The senator from Lamoille County is telling it straight, but is anybody listening?
Senator Susan Bartlett has a reputation for toughness, so no one expected her to get weepy during her final budget presentation. The Lamoille County Democrat was briefing her colleagues on the Senate floor, on a cloudy day in April, when she was overcome with emotion.
After 18 years in the legislature, including 10 as chair of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, Bartlett was retiring to run for governor. This was the last budget she would shepherd through.
“I knew I’d feel sad,” said Bartlett, half crying, half laughing. “I’m crying because — whew — I don’t have to do it again.” By turning a potential “Muskie moment” into a joke, she skillfully avoided embarrassment.
For years, 63-year-old Bartlett has been the legislature’s go-to person on all things fiscal. Fellow senators say her understanding of state government is unmatched; her institutional memory, indispensable.
“She has an incredible ability to process numbers,” says Sen. Diane Snelling, a Chittenden County Republican who calls Bartlett a “mentor” and has served for nine years on her committee.
One of five Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for governor, Bartlett is trying to parlay her deep knowledge of state government into a victory at the polls on August 24. That, combined with her politically moderate views, are what set her apart from her competitors.
Most pundits would give Bartlett long odds: She has scant name recognition, no major endorsements, and doesn’t have a lot of campaign cash. Polls show Bartlett squarely at the back of the Democratic pack, trailing Republican candidate Brian Dubie by 18 points in a hypothetical match-up.
But Bartlett appears undeterred. Vermonters want a centrist in the governor’s office, she reasons, and after eight years of Republican Governor Jim Douglas, voters are ready to give a Democrat a chance. She says her Democratic rivals — senators Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) and Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and former Senator Matt Dunne — are too liberal to beat Dubie, the popular lieutenant governor.
“I do underdog really well!” Bartlett exclaims.
Bartlett, who entered the governor’s race before Douglas announced he would not seek a fifth term, says she wants to be governor because she’s “tired of driving from the back of the bus.” When talking up her credentials, she is fond of saying that chairing the budget-writing committee is “the only place in state government other than the governor’s office” where you have to understand all of government’s moving parts and make all of them function.
Bartlett boasts that in lean fiscal times, she’s had the courage to “say no” — to hold the line on taxes and spending, to invest in tourism and business development, and to make politically unpopular but necessary cuts to state programs.
“That is leadership,” she proclaims.
But “Budget Know-How” and “The Courage to Say No” don’t seem like winning campaign slogans. Likewise, Bartlett’s platform contains ideas that, while well thought out, may strike some as a little obscure: for instance, her plan to create a statewide Office of Innovation and Intellectual Property to assist companies in patenting their inventions.
Neither self-promotion nor stagecraft comes naturally to Bartlett. “This feels very artificial — and that’s not me,” she remarked from a floating dock on the Burlington Waterfront at her official campaign kickoff.
Who is she, then? According to Bartlett, she’s the candidate best qualified to hit the gubernatorial ground running.
Voters outside Lamoille County aren’t all that familiar with Susan Bartlett. She’s the only Democratic candidate who has never run a statewide race. When her campaign website first launched, the menu bar had a button labeled “Susan Who?” — a humorous acknowledgment of her lack of name recognition. That menu tab has since been changed to the more staid “About Susan.”
Bartlett is confident that she can make up the deficit between now and the end of August. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to go spend two days in Rutland and meet a whole bunch of people who talk to other people who know other people who go, ‘Wow, I met Susan and she’s pretty impressive,’” she says.
The Bartlett homestead lies off a dirt road next to a babbling brook in rural Hyde Park. The senator lives with her husband, Bill, a retired state worker; a Labradoodle named Lulu that she is putting through agility training; and two cats, Howard and Dean. The Bartletts raised foster children for years but have no kids of their own.
Born on December 18, 1946, Bartlett grew up in several states before her family moved to Vermont when she was 15. She went to Orleans High School and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1968. She and Bill met at UVM. The couple moved to Hyde Park in the early ’70s and started Bartlett Pair Farm, raising organic vegetables, eggs, chickens, pigs and lamb. In the late ’80s, Bartlett and a friend co-owned a store in Stowe called Wool and Feathers that sold yarn, woolen products and lamb chops.
In 1977, she earned a master’s in special education from Johnson State College and worked at a group home for teenagers before becoming special education coordinator for the Lamoille North Supervisory Union.
Her election to the Senate in 1992 was groundbreaking: She was the first woman and the first Democrat to hold Lamoille County’s sole Senate seat. She argues that Lamoille County — with its mix of rich and poor, liberal and conservative — is a microcosm of Vermont, and has prepared her to lead a state with wide-ranging needs.
Bartlett has gotten results with a combination of political moderation and forthrightness. Over the years, she has cast a number of votes that were unpopular with her constituents and still managed to win reelection eight times. For example, Bartlett voted in favor of Act 60, the law that equalizes education dollars in Vermont towns, and for civil unions. Knowing they would cost her politically, Bartlett says that Senate leaders and then-Governor Howard Dean told her she could vote no — they had enough yes votes without her.
“I said, ‘I didn’t come here to not make hard votes,’” Bartlett recalls. “I came here to do what I think is right.”
Her gubernatorial agenda is ambitious but not always specific. Bartlett wants “comprehensive health care reform” that lowers costs and insures all Vermonters, but doesn’t say how she would do it. She would borrow $15 million for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to build affordable housing across the state.
Strolling the halls of the Statehouse, Bartlett cuts a commanding figure. She is tall, with close-cropped blond hair, and talks with encyclopedic knowledge about complex issues. One on one, however, she comes off as folksy and disarming. She can hardly get through a story without cracking up about something she finds hilarious. She seems to relish explaining convoluted state policy to “regular” people.
Not surprisingly, Bartlett comes across as genuine and plainspoken at candidate forums and on the stump. Her campaign manager, John Bauer, describes her as almost allergic to sound bites, a mixed blessing for a Vermont office seeker.
“People can smell bullshit a mile away, and she doesn’t have any,” Bauer says of Bartlett. “She doesn’t come across as a politician.”
People who’ve worked with Bartlett describe her as a no-nonsense straight shooter — more practical than ideological — who lets you know where she stands.
“What Susan has is the ability to be honest with people,” says Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), who has served for six years on Bartlett’s Senate Appropriations Committee. “When she makes a commitment, I think people feel that it will be honored.”
John Franco, a Burlington lawyer and cochair of the city’s Progressive Party, went to Bartlett with a complicated health reform proposal last fall after shopping it around unsuccessfully to several other legislators. The so-called global budgeting plan aimed to change how hospitals bill for medical care and promised savings of $150 million annually on administrative costs.
“She knew what needed to be done,” Franco says. “I know people who are more liberal criticize her as being too moderate. But she just really has the gravitas, the stature, to really have command of the thing.”
Even Bartlett’s critics praise her candor. Bob Hooper, president of the 7500-member Vermont State Employees Association, says Bartlett was honest and direct with union leaders when they were fighting over job cuts in summer 2009. But he faults Bartlett for carrying water for the Douglas administration, for not pushing back against cuts to programs serving vulnerable Vermonters.
Bartlett’s support of Challenges for Change, the government reform plan with a goal of “doing more with less,” earned her numerous detractors who claim the money-saving plan gives the administration too much power to cut programs and state employees without legislative approval.
“The people [who] are doing the jobs that Vermonters expect to have done were working pretty much on a shoestring before,” Hooper says. “And the idea that we’re going to make all these changes and savings … is really pretty rosy and optimistic.”
Julie Tessler is executive director of the Vermont Council of Developmental and Mental Health Services, which runs the system of nonprofit care centers that serve Vermonters with mental and developmental disabilities. She tussled with Bartlett’s committee this year over funding for the care centers, which was slashed by millions of dollars.
“With Challenges for Change, there was an expectation that if we were to do things differently, we could achieve better outcomes with less resources, and that’s just not true,” Tessler says. “It was kind of the year of magical thinking.”
Bartlett doesn’t apologize for the difficult decisions she’s had to make; nor does she seem deterred by the prospect of losing.
“When you wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re the only person there and you know how you feel. And if you do what you believe is the right thing, then, so what if you lose?” Bartlett says.
“I believe I have something to offer, and people will either decide to buy it or they won’t,” she says with characteristic pragmatism.
Even if the people pass her up this time, Bartlett has come too far, and is far too capable a public servant, to go back to selling yarn and lamb chops.