Gaye Symington finally had her day in the sun. On a glorious Monday morning, in front of the Vermont Statehouse, Symington ended the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” banter and announced she was running for governor.
Symington, the outgoing House speaker and mother of three who has an MBA from Cornell, is taking on the daunting effort to unseat the well-liked Republican incumbent Jim Douglas. And she’ll do so with a prominent third-party candidate in the race: Progressive Anthony Pollina.
Symington is used to challenges. She helped return Democrats to a majority in the House after civil unions became law and Act 60 changed the way we pay for education — both landmark bills that helped bring Republicans to power.
Symington has long been considered a potential gubernatorial candidate, but she’s also been painted as a policy wonk who’s reluctant to engage in politics as sport.
Last month, Symington revealed to Louis Porter of the Vermont Press Bureau that she was “seriously considering” a run for governor in 2008.
Shortly thereafter, on April 14, a former top aide and the current executive director of the state Democratic Party, Jill Krowinski, secured two domain names on the Internet: http://www.gayesymington.com  and http://www.symingtonforgovernor.com  — the latter will be the campaign’s official URL.
Then came the annual Curtis Awards dinner, at which Symington sounded every bit a candidate in warm-up mode, with the over-exuberant ovations and cheers apparently designed to drown out any doubts that she should run. The applause was also meant to inform the already announced candidate in the room, Pollina, that his strategy of wooing Democrats was fruitless.
Well, sort of. Pollina continues to raise money, and earn endorsements and support from lots of interesting people, some of them Democrats.
In fact, Seven Days learned from a source close to the Pollina campaign that Chuck Lacy, a.k.a. Mr. Gaye Symington, donated $200 to the Progressive’s campaign in January. That was when Pollina was pushing to raise $100,000 to show Democratic officials he was a viable gubernatorial contender, since they had yet to field a credible candidate. Must be Symington really wasn’t thinking of running for higher office at the time.
I wonder if Lacy will ask for the donation back. A message left for him wasn’t returned by press time. He also missed his wife’s announcement, though daughter Mary skipped school to be with her mom.
Noticeably absent was Gaye’s Senate counterpart — President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) — who allegedly spent the day working in his Putney office. An aide sent out Shumlin’s public statement supporting Gaye via state email — a big no-no, she later admitted, as it should have been sent via private mail. She said Shumlin was “swamped at work” after taking a brief vacation with his wife, but supports Gaye 100 percent.
Symington will take this week to fully assemble her campaign team. Expect Krowinski to take a leave from her party job so she can assume a lead role in the campaign. She’s smart and skilled and produces results: She worked closely with Symington to build a Democratic majority.
For his part, Pollina is forging ahead regardless of whom Symington hires, or whether her husband asks for a refund.
“We’re not changing course at this point,” Pollina told Seven Days. “I’ve heard the same rumors, but there have been no such talks.”
Symington has been focused not on Pollina, but on Douglas and how to beat him. She said she needed to see a clear path to victory in order to make the run, so everyone wants to know: What’s it look like?
In the end, Symington has to hope that Pollina can pull enough votes from Douglas so that all three contenders end up with less than 50 percent. If she had the “popular vote” in that scenario — that is, the largest number of yeas — she’d have a good shot. Why? In Vermont’s gubernatorial race, if you don’t receive 50 percent of the vote, the legislature gets to pick the state’s next CEO.
That’s what happened in 2002 when Douglas first won election. More on that in a minute . . .
Under Douglas’ leadership, Symington said, “Vermont is stuck in neutral. And the failure to move forward is a failure of leadership.” You’ll be hearing that theme — the failure of leadership — over and over again in the coming months.
Vermont needs a “leader who will set a course, not just on a two-year election cycle, but with future generations in our sights,” Symington said to great applause.
Jason Gibbs, the governor’s spokesman, said Douglas welcomes a debate on leadership. “I know Gaye Symington likes to talk about how the governor has stopped her from enacting her policies, but it’s been his responsibility to keep her from raising the gas tax, the minivan tax, raising the property transfer tax, raising the income tax by $21 million and a host of other policies that she pushed through her House and that would make Vermont less affordable and Vermont families less prosperous,” Gibbs said.
He added that Symington and Pollina are “virtually indistinguishable on policy, and their records show that they would make Vermont less affordable and prosperous.”
Symington said she expects Douglas will paint her and Pollina with one broad brush, just as Pollina will paint her and Douglas together.
Symington is also counting on a heavy Democratic turnout for the presidential election, and the general theme of “change” as evoked by Sen. Barack Obama. We’ll ignore for a moment that she co-chaired Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Vermont — a campaign that lost badly.
If elected, Symington would be Vermont’s second female governor. Vermont’s first and only, Madeleine May Kunin, stood behind Symington during her speech but made no public remarks to the crowd.
Kunin said “it wasn’t necessary” for her to speak, as no other major party dignitary offered their thoughts to the crowd.
You can expect to see the former governor out on the campaign trail for Symington, though. Kunin remains a powerful voice in the state party, and she’s a crowd pleaser. Kunin’s first campaign manager and chief-of-staff Liz Bankowski is the co-chair of Symington’s campaign, along with businessman, entrepreneur and Vermont Public Radio commentator Bill Schubart. Bankowski’s day job used to be at Ben & Jerry’s. Ben Cohen supports Pollina and says so loud and clear in his new radio campaign.
Childcare advocate Maureen Danielczyk kicked off the introductions, stressing Gaye’s ability to listen. She was followed by Rep. John Malcolm (D-Pawlet) who spoke about Gaye’s leadership skills and her ability to bring people together.
In addition to business leaders, an assortment of lawmakers were in attendance, including two possible speaker-of-the-House successors: Rep. Floyd Nease of Johnson, the assistant majority leader, and Rep. Mark Larson of Burlington, the vice chairman of the appropriations committee. Symington will need all the help she can get from such lawmakers — particularly if the race gets thrown to them.
When Pollina ran for governor in 2000, in the wake of the landmark civil-unions bill, he earned just 9.5 percent of the vote. Also in that contest were incumbent Democrat Howard Dean and Republican challenger Ruth Dwyer. Dean barely kept that race from being thrown to the legislature, earning 50.4 percent of the vote to Dwyer’s 37.9 percent. Talk about a squeaker.
Percentage-wise, Pollina’s best showing was in Washington County — his home turf is Middlesex — at 13.9 percent, but he did respectably in Orleans (12.9), Lamoille (12.2), Caledonia (12) and Windham (11.7) counties. He came close to 10 percent in Addison and Chittenden counties.
Just two years later, in a race for lieutenant governor, Pollina secured about 25 percent of the vote, earning his highest totals in Washington (34), Orleans (30) and Lamoille (30) counties. Republican Brian Dubie earned just over 40 percent, while Democrat Peter Shumlin topped 30 percent.
People often forget that Douglas won his first term in 2002 with a third guy in the race — former Agency of Human Services Secretary Con Hogan. Hogan, who served under both Gov. Richard Snelling and Dean, earned just shy of 10 percent of the vote. He did best in Washington County, his home base, with 15 percent, and earned more than 10 percent in Franklin, Lamoille, Grand Isle, Orange and Orleans counties. Chittenden, Caledonia and Bennington counties gave him more than 8 percent.
Who’s Next? — With Symington in the race, expect more statewide candidates to announce between now and mid-June, when people begin to pay less attention to politics and more to family vacations and summertime.
We already know Dubie is running for a fourth term. What we don’t yet know is whether he’ll have a Democratic opponent. No Progressive has announced at this point.
Deb Richter, a physician from central Vermont, is deciding whether to challenge Dubie as a Democrat. Richter has made her name as the leading advocate for single-payer health care in Vermont, and many expected her to run as a Progressive. Not so.
“I intend to decide one way or the other prior to the state convention of the Vermont Democratic Party,” Richter told Seven Days. “Privately, I’ve been receiving strong encouragement from Democrats, Progressives and Independents, even Republicans, to run. People, including most physicians, are fed up with the deterioration of our health-care system and want Vermont to lead the way in making sure health care is available to everyone, paying for it fairly and keeping costs in line.”
The good doctor added, “But I’m still weighing family and work considerations. Of course, it’s comforting to know that Vermont has had a parent and doctor in the lieutenant governor’s office before. I’m blanking on his name, though. . . ”
Ah, yes, Howard Dean. That parent and doctor. Every day the national Democratic primary stays alive must bring him more gray hair.
Speaking of the national Democratic Party: While the spotlight continues to focus on the contest between Obama and Clinton, which could last until the Democratic National Convention in August, this month Democrats and Republicans gather to select delegates to their respective national conventions. The state Republicans will meet this weekend at Montpelier High School. The Dems are at the Barre Auditorium the following week.
Republican Party Chairman Rob Roper said that, other than Douglas and Dubie, only one statewide candidate has come forward: Karen Kerin will announce Monday she is running for attorney general.
Republican Randy Brock is also considering a run for office. The former auditor lost his reelection bid in 2006 to Democrat Tom Salmon after a statewide recount overturned election results. Salmon announced earlier this year he is running for reelection.
“I’m thinking seriously about several possibilities,” Brock told Seven Days. He recently sold his home in Naples, Florida, which was valued at more than $5.2 million. With that kind of money, he could probably self-finance a U.S. House campaign.
Democrats appear to be in better shape in terms of having a full statewide campaign slate. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz told Seven Days she is definitely seeking reelection. Attorney General Bill Sorrell and Treasurer Jeb Spaulding are also hoping to stay put.
Thanks, Mom — Three years ago I spent Mother’s Day with my mom while she was in the final throes of a battle with ovarian cancer. We both knew it was the last Mother’s Day we would spend together, and we did so quietly at her house. We walked in her yard with her grandkids, and spent a lot of time saying nothing. It was all too obvious, but that’s OK. Moms just know. She died weeks later on the Fourth of July. She was 56. And so to her and all moms, I say, thanks.