Aspen Overy, a University of Vermont sophomore volunteering on former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s campaign to reclaim his old office, first met the Progressive/Democrat at a honk-and-wave for the university’s staff union last winter.
The new union was, at the time, in a difficult contract fight with the UVM administration, and its events had become regular pit stops for left-wing politicians burnishing their progressive credentials during a competitive primary season. But on that particular day, there were no other politicians around, the event was low-profile, and it was not pleasant to be outside.
“It was during February. I remember because it was bitterly cold. And yeah — David was just still out there,” Overy said.
It was not exactly out of character for Zuckerman, an indefatigable campaigner who has occupied a prominent space in Vermont progressive politics for decades. Zuckerman has returned to familiar themes in his bid for his old office, first in this year’s crowded Democratic primary and now against Sen. Joe Benning, a veteran lawmaker from the Northeast Kingdom and the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. But Zuckerman’s run has also forced him to explain why he wants to reclaim a post he once seemed eager to move on from.
A former UVM student himself, “Farmer Dave” — as the late Seven Days political columnist Peter Freyne christened him — became involved in politics as an undergrad in the early ’90s when he volunteered on then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders’ reelection campaign. He ran for the Vermont House in 1994, while still enrolled in school, and lost narrowly before running again in 1996, this time successfully.
Like Sanders, who has repeatedly endorsed Zuckerman’s bids for office (including this one), Zuckerman has been nothing if not consistent, outspoken and generally uncompromising over his more than two decades in office. He’s long championed such causes as taxing the wealthy, raising the minimum wage and mandating GMO labeling. And some of the key issues for which he has advocated throughout his career — legal marijuana and marriage equality among them — have since moved from the fringes to the mainstream.
In 2000, for example, when Vermont became the first state in the country to enact civil unions, he was one of just 22 House members to back an amendment to grant gay couples full marriage equality. Nearly a decade later, in 2009, when that same chamber voted to override Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of a bill establishing same-sex marriage, Zuckerman, his name coming last in the alphabet, cast the 100th and final vote.
After more than a decade in the Vermont House and two years out of office, Zuckerman in 2013 made the jump to the Senate, where he served for two terms before running for lieutenant governor. He held that job also for two terms, then vacated it to run unsuccessfully for governor in 2020.
Overy has been digging through the archives at the university researching organizing and left-wing movements at UVM. And whether it’s anti-Iraq war protests or other left-wing causes, they’ve noticed a common thread as they scroll through clips.
“You just see David Zuckerman’s name pop up,” they said.
An awkward fact
Zuckerman’s pitch as he runs for office this time around remains much the same, with some updates for 2022. Since the housing crisis is top of mind for every voter, for example, he’s proposed potentially taxing short-term rentals or adding a surcharge to property taxes on second homes (but not commercial properties) to fund more affordable housing on an ongoing basis.
And Zuckerman, who recently chopped off his signature ponytail, argues that he’s also moderated his tone, if not the actual message.
“I was probably much more strident when I was first engaging, and sort of angrier,” the Hinesburg organic farmer said. “I'm not angry anymore. Because I've learned that anger and stridency hasn't always helped convince others to look at issues differently.”
But Zuckerman’s policy agenda for Vermont — and any lieutenant governor’s policy agenda — must confront an awkward fact. For all its prominence, the lieutenant governor’s office is the most powerless of all the statewide offices. Arguably, Vermont’s second-in-command has even fewer levers with which to impact policy than a rank-and-file lawmaker.
The lieutenant governor does preside over the Senate, but this is basically a ceremonial exercise. Legislative committees are where most of the work of legislating happens, and the lieutenant governor does help appoint committees. But they do not themselves participate in one, and the LG can only vote on the rare occasion that a Senate floor vote results in a tie.
Another complicating factor? Zuckerman has had the job before. And while incumbency is a powerful advantage in elections, returning to an office you chose to relinquish is somewhat more complicated.
Zuckerman still enjoys statewide name recognition and maintains a strong network of supporters up and down the state from his time as LG. But he is also on the record as having been rather dissatisfied with the limits of the post.
Having a concrete role in policy-making “is by far the thing I miss the most,” he told VTDigger at the time of his gubernatorial run in 2020, about his time as LG. "I'm not gonna name for you a ton of policy successes," he similarly told Seven Days of his time as Vermont’s No. 2, as he sought the state’s top post.
It was, in fact, a central pitch of Zuckerman’s gubernatorial campaign: rather than coast to easy reelection as lieutenant governor, he was willing to risk taking on a popular Republican incumbent in order to actually advance the issues he cared about.
"While it would have been by far the easier race to run for reelection, I'm not there to keep a job,” he told Seven Days at the time. “I'm there to influence the outcome.”
He won a plurality of the vote in a contested Democratic primary, but lost in a landslide to Republican Gov. Phil Scott, whose high approval ratings were even further buoyed at the time by his universally lauded handling of the pandemic in the crisis’ early days.
Zuckerman now says his frustrations in 2020 were not about the lieutenant governorship itself.
“My frustration was with the fact that the governor, before we were even sworn in, said, ‘not interested in collaboration.’ And I felt like, as a reasonable Republican — and I consider myself a reasonable progressive Democrat — in the age when Trump was getting inaugurated, we had a real opportunity to show folks that there was opportunity for collaboration,” he said.
‘You’ve been there’
While most labor, environmental, and social justice groups, donors, and politicos rallied around Zuckerman in the Democratic primary this cycle, there were some defectors on the left who argued it might be someone else’s turn.
Melinda Moulton, a prominent socially conscious Burlington developer and longtime Zuckerman supporter, for example, endorsed former state Rep. Kitty Toll, a Danville Democrat who had served as chair of the powerful budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.
“I just said to David: Look, you've been there. You've done that. And I think it'd be great to have Kitty,” she said. Toll, who had been backed by much of the Democratic establishment, lost to Zuckerman by 5 points.
Moulton hastened to add that Zuckerman had been gracious about her decision, and that now that he had won “fair and square,” in a “beautiful campaign,” she was once again enthusiastically supporting him in the general. Zuckerman, she said, “has been a hardworking farmer his whole life” and cares deeply about all the issues Moulton says matter the most right now: reproductive rights, racial justice, paid leave, the environment and universal health care.
Despite being noncommittal about the future, Zuckerman insists he really does want to be lieutenant governor right now — and that the job is a meaningful one from a policy perspective. For one, the lieutenant governor is next in the line of succession in case the governor is incapacited or dies. (Indeed, this is how Howard Dean first ascended to the office in 1991.)
The office also offers a statewide bullhorn, and one with a certain level of gravitas. He used a “soft touch” to impact policy while LG, Zuckerman said, but his influence was felt nevertheless. He pointed to his newsletter, which reached thousands of Vermonters statewide, as an example of how he successfully organized regular citizens into the legislative process.
Lauren Hierl, the executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, also said that by convening environmental and labor groups in his office, he helped the two movements reframe their agendas so that they might work together.
“There definitely had been an insufficient understanding — like speaking as an environmental advocate — of how to consider labor practices and what is going to benefit workers in the kinds of bills we do so,” she said.
Zuckerman was “as ambitious as anybody I can recall in the office of Lieutenant Governor,” said VPIRG executive director Paul Burns, even as he acknowledged there was “no debate” about the office’s limited powers.
“I think he was very genuine about wanting to use the office in any way he could to advance the issues that he cared about and was just very active in that way,” Burns said. “Really pressing — kind of pressing the envelope or the limits of what he could do.”
Benning, Zuckerman’s opponent in the general election, has wielded Zuckerman’s past ambitions against him, arguing it is plain as day that the candidate has his eyes on another office.
Benning has pledged to run for LG again in 2024, should he secure the post this time. The next cycle is expected to be another busy one — many believe it is likely U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, who is 81, will retire — and Zuckerman’s opponent has criticized lieutenant governors past for cynically using the post he currently seeks as a mere “stepping stone.”
“One of my reasons that I'm interested in running is I saw it was a revolving door for politicians to advance their political careers. The Senate as an institution needs some historical knowledge,” Benning said during a debate on NBC5 on Thursday.
Zuckerman, on the other hand, has left his plans for 2024 wide open.
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