Pragmatism or Purity: Is "Fusion" Good for the Progressive Party?
The growing number of Democrats and Progressives running for office with one another’s party endorsements is raising questions about the future of left-wing politics in Vermont. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty is whether the Progressive Party can maintain its independence and relevance as more of its members opt to add a “D” to the “P” next to their names on the ballot.
This year, many more candidates are running as Democrat-Progressive, or Progressive-Democrat, than with Prog designation alone. The order of the letters suggests a ranking of party allegiance. Only five Vermont House candidates are listed on ballots solely as Progressives, while seven others are sporting both Democrat and Progressive labels.
Three candidates for statewide office — Doug Hoffer for auditor, Cassandra Gekas for lieutenant governor and Jim Condos for secretary of state — have won endorsements from both parties. Two state senators — Tim Ashe of Chittenden County and Anthony Pollina of Washington County — are seeking reelection with the backing of both Progs and Dems. Ashe describes himself as a D/P; Pollina as a P/D. Former state representative David Zuckerman is also making a bid for state Senate as a P/D.
Most Progressives insist this trend won’t dilute their party’s brand. But a couple of influential Progs suggest the fusion phenomenon could presage a gradual melding of the two parties’ identities.
Democrats, for their part, either resent the move to fuse, viewing it as Prog opportunism, or welcome it as proof that their party’s big tent can accommodate leftist views. Some of the most liberal Democrats in the legislature say Progressives’ desire for Dem support — and the willingness of voters to grant it — proves the parties don’t have substantive policy differences. The same Dems allege the distinction between the parties comes mostly from grudges rooted in 30-year-old Burlington feuds.
Progs see it differently, arguing they care more about principles and issues while Democrats care about winning elections. “If the Democrats adopted all of our issues, we’d happily go out of business,” Zuckerman says. “It’s surprising to many people that for us it’s really not about getting elected to a majority of seats in the legislature.”
That seems a little odd coming from Zuckerman, who clearly sought the “D” designation to improve his chances of winning a seat in the Senate. No single “P” Prog has ever gotten in. Attorney John Franco, a key P, tried that maneuver in 1992 and finished 12th out of 13 candidates vying for Chittenden County’s six senate seats. Bob Kiss, the beleaguered Progressive former mayor of Burlington, is running as an independent — and, in the view of some analysts, is likely to see a result similar to Franco’s 20 years ago.
Chris Pearson, the leader of the five-member Progressive caucus in the Vermont House, says the party’s gains should be measured by advances in its core agenda — not the number of seats it holds in Montpelier. Pearson says Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s creation of a single-payer health insurance system — long advocated by Progressives — should be seen as a “smashing success” for the party.
Dean Corren, one of the first Progs to win election to the Vermont House, agrees. “It’s unquestionable that the existence of the Progressive Party over the past decades has had a huge impact on policy in Vermont,” he says.
At its core, the Vermont Progressive Party was formed to “build a movement that goes in a new direction,” says Terry Bouricius, a Burlington Progressive who served in the House with Corren. A self-described “active anticapitalist,” Bouricius points out that the Progs are opposed in principle to taking money from corporate interests.
Gene Bergman, another proto-Prog, defines the party’s mission as “working for economic justice from a working-class perspective.” Progressives also emphasize “the need to fight racism,” declares Bergman, who is running for a state House seat from Burlington as a stand-alone P.
What else distinguishes Progs from Dems? Party faithful cite their out-front support for shutting down Vermont Yankee, legalizing same-sex marriage and labeling genetically modified foods. Pearson argues that without Prog leadership and uncompromising advocacy, Democrats wouldn’t have advanced those issues. At the same time, some Prog priorities — such as reforming the income tax system to make the rich pay more — are still anathema to many Vermont Democrats, he notes.
To Pearson, the Progressive legacy in Burlington established three decades ago by now U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders shows “not only that our policies work but that they should be copied elsewhere.” But in the Prog’s Queen City stronghold, the party lost control of the mayor’s office to the Democrats this past March.
Some Dems see the Progs as unyieldingly ideological — insistent on political purity because they don’t have the responsibility of governing, which, by definition, entails compromises. But Burlington Progressives have also been accused of just the opposite: In the 1990s, a radical Green Party insurgency charged that the Progressives in charge of Burlington City Hall had sold out their principles on some issues.
Today’s liberal Democrats claim there are few policy differences between the two parties. And most Dems of that variety argue that continued partisan division is a needless impediment to joint endeavors inside and outside the legislature. “Lots of liberal Democrats … are frustrated at having to deal with the third-party thing and all the machinations that come with it,” says Jake Perkinson, chair of the Democratic Party.
“I can’t find a Progressive in the state legislature who’s significantly further to the left than I am on most issues,” says state Sen. Phil Baruth, a Chittenden County Democrat. Suzi Wizowaty, a Democratic state representative running unopposed for reelection in a Burlington district with the support of the Progressive city committee, adds that “for many of us who are progressive Democrats, there’s no distinction from the Progressives.” Sandy Haas, a Progressive House member from Rochester endorsed by the Democratic Party, admits, “There are many Democrats who are more radical than I am.”
A few hard-core Progs remain sharply opposed to the fusion option. “Democrats have the support of the 1 percent,” observes Jimmy Leas, a South Burlington attorney and member of the Progressive state committee. “They’re the party of the banks and the F-35. There’s no reason for Progressives to add their voice to that. It dilutes the idea that there needs to be an alternative to the Democrats, and it confuses everybody about what actually needs to be done.”
Other Progs believe pragmatism is the only way to get there. Major change will not be achieved in Vermont, their line of thinking goes, unless Progressives manage to win at least a few seats in the legislature. And if that requires running as “Ds” and not just as “Ps,” then so be it.
“We’re a small party and we need to make strategic decisions,” Pearson says. And it’s the consensus of the party that “it’s impossible to win a state Senate seat in Chittenden County as an independent or a Progressive,” he adds. Only fusion candidates stand a reasonable chance, Pearson suggests.
Ashe adds that it’s even difficult for straight Progressives to win House seats outside of Burlington. Bill Grover, a Progressive state committee member and political science professor at St. Michael’s College, agrees. Without instant-runoff voting, “We have no choice but to run on a fusion basis” in most races, Grover says. In a two-party system, Vermont Progs are often dismissed as “spoilers,” Grover notes.
Once they get to the legislature, though, Progs tend to get close attention from the Democratic leadership, according to Haas, a four-term Prog-Dem House member representing Rochester Bethel, Pittsfield and Stockbridge. “I have yet to approach the speaker with an issue of concern to me that he didn’t consider seriously,” Hass says. “If I were one of 96 [Democrats in the House], the situation might be much different.”
Secretary of State Condos’ decision to seek Progressive co-designation for his reelection bid “speaks to the fact that we’re real players,” Bergman says. Vermont Progressive Party chairwoman Martha Abbott adds that such endorsements can enhance the party’s clout on policies. The Progs changed their bylaws last year to allow endorsement of Dems, which Abbott says “gives us more flexibility and more leverage.”
Democratic candidates must meet “a higher threshold on issues” if they hope to get Prog endorsement, she suggests. Shumlin didn’t get a formal Prog endorsement for his reelection bid, but for the second election running, Progs are sitting out the race for governor. It’s primarily Shumlin’s support for the perennial Prog issue of single-payer health care that accounts for the party’s unwillingness to run against him, Abbott says.
“I feel our brand is very strong,” Abbott adds, rejecting the contention that fusion will blur the Progs’ separate identity. Much has changed in 30 years, Abbott and other Progs say, but not the values and ideals that gave birth to Vermont’s Progressive movement.
When Bernie Sanders campaigned successfully for mayor in 1981, Bouricius recalls, “everyone understood that there were two groups in Burlington: the Republicans-Democrats and the Progressives.” In the view of left-wing Progs such as Bouricius, that alignment still pretty much stands.
Or does it? Ashe served three terms as a Progressive city councilor in Burlington before winning a state Senate seat as a D/P in 2008. This year, he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic caucus for mayor of Burlington and pledged to support caucus winner Miro Weinberger.
Ashe says it was the 2008 governor’s race that set him on the fusion path. That year, Progressive Anthony Pollina was competing with Democrat Gaye Symington for the support of voters opposed to incumbent Republican governor Jim Douglas. “It made no sense to me,” Ashe says. “There wasn’t any significant difference between Anthony and Gaye.”
Ashe suggests that more Democrats and Progressives will continue to run and win with their parties’ cross-endorsements
They may come eventually to form a de facto caucus in the legislature that could have the effect of undercutting the Progressive Party’s raison d’etre, Ashe theorizes. But he adds that the Progressives will likely continue to operate as an organized force and shares their desire to break the two-party mold.
Abbott doesn’t see the Vermont political scenario unfolding in that way. She estimates that no more than 10 of the current Democratic members of the Vermont legislature could qualify for Prog endorsement. “It’s not as though we’re going to be supporting lots and lots of Democrats,” she says.
Many of the politicians on both sides of this story agree that rank-and-file Vermont voters don’t care much, or at all, about party labels. The differences in outlook and emphasis may be real, but they’re important mostly to insiders and political junkies.
“I personally find political parties pretty tedious,” Ashe says.
Perkinson observes, “People often tend to fight the hardest over what matters the least.”