Dave Sterrett spent six years lobbying on Capitol Hill. When he moved north last year to lobby in the Vermont Statehouse, he expected things to be different.
"I noticed that a lot of things that are illegal in Washington, D.C., are allowed here," Sterrett says.
Occupying a corner table in the Statehouse cafeteria most days, he observed, was the head of the Vermont Democratic House Campaign, a political action committee run by House leaders and devoted to electing Democratic legislators. The staffer, Katherine Levasseur, sets up shop in the morning, works from her laptop and entertains visits from top lawmakers.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) drops by her corner table. So does House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), Rep. Tim Jerman (D-Essex), Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) and Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) — all members of the House leadership team.
"That stood out to me as something I'd never see in Washington," Sterrett says. "In Washington, you have an absolute ban on campaign work and fundraising efforts in any public buildings. And that does not seem to be the case in the legislature."
Levasseur's presence in the Statehouse cafeteria is perfectly legal — and nothing out of the ordinary. Her recent predecessors — Ben Palkowski, Nick Garcia and Nick Charyk — were all fixtures in the building when they served as directors of the VDHC.
Katherine Levasseur and House Speaker Shap Smith
Levasseur, a 2013 graduate of the University of Vermont, says she spends much of her time getting to know Democratic legislators so that they will be ready to work together when they face reelection in a little more than 19 months.
"Sometimes I sit in on committee meetings. Sometimes I sit in on caucus meetings to see what's going on," she says. "I work wherever my laptop is. When I'm in the building, it helps me get a big-picture eye as we go into the 2016 cycle."
And, of course, Levasseur raises money for the Vermont Democratic House Campaign PAC and the Democratic House Leadership PAC, both of which finance Democratic campaigns and pay her salary. Last election cycle, the former raised nearly $147,000, while the latter raised roughly $15,000. Most of that money comes from lobbyists and the corporations and unions that hire them.
Levasseur spent much of last week planning what she calls "an intimate" fundraiser benefiting the House PACs and celebrating Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) 75th birthday. The Sunday event at Waterbury's Hen of the Wood sold out early, based on word of mouth alone. According to Levasseur, roughly 40 donors were scheduled to show, each contributing at the attendee ($500 per couple), sponsor ($750) or host level ($1,000).
As Levasseur planned the event from the Statehouse cafeteria last week, Smith and other top Dems sat down to discuss the agenda, speaking order and expected attendance. Smith says that's perfectly appropriate to do under the golden dome.
"I don't know," he says. "If she's telling me who's going to be there, I think that's fine."
So who was scheduled to attend?
"I don't think I have to tell you," the speaker says.
Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas and Katherine Levasseur
The timing of the Sunday's fundraiser was somewhat awkward, given last week's Senate debate over lobbyist disclosure. Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) and Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) both planned to introduce amendments barring PACs, such as the ones overseen by Levasseur, from raising money from lobbyists during the legislative session. Neither senator ended up offering such an amendment, citing constitutional concerns.
Smith, who often headlines lobbyist fundraisers, says he wouldn't be disappointed if they were banned. "I don't really care. That would be fine with me," he says. "It would mean I wouldn't have to go to fundraisers."
As for whether it's appropriate for campaign staffers to set up shop just yards away from the speaker's Statehouse office, Smith and Levasseur say it is.
"I think it's beneficial to be present when everybody's around and to have a greater and fuller understanding of everything that's happening in the building," Levasseur says. "I don't make any sort of policy recommendations or decisions. For the most part, I just listen."
"I think it's a little naive to think that Vermont is different and we don't need the same strict rules that they have in Washington, D.C." he says.