Election results ‘make room’ for new leaders in the Progressive Party

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak speaks during the Progressive Party caucus in Burlington a year ago. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Some of the Vermont Progressive Party’s most familiar faces will not return to Montpelier in January.

Three of the party’s leaders — Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive Democrat, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, and the head of the House Progressive caucus, and Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs — will be absent when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021. 

Zuckerman lost to incumbent Republican Phil Scott in the race for governor, Ashe was beaten by  Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, and a Republican picked up Chesnut-Tangerman’s seat last month. 

Four new Progressives, however, were elected to the House on Nov. 3, which means the party will maintain seven seats in the House even though Chesnut-Tangerman lost and three party members retired. 

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D Washington, chair of Vermont’s Progressive Party, said he believes the newly elected House members will keep the party strong.

“It’s a legitimate question to ask if we’re going to suffer from the loss of those two voices,” Pollina said, referring to Ashe and Zuckerman. “But I really don’t think in the long term we will.

“I mean, it’s just the ups and downs of politics. You win some, you lose some, and we just have to continue to move forward and I think these new folks are going to replace those voices in a different kind of way.” 

Pollina noted that all four of the new Progressive members are younger women. 

“I think from the party’s point of view, we ended up where we started out,” Pollina said, since  the Progressives didn’t lose any seats in the House. 

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“Although, again, with these four strong women’s voices, we may end up better off than we started out,” he said. 

The new Progressives

The new Progressive representatives are Emma Mulvaney-Stanak of Burlington, Heather Suprenant of Barnard, Tanya Vyhovsky of Essex, and Taylor Small of Winooski, who is the first openly transgender person elected to the Vermont Legislature. 

Mulvaney-Stanak, 40, is a former Burlington city councilor and former chair of the state Progressive Party. She said Ashe, Zuckerman and Chesnut-Tangerman will take a lot of “Progressive historical knowledge” with them as they leave Montpelier. 

Taylor Small of Winooski is one of the newly elected Progressive state representatives. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

But she said the change “makes room for new leaders and new voices and new faces and life experiences to emerge.” She noted that Zuckerman, Ashe and Chesnut-Tangerman are all white, cisgender and heterosexual men.  

“That’s the dominant culture in politics, and there’s an opportunity — as much as it’s a loss of their perspective and wisdom and experience there, now there’s an opening of space, frankly, and ability for new leaders to step forward,” she said. 

The party’s losses are not a referendum on Progressive leadership. 

She points to Progressive victories in new districts. In the Windsor 4-1 district, Suprenant won the seat now held by Rep. Randall Szott, D-Barnard. Vyhovsky won the seat in Essex now held by Republican Linda Myers. 

In Burlington, Mulvaney-Stanak unseated eight-term Democratic incumbent Jean O’Sullivan. 

“People are, especially after a pandemic, desperate to talk about real paid family leave and desperate to talk about real economic supports and doing better in Vermont instead of the mediocre incremental changes that Democrats have really offered folks for the last several sessions now,” Mulvaney-Stanak said. 

Mulvaney-Stanak, who has two young children, said the legislative debate over paid family leave legislation spurred her to run. She and other Progressives believe the paid leave program Democrats passed, which was vetoed by Scott, didn’t offer adequate benefits. She’s a former organizer for the state’s largest teachers union, the Vermont-NEA, and now runs a social change strategy consulting business.

Mulvaney-Stanak said the Legislature needs representatives who have recently lived through the “struggles of young parenthood and childcare.” 

Vyhovsky, 35, said the incoming Progressive House members are “a win” for the party. 

Tanya Vyhovsky, speaking for Rights & Democracy Vermont, at a press conference in January, calling for raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“It was a group of women, it’s a group of young people, it’s a group of working-class individuals that I think will really bring some really new and fresh perspectives, and I’m excited to get to work with all of them,” Vyhovsky said.

But she also said the party’s losses in 2020 speak to “the real importance for the Progressive Party of building energy outside of Chittenden County and really building a coalition across the state.” 

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Vyhovsky runs a private social work counseling practice in Essex and is also a social worker at Charlotte Central School. Her professional background and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016 motivated her to run for office.

Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, said the party retains other key leaders in the Senate, including himself, Pollina, and Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden. 

In the House, he pointed to Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, who will likely lead the House Progressive caucus in the next biennim.

“I’m kind of excited by a bunch of the folks coming in. They tend to be reducing the average age of the Legislature,” Pearson said. “There’s some really promising developments, and I’m pleased we managed to hold our numbers, even though we had a bunch of people retiring and in fact lost an incumbent.”

Gaining traction

Patricia Siplon, a political science professor at St. Michael’s College, said while Progressives endured “a couple of tough races” at the state level, they’re gaining traction in Burlington where they now hold a majority on the city council. 

“You can look at it and say, ‘Oh, whoa, what’s going on? Progressives are in trouble.’ But then when you go in a little deeper, there’s a lot of explanations to me that look very, very different than the Progressives are weakening,” Siplon said. 

Siplon said Ashe faced a difficult primary field in the race for lieutenant governor. The Progressive vote was split and Gray had an edge with the “mainstream Democratic vote” and endorsements from the party establishment. 

Zuckerman faced a particularly challenging gubernatorial race, she said, because many voters supported Republican Gov. Phil Scott for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Progressive politicians in Vermont’s largest city could be  a strong “bench” for the party in the future, Siplon said. 

“The Progressives that are coming up in the Burlington City Council are overwhelmingly young and they’re extremely energetic and they’re very policy-focused,” Siplon said. “And I kind of wonder if this is building a new wave of younger Progressives who are going to come up through the system and move into state government.” 

Zuckerman said his gubernatorial defeat doesn’t mean voters oppose Progressive issues; he believes Vermonters were primarily focused on the pandemic. 

“Do people think that there’s been a sudden values shift of Vermonters who no longer care about climate crisis or people’s wages or housing and economic circumstances? I doubt that shift occurred. But the front and center issue for the governor’s race was clearly steady hands and consistent hands handling Covid,” Zuckerman said. 

Zuckerman also believes the departure of established Progressive leaders in Montpelier will give the party’s new office-holders “opportunities to rise to the occasion.” 

“I think you will hear different voices rising to discuss these same critical issues and to me, that’s exciting, because it shows that it’s not a one-headed beast, but that the issues are well-espoused by a wide range of people. They always have been,” Zuckerman 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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