Politics

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson files for recount after losing Grand Isle seat

Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, center, chats with a supporter while waving to traffic outside the South Hero town offices on Tuesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said she was filing a request for a recount with the Grand Isle County court on Wednesday, a day after losing her reelection bid to a Republican challenger by 18 votes. 

But the South Hero Democrat also said that “flipping 18 votes in a recount is unlikely.”

“It seems prudent just to double check. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not holding anything up to just take the time to make sure that the voters’ will is being executed,” Johnson said. 

She noted that recounts have changed election results in her district before. In 2016, Democrat Ben Joseph requested a recount in a primary race for the House after official results found him behind his opponent, Andy Julow, by 10 votes. The recount flipped the election.

Johnson said she was “obviously disappointed” by her loss.

“I feel like I have worked very hard for my community and very hard for the Legislature — particularly during this pandemic — to really be one of the few legislatures in the country that has transformed itself the way we have to be responsive to Vermonters’ needs,” Johnson said.

Johnson lost to Rep. Leland Morgan, the district’s Republican incumbent, and his nephew Michael Morgan, who is also a Republican. 

While Johnson’s loss is likely to disrupt Democratic leadership in the Vermont House, the development did not come as a complete surprise — the speaker had clung to her seat with razor-thin vote margins in recent elections. 

Michael Morgan challenged Johnson in 2018 and lost by only 148 votes. In 2016, she won reelection by only 103 votes, and in 2014, she won by 31. 

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The Morgans contend that Johnson has become out of touch with voters in the district and unresponsive as their representative. 

Rep. Leland Morgan, R-Milton
Rep. Leland Morgan, R-Milton, at the Statehouse in February 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

And they say the Democratic agenda she has championed as House speaker is far too liberal for many voters in the purple Grand Isle-Chittenden district. The district includes the Champlain Islands and a section of Milton. 

Johnson pushed back against criticism that she hasn’t adequately responded to her constituents. 

“I think the 50 people that I basically responded to immediately, no matter the hour, to get them on unemployment insurance benefits would disagree that I am not responsive,” Johnson said. 

She added that she has “delivered results” on issues her constituents care about including water quality, reforms of the state’s land use law, Act 250, and improving the affordability of child care.  

She said that running a campaign in a year when the legislative session dragged on until September was a “disadvantage to incumbents.” And she said losing the opportunity to campaign door to door amid the Covid-19 crisis was another setback, because it made it harder to directly explain the work she had done in the Statehouse to constituents. 

Former Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith said that he was surprised by Johnson’s loss and suspects she was hurt by the circumstances presented by Covid-19. 

“It’s not like Mitzi hasn’t had close races before, but in all the previous ones she’d been able to pull it out. And one of the barriers, I think, this time might have been the lack of in-person campaigning,” Smith said. 

“Mitzi is, I think, a very good door-to-door campaigner and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of the issue,” he added. 

Mitzi Johnson with gavel
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson gavels in a session in April to advance emergency Covid-19 legislation. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

A race for speaker in 2020? 

If the recount effort doesn’t upend the outcome of Johnson’s race, Democrats will have to elect a new House speaker ahead of the next legislative session, which begins in January. Johnson declined to say who might be considering a run for the post. 

But likely candidates would include House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, and Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, the chair of the House Government Operations Committee. 

Krowinski has worked closely with Johnson over the last four years, but declined to say Wednesday if she would run if the speaker lost her seat. 

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse here. The speaker has a recount that is happening in the near future and I think we need to get through that recount first and see what the results are,” Krowinski said. 

Copeland-Hanzas, a former Democratic majority leader, ran against Johnson and outgoing state Rep. Chip Conquest D-Wells River, in the last race for House speaker in 2016. She did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. 

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Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, who is poised to become the next president pro tem of the Senate in January, said she didn’t know who would be likely to succeed Johnson. 

But she said that she was saddened when she learned the speaker had lost her race on Wednesday. 

“I was looking forward to working with her. I think that she does think really carefully about rural parts of the state, and so I felt a personal loss,” Balint 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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