Progs Seem Eager to Take on Shumlin ... If They Can Find the Money and the Candidate | Off Message

Progs Seem Eager to Take on Shumlin ... If They Can Find the Money and the Candidate

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The absence of some of the party's brightest stars didn't prevent Vermont Progressives at a meeting on Saturday from considering a race next year against Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The 40 Prog faithful who gathered on a dazzling August afternoon in Bethel's town hall (right) reached no conclusions about election strategy in 2014. Most speakers, however, did express support for running what one described as "a serious statewide campaign."

Morgan Daybell, the party's former executive director, argued instead for investing the Progs' "limited money" in insurgent campaigns for the legislature in each of the state's 14 counties. One reason for taking that more grassrootsy approach, Daybell suggested, is that the party can count only "a limited number of people willing to be credible [statewide] candidates."

State Rep. Chris Pearson, a Prog who probably could project political credibility on a statewide stage, tilted toward the let's-go-for-it position during a cordial 20-minute dialogue with Daybell.

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The 40-year-old leader of the party's five-member Vermont House contingent (right, with Daybell) sounded a theme echoed by several other Progs when he denounced Shumlin's efforts to cut assistance for the poorest Vermonters. "We saw a self-professed liberal Democratic governor proposing a state budget [Republican former governor] Jim Douglas wouldn't have dared propose," Pearson told an audience made up mainly of elders. "As a populist party, how could we not challenge someone putting forth those ideas?"

In addition to that ideological imperative, practical political factors were cited as reasons to challenge Shumlin.

Daybell noted, for example, that a Prog candidate for governor in 2014 might not lose many votes because of lesser-evil reasoning, which typically leads liberals to support the Democrat in a three-way race. "I don't see Republicans coming in first" if Progressives make a serious bid for the governor's office, Daybell said. "Their bench is very thin right now."

It was further noted that next year's gubernatorial debates will lack a voice raising issues of economic justice if the race proves a reprise of Shumlin vs. Randy Brock. The GOP former state auditor managed to win only a 38 percent share of the vote last year.

Next year's race should be all about economics, those at the gathering agreed.

"There's a big difference between Republicans and Democrats on social issues," Daybell said, but "social issues are largely settled in Vermont." Marriage equality and abortion rights are here to stay, he suggested. Conversely, Daybell added, the two major parties differ "very little" on economic issues.

Pearson, who seems willing to be persuaded to run for gov, pointed to a "quandary" the Progs must resolve if they do decide to take on Shumlin. "We can't pretend we don't have a governor talking about some of our issues," Pearson noted, singling out Shumlin's stand for a single-payer health insurance system. "That's not a small thing," he observed.

Underlying the discussion was the question of whether it's worth the effort and money to run even an articulate, charismatic candidate who would likely struggle to rise above single digits in the November vote percentage. Pearson might take such a plunge anyway, but two Progs who could fare equally as well, or better — state senators Tim Ashe and David Zuckerman — did not truck on down from Chittenden County to take part in Progstock.

(It goes almost without saying that Progressive godfather Bernie Sanders was not on hand to deliver his progressive-movement-building spiel to the most successful third party in the United States.)

The other member of the Progressive/Democrat trio in the Vermont state senate, Washington County's Anthony Pollina, did come to Bethel to speak briefly about how "numbers rather than people" dictate budgetary decisions in the legislature. Pollina is a veteran of four statewide campaigns. Most notably, he nosed out a Democratic speaker of the House for second place in the 2008 governor's race won by Douglas.

Pollina may have run his full share of quixotic campaigns, however. He appears comfortably ensconced in his senate seat, having finally won an election in 2010 and reelection two years later.

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Saturday's huddle began with an hourlong exercise in numbers nerdery led by former state rep Paul Cillo, a Democrat (right). He now heads the Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier-based think tank.

Through a series of tables and graphs, Cillo sought to show that economic inequality is growing more acute in Vermont. He injected statistical elements into what amounts to an old story — the rich are getting richer; the poor, poorer.

Vermont's job growth has been more stunted in recent years than at any time since the Great Depression, Cillo said. The state poverty rate is resurgent, rising to 11 percent in 2010 from 9 percent at the start of the 21st century, he added.

Cillo also decried "the gentrification of Vermont." He noted that those migrating into the state have incomes about 18 percent higher, on average, than those who move away.

His presentation prompted a discussion as to whether Progressives should view wealthy Vermonters as class enemies. That question, too, was left undecided.

Photos by Kevin J. Kelley.

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