In less than a month, Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) will become the highest-ranking state official from both the Progressive and Democratic parties. That’s when the outgoing Chittenden County state senator and Hinesburg organic farmer takes office as lieutenant governor, succeeding Republican governor-elect Phil Scott.
It’s an ideal bully pulpit for the 45-year-old pol — offering high visibility and little responsibility. During his six-year tenure, Scott used it to great advantage, building his reputation while avoiding controversy. How will the new guy handle the job?
Zuckerman is in a clear position to become the champion of Vermont’s left, but he shied away from any such claim Friday during an interview in Montpelier with Seven Days. He did make clear there’s some steel inside that velvet glove.
“After the election [when] Phil Scott declared that he had a mandate, it made me think a little bit — that normally a mandate would mean coattails,” Zuckerman said, noting that Republicans lost every other statewide race — and failed to make gains in the legislature. “So I don’t know what the mandate is, because if you look at the legislature, the House, Senate and lieutenant governor’s office, the mandate is quite the opposite.”
When it comes to his new role as leader of the opposition, Zuckerman isn’t ready to man the barricades just yet. Indeed, he wants to give the governor-elect a fair chance to unfurl his agenda.
“To go out there and start throwing punches before even seeing what his budget is or what his agenda is, I don’t think is what Vermonters expect,” he said.
If you think there’s a “but” coming, you’re right. “At the same time, I don’t know that conciliatory means roll over,” the LG-elect added.
If Scott’s agenda includes deep budget cuts, Zuckerman said, “I’m ready to push back on that, because working people are struggling, and they want results to make everyday living more possible.”
He continued: “Cutting taxes or fees is one way to do it, but the other is, raise the minimum wage by 50 cents an hour, [which] puts a thousand dollars more in someone’s pocket. That helps more than saving them 40 or 50 dollars on their tax bill.”
Nor will Zuckerman back away from core issues, such as the minimum wage, paid family leave and marijuana legalization. And while he’s not going to prejudge the next governor, he sees some worrying signs in the first round of hires for the new administration.
“[Scott’s] agenda was a little less clear than mine,” Zuckerman noted. “And now it’s becoming more clear with his appointments. And that allows us to start to prepare for some challenges.”
Zuckerman will take office as both a Progressive and a Democrat, but he’s very much a Prog at heart. Last week, he sent a rousing letter to supporters asking for donations to the Vermont Progressive Party — and emphasizing his own ties to the Progs and to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), whom he calls “the godfather of the Progressive Party” and his own political mentor.
Is Zuckerman afraid his plea for the Progs might ruffle some feathers in Democratic circles? “I think I probably ruffled a lot more feathers 15, 20 years ago than I ruffle today.”
That said, he’s prepared to hold the Dems accountable. The LG-elect says the ultimate goal of the Progs is not to be a viable third party but “to become the second major party” — supplanting the Republicans. Despite Scott’s victory, Zuckerman noted, “The Progressive Party grew, the Republican Party shrank, the Democratic Party stayed the same.”
As lieutenant governor, Zuckerman will hold one of three seats on the Senate’s Committee on Committees, which determines the membership and chairmanships of each panel. He’d like to use that position to nudge key committees to the left, although he is well aware that it’s all a matter of degree. “The Senate only has 30 people, and everybody’s got to be used to the fullest,” he said. “As soon as you move one, there’s all kinds of domino effects.”
He does have his eye on one particular panel: the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs — currently chaired by Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland). “That committee was a tough committee on some issues,” Zuckerman said. “Considering that minimum wage and family leave are major topics, whether we get them all, or to what degree we get them, will be determined by that committee.”
That said, Zuckerman has been a state lawmaker for all but two years since 1997 — and he knows how the game is played.
“The Senate is an institution that doesn’t shift on a dime,” he acknowledged. He professes “a lot of respect” for Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), the influential Colchester Democrat who was recently returned to the Committee on Committees despite his enthusiastic support for Republican Scott’s gubernatorial campaign.
One thing’s for sure: Zuckerman promises to be a very different — and more lively — presence as lieutenant governor than his immediate predecessor. The ponytailed Progressive may not be a bull in the china shop, but he’s perfectly willing to break a few dishes should the occasion arise.