Meeting at the Statehouse Saturday morning, House Dems unanimously elected five-term Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) to replace Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Ripton) as majority leader. Nominating her was Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), who waged a spirited campaign against Copeland Hanzas, but who dropped out of the running on Tuesday.
“We know that a rising tide floats all boats, but I think that we as Democrats are keenly aware that part of our job is to throw a lifeline to the Vermonters who’ve been swept overboard in our great recession,” Copeland Hanzas told her colleagues. “And that’s going to be [House Democrats’] central focus.”
Rep. Kate Webb
Like many speakers Saturday, Copeland Hanzas urged her fellow lawmakers to consider the breadth of challenges they will face before adjourning next May.
“We know that we’ve got five months to balance a fair and sufficient budget. We have five months to meet the challenge of an ever-increasing property tax burden. We have five months to work on stimulating economic growth. We have five months to evaluate a proposal for financing a universal health care system. And we have five months to work on improving and sustaining our environment in Vermont,” she said. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas embraces House Speaker Shap Smith
House Democrats reelected Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) to serve as majority whip. Webb, who has held that position since last March, faced a brief challenge from Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover). Joining her and Copeland Hanzas in the leadership ranks will be Rep. Tim Jerman (D-Essex) as deputy whip, Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) as clerk and Ram as caucus elections chair, a newly-created position.
Saturday afternoon at the Capital Plaza, Senate Democrats reelected the same team that led them through the last biennium.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) will remain majority leader, Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) will return as majority whip and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) will continue his long reign as “the third member.” In that position, Mazza joins Campbell and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott on the influential Committee on Committees, which doles out committee assignments and chairmanships.
Though Democrats voted to nominate Campbell and Smith to the legislature’s top jobs, both require formal votes by the entire Senate and House when the legislature reconvenes next month.
Sen. John Campbell
Casting the sole “nay” votes of the day was Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), who quietly opposed both Campbell and Mazza.
After the meeting, Pollina explained, “I would like to see the ability for more people to be involved in leadership, quite frankly, and I think that it would be more healthy for the caucus to have some conversation about who’s going to be the leader, and we don’t seem to have that conversation.”
“That fact that we vote in our leaders before we have any discussion of the issues,” he added, “would be like electing a president without having any debates.”
Senator-elect Brian Campion, Sen. Alice Nitka, Sen. Phil Baruth, Senator-Elect Becca Balint, Sen. Ann Cummings
Legislators did spend plenty of time discussing, at least in general terms, the issues they’ll face next month. Webb told her colleagues that a survey she conducted of House Democrats after Election Day found that they were most interested in tackling economic issues, education finance and health care reform — in that order.
Later that afternoon, Campbell ticked off those three issues, as well as a fourth — cleaning up Lake Champlain — as Senate Democrats’ top priorities. He said the approaching session would be “one of the most difficult” the state has encountered “in decades.” But he said it also had the potential to be “historic,” if the legislature faced those challenges head-on.
Gov. Peter Shumlin
Gov. Peter Shumlin, who joined Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) in addressing both caucus meetings, enumerated some of his own priorities. But, oddly, the governor failed in either venue to mention his plans to dramatically reform Vermont's health care system.
Instead, the governor highlighted the state’s projected $100 million budget gap, calling it the “toughest one” he’s had to resolve since taking office.
“We have a fundamental disconnect between the level of spending in Vermont and the revenues coming in. That’s just the reality,” he told House Democrats as they dined in the Statehouse cafeteria. “We’ve got to make some tough choices. And anyone who’s asking for additional money should think hard and twice about it because it really doesn’t exist.”
Shumlin also made light of his own electoral predicament. Because he failed to win a majority in last month’s election, the legislature will have the final say over who serves as governor for the next two years. Its members are free to select Shumlin, second-place finisher Scott Milne or third-place finisher Dan Feliciano.
“There’s nothing better than the democracy we have,” Shumlin joked, “where the person who gets the most votes wins.”
Correcton 12/15/14: An earlier version of this post misstated Senate President John Campbell's district. He represents Windsor.