Don’t look now, but the honeymoon might be over before it began.
“I’m becoming increasingly concerned,” Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the House minority leader, says of GOP governor-elect Phil Scott’s burgeoning administration. “I wanted to see a Republican governor who wanted to make changes.”
Turner is specifically “concerned” about the large number of extended cabinet members Scott has retained from the outgoing administration of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. And Turner says he’s not alone.
“I’m hearing it from Republicans on the street,” he adds.
So far, the Shumlin holdovers include Department of Children and Families Commissioner Ken Schatz, Department of Aging, Disabilities and Independent Living Commissioner Monica Hutt, Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak and his four deputy commissioners, Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter and Department of Finance and Management Commissioner Andy Pallito.
Still more Shumlin officials are taking new jobs under Scott: Green Mountain Care Board Chair Al Gobeille will become Agency of Human Services secretary. Transportation Secretary Chris Cole will become commissioner of the Department of Buildings and General Services. Department of Public Safety Deputy Commissioner Joe Flynn will become transportation secretary. And Department of Finance and Management Deputy Commissioner Bradley Ferland will become deputy secretary of the Agency of Administration.
(Pallito and Ferland, it should be noted, have served under governors of both parties.)
The abundance of Shumlin alums leads Turner to worry that Scott is “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” The GOP leader wonders “how the governor-elect will pursue his agenda with so many holdovers.”
Rob Roper, president of the free-market Ethan Allen Institute, is generally more sanguine. But as a critic of Shumlin’s health care reforms, he is specifically concerned about Scott’s appointment of Gobeille, who Roper notes has “been a proponent of the all-payer waiver.”
“Does that mean that Phil Scott will want to pursue it?” Roper asks, referring to the agreement the Shumlin and Obama administrations signed in October to pursue health care payment reform in Vermont. “Phil said during the campaign that he’s not a big fan of Vermont Health Connect. Will Gobeille help find an alternative? Or will he talk Phil into continuing with Vermont Health Connect?”
“I don’t have a particular problem with anyone Phil Scott has appointed so far,” says Mike Smith, host of WDEV Radio’s “Open Mike” and a cabinet official under former Republican governor Jim Douglas. But, the right-leaning radio host cautions, “Scott won because Vermonters want change. If Vermonters get the sense that Scott is keeping many of the people on that made the Shumlin administration so unpopular, then that will be a problem for him.”
Smith adds that the reappointees “must fully embrace changes the new governor wishes to make, especially when it runs counter to how they have done things in the past.”
That’s precisely the plan, according to Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley.
“The change will come from the governor-elect himself,” she says. “All his appointees have expressed interest in making that change and putting his vision forward.”
While Scott’s picks might rub Turner and his Republican colleagues the wrong way, they could reassure skeptical Democrats and independents that the governor-elect’s centrist campaign promises weren’t just blather.
Beyond the Shumlin holdovers, several more Scott appointees come with identifiable Democratic affiliations: His pick for deputy commerce secretary, Ted Brady, has spent his career working for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and the Obama administration. Scott’s deputy natural resources secretary, Peter Walke, comes from the administration of New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. And his legal counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, has been an assistant attorney general under Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell.
There are others with no obvious partisan markers: Scott’s choice for deputy secretary of human services, Martha Maksym, currently runs the United Way of Northwest Vermont. His public safety commissioner-designee, Thomas Anderson, works for the U.S. Department of Justice. His choice for commerce secretary, Michael Schirling, heads BTVIgnite and served as Burlington police chief. And his deputy agriculture secretary, Alyson Eastman, is an independent state representative from Orwell.
Kelley argues that partisanship was not a consideration in the assembly of Team Scott. “It wasn’t about looking for political affiliation,” but a matter of three key components: “Character, commitment and chemistry.”
That might be cold comfort to Republicans, who’ve been out of power in Montpelier for six long years. “There are still appointments to be made,” Turner says. “I’d hope there will be a stronger Republican presence.”
Turner says he plans to have “a discussion with the governor-elect and express my concerns.”