More departures could shake up Progressive representation in the Statehouse

The Vermont state flag flies in front of the Statehouse. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

In an election year poised to bring historic turnover in Vermont’s Legislature, a number of preeminent Progressive state lawmakers are retiring from their posts, while others are switching parties in hopes of gaining more influence within the Statehouse.

The political retirements of party stalwarts such as Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden and Rep. Selene Colburn, P/D-Burlington, have been known for months. 

But as November’s general election approaches, two current Progressive/Democratic incumbents — Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, and Rep. Heather Surprenant, P/D-Barnard — have changed their party affiliations to Democratic. Now, only a few Progressive/Democratic incumbents are running for reelection in the party.

Surprenant told VTDigger that one reason she decided to switch to the Democratic Party was because of the “deep-rooted tensions” between Progressives and Democrats within the Statehouse, and the “unspoken pressures” to join the majority party in order to rise in the ranks.

“I think the numbers will speak for themselves, that there have been limited opportunities for Progressives to be in deep leadership positions within the Legislature, regardless of who has been speaker or majority leader,” Surprenant said. “I just don't think Progressives are really getting those positions because we're a minority party.”

A small-scale organic farmer from Barnard, Surprenant said she has higher aspirations in her House Agriculture Committee. No one in leadership explicitly told her she needed to switch parties in order to achieve those goals, she said, but she felt it was necessary.

“I'm essentially one of them now and I will have to be listened to on a different level,” Surprenant said. “There's that old saying, ‘If you can't beat them, join them.’ Well, here we go. This is my opportunity to still be vocal and loud and passionate, but hopefully in a way that's going to actually be listened to.”

Burke, too, is switching to the Democratic Party after serving 14 years as a Progressive/Democrat. She had “various reasons” for doing so, she said, but chief among them was her place in the House Transportation Committee.

“I just felt like I needed to have a little bit more access in terms of being able to promote legislation,” Burke said.

Asked if she hoped that switching parties could land her the important position of committee chair, Burke said that was not her intent. “It's not something I'm particularly seeking at the moment, but we'll see what happens,” she said.

Vermont Democratic Party executive director Jim Dandeneau said that, in Surprenant and Burke’s cases, “I think there's some recognition from folks that they can get more accomplished as a member of the majority party, and that our values are similar enough where they're not going against their own value system to join the (Democrats).”

Pollina, a fixture of Vermont progressive politics since the 1980s, is retiring after representing Washington County in the state Senate for 12 years. Within Statehouse walls, he said the party with which lawmakers caucus is important, but even more so is a legislator’s ability to work with their colleagues in their respective policy committees, and hopefully rise in the ranks.

Progressive/Democrats caucus with the Progressive Party, while Democrat/Progressives caucus with Democrats. (Eight D/Ps served in the Legislature this past biennium.)

“I do think that having more progressive-minded people in a Democratic caucus is not a bad thing,” Pollina said. “One of the reasons why Progressives and Democrats so clearly work together and share the labels is because they realize they share the same values when it comes to a lot of issues.”

Should she win reelection, Surprenant said she “absolutely” hopes to be able to influence the Democratic Party from within as a new member, and push the party’s agenda to the left.

Asked if he believed that Surprenant and Burke’s switch indicated a leftward shift in the Democratic Party, Dandeneau said no: “We've always been a big tent. We've always had a left wing and a moderate lane.”

Of nine currently serving Progressive/Democratic lawmakers, only three are running for reelection: Rep. Brian Cina, P/D-Burlington, Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, P/D-Burlington, and Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski. A fourth, Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, is looking to make the jump from the House to the Senate. 

Three other Progressive/Democrats are on the ballot, and one straight Progressive.

Former Progressive caucus leader Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, who lost his seat to Republican Sally Achey in 2020, is running as a Democrat this year — though he didn’t intentionally forgo the Progressive label. Democrats nominated Chesnut-Tangerman at the last minute to replace another candidate who opted out of the race, by which time it was too late for Chesnut-Tangerman to seek the Progressive nomination. “This is how the cards were dealt,” he told VTDigger.

With the Democratic nomination came the “caveat” of agreeing to caucus with the Democrats, Chesnut-Tangerman said, “and I’m comfortable with that.”

“We share 98% DNA. Let's look at that, rather than squabble over the differences,” he said. “I did reach out to the Progressive Party to tell them about the situation and universally, the response was, ‘It doesn't matter. Please run. We need you there. You know, policy over party.’”

Despite a potential setback in Progressive representation in the Legislature by sheer numbers, Pollina said the future of the party “looks pretty good to me.” It’s a young party, he noted, especially compared to the Democratic and Republican parties.

“Building a political party is a long-term project that takes time and takes energy and it has its ups and downs,” Pollina said. “So the idea that we might lose a person or two from the Progressive caucus doesn't really bother me at all, because I think next time, we may pick up a few. It's just the way it goes when you're dealing with politics.”

All four Progressive/Democratic incumbents running for reelection hail from Chittenden County, and two of the three non-incumbent Progressive/Democrats running this November are also from Vermont’s most populous county. The other, former representative Cindy Weed, calls Franklin County home. One other House candidate, Glennie Fitzgerald Sewell of Montpelier, is running as a straight Progressive.

Away from the party’s epicenter, Surprenant said she didn’t feel “a tremendous amount of support from the statewide Progressive Party” in her rural district. She said she did “some serious soul-grappling about what it meant to be a Progressive in a very rural section of the state” and felt there was “a misunderstanding and a disconnect about what affects my rural community versus what affects the community in Chittenden County.”

“If we want to expand as a party outside of Chittenden or Brattleboro, what we really need to be hitting is our rural centers, because so much of what the Progressive Party is rooting for really is what is impacting our rural communities,” Surprenant said.

Asked about the geographic diversity of the party’s current slate of candidates, Vermont Progressive Party executive director Josh Wronski pointed to Weed’s candidacy and said, “we're not just running candidates in Chittenden County. We do have folks all over.” Then he conceded, “But yeah, I mean, it is certainly something that is concerning.”

“At the same time, we've always had a strong base in Chittenden County. I mean, this is the base of the party, in that it's where the party started in Burlington and expanded outward from there,” Wronski continued. “So we've always had kind of an outsize presence in Chittenden County as compared to other parts of the state.”

Newly running as a Democrat, Burke this year sought the endorsement of her local Progressive Party in Windham County in order to be a D/P. She had hoped to be “a really good sort of liaison between the two parties” in Montpelier, but her local Progressive Party chapter of Windham County did not meet the endorsement deadline, and so she is simply a Democrat.

The same thing happened to Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D/P-Brattleboro. She told VTDigger that she was disappointed that she won’t have the same D/P label this year “because I think it's a more honest way to communicate with my voters,” but “I don't think it'll change any of my behavior in the building.”

“My lack of P says nothing about my particular political brand,” Kornheiser said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, is adding a P, running as a Democrat/Progressive in the newly drawn Chittenden Southeast Senate district. She said she made the decision because, in her years as a Democrat in the Senate, she found herself “collaborating easily with (Progressives) Sen. Pollina and Sen. Pearson.”

“I wanted to be able to signal that there is a progressive wing of the Senate that's going to lead a lot of bold change this coming biennium,” Ram Hinsdale said.

In total, seven legislative candidates are running as Democratic/Progressives come November. And in a year with historic turnover in Vermont’s statewide executive offices, two statewide candidates — gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel and Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer — are running as Democrat/Progressives. One statewide candidate, former-Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, is running for lieutenant governor as a Progressive/Democrat.

As the number of Progressives in office ebbs and flows, Pollina said one of the major functions of the party is to “continue to shape the debate,” as he said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has been able to do on the national stage. Years ago, platforms like universal health care and marriage equality were not unilaterally accepted by Democrats, but Progressives have pushed the accepted “norm” further to the left, Pollina said.

“Ultimately, it's not about party politics,” he said. “It's about making Vermont a better place to live and work. And it doesn't matter what your party label is.”

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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