Senate Republicans have named Randy Brock of the Franklin District as minority leader, giving the upper chamber a nearly complete crop of new faces in positions of power as the 2021 legislative session approaches.
The seven-member Republican caucus decided unanimously Sunday on Brock after Joe Benning of Caledonia said he would be stepping down from the position to focus on serving as a policy committee chair.
Brock has served in the upper chamber for five terms as well as being a former state auditor. The caucus also reelected Brian Collamore of the Rutland District as assistant minority leader, or the whip.
“We represent a degree of balance in the Legislature. We’ve done that and we will continue to do that,” Brock said in an interview Monday about how he sees the Republicans’ role in tempering the Democratic majority in the upcoming legislative session.
As has been the case in recent years, Senate Republicans enter the next legislative session at a severe disadvantage compared with Democrats.
The GOP was able to pick up one Senate seat — with political newcomer Republican Russ Ingalls defeating incumbent Democrat Sen. John Rodgers, who ran as an independent in this year’s Essex-Orleans District election.
However, Republicans will go into the next two years with just seven seats in the 30-member chamber.
With Brock’s appointment as minority leader, he joins a new leadership group that all has ties to the Senate committee on economic development, as lawmakers are expected to tackle the Covid-19 crisis and the economic fallout associated with the pandemic.
Senate Democrats decided Sunday to nominate Becca Balint of the Windham District as the upper chamber’s first woman pro tempore. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, was named majority leader and Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland, assistant majority leader.
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Democrat Molly Gray will become the state’s next lieutenant governor in January. She will preside over the chamber and along with Balint serve on the Committee on Committees, which will decide who chairs policy committees for the next two years.
Brock, Balint, Clarkson and Hooker have all spent the past two years on the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.
“We’ve all had experience working together, and even though we may not agree on each and every issue we talk and we share ideas and we share views and indeed I’m hopeful that more of our views from our side of the aisle will continue to play a role in what we do,” Brock said.
Balint and Brock also served together on the Senate Finance Committee, which sets the state’s tax policy.
“I spend all day with her,” he added with a laugh of his time with Balint.
Senate Republicans’ decision to elect Brock also elevates one of the few people of color in the Vermont Statehouse to a leadership position.
But Brock said he does not think about that aspect of his new title and what it means to be a Black man as the Senate minority leader in a building that currently and historically has been dominated by people who do not look like him.
“I don’t particularly consider it,” Brock said. “I don’t think it is actually relevant. We select people based on who they are not on what they are.”
In an interview Monday, Benning said he decided to step away from the role to restore the Statehouse tradition that lawmakers who chair committees do not also serve in a leadership position.
For the past two years, Benning was both the minority leader and the lone Republican to chair a policy panel — heading the institutions committee, which has jurisdiction over issues concerning state-owned property, land and the Department of Corrections.
Benning said that at the time no other senior member in the Senate Republican caucus wanted the leadership position, so he decided to serve as both a chair and as minority leader.
“This year, of course, we picked up a seat and there have been discussions being made along the way about how best to proceed going forward,” Benning said. “We wanted to return to the tradition and it came down to making a choice between the leadership position and the chair.”
The Caledonia senator decided on the committee role, saying that it gives him more authority over issues that are important to his constituents, including Northern Vermont University and the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail.
“On top of that, we have a brand new lieutenant governor, brand new pro tem, brand new majority leader,” Benning added. “I thought it was probably a good time for some new blood in that position.”
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