Walters: Democrats Gain Ground in Vermont Legislature | Off Message

Walters: Democrats Gain Ground in Vermont Legislature


House Speaker Mitzi Johnson - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson
Vermont Democrats appear to have won a veto-proof majority in the state House on Tuesday and bolstered their existing supermajority in the Senate, according to preliminary results from the Secretary of State's Office.

Among the victims of a surge in Democratic enthusiasm was Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), who was ousted Tuesday by New North End voters. He was the last remaining Republican to represent the Queen City in the House.

A few districts remained unsettled as of early Wednesday morning, but unofficial returns indicated that Democrats picked up 12 seats held by Republicans, plus two seats occupied by independents. The Dems also lost two seats to Republicans, while Progressives held on to all seven of theirs.

If the current tallies hold, a net gain of 12 seats for Democrats and Progressives would push their combined caucuses to 102 — two more than the two-thirds majority required to override gubernatorial vetoes. The House Republican caucus would be reduced to a mere 43.

In his victory speech Tuesday night at the DoubleTree by Hilton in South Burlington, Republican Gov. Phil Scott hinted at the daunting opposition he will face in his second term.

"By electing a governor of one party and a legislature [of] another, the message Vermonters have sent to us tonight is clear: 'Work together,'" Scott said. That may signal a new approach, after a first term that saw 14 gubernatorial vetoes.

In the Vermont Senate, Democrats picked up a seat in Rutland County thanks to an unexpected second-place finish by Cheryl Hooker, a former member of the House and Senate. The three-member district has been dominated by Republicans since 2014. Hooker will be joined in the delegation by incumbent Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) and Republican James McNeil.

In Addison County, independents Marie Audet and Paul Ralston failed to make inroads in a two-member district currently represented by Democrats. Incumbent Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) won reelection and Democratic newcomer Ruth Hardy replaced retiring Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison). Republican Peter Briggs came in third place, while Audet and Ralston finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

All six incumbent Democrats and Progressives — Sens. Tim Ashe, Ginny Lyons, Debbie Ingram, Michael Sirotkin, Phil Baruth and Chris Pearson — won reelection in Chittenden County, the state's most populous Senate district. Republican Alex Farrell, who ran a well-organized and well-funded campaign, finished a distant seventh. Two other Republican candidates, Paul Dame and Dana Maxfield, also fell short.

The Senate's new breakdown appears to be 22 Democrats, two Progressives and only six Republicans.

For Queen City voters, the most notable news was Wright's defeat in the two-member district he has represented for 14 years. Incumbent Rep. Carol Ode (D-Burlington) won reelection with 2,680 votes. Democratic challenger Bob Hooper took the second seat with 1,999 votes. Wright came in third with 1,833.

Wright, who serves as president of the Burlington City Council, announced on Facebook late Tuesday that he would not run for public office again. The former mayoral candidate said he would serve out his council term, which ends in March 2020, but would not seek the presidency again in 2019.

"I announce this with sadness and admit I will greatly miss serving and will miss most of my colleagues and the give and take on all the issues," Wright wrote. "But all good things must come to an end and the results tonight underscore for me that it is time to move on. I say this with no bitterness toward anyone, just an honest assessment that my time is up."

Wright characterized his defeat as "a loss for the center in politics." He added, "Politics can be a nasty business."

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) survived another tight contest in her traditionally divided district — but her Democratic seatmate in the two-seat constituency, Rep. Ben Joseph (D-North Hero), was defeated by Republican Leland Morgan.

"Tonight is a really good night to be a Democrat," Johnson said in a victory speech Tuesday night at her party's celebration at the Hilton Burlington. "In the last session, you all know the record number of vetoes that happened ... Tonight Vermonters said, ‘That’s not what we want. You need to listen.’"

A former Democratic power broker saw his long political career come to an ignominious end. Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre) finished a distant fourth in his two-member district. Poirier was a leader of the House Democratic caucus in the 1980s and defeated then-senator Peter Welch for their party's nomination to Congress in 1988. He served as an independent in his latest House go-round and had promised that this would be his last election. It was far from his best.

Democratic pickups included Lucy Rogers of Waterville, Kathleen James of Manchester, William Notte of Rutland, Scott Campbell of St. Johnsbury, John O'Brien of Tunbridge, Sara Coffey of Guilford and Carl Demrow of Corinth.

Democrat Caleb Elder and Democrat/Progressive Mari Cordes picked up one seat for their parties in the two-member Addison-4 district, which was previously split by retiring Rep. Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol) and Rep. Fred Baser (R-Bristol), who lost his reelection bid.

Two former Democratic lawmakers, Mike McCarthy of St. Albans and Avram Patt of Worcester, won return engagements to Montpelier.

The tightest race of the night appears to have taken place in the far northwest, where incumbent Rep. Cindy Weed (P-Enosburg Falls) defeated Republican Felisha Leffler by only three votes. A recount is likely.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe), a prominent moderate who considered a run for governor in 2014, barely held onto her seat. She defeated Democrat Marina Meerburg by 86 votes. Scheuermann had not faced a Democratic challenger since her first run for office in 2006.

Republicans had hoped to win an additional seat or more in Colchester, which has two separate two-seat districts. But in the end, the town's delegation retained its current makeup of three Dems and one Republican.

Alicia Freese and Taylor Dobbs contributed reporting.