In Profile: Gov. Phil Scott touts ‘steady hand’ but keeps veto pen at the ready

Phil Scott with images from press briefings
The Covid-19 pandemic has hardly dented Phil Scott’s political prospects: Most Vermonters approve of his handling of the crisis, and many have noted that his frequent press briefings serve as de facto campaign events. VTDigger photo illustration/Screenshots courtesy ORCA Media

Gov. Phil Scott has never been more visible than in the last seven months. 

On Friday, Scott stood in front of a podium in Montpelier for his 77th press conference since he declared a state of emergency for the Covid-19 pandemic on March 13. 

Scott, like all U.S. governors, was thrust into leading the state’s response to the pandemic that month, as well as the shutdown, and slow reopening, of the economy. 

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Since then, Vermont has maintained one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates in the nation, a result that has earned the Republican governor bipartisan praise. 

Scott is now running for reelection — though he doesn’t like to talk about it, and won’t unless he’s pressed by reporters, or debating his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.

When he announced he was seeking a third term in May, Scott said he would set traditional campaigning aside to focus on leading the state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, he said his least favorite part about public service is “the politics.”

But the pandemic has hardly dented Scott’s political prospects. A poll in August found 83% of Vermonters approve of Scott’s management of the pandemic. 

Many have noted that his frequent press briefings serve as de facto campaign events: a biweekly platform for the governor to speak about issues of his choosing, and take questions from the press, for two hours in front of television cameras and also broadcast live on the radio.  

The governor has also been working longer hours than usual during the Covid-19 crisis. Even after he gets home, he takes calls and reads government reports late into the evening. Then he gets up at 4:30 a.m to do it all over again.

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There’s little time for conversations with his wife, Diana, between the materials he has to pore over and the constant phone calls.

“I feel as though I work all night, I mean, I’m dreaming about something to do with the pandemic, and that hasn’t stopped. It’s always on the top of my mind, constantly,” the governor said in an interview last week.

In seeking a third two-year term, Scott, 62, says the state still needs his “steady hand on the wheel” as it continues to weather the Covid-19 crisis. 

But the pandemic has been a factor for only a fraction of Scott’s time in office. 

Before the pandemic hit, and even after it set in, Scott’s tenure was characterized by clashes with the Democratic majority in the Legislature and his push to rein in Vermont’s cost of living and taxes.

As the legislative session wrapped up, the governor approached the state’s record for the highest number of gubernatorial vetoes — 21. The record is held by Democratic Gov. Howard Dean. Scott fell just shy with 20. 

While Scott’s supporters praise his efforts to keep the state affordable for businesses and residents, his critics say he has stood in the way of environmental protections, a statewide paid family leave program and a $15 minimum wage — measures designed by Democrats and Progressives to help the vulnerable Vermonters Scott says he wants to protect. 

“He’s basically all been about maintaining the status quo, and the status quo means low wages, inequality, lack of affordable child care, lack of affordable college,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, the chair of Vermont’s Progressive Party. 

“On the one hand some might say, ‘Well, he’s consistent,’ and I appreciate that. And I would say he’s consistent, but he’s consistently undermining the ability of people to make a good living,” Pollina said. 

Scott’s supporters laud him for his fiscal restraint.

“He believes that we can do things more efficiently and more effectively within our means. and we don’t need to increase taxes on Vermont families and businesses to do so,” said Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who is friends with Scott. 

Scheuermann said she can’t think of a state budget proposal she voted for before Scott became governor. 

Former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas called Scott a “budget hawk” and praised the governor for warding off new taxes and fees during his first term. 

“He presided over a biennium with no increases in fees or taxes. I never did that. We had at least some fee increases every year, I think,” Douglas said.

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“We’re still a pretty high-tax state, and there’s more work to be done to moderate that burden, but I thought that was a tremendous accomplishment,” Douglas said.

An active veto pen

Tim Ashe, Phil Scott
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe meets with Gov. Phil Scott ahead of a special session in May 2018 after Scott vetoed the Legislature’s budget bill. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Scott’s chief method of moderating the Democratic majority in Vermont’s Statehouse has been his veto pen. 

During his time in office, Scott has struck down Democratic priorities including a statewide paid family leave program, minimum wage increases, and legislation that would give individuals the right to sue companies that pollute for medical monitoring costs. 

While he has stood in the way of many Democratic priorities, the socially liberal Republican has supported others. In 2019, he signed what could be the strongest state abortion rights protections in the country into law. 

In 2018, he bucked his party and reversed his stance on gun control to enact the first major firearms restrictions Vermont has ever seen. 

Adam Necrason, the president of the Necrason Group, a Montpelier lobbying firm, said in deciding what to veto, the governor “picks his battles” and “mixes and matches carefully.” 

Necrason said that Scott has supported enough of the Democratic agenda “that it gets him the door open” with many voters on the left. 

“He has supported enough of their core issues that they have room to be frustrated by him on these other ones,” he said.

A survey released by Vermont PBS and Vermont Public Radio last month found that Scott has a large edge over Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, the Progressive Democrat challenging him in November. Scott received 55% of the support of those polled while Zuckerman received 24%. Scott also led among Democrats, with 48% saying they would support the incumbent governor and 41% saying they would vote for Zuckerman. 

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, the minority leader in the Senate, said that Scott uses his veto pen when he “sees the finances of Vermont being threatened.” 

And he said that the governor’s vetoes have helped protect businesses during the Covid-19 crisis by warding off cost increases that they would have otherwise faced on top of the pandemic’s economic strain. 

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said the number of vetoes Scott has handed down over the years reflects that his administration “has been very hands off in terms of working with the Legislature compared to previous governors.”

But Ashe said that with the public more focused on the news coming out of Washington, D.C., instead of at the state and local level, he suspects many Vermonters don’t know the full extent of Scott’s vetoes.

“I mean, how many people even know the governor vetoed a bill to create a 24-hour waiting period for firearm purchases even though the evidence shows it will save lives?” Ashe wrote in an email, referring to legislation the governor struck down last year. 

“The political consequence of the vetoes is negligible,” he added. 

When asked about his veto record, Scott said that he’s the “only thing” preventing the Democratic majority from “continuing to increase the unaffordability of Vermont.” 

“When there’s a bill that’s bad and I think it’s bad for Vermont, sends us in the wrong direction, I’m going to veto it,” the governor said.

Scott added that the Democrats have a “supermajority,” and enough votes in the House and Senate to reverse his veto pen.

“They don’t really in some respects need me because they have the numbers to override,” he said.

This didn’t used to be the case — before the elections in 2018, there were enough Republicans in the House to ensure that Democrats would fail to beat Scott’s veto pen. The GOP lost 10 House seats in the last election, bringing their total down to 43. They need 50 to unilaterally sustain a veto. 

But Democrats have only successfully mustered votes to override Scott’s vetoes on two occasions: a minimum wage hike earlier this year, and the Global Warming Solutions Act — legislation that will legally mandate the state to meet its carbon emissions goals. 

Scott said that losing Republican support in the Legislature forced him to take a different tack with lawmakers in Montpelier over the past two years. 

“I knew what cards that I had to deal with, to play. And I couldn’t do it the same way I had done it in the first term,” Scott said. 

“And I just thought a different approach might be more beneficial. And so I took a different approach,” he added.

Conflict with Dems in Montpelier

In January of 2017, the governor took office fresh from the campaign trail and a pledge to hold the line on new taxes and fees. 

Don Turner, a Republican who served as House minority leader in 2017 and 2018, said that in his first two years, the governor tried to “set goals” with the Democratic majority in the Statehouse — particularly on affordability and lowering taxes. 

“They didn’t really like it and it didn’t really go very well,” Turner said of Democratic leaders. 

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott delivers his 2017 budget address. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

During his first term, the governor regularly threatened vetoes, and pushed Democrats to support his policy proposals. 

In his first year, he vetoed a budget bill because it didn’t contain a provision to create a statewide teacher health care benefit — a proposal he said would greatly lower costs for taxpayers. 

He also put forward controversial plans to reduce education spending, which were roundly rejected by Democrats, including a plan to reduce school staff by 1,000 employees over five years, to raise student-to-staff ratios over time. 

In 2018, for the second year in a row, a disagreement between Scott and lawmakers over the budget brought the state within days of a government shutdown. That year, Scott vetoed two spending packages because they would have led to property tax increases.

But Turner said that Scott has taken a less “adversarial” tack with the Legislature in his second term, in part because there are fewer Republicans in the House to back up his vetoes.

“He wasn’t as firm on a lot of things. He wasn’t as you know, ‘I’m going to veto this if this doesn’t happen,’” Turner said. 

“I think the governor has to change the approach, and I think he did. And I think Vermont’s better for that, that he had a different approach to how things were going to go,” he said. 

Ashe, the Senate leader, said that he doesn’t think that the governor’s relationship with the Legislature has changed over the years. But he noted that in the second term Scott’s administration has stopped pitching “last second, show-stopping proposals” at the end of legislative sessions. 

In his first term, the governor angered Democrats in Montpelier when he put large policy plans on the table toward the end of the legislative session. These included the proposed changes for a statewide contract for teacher health care in 2017 and a proposal in 2018 to cut education spending over five years. In 2018, he ultimately succeeded in pushing the health care proposal forward. 

“In the governor’s first term his team’s posture was ‘this is our position, and we’re not moving from it, period.’ We’d put forward compromise proposals to no avail. That led to more of a brinksmanship approach at the end of the sessions. Not good for anyone,” Ashe said. 

“In the second term, they cut out the last-second maneuvers, and took a more passive approach. Basically, ‘Legislature, do what you want and we’ll decide if we’re vetoing it.’ No real engagement,” Ashe said. 

This more ‘passive approach’ came across in 2019, when Scott declined to weigh in as the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate disputed over and ultimately failed to reach an agreement on two of their largest priorities that year: a minimum wage increase and a paid leave plan. 

At the time, political observers said Scott came out of the legislative session unscathed, while Democrats looked divided. 

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the relationship between the Legislature and the governor is still strained. 

“I think he understood that it wasn’t good for Vermont to take the tack he had been using. So, I credit him with trying a slightly different approach,” Johnson said. 

“So it got less conflict-oriented. But we’re not quite to partnership yet,” the speaker added. 

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, listens as Gov. Phil Scott delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the general assembly at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Thursday, January 9, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Johnson has frequently criticized Scott for failing to work collaboratively with the Legislature, and said the Scott administration often treats legislators “like an afterthought rather than a partner.”

She said during the governor’s first term, she would have regular meetings with Scott to try to get his input on bills the Legislature was working on. 

But Johnson said the governor delegated the negotiations to his staff members — typically his chief of staff Jason Gibbs, and Secretary of Administration Susanne Young. 

The House speaker said Scott and his staff would decline to weigh in on policy matters until it reached the governor’s desk.

“And I would look at Phil and ask the question, and Susanne or Jason from the other end of the table would say, ‘We’ll see when it gets here,’ which of course is too late,” Johnson said. 

The speaker said the governor’s team still doesn’t take a proactive approach to working with lawmakers. 

She pointed to the Covid-19 economic relief plan the governor pitched in May, and said it took weeks before the Scott administration discussed proposals with the Legislature. 

This made it harder for lawmakers and the governor to reach an agreement on parts of the relief package down the line, she said. 

During his first term, Democrats in Statehouse suspected that Gibbs was behind Scott’s aggressive approach with the Legislature.  

In 2018, Seven Days wrote about Gibbs’ influence on the Scott administration, and the governor’s frayed relationship with lawmakers at the time. 

But Scott and Republicans rejected this narrative, and maintained the governor is the one calling the shots. 

“The guy’s a race car driver,” said Benning, the Senate minority leader, referring to Scott’s decades as a stock car racer. 

“When he’s on the track, he is very focused, and he knows how to pass somebody in front of him. So to suggest that somebody else must be leading that charge is discounting the personality of somebody who wants to win,” he added. 

Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, doesn’t think the Scott administration has been “the best at dealing with the Legislature.” But he said that makes sense, given that Democrats have the clear majority in the Statehouse.  

“For somebody that came out of the Legislature themselves, he’s a little stiff with people. And his people are a little stiff with people,” Westman said of the governor, who spent 10 years in the state Senate. “But they somewhat feel on the defensive,” he said. 

Like others, Westman said it was a “huge change” for the governor after the House lost votes in the 2018, and the GOP could no longer rally to sustain his vetoes. 

“He had to pull in his horns a little bit, whether he wanted to or not,” Westman said. 

Scott said that there has been always tension between the legislative and executive branches. Even when Democrats have held both the governor’s office and Legislature in Montpelier, there have been disagreements. The only difference is those fights happen “behind closed doors,” Scott said.

“I’m all by myself here in some respects. So they become more visible, they’re more public,” Scott said.  

Bucking his party and Trump

phil scott
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at the Vermont GOP election night headquarters after winning reelection on Nov. 6, 2018. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Throughout his time in the governor’s office, Scott has tried to distance himself from President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Vermont. 

In 2019, Scott was the first Republican official in the nation to say that he supported the impeachment inquiry into the president. Last week Scott called Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election “dangerous.” 

And in February, he publicly endorsed former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld over Trump in the Republican primary.  

On the campaign trail, Zuckerman, Scott’s Democratic challenger, has said Scott hasn’t gone far enough to oppose Trump. He criticizes Scott for not coming out in support of former Vice President Joe Biden, and joining other members of his party like former Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Republican secretary of state Colin Powell who are working to build support for the Democratic candidate. 

“The vast majority of Vermont is traumatized by the actions of this president,” Zuckerman said. 

“And decent moderate Republicans across this country are coming out forcefully to preserve our democracy and our court,” he added, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Scott said it’s “really easy” for Zuckerman to lodge that criticism, given that he’s a member of the party opposing Trump. Scott said he has been “out front” when it comes to calling out the president. 

“Did any other Republican, elected Republican, endorse someone running against the president in the primary?” Scott said.

“If the president does something that I think is detrimental to Vermont and to our country, I speak up,” Scott added. 

In running against Scott, Zuckerman is arguing that the governor’s leadership lacks vision and investment in the state’s future. He proposes a wealth tax to increase investments in climate change, and to build out broadband throughout the state. He also says he will raise the minimum wage, support a paid leave program, and institute a universal child care program. 

‘Unflappable and methodical’ Covid-19 leadership

Leaders on both sides of the aisle have given Scott plaudits for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Medical professionals including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have also praised the governor

“We’ve had from the very beginning clear consistent science-based messaging and most states in the union cannot claim to have had this,” said Dr. Tim Lahey, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Lahey said that governors in some states like Florida and Georgia, have tried to “score points with disgruntled voters by pitting popular will against the science.” 

The epidemiologist said the Scott administration is “trying in every moment to do what is scientifically right.”

“And that is like the success stories in other places like New Zealand, going to be what historians look back on and feel proud of,” Lahey said. 

Phil Scott and Anthony Fauci on video monitor
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Gov. Phil Scott, left, and Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine, center, at a press briefing on the state’s Covid-19 response on Sept. 15, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Patti Komline, a former Republican minority leader in the House who also ran two of Scott’s campaigns for lieutenant governor, said the governor’s “deliberative” and calm leadership style has been on full display as he responds to the pandemic. 

“He’s unflappable, he doesn’t have an ego, he’s very methodical about things, and that has shown through this,” Komline said. 

“I’m not sure that he’s changed so much as he’s been given a platform where people have seen who he is and how he processes things,” she said. 

People that have known Scott over the years say that little has changed about him since he became governor. 

But many said that he appears more confident with holding Vermont’s highest office in his second term. 

John Campbell, a former Democratic president of the Vermont Senate, said Scott has never “sought the limelight,” and seems more at ease taking center stage now, than he did earlier on.

“It’s not that he’s a shy guy, but he’s not a Mr. Social,” Campbell said. “And so to see him now to be able to get up in front of a microphone and not read a speech and to be able to eloquently provide his opinion on a matter, or to also be there in front of the press corps and being able to field the types of questions he does, that shows somebody who’s grown into the job.” 

Andrew MacLean, a recently retired partner at the Montpelier lobbying firm MMR, said that he thinks Scott’s calm leadership style stands out more than his stance on any particular issue — and that may be the reason he’s so popular. 

“Nothing really does stand out with him. When you think about him what stands out? You know, why did he get elected in the first place? He comes off as a good guy you’d like to have a beer with,” MacLean said. 

“Rational, steady, moderate, cares about people,” he said.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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