Politics

Mike Pieciak is poised to become Vermont’s next treasurer. And then?

Mike Pieciak speaks at a Vermont Democratic Party press conference in Montpelier on Tuesday, Aug. 30. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

He did not face a challenger in the Democratic primary and will face only token opposition in the general election. But Mike Pieciak, the one-time commissioner of Vermont’s little-known Department of Financial Regulation — now running for state treasurer — is nevertheless generating significant buzz. 

A well-respected but largely behind-the-scenes official frequently assigned to wonky — and sometimes politically thorny — problems by Republican and Democratic governors alike, Pieciak’s profile has risen quickly, though he’s never before run for public office. And even before his race for treasurer is called, observers and insiders are already beginning to project into the future.

“First openly gay governor? Why the hell not?” the liberal blogger John Walters wrote earlier this month.

Despite having essentially no competition, Pieciak is campaigning and fundraising vigorously. He’s pledged to visit every town and city in the state in a tour that will conclude, cheekily, in the town of Victory. And he brought in more money this primary than any candidate running for attorney general, secretary of state, auditor or governor — despite many of those other candidates facing competitive races.

It’s not just how much his campaign has brought in that is noteworthy. It’s who is making those donations. Those who have contributed include former Democratic Vermont governors Howard Dean ($500) and Peter Shumlin ($2,500 from his dormant campaign fund), former Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille ($500), former Vermont Democratic Party chair Dottie Deans ($350), and VGS CEO Neale Lunderville ($2,000), who held two cabinet posts under former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.

​​Former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman — who has a notoriously complicated relationship with the Democratic party, despite often winning its nomination — said party power players have not told him if they would like to see Pieciak run for higher office anytime soon. But he said Pieciak certainly “fits a lot of the criteria” that would make him appealing in such circles.

“He is affable. He is very smart. He is a numbers person. He has not had to take any positions on much of any issues and therefore hasn't created any sort of ‘enemies,’” Zuckerman said.

Asked about plans for the future, Pieciak said he wouldn’t “rule anything out.” But he says his focus right now is on this race, even if the outcome is not particularly in question.

“We still need to earn everybody's vote,” he said. “We still need to show that we want this, and I think how you campaign is reflective of how you will govern — in terms of the energy and the hard work and effort that you bring to it.”

Lunderville first got to know Pieciak in the spring of 2020, when Gov. Phil Scott informally brought Lunderville back into government service during the early, all-hands-on-deck days of the Covid-19 crisis. 

The financial regulation commissioner had also been assigned an unexpected task: take charge of the state’s pandemic modeling. Pieciak stood alongside Scott at press conferences once a week and, calmly and confidently, gave Vermonters the numbers, both good and bad.

“I think I wasn't the only person who was really impressed with how Mike could stand and deliver that — and do it in a way that I think really connected with folks,” Lunderville said. 

The two have since become friends, and Lunderville even held a fundraiser to support Pieciak’s run for treasurer. 

“He is charming — he's really disarming is the word I'm really looking for,” Lunderville said.

Other supporters and friends include Rebecca Ramos, a lobbyist with the Necrason Group. She said Pieciak reminds her of Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham — with whom Ramos is also close, and who just prevailed in the Democratic primary for Vermont’s sole U.S. House seat — because he’s been able to garner praise from such a broad spectrum of supporters.

“People really want to have trusted figures lead them, and so when I look at Mike, you can see that,” Ramos said. “You have liberals, conservatives, everything in between, that see that he is trustworthy and has integrity. It’s beyond party.”

If Pieciak has been able to win over many of Montpelier’s insiders, he has also been able to impress some of its most pointed critics. His supporters also include former Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, who overlapped with Pieciak when they both worked under Govs. Shumlin, a Democrat, and Scott, a Republican. 

“What I appreciated was he was always a serious straight shooter,” Holcombe said. “Whereas so many were inclined to amp up the ideological aspects of policy proposals, he was always someone who took it right back down to the numbers.”

Pieciak has pledged to leverage the treasurer’s post to help tackle some of the state’s most vexing and expensive problems, including skyrocketing housing costs and climate resilience. He’s been light on the specifics of the role the treasurer might play in addressing such sprawling problems, but Holcombe expressed confidence that he would help advance thoughtful solutions.

“The Legislature can't do good work if someone in the executive branch isn't putting forth a plan, because [the executive branch is] there year-round,” Holcombe said. “As treasurer, Mike will be there year-round. He will have a staff. He will have the information at his fingertips. He'll be able to define the problem and try to articulate different options and then stress-test them before they get to the Legislature.”

Pieciak is a first-time candidate, and he is best known at this point for his intellect and technical acumen. But he has been in the thick of a hotly contested electoral contest before — and he came out on the winning side. 

“Quite a dogfight,” is how former Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell describes his 2012 primary challenge from then-Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan. 

Then a young attorney at the Burlington law firm Downs Rachlin Martin planning to move back to New York City, Pieciak agreed to come on as Sorrell’s campaign manager after being introduced by a former aide to Dean, according to Sorrell’s account. They quickly became “joined at the hip,” and Sorrell now says he considers Pieciak family. (The latter never made it back to New York.)

On the trail, Pieciak kept Sorrell’s spirits up and focused on making the right strategic moves, Sorrell said. He was diligent, in particular, about sending the attorney general down to campaign in-person in Vermont’s southern counties. The race was ultimately decided by less than 1,000 votes, and Sorrell thinks it was his margin of victory in Windham County that clinched the primary for him.

“I said on election night, the smartest decision I've made in this campaign was hiring Mike Pieciak to run my campaign. And everybody laughed, but it was absolutely true,” Sorrell said in a recent interview. He stood behind Pieciak when the latter announced his candidacy in May and contributed $1,000 left over from his own campaign coffers to help launch Pieciak’s run.

Steve Howard, now the executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, remembers that 2012 primary well. He was working in the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office at the time and volunteering on Donovan’s campaign.

“I told TJ to stop going to the southern counties. I said: ‘You're gonna win it in Burlington.’ Anyway, I’m not bitter about that,” Howard said, laughing.

Another thing Howard isn’t bitter about? Mike Pieciak. Although he, too, credits him entirely for Sorrell’s win and Donovan’s loss.

“Even in that campaign, we liked Mike,” Howard said. “I remember talking to Joey Donovan [Donovan’s mother] and TJ and the folks in TJ’s campaign, you know — we liked Mike Pieciak. He was just a nice guy. He didn't personalize it. He just was out doing his job and we were out doing our job.”

That race would illustrate a dynamic that would play out again later in Pieciak’s career: an uncanny ability to navigate fraught political landscapes and seemingly emerge with friends on all sides. (Or at least not having made any enemies.)

“You can see it in the way he was able to maneuver within both the Shumlin and the Scott administration,” Howard said, describing both as having “a lot of landmines behind closed doors.”

Howard, too, is supporting Pieciak’s run, although just in a personal capacity for now. The VSEA has yet to make an endorsement in the race. Incidentally, Pieciak has the backing of one of the union’s most influential political foes: David Coates, a former KPMG executive who has led the charge to try to dismantle Vermont’s public pension system in favor of a 401(k)-style retirement plan. Coates has donated at least $2,000 to Pieciak’s campaign.

But Coates’ support doesn’t seem to bother Howard, who notes Pieciak backed a compromise with labor when he sat on the task force that wrote the blueprint for a major pension overhaul earlier this year. And the candidate has also pledged he’ll continue to defend the pension system.

Pieciak wouldn’t be the first politician to win the trust of labor and the state’s pension hawks. Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce, who has endorsed Pieciak as her successor, was also able to thread that needle. 

“I guess it says that maybe Mike has been savvier about how to maneuver with that crowd than maybe I have been,” said Howard.

Disclosure: Neale Lunderville is a board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust, VTDigger’s parent organization.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: lduffort@vtdigger.org

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