Politics

Statehouse veterans David Zuckerman, Joe Benning advance in Vermont’s race for lieutenant governor

Joe Benning, left, and David Zuckerman. Photos by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 1:26 a.m.

David Zuckerman, a Democrat and Progressive, and Joe Benning, a Republican, are set to square off in November’s general election for lieutenant governor of Vermont. 

Zuckerman, who previously held the post for four years, declared victory around 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, following concessions by Kitty Toll, Charlie Kimbell and Patricia Preston. With all but one precinct reporting by early Wednesday morning, Zuckerman had recorded 42% of the vote, compared to 37% for Toll. Kimbell and Preston trailed in the single digits.

On the GOP side, Benning had claimed more than 48% of the vote, while former Rutland City alderman Gregory Thayer had 40%. 

The race was set into motion last year when incumbent Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, a Democrat, chose to run for an open U.S. House seat.

In a year in which many Vermont incumbents decided against seeking reelection, Zuckerman said he was encouraged by the conduct of those who had run for office. 

“The Vermont way of treating each other with dignity and respect survives here,” he said, commenting specifically on his relationship with his competitors. 

David Zuckerman, candidate for lieutenant governor, chats outside the polling place in Hinesburg on primary day, Tuesday, Aug. 9. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Benning, an attorney and 12-year veteran of the state Senate, worked with Zuckerman for years during their overlapping time in the Statehouse. Benning told VTDigger late Tuesday that they have a friendly relationship and had expected to face off come autumn. Both texted each other throughout the primary campaign, he said.

Benning dubbed Zuckerman a “worthy opponent” and said he plans to “have some fun” but also keep the campaign “clean.”

“We're both libertarians at heart,” Benning said. “We have had occasions where we fought tooth and nail, but we have, I think, a pretty good track record of understanding each other and I think we'll carry that forward into the election.”

Sen. Joe Benning, D-Caledonia, left, chats with Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Grand Isle, at the Statehouse in Montpelier in January 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Whoever is elected this fall would preside over the state Senate, breaking the rare tie vote, and would take the helm if the governor became unable to serve. While the role is largely ceremonial, it is often used as a springboard to run for higher office.

If he wins the general election, Zuckerman would be returning to the post, which he held from 2017 to 2021. The year before, he chose not to seek reelection in order to challenge Republican Gov. Phil Scott for the state’s top job and lost. Zuckerman, an organic farmer from Hinesburg, previously served for 20 years in the state Legislature  — first as a Progressive and then as a Progressive/Democrat. 

As the state’s second-in-command, Zuckerman said he would be ready to work with the Republican governor should Scott win reelection, despite the fact that the two disagree on a number of policies. Scott has vetoed a number of bills Zuckerman would have supported, he said, but he feels the agree about the urgency of Vermonters’ economic struggles.  

Leading up to Tuesday, Zuckerman garnered the support of a number of left-leaning figures, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., along with other progressive lawmakers. He won the backing of labor groups such as Vermont’s AFL-CIO and Vermont State Employees' Association, advocacy organizations including Rights and Democracy and Vermont Public Interest Research Group, and a number of environmental and climate-focused groups such as Sunrise Montpelier and the Sierra Club.

During his victory speech, Zuckerman said Vermonters are struggling, citing the price of fuel, the tight housing market, the cost of health care and economic challenges facing businesses and farms. 

David Zuckerman, candidate for lieutenant governor, gathers with supporters around a projector displaying primary results in Burlington. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

“I want to recognize that these races are really about the people out across Vermont,” he said. “What is it that government can do, both proactively and for people, and where can we get out of the way sometimes to help people's lives get better?”

Zuckerman said he believes his experience would be particularly helpful in the Senate in the upcoming session, with a third of the chamber’s incumbents leaving office.

“That means bringing people up to speed in the process,” he said. “And that means tackling issues as fast as we can in the urgency for those issues I spoke of earlier.”

Zuckerman mingled casually with several dozen supporters — mostly young adults — while gathered Tuesday night on a mezzanine in the Soda Plant on Pine Street. In a corner cubicle of the shared space, which belongs to the nonprofit Democracy Collective, Zuckerman lawn signs were piled high, along with stacks of boxes and posters.

Aspen Overy, an intern with Zuckerman’s campaign, said they support him because of his positions on the climate crisis, housing crisis and advocacy for working people. 

“David also has a proven history of fighting for marginalized people,” they said. “He has a long history of fighting for LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, these things long before they were hot topics to support.”

Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, also attended the event and noted that the party has long supported Zuckerman. 

“What we saw David do when he was in this role previously is really use it to articulate issues that weren't necessarily being articulated in the [Statehouse], and going out and going out into the communities that are affected by the policies in Montpelier and using the grassroots movements and like amplifying those voices,” Wronski said. 

Benning, an attorney from Lyndonville, built a reputation as a moderate and libertarian-leaning Republican during his 12 years in the state Senate. His tenure included two stints as minority leader. In his bid for lieutenant governor, Benning won the endorsements of dozens of moderate Republicans, including Scott and former Gov. Jim Douglas, and made his longstanding working relationship with the governor a key selling point in his pitch to voters.

Republican candidate Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, speaks during VTDigger’s Lieutenant Governor Debate at the Paramount Theater in Rutland in June. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Benning has been a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump, and saw his race against Gregory Thayer as a symbol of the division within the Republican party. In the week leading up to the primary, he told VTDigger that he feared for the future of the Republican party in the case of a Thayer victory.

“The issue for me is, if I am defeated in the primary, does the party survive?” he said before the election.

Thayer, who chaired the Rutland City GOP, aligned himself with the former president. He attended the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021, then marched to the U.S. Capitol, but did not enter it. Thayer also organized a press conference decrying calls for increased gun control after a spate of shootings across the country last spring, and last year, he organized a series of events across the state decrying critical race theory.  

Late Tuesday night, Thayer told VTDigger in a phone interview that he was “feeling great” with his performance in the primary. He did not have the same level of name recognition and tenure as Benning, but his campaign still “resonated with a lot of people,” he said.

“Running up against the 12-year incumbent, we knew going in we were the underdog,” Thayer said. “But we, you know, we came out really well and I'm not going away.”

Asked if he planned to run for office in a future election, Thayer was quick to say, “Oh, yeah. I'll do something.”

The lieutenant governorship opened up last fall when Gray, the Democratic incumbent, announced her run for Vermont’s open U.S. House seat, which was being vacated by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., to run for the U.S. Senate. Within weeks, four Democrats had announced their bids for LG.

A recent poll by the University of New Hampshire showed that 38% of Democrats surveyed planned to vote for Zuckerman. His closest competitor, according to the poll, was Toll.

In a statement Tuesday night, Toll said it was time to shift the focus to November. 

“The stakes have never been higher, and we must elect democrats up and down the ballot and pass Article 22 with overwhelming approval to ensure reproductive liberty for all Vermonters,” she said, referring to the proposed abortion-rights constitutional amendment. “I’m committed to this work, and I hope you’ll join me along the way.”

Toll previously served for 12 years as a member of the Vermont House, including four as chair of the chamber’s budget writing committee, where she developed a reputation for being socially liberal and fiscally moderate. Former Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin endorsed Toll. 

Toll also took an early lead in fundraising, taking in more than $250,000 and spending most of it to attempt to close a gap in name recognition against the better-known Zuckerman. Toll was the first in the race to buy television ads and spent heavily on media buys throughout the campaign.

Preston and Kimbell both said they planed to back Zuckerman in the general election. Preston said she felt “true momentum” while delivering her concession speech to about 100 people.

David Zuckerman, candidate for lieutenant governor, casts his ballot at the polling place in Hinesburg on primary day. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I feel it's really important, even in conceding, I feel momentum because we're moving Vermont forward,” she said.

Preston, executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Council on World Affairs, has never served in public office but won the financial backing of a number of politicians and high-profile business leaders in the state, such as former state senator and U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith, Vermont real estate mogul Ernie Pomerleau and former Sugarbush Resort president Win Smith. 

Kimbell, an entrepreneur and banker from Woodstock who has served as a state representative for five years, has called himself a moderate Democrat who can work across party lines. 

Kimbell, who said he had to cancel a campaign gathering Tuesday night because he recently tested positive for Covid-19, plans to look for ways outside of the lieutenant governor post and his legislative role to further his main policy goal: workforce development. 

“Will David, as lieutenant governor, take that up as his primary? I don't think so. He's got a different agenda,” Kimbell said Tuesday night. “And he's won, so maybe that the agenda that he has is more appealing to the voters. That’s still a very important issue to me.”

Sarah Mearhoff contributed reporting.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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