Gubernatorial candidate Cris Ericson in a 2018 appearance on Vermont PBS
The Vermont Progressive Party is recruiting volunteers to write in the names of its top officeholders on its primary election ballot to ensure that a pair of perennial candidates don't claim the party's nomination.
The elaborate exercise is an attempt to allow Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who is running for governor, and state Auditor Doug Hoffer, who is seeking reelection, to win the nominations of both the Progressive and Democratic parties. State law prohibits candidates from running in more than one party primary, but they can be nominated by additional parties if enough voters write in their names — or if no other candidates run in a given primary and party leaders choose to nominate them.
As they have in the past, Zuckerman and Hoffer both chose this year to run in the Democratic primary, and both face competition for that party's nomination. At the same time, perennial candidate Cris Ericson of Chester is seeking the Progressive nomination for governor, auditor and every other statewide office on the ballot. Boots Wardinski, an organic farmer and horse logger who has run for office several times, is also seeking the Progressive gubernatorial nomination.
To prevent Ericson and Wardinski from winning the Progressive nod in the August 11 primary, the party is seeking 250 to 300 Progressive stalwarts to write in Zuckerman's and Hoffer's names in that party's primary, according to its executive director, Josh Wronski.
"It's definitely not an ideal system," Wronski said. "The whole primary system is not geared toward nontraditional parties."
This is hardly the first time the Progs have sought to secure their nomination from perceived interlopers, but the challenge is greater this year because, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, lawmakers temporarily removed the requirement that candidates for statewide offices gather 500 signatures to appear on the ballot. That resulted in more candidates filing for statewide office — and made it easier for Ericson to run in every race.
Wronski said the party is particularly concerned about the prospect of Ericson winning its nomination. "This candidate holds views that are opposed to our core values of social, economic, and climate justice," he wrote in an email to fellow Progs. In an interview, Wronski said that Ericson's platform included "some stuff that's pretty racist," though he declined to elaborate.
Ericson, a marijuana legalization advocate, drew notice in her 2018 gubernatorial campaign for promising to host a weekly "governor's pardon TV show" during which audience members could vote to pardon those convicted of nonviolent offenses. This year, according to her campaign website, she is proposing to "train prisoners to build log cabins with solar panels for homeless people" and to dig a canal from Florida to California in order to protect whales, the fishing industry and farmers. She also opposes the decriminalization of sex work.
"[M]any men in foreign countries are people of color, and they will come
here for white prostitutes because Vermont is 94 percent white caucuasian [sic]," she wrote in an April post on her website. "WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO MAKE VERMONT A TOURIST DESTINATION FOR WHITE PROSTITUTION by decriminalizing prostitution and luring wealthy foreign men of color here, some with diplomatic immunity, to spread the legs of creamy white Vermont flesh?"
Neither Ericson nor Wardinski returned calls seeking comment.
Asking volunteers to vote in the Progressive primary is not without risk, given that doing so could deprive Zuckerman and Hoffer of votes in the Democratic primary, but the approach has worked before. In 2016, Zuckerman won a hotly contested Democratic primary for LG while still drawing 228 write-in votes in the Progressive primary. That was enough to beat Wardinski, the only candidate on the Progressive ballot that year, who picked up just 150 votes.
Though some Democrats view Progressives with suspicion and question their desire to seek both nominations, other members of the two parties have argued over the years that running as a "fusion" candidate reduces the likelihood of splitting the left-of-center vote in a general election and electing a Republican.
The reason the Progs are going to bat for Zuckerman and Hoffer but not other statewide candidates, according to Wronski, is that the party's state committee voted to endorse both incumbents in May. Such an endorsement provides candidates with organizing and fundraising support, though it does not necessarily result in a party's nomination.
Thus far, the Progs have refrained from endorsing any candidate in the race to replace Zuckerman as lieutenant governor — even though one of its most prominent officials, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), is seeking the post. According to Wronski, all four candidates running for the Democratic nomination — Ashe, Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden), assistant attorney general Molly Gray and activist Brenda Siegel — are scheduled to appear at a Progressive Party forum on July 14, after which the party's executive committee may vote to endorse in the race.
Each of the four candidates or their spokespeople said they are seeking the Progressive endorsement. Ashe, Ingram and Siegel all told Seven Days that if they won both parties' nominations, they would list their Democratic affiliation first on the November ballot. A spokesperson for Gray, Samantha Sheehan, would not say what order the candidate would choose.
"At this time, Molly is focused on the upcoming statewide Democratic Primary on August 11th," Sheehan said in a written statement.
Hoffer told Seven Days that if he won both parties' nominations, he would list his Democratic affiliation first in November, as he has done in the past. Zuckerman's campaign manager, Meg Polyte, said her boss would do the opposite and continue to identify primarily as a Prog.
And if he lost the Progressive nomination to Ericson or Wardinski? "That would be sad," Polyte said.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Prog Jam"