Analysis: As Zuckerman Challenge Looms, Scott Skips the Substance in State of the State | Off Message

Analysis: As Zuckerman Challenge Looms, Scott Skips the Substance in State of the State


Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman greeting Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday at Scott's State of the State address - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman greeting Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday at Scott's State of the State address
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman was eager to take the dais.

Moments earlier, climate activists had interrupted Gov. Phil Scott's State of the State address and — rhetorically, at least — taken over the Vermont House chamber. "Listen to the people!" the red-shirted activists chanted from the rear of the room. "We are here for the climate collapse emergency!"

As Scott attempted to restore order, Zuckerman approached him from behind and whispered in his ear. The governor shook his head, staring straight ahead, and appeared to say, "No, thank you."

The protesters continued their chants. "There are climate refugees in Vermont right now!" they shouted.
Zuckerman hovered just behind Scott and, a moment later, whispered in his ear again. This time, the governor nodded. "OK, I think we've had enough," he told the crowd of unruly activists and impassive politicians.

With a dramatic sweep of his right hand, Scott gestured at the lieutenant governor. Zuckerman stepped forward and took Scott's place at the dais, banging his gavel three times. "The chamber will please come to order," he said.

The lieutenant governor, whose duty it is to preside over joint assemblies of the House and Senate, was simply doing his job. But it was difficult to ignore the fact that, days earlier, news had broken that Zuckerman would soon be challenging Scott for his job. In a year's time, it was entirely possible that the two-term Republican governor could be more permanently replaced on the dais by the Progressive-Democrat standing behind him.

If Scott was feeling the heat, he didn't show it. Thursday's address was as bland and free of substance as he's given in his three years in office. There were no fireworks and no Roman candles. The closest he came to lighting a sparkler was mentioning a vague proposal to create a universal after-school program.

Otherwise, the speech was vintage Scott: civility, demographics and bromides.

The governor did bring up the financial crisis plaguing the Brattleboro Retreat, the state's largest provider of inpatient mental health treatment, calling it "too critical for us to let fail." But, oddly, he uttered not a word about the abuse scandal plaguing the state's prison system, which led to the resignation last month of Scott's corrections commissioner, Mike Touchette.
Climate protesters interrupting Gov. Phil Scott's State of the State address - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Climate protesters interrupting Gov. Phil Scott's State of the State address
Thursday's protest was hardly a secret. State officials had been bracing for days for just such an interruption. But Scott had little to say about the "climate collapse" the protesters were urging him to prevent.

Joking that he was "a bit of a car guy" and "probably the only governor who has a [commercial driver's license] and an inspection license," Scott gushed about the electric Ford Mustangs, F-150s and Harley Davidsons hitting the market. He talked up investments the state has already made in electric vehicle subsidies and charging stations. But he provided few new ideas about how Vermont might reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Rather, he made clear that he would not support climate initiatives that might raise the costs of transportation or home heat for older Vermonters and those with long rural commutes. "I simply cannot support proposals that will make things more expensive for them," he said.

Zuckerman was ready to draw a contrast. The candidate-in-waiting appeared earlier Thursday at a rally on the Statehouse steps attended by roughly 100 climate activists. "I'm so excited to see both longtime fighters and all of the new fighters who are with us working to change the discussion, because we have no time left," he told the crowd. "We have to be big in our action."
In an interview in his Statehouse office after Scott's address, the lieutenant governor criticized his future opponent for failing to think bigger.

"For a number of cycles now we have not seen climate change legislation be able to get through, in large part because of the lack of leadership from the administration," Zuckerman said.

His critique wasn't limited to the environment. Scott had hailed Vermonters in his speech for "doing all they can to lift each other up." But, Zuckerman argued, the governor was "not asking the wealthiest to contribute to some of the economic investment we could make that would truly lift up all Vermonters." Scott had emphasized the importance of affordability. But, the lieutenant governor wondered, "What are you gonna do about the minimum wage?"

Zuckerman is a long way from winning the Democratic nomination. He hasn't even said he's running (though he did tell Seven Days Thursday that "it's relatively obvious at this point"), and he'd first have to dispatch former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe, who has been campaigning for half a year.

But if Zuckerman does face Scott in the general election next fall, it would be a race of great contrasts. The Progressive-Democrat, who worships at the alter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would undoubtedly campaign on a platform of "yuge" ideas.

Scott, apparently, feels comfortable delivering on his original campaign promise: to slow the expansion of state government he saw in the Shumlin administration and do as little policymaking as possible. That's worked well for him to date — and it may work well for him again in November.

But if the climate activists outside and inside the Statehouse on Thursday were a harbinger of things to come, perhaps Vermont voters will push him off the dais and say, "OK, I think we've had enough."

Colin Flanders contributed reporting.

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