In the Vermont Senate, the Real Fight is for Chairmanships | Off Message

In the Vermont Senate, the Real Fight is for Chairmanships

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When Democratic state senators meet Saturday in Montpelier, they'll elect the caucus' next majority leader.

But with seemingly just one candidate in the running — Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) — the real behind-the-scenes jockeying appears to be elsewhere: namely, committee chairmanships.

With the retirements of Sen. Sara Kittell (D-Franklin) and Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) last year, the chairmanships of the committees they led — agriculture and economic development, respectively — are up for grabs.

On top of that, Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), the longtime chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, says she's giving up her chairmanship. Cummings, who unsuccessfully challenged Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell for his leadership job last year, cited health issues in her decision.

"My health right now is fine, but the last two years have been very high-stress for me," she says. "Both myself, my family and my doctor thinks that the stress of the last two years during the session played a role in my health issues."

Exactly who will fill the vacant committee leadership spots is anybody's guess. The decision will be made next week by the three-member "Committee on Committees," which will likely consist of Campbell, Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle).

"We have definitely not made any commitments, and we're still going over the list to see who will fit best in what position," Mazza says. "We have some very capable folks, and we want to make sure they get into positions they enjoy and would be good at."

Adding to the palace intrigue is the possibility that sitting chairs could be bumped from their posts or reassigned to other committees, thereby launching a game of musical chairs. Mazza says it's too soon to say whether that will happen.

"We've taken every position, every chair, and we're looking at it to see if there's any job they could do a better job at. But at this point, I don't see anyone — as of yesterday — who's definitely losing their chair," Mazza says. "But there might be some shifting around."

While Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) is expected to regain the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he once held, it's hard to say who will take over the powerful Senate Finance Committee job.

One possibility? The committee's vice chairman and longtime member, Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), who says he's actively seeking the post.

"No one has more experience on the issue than I do," he says. "That's where my experience and background is."

Another? Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), though he did not immediately return a call seeking comment. (Neither, for that matter, did Campbell.)

The jockeying for chairmanships may have something to do with the relative dearth of candidates for majority leader, which is perceived to be a rather thankless — and less influential — job. Though Mazza says there's no hard rule against it, most members believe they'd be out of the running for a chairmanship if they won the majority leader post. And with the majority leader election slated for Saturday — before chairmanships are settled upon — few seem willing to risk it.

Baruth — a second-term senator who would be unlikely to win a chairmanship regardless — says he put his hat in the ring only after others backed out. Ashe and Sen. Sally Fox (D-Chittenden) both expressed interest in the position last year. And Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) had all but locked up the post before backing out last week to remain chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, as the Burlington Free Press' Terri Hallenbeck first reported.

Former senator Bill Carris held the position last session, but he announced last summer he planned to drop it — and resigned from the Senate late last year, shortly after winning reelection.

"There were a number of people that I thought made more immediate sense than I did, so I was going to back them, but none of them decided to run," Baruth says. "I'm offering myself as a candidate and not really counting votes — just making my case."

Baruth says he hasn't exactly been beating the bushes for votes, but he says Campbell supports his bid. He says if others with more interest or experience step forward, he would step aside.

So why does Baruth think he's the only taker?

"It's a service position and you spend most of your time trying to make life easier, better, more stable for other people," he says. "I think that's the reason not everybody wants to do it: You're putting the caucus' priorities over your own and you're serving the needs of 29 other senators."

Photo of the Senate Democratic caucus meeting in Montpelier last November by Paul Heintz.

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