Doug Hoffer's victory in Tuesday's state auditor's race wasn't just surprising. It was historic.
For the first time, Vermont voters elected a statewide candidate with the Progressive Party label. Hoffer ran as a fusion candidate with endorsements from both the Democrats and Progressives.
But many see Hoffer as a Prog at heart, pointing out that he came to Vermont 30 years ago to work for Bernie Sanders when the latter was mayor of Burlington, and later worked for Progressive mayor Peter Clavelle. Hoffer also provided paid staff assistance to Progressive city councilors and research for the Peace & Justice Center.
On election night, Hoffer stopped by the Progressive Party gathering at Magnolia's Bistro in Burlington before joining the Democratic victory party at the Hilton.
"This is my family," Hoffer told the assembled Progs.
Unlike lieutenant governor candidate Cass Gekas, who ran as a Progressive/Democrat, Hoffer elected to run as a Democrat/Progressive. No doubt, Hoffer's Democratic label helped him enormously in a year when President Barack Obama topped the party's ticket.
But Progressive stalwarts such as state Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) view Hoffer's 51-to-45 win over Republican state Sen. Vince Illuzzi as an "extremely significant" victory for the Progs. Combined with wins by fusion state Senate candidates Tim Ashe and David Zuckerman — and a strong showing by Gekas — Pearson says the Hoffer victory "sort of suggests that the Progressive label is something voters are pretty comfortable with."
Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos also ran with the Progressive endorsement, but Progs aren't embracing him as one of their own in the same way they do Hoffer.
"Condos came to the party and made a case for why we should be supporting him for electoral issues, but he was very clear he's a Democrat," says Vermont Progressive Party executive director Morgan Daybell. "Hoffer is somebody we've worked with for decades and is somebody that many Progressive Party stalwarts have been encouraging to run for quite some time."
Neither Progressives nor Democrats expect Hoffer to toe a party line when he's sworn into office in January. They all say the self-described "numbers guy" is loyal only to the data — not to any particular political party.
"He's not really a party guy," says Pearson. "I think he has a lot of friends in both parties." But Pearson adds that Hoffer "clearly shares" Progressive values of a livable wage, strong local economy and robust agriculture sector.
Vermont Progressive Party chair Martha Abbott calls Hoffer's win "very significant" for the Progs. Despite losing House races and a city council contest in the Progressive stronghold of Burlington, Abbott points to wins in other House and Senate races as evidence that "the Republican Party in Vermont is on the decline and the Progressive Party is on the incline."
Abbott says that, as auditor, Hoffer will "be on the side of the middle class and working people, not on the side of big banks and the wealthy." Abbott also believes that Hoffer will be motivated by values and not partisan politics.
Vermont Democratic Party chair Jake Perkinson credits Hoffer with running a great race but suggests the Democratic endorsement was key to his victory.
"He might have won as a straight Democrat," Perkinson says, "but he never would have won as a straight Progressive."
Perkinson says Democrats don't expect Hoffer to go any easier on the Shumlin administration because he won with a "D" next to his name. "I think we expect Doug to act like the kind of person he presented himself as — a numbers guy who knows what he's doing — and do the job of auditor," Perkinson says. "We're not looking for the auditor to be a policy person."
For his part, Hoffer notes that since leaving Burlington's Progressive administration in 1993, he's worked for office holders of all political parties. That includes doing policy work for former Democratic state auditor Ed Flanagan, former Democratic state treasurer Jeb Spaulding — even Vince Illuzzi, his Republican rival in this year's auditor's race.
"Everybody says, 'He's a Progressive.' No. I'm a numbers guy," Hoffer says. " I'm a policy analyst."
If others want to talk about party labels, he says, that's up to them.