With Focus on Opiates, Shumlin Turns the Page | Off Message

With Focus on Opiates, Shumlin Turns the Page

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"Well, what's there to oppose in that?" a reporter asked me a moment after Gov. Peter Shumlin concluded his 34-minute State of the State address Wednesday afternoon.

What, indeed?

For the second time in as many years, the second-term governor dispensed with tradition and focused his legislative session-opening remarks on a single topic: in this case, what he called "the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont." (See Mark Davis' account of the State of the State.)

But unlike last year's education-themed inaugural address, into which Shumlin shoehorned an array of policy priorities, this year's speech barely strayed from the topic at hand. And unlike the typically jingoistic and self-congratulatory remarks governors tend to make on such occasions, Shumlin's address was a solemn and somber affair, rarely punctuated by applause.

But if you measured the gov's success Wednesday by the frequency of standing ovations, you missed the point. Because Shumlin hit it out of the park.

Heading into this year's legislative session, which kicked off Tuesday morning, the governor had a serious political problem on his hands: how to address his administration's flawed implementation of the state's new, federally mandated health insurance exchange. Legislators would be returning to Montpelier with a passel of complaints from constituents irate about their experiences with Vermont Health Connect. And the press would be looking for the next development in what has become the biggest political setback of Shumlin's three years in office.

So should the governor face the issue head-on in his State of the State, thereby drowning out any other message he hoped to send and starting the session on the defensive? Or should he avoid the topic entirely and get called out for doing so?

Instead, Shumlin chose a third way.

On Monday morning, the governor's staff announced that he would take the unusual step of appearing before a pair of legislative committees Tuesday to discuss Vermont Health Connect. But this was no typical hearing, in which a witness sits at the end of a long table and submits to the probing inquiries of legislators.

Instead, Shumlin stood at a podium in a Statehouse meeting room and delivered a formal speech to an overflow crowd of gawkers, rarely looking at the committee members assembled at a table beside him. Though he was technically appearing on their turf, it was clearly on his terms. He took only a handful of questions before scurrying off, leaving his underlings to answer committee members' remaining inquiries.

Shumlin rarely delivers scripted remarks. He is far more comfortable speaking extemporaneously, at which he excels. So it was notable to see him reading from a script as he articulated an impassioned defense of his long-term plan to enact a single-payer health care system and announced new steps to remedy Vermont Health Connect's immediate problems. 

In short, it appeared as if he'd taken a draft State of the State address focused on health care and delivered it a day early. In so doing, he managed to release some of the pressure building up within the Statehouse and ensure that coverage of his Vermont Health Connect remarks would not subsume his actual State of the State.

The next day, he turned the page.

Beyond the obvious policy merits of pledging to combat what he called a public health "crisis," Shumlin's shift in focus makes perfect political sense. Who's not against drug addiction?

To liberals, still sore over Shumlin's diatribes last year against the so-called welfare state, he could appear compassionate. To conservatives, many of whom take issue with his permissive approach toward marijuana, he could appear as a law-and-order man. And to rural and urban Vermonters alike, he could point to a quality-of-life issue that appears to affect all regions of the state.

In politics, there's no better strategy than to identify a common enemy and declare war against it.

Shumlin's public relations push wasn't over when he concluded his State of the State address Wednesday. Twenty minutes after he exited the House chamber, he held a press conference next door in his ceremonial Statehouse office. Standing beside him was seemingly every mayor, prosecutor and public health official in the state. They were there to endorse Shumlin's new anti-opiate agenda and provide corroborating testimony for the television cameras in attendance.

It was, to be sure, an all-star cast. Providing an air of gravitas, Chief Justice Paul Reiber of the Vermont Supreme Court spoke first, arguing that the criminal justice system could not alone handle the problem of drug addiction. He was followed by a regionally and professionally diverse series of speakers, including St. Albans Mayor Liz Gamache, Rutland Regional Medical Center President and CEO Tom Huebner and Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark.

But the star of the show was the one guy in the crowd not wearing a uniform or a dark suit jacket: Dustin Machia, a young man whose journey from a Franklin County dairy farm to a crippling addiction to opiates was chronicled in Bess O'Brien's documentary, "The Hungry Heart." With poise, grace and humor, Machia spoke about his own battle with addiction and put a face to the disease Shumlin had pledged to fight. 

It was a compelling conclusion to the governor's three-act play. 

Has Shumlin put his political problems behind him? Absolutely not. Vermont Health Connect remains far from fully functional. The budget remains far from balanced. And the governor has yet to explain in detail how he will fund his ambitious single-payer plans. Next week, when he delivers his budget address in a similarly formal setting, he will have to face the very real legislative problems that will confront him throughout the legislative session.

But for a day, at least, Shumlin managed to change the subject.

Photo of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.

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