler added that Milne’s moderate and pragmatic approach contrasted with the other Republicans running for lieutenant governor who she said were “pure volatility and would lend nothing to that position.”
“I’m looking straight at Meg Hansen,” she said.
Leffler says Hansen is not qualified to be the next lieutenant governor.
“It has nothing to do with any of her platforms. It has nothing to do with being a female candidate, saying that as a female candidate — it’s easy to be discounted for a lot of reasons and ignoring all of those — it’s just the pure fact that there’s nothing there to work with,” Leffler said.
Sixteen Republican lawmakers have backed her campaign, Hansen says.
In a primary election debate hosted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS, Hansen contrasted herself with Milne, emphasizing her full support of President Donald Trump.
During the debate, Milne said he would not vote for Trump in 2020, instead writing in former Gov. Jim Douglas. Milne told VTDigger he did not vote for Trump in 2016, either.
Milne said his refusal to support Trump will mean certain Republican voters will not support him in the primary, but he is willing to take that chance.
“There are certain voters where that’s the one litmus test they are using,” Parent said, speaking as Milne’s campaign manager. “There are certain voters, no doubt that that’s going to hurt us with, but I don’t think it’s a fatal blow.”
“I think there’s a lot more people in Vermont that would be more disappointed if he did support the president,” Parent added.
Harrison said that Milne is probably the “more moderate of the Republican candidates” in the primary and that while it may be a disadvantage in the Aug. 11 contest, it will be an asset in November.
“In a general election, Vermonters, especially if you’re a Republican, are more likely to support you if they at least perceive you to be a moderate,” he said.
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