Pro Tem or Con
No matter what happens on Election Day, Vermont’s 30-member state Senate won’t look the same when the legislature convenes in January.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Ann Cummings (D-Washington) tells Seven Days she plans to challenge Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell for the upper chamber’s top job. And Majority Leader Bill Carris (D-Rutland) says he will not run for reelection to the Democrats’ No. 2 spot.
That leaves a slew of up-and-coming Democrats jockeying for position in a body that likely won’t budge too far from its current 23-7 Democratic majority. And while Campbell says he’ll fight to hold on to his job, Cummings says the Senate needs a change after what she calls two years of dysfunction.
“I’ve been there for 16 years, and I think the last two were just — we didn’t use our time well,” Cummings says. “I’ve got a long record there. I think I’ve run a good, effective committee, so I think I’d be a good choice.”
A former mayor of Montpelier, Cummings has presided over the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee for a decade. While she considers herself more liberal than Campbell on social issues, she says her challenge stems from managerial, not ideological, differences.
“I think the pro tem’s job is to make sure the Senate runs smoothly. It’s a difficult enough job. You just need to have some better organization to make sure votes are counted and you know what’s going on,” she says. “You should, out of respect for the scarcity of time in the Senate, use your time as best you can. And I don’t think we did that last year.”
Campbell and Cummings might not be the only candidates in the mix. Other names being floated for the top job include Sens. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), Claire Ayer (D-Addison) and Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden).
“If I were drafted, I would certainly consider it,” says Lyons, adding that a couple of colleagues have already asked if she’d be interested. She says she won’t make up her mind until after the election.
Kitchel, Ashe and Ayer all say they’re not planning to run for pro tem, though Ashe says, “I’m strongly considering running for majority leader now that Bill has said he’s not.”
While the pro tem sets the Senate’s agenda, the majority leader is charged with counting votes and pushing the party’s priorities.
Campbell says he believes he has sufficient support to win a second term leading the Senate. First elected in 2000, the Quechee Democrat served for six years as majority leader before taking the reigns of the Senate in 2011, when former pro tem Peter Shumlin became governor.
“Whoever decides to run, I’ll be in the running,” he says. “I feel confident I’ll return to that position.
Campbell chalks up Cummings’ challenge to long-standing “personal issues” between the two senators.
“She and I just did not work well together. There were certain issues where I had higher expectations, and unfortunately it got to the point where it got pretty messy,” he says. “She may also feel I cannot do the job. She’s entitled to that opinion. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Campbell says his critics underestimate what it takes to keep the Senate running smoothly.
“People look at it and think you just put a sign on the door and that’s all you have to do,” he says. “Unfortunately, there’s more to it.”
For the time being, it looks like Campbell has the support of the Senate’s old guard, which tends to share his more moderate leanings.
“John can count on my vote,” says Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Colchester/Grand Isle), who chairs the transportation committee and sits on the influential but absurd-sounding Committee on Committees. “I just don’t see any reason why, if he wants it, the Senate would turn its back on him. The Senate at large is pretty happy about how he’s leading it.”
Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agrees, saying he also plans to back Campbell. But Sears thinks it makes sense to install a more liberal member — such as Ashe or Sen. Sally Fox (D-Chittenden) — as majority leader to provide more balance in leadership.
“I think Tim would make an excellent majority leader,” he says. “Personally, either Tim or Sally, because I think they may bring in more progressive members of the caucus.”
That faction may grow in strength next term if former Progressive state representative David Zuckerman, who is running as both a Prog and a Dem, is elected to Chittenden County’s six-member delegation. After failing last term to advance bills that would unionize childcare workers and legalize physician-assisted suicide, the chamber’s more liberal members would welcome more sympathetic leadership.
Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) says he would support either Cummings or another alternative for pro tem, but not Campbell, saying he prefers “someone who could bring a better sense of organization and support for working families and economic justice issues.”
Fellow liberal Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) says he wants “either a change in leadership or procedures or both.” And Fox, who has not made up her mind about who to support for pro tem, says it’s important that “the leadership team reflects the political diversity in the Democratic caucus.”
She also believes it should include a woman. While women have served as Vermont’s governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker — and all four “money committees” in the legislature are currently chaired by women — the pro tem’s office has always been occupied by a man.
Of course, figuring out who will run the Senate will have to wait until after November 6, when voters decide who’s actually in the Senate — though only a handful of races appear to be competitive. The parties typically meet to pick their leaders within a couple weeks of the election.
Until then, Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) says he’ll keep his powder dry.
“It’s an in-the-family fight,” he says. “When my brothers and I fight, we don’t tell the neighbors. It’s no secret there’s been some mutual dissatisfaction within the Senate Democrats, and we’ll slug it out over our own kitchen table before the fight gets into the street.”
Candidates for statewide office finally turned their attention to affordable housing last week — their own, that is.
In a somewhat bizarre attack on Democratic State Treasurer Beth Pearce, Republican challenger Wendy Wilton — the Rutland City treasurer — called out the incumbent for renting her Barre home, saying her decision to forgo home ownership shows a lack of commitment to the state’s progressive property tax system.
“I think there’s an expectation that a public official who’s earned probably about a million dollars between salary and benefits over nine years really ought to be making a serious commitment to the state and demonstrate it through their ability to do so — to purchase a home,” Wilton said during a weekend debate on WCAX’s “You Can Quote Me.”
Wilton spokesman Bradford Broyles took the peculiar hit a step further last week, telling Seven Days by email that, “If you’re fully committed to Vermont, don’t you invest in the state you love? Not if you’re heading back to MA when your tour of duty is over…”
Vermont nativism has been a theme of Wilton’s campaign from the start. She mentions her South Burlington roots and her opponent’s Massachusetts upbringing whenever the opportunity arises. And, indeed, there’s been a whisper campaign for weeks that Pearce owns a home in Massachusetts — God forbid! — though her campaign says she does not.
Will Wilton’s strategy of taking Vermont back from the flatlanders work?
Hard to say. Perhaps we should ask fellow Massholes Jim Douglas and Peter Welch. Or maybe New Yorkers Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean. Or Pennsylvanian Dick Snelling or Ohioan Thomas P. Salmon. And then, of course, there’s the Zurich-born Madeleine Kunin.
Quick! Can we get a birth-certificate check in aisle four?!
Pearce wasn’t the only candidate putting out fires on the home front last week. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin — a Vermont native, we should note — faced questions from the press corps last Thursday after Vermont Press Bureau chief Peter Hirschfeld reported on a sweet deal the gov got on a plot of land in East Montpelier.
Hoping to build a 2200-square-foot “governor’s cabin” a little closer to the state capital, Shumlin added a 19th property to his real estate empire. (Don’t tell Wilton, but one of Shummy’s properties is a cabin in … Canada!)
As Hirschfeld reported, in June the governor went in on the 182-acre East Montpelier property with four friends, who are also campaign contributors. Shummy bought 27 of the acres for $35,000, while his buddies bought the other 155 acres for $630,000. A recent appraisal pegged the actual value of Shumlin’s land at $145,600.
When reporters asked him about the deal and about his friends, Shummy got defensive, declining to disclose how he knows his new neighbors. After accusing Hirschfeld first of working for the New York Post and then the National Enquirer, the governor stormed out of the press conference he himself called.
The next day, his campaign manager relented a bit, explaining to the Burlington Free Press that the gov’s relationship with the four friends dates back to their college days, when one worked for the Shumlin family company, Putney Student Travel.
The governor’s insistence on maintaining his privacy was surprising, given his history of oversharing. Back in April, you’ll recall, Shummy was telling anyone who’d listen precisely how naked he was when he was chased by four hungry bears outside his Montpelier apartment. Back then, the gov went so far as to ask a group of rather bashful-looking reporters whether, like him, they were “real Vermont boys” who don’t wear pajamas to bed.
Having grown up out of state, I’m not gonna touch that one. Just don’t tell Wilton that flatlanders have infiltrated the press, too.
Despite his momentary penchant for privacy, Shummy reemerged as Gov. TMI over the weekend in an interview that appeared in the Sunday Freeps.
Asked whether he’d ever used a composting toilet, the governor revealed, “To tell you the truth, I’d rather go outside. Let’s put it this way: I’d rather use an outhouse than a composting toilet because the fresh air blows through.”
Disclaimer: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.