Despite its efforts to be seen as a grassroots political advocacy organization, Campaign for Vermont has long been perceived as the vanity project of its founder and principal donor, retired Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman.
But as Lisman pulls back from CFV, newly hired executive director Cyrus Patten says he hopes to prepare the group for a post-Lisman existence. Patten's hiring, which was announced Thursday, follows last week's news that former Vermont Public Service Board chairwoman Louise McCarren has replaced Lisman as CFV's chair.
"Bruce is still the on the board, but he's not the chair. He's just kind of an active participant," Patten says. "I think he realizes he's done the heavy lifting in the beginning and it really has been gaining traction. He realizes that this is truly a grassroots-driven campaign, and he wants to give it the legs and freedom to be that."
A Shrewsbury native and New Haven resident, Patten plans to leave his position this week as the HowardCenter's director of comprehensive care to become CFV's first permanent staffer. A clinical social worker and adjunct professor at the University of Vermont, Patten previously worked at Spectrum Youth and Family Services and as an aide to a Colorado state representative.
Lisman, who has donated more than a million dollars to CFV since its founding in 2011, has indicated that he doesn't plan to bankroll the organization forever. Patten says that in addition to advocacy, outreach and member development, he'll be spending a significant amount of time fundraising.
"A big goal is to get the organization in a self-sustaining place as soon as reasonable," he says.
So if Campaign for Vermont isn't about Bruce Lisman, what exactly is it about? As Patten himself admits, the group's advocacy mission has sometimes appeared rather nebulous.
"I think that's a common perception, because we've done a good job of getting our name out there, but we need to do better communicating what we're about," he says. "The campaign has evolved over time, but where we've landed is good governance, economic prosperity and sustainable budgets. It's about helping Vermonters, making Vermont an affordable place to live and making Vermont a good place to work."
What it's not about, Patten argues, is pushing a conservative political philosophy, as some liberals have alleged. Patten says he considers himself a Democrat (his former boss in Colorado, John Kefalas, who now serves in the state senate, is also a Democrat) and sees CFV as a "nonpartisan, middle-of-the-road, pragmatic" organization.
"I think it's no secret that some of the people who support this campaign have a track record on the conservative side, but I think there are people involved who are all over the political spectrum," he says. "I was not interested in working for a purely political organization working from the left or the right."
To that end, Patten says he doesn't expect CFV to play a major role in this fall's elections. It does not plan to endorse candidates or invest heavily in television and radio advertising campaigns, he says. And while the group initially planned to hire two full-time employees, Patten says it has decided to hold off, for the time being, on hiring an advocacy director.