Sen. Tim Ashe, center, on Monday at a caucus of Senate Democrats
Updated November 15, 2016, at 12:14 a.m.
Vermont’s Senate Democratic caucus unanimously nominated Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) to serve as president pro tempore Monday evening, all but ensuring his election in January as the next leader of the state Senate.
The 39-year-old economics instructor from Burlington is set to succeed Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor), who is retiring after six years at the helm. If the full Senate affirms the caucus’ choice, Ashe and lieutenant governor-elect David Zuckerman will become the highest-ranking members of the Vermont Progressive Party since it was founded in the late 1990s.
“One of the reasons we all run for office in the first place, I think and I hope, is that we really want to change the world. I mean, that’s really what this is about,” Ashe told his colleagues at the Statehouse meeting, adding that a successful tenure would involve “really improving the lives of people and changing the world.”
Ashe had been quietly campaigning for the job since last April, when Campbell announced he would not be seeking a ninth term. Other early contenders included Sens. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), Chris Bray (D-Addison) and Ann Cummings (D-Washington). The field eventually winnowed to just Ashe and Ayer, who both spent the fall courting colleagues in their home districts.
At Monday’s meeting, Ayer told her fellow Democrats that she had decided to drop out of the race “because it was clear I wasn’t going to win tonight.”
“I really wanted to give Tim a run for his money, but when I looked at the final numbers yesterday at three in the afternoon, I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” she said.
Sen. Claire Ayer on Monday at a Senate Democratic caucus
Instead, the 68-year-old retired nurse from Addison made a last-minute attempt to depose Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) as the third member of the Committee on Committees. In that position, which the 77-year-old grocer has held for some two decades, Mazza joins the lieutenant governor and president pro tem in doling out all Senate committee assignments.
Ayer noted that if Mazza, a Colchester resident, kept the job, all three members of the Committee on Committees would be men from Chittenden County.
“I could offer diversity, and I really think it’s important,” she said. “I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time to have another voice, another way of looking at things, another perspective in the Senate.”
Mazza, a conservative Democrat who supported Republican governor-elect Phil Scott’s campaign, said that he had always sought to represent “the whole Senate” in his role as the third member.
“It boils down to, I’ve worked with both parties on the Committee on Committees, and I’d like to feel that I’ve done a good job in listening to those concerns and being fair,” he said.
Sen. Dick Mazza on Monday at a Senate Democratic caucus
Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) nominated Mazza for the job and Bray seconded his nomination. But after Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) nominated Ayer, nobody rushed to second it — a sign, perhaps, that senators were afraid to publicly cross the man who would likely control the allocation of committee chairmanships. After an awkward pause, senator-elect Alison Clarkson, a Woodstock Democrat, volunteered to second Ayer’s nomination.
Voting by secret ballot, senators seemed somewhat more willing to buck Mazza — but they still voted 14 to 8 in his favor.
Ashe’s and Mazza’s appointments will require majority votes in the 30-member Senate come January. But because Democrats and Progressives are slated to control 23 seats — and both are supported by at least some Republicans — those votes are likely to be a formality.
At the Monday night caucus, the Democrats decided to postpone a decision about who would serve as their next majority leader. The incumbent, Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden), won reelection last week but does not plan to seek the leadership position next year.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly.