For the drama-prone Senate Democratic caucus, a Saturday meeting to elect its leadership went remarkably smoothly.
Huddled around a conference table at Montpelier's Capitol Plaza, the 23-member caucus selected Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) as majority leader and Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) as assistant majority leader. Both were elected by voice vote — without opposition.
Baruth's selection as the party's consensus-seeker and enforcer signaled a remarkable turnaround for a relatively junior and liberal member who distinguished himself last session — his first — as a voice of opposition and, at times, obstruction. But Baruth's fellow senators appeared to accept the Burlington Democrat's pledge to put the priorities of the caucus before his own.
After nominating Baruth for the post, Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans) — a longtime conservative Democrat from the Northeast Kingdom — said that despite their philosophical differences, he believed Baruth to be "a great guy" and "a great communicator."
"Most of you know that Phil's a little more liberal than I might be. Just a little," Starr said, prompting chuckles from around the room. "But over the two years, I can honestly say we never had an argument over an issue. We had great discussions, debate. But in the end, Phil was willing to compromise. I was willing to compromise. And that's what this process is all about."
Even after securing his new position, Baruth sought in brief remarks to allay his colleagues' concerns that he might use it to rock the legislative boat.
"I certainly feel strongly about what I believe in. Like everybody else, I want to implement changes. That's why I got elected," he said. "That said, my priority every single day will be the caucus and not what I happen to be thinking of that morning for myself and my agenda."
Baruth, an English professor at the University of Vermont — not to mention a novelist and recovering political blogger — will be joined in the leadership ranks by Ayer, a registered nurse from Weybridge. Ayer had initially sought and secured the majority leader position, but backed out last week in favor of retaining the chairmanship of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
The two succeed former majority leader Bill Carris and assistant majority leader Hinda Miller, both of whom left the Senate after the conclusion of last year's term.
Baruth and Ayer will likely serve as numbers two and three in the Senate to John Campbell, a Quechee Democrat who is expected to retain his position as Senate President Pro Tem when the body formally elects its officers Wednesday.
Immediately after his election, Baruth got a taste of the job to come as he presided over a two-hour discussion of the caucus' legislative priorities in the coming months. Near the end, he sought to forge consensus over the timing of the Dems' weekly meeting during the legislative session.
As chaos erupted, Starr piped up to warn Baruth of the perils of striving for consensus.
"You gotta remember, Phil, you're the boss," he said.