Categories: Politics

Major leadership changes loom in the state Senate

Sen. Becca Balint speaks at a press conference for lieutenant governor candidate Molly Gray in Montpelier on Oct. 5. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

In January, there will be wholesale Democratic and Progressive leadership changes in the Vermont Legislature. 

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, is poised to become the next Senate president pro tem, and newly elected lieutenant governor Molly Gray will preside over the upper chamber. They are replacing Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, and outgoing Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman.

In the Vermont House, both House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and the head of the Progressive caucus, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, lost their reelection bids.

The election shakeup means the Legislature will have new leaders as it contends with the continued Covid-19 crisis in 2021.  

In the Senate, there will be a shakeup of the powerful Committee on Committees — both the pro tem and lieutenant governor automatically hold two of the three seats on panel — which sets the state of play for the upper chamber, including decisions about who will chair committees.

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, the third member of the committee, said he plans to seek the seat once again and isn’t aware of a challenger. The last time a woman served on the Committee on Committees was in the mid-1990s when Barbara Snelling served as lieutenant governor. Two women on the committee is a first, according to Samantha Sheehan, campaign manager for Gray.

Democrats hold majorities in both the Senate and the House. Senate Democrats will make their leadership decision during a caucus Nov. 22.

House Democrats will nominate a speaker on Dec. 5. At least three House members are contenders for the speaker’s job: current Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington; former Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford; and Charlie Kimbell, D-Woodstock. 

The House Progressives, who held on to their seven seats, must also choose a new leader. 

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Meanwhile, there will be a new dynamic in the House. With 99 representatives in the 150-member House, Democrats and Progressives are one vote shy of a supermajority. 

House Republicans gained just enough seats (47) to join with moderate Democrats and five independents and potentially erode the Democratic/Progressive veto-proof majority that overrode Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act this year.

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, right confers with Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, at the Statehouse in Montpelier in May 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Rush to fill Senate majority leader slot 

Three senators have already put their names forward to head the Democratic caucus — Sens. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden; Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor; and Brian Campion, D-Bennington.

Clarkson, who has served in the Senate for four years and previously served five terms in the House, said it’s important for the majority leader “to be a Democrat” rather than a Progressive.

“While we have many things that are similar and we have many values that are aligned with Progressives, we’re our own party. And if we’re going to do fundraising, if we’re going to do recruiting, I’m not sure a Progressive leader would be as supportive of doing that work,” Clarkson said. 

Pearson split his party affiliation between the Progressive and Democratic parties, and served as a Progressive member in the House. 

Sen. Chris Pearson, P-Chittenden, leaves the Senate chamber on April 8. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Campion, who has served in the Senate for six years and before that served two years in the House, agreed with Clarkson. 

“Part of the job is recruiting and fundraising, as I see it, so I would think that we’d be putting a Progressive or somebody from another party in a tricky position if we’re asking them to recruit and fundraise for a party that they don’t belong to,” he said. 

“I think it is important that it’s the Democratic majority, that there should be a Democrat in that position. To me it just makes perfect sense,” Campion said.

Pearson said he has been having conversations with fellow senators since deciding to vie for the leadership position and doesn’t think his split party affiliation will be a problem. 

“I have always and only been a member of the Democratic caucus since I’ve been in the Senate. I haven’t been half a member; I would say I’ve been a full-fledged member,” Pearson said. “I’m not convinced it’s going to be an issue, but we’ll see where it lands. But this is why we have a vote and we’ll see what our colleagues think.”

Pearson, who was a longtime House member before winning election to the Senate in 2016, was vice chair of the Senate agriculture committee for the past two years while also sitting on the tax panel.

Many senators have yet to decide who they will support, but Seven Days has reported that five lawmakers have expressed support for Pearson, including Sens. Phil Baruth, Bobby Starr, Anthony Pollina, Ann Cummings and Mark MacDonald.

Colburn likely to be the Progressive leader 

Chesnut-Tangerman, who has served three terms in the House, lost to Republican Sally Achey by 32 votes on Nov. 3. 

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Chesnut-Tangerman said the Progressive caucus has yet to meet to determine the process for selecting his replacement. 

In the coming session, he had hoped to advance affordable health care, a paid family leave program, a minimum wage increase and a broadening of the state’s clean energy sector. 

“We’ve made progress in some areas, not made progress in others. And so there’s a lot to do, to carry on, trying to make Vermont more equitable,” Chesnut-Tangerman said. 

Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, right, listens to Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, at the Statehouse in January 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

He said he will not endorse a nominee to fill his position. 

Four Progressives are leaving the Statehouse this year — Chesnut-Tangerman and Reps. Diana Gonzalez of Winooski, Sandy Haas of Rochester, and Zachariah Ralph Watson of Hartland. Gonzalez, Haas and Watson decided not to run for reelection. 

While there are now only three returning Progressive caucus members — Reps. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington; Brian Cina, P-Burlington; and Mollie S. Burke, P-Brattleboro — the party will maintain the seven seats it held in the House. The new Progressive representatives are Emma Mulvaney-Stanak of Burlington, Taylor Small of Winooski, Heather Suprenant of Barnard, and Tanya Vyhovsky of Essex.

There has not yet been a discussion about who will become the Progressive caucus leader in the Vermont House.

“We need to organize ourselves and acquaint ourselves before we make a decision about who leadership is going to be,” Cina said Friday.

Cina said the new leader will likely be one of the three returning members and Colburn, who was assistant leader to Chesnut-Tangerman last biennium, would be an obvious choice. 

“I have a lot of confidence in Selene as the assistant leader, in the past few years,” he said. “But I don’t think any decisions have been made about what exactly our leadership structure is going to be.”

“If we’re going to pick a leader — and it is probably going to be one of us three — she has experience, so I would support her,” Cina said of Colburn.

Burke said the leadership discussion has yet to occur, but concurred with Cina that Colburn is a natural replacement for Chesnut-Tangerman.

“Selene would be the obvious choice, in terms that she was assistant leader,” Burke said. “I think it depends on how the other people feel.”

Colburn, who was on the Burlington City Council from 2014 to 2017 before entering the Vermont House, said there’s been no leadership decision yet, She said she would prefer not to discuss whether she is thinking about a leadership role until those deliberations have taken place with the new caucus members.

“We need to have internal conversations about what we really are needing around leadership,” Colburn said. “We’re Progressives, so we’re going to resist the sort of capitalist, white supremacist model of immediately needing to decide who’s in charge.”

Anne Galloway contributed to this report.

Kit Norton and Xander Landen

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

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