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Vermont's Clinton Fans Tread Carefully in Sanders Country


Published February 17, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 1, 2016 at 11:42 p.m.

Hillary Clinton campaigning in Rochester, N.H. - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Hillary Clinton campaigning in Rochester, N.H.

Billi Gosh, a longtime Democratic National Committee member who lives in Brookfield, traveled to New Hampshire this month to knock on doors for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. But with two weeks remaining before Vermont's March 1 primary, Gosh doesn't expect to do the same in her own state.

"I can't get people to put up lawn signs," Gosh said with an air of resignation.

Sarah Buxton, a Democratic state representative from Tunbridge, has a Clinton bumper sticker, but she hasn't yet put it on her car.

"I debate every day if I should come out of the closet," Buxton said.

It's not easy to be a Clinton supporter in Vermont. Scan the roadsides and your Facebook feed, and listen to the chatter on the streets. There's no escaping that this is the home state of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Clinton's surprisingly successful rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Vermont voters have been electing Sanders for 35 years as Burlington mayor, U.S. congressman and, for nearly a decade, U.S. senator. Now that he's in a competitive race for the presidency, Bernie-mania is saturating the state. As the Town Meeting Day primary nears, is there any reason for Clinton to care at all about Vermont voters?

"It's a safe prediction to say Sanders is going to win," said former Vermont governor Madeleine Kunin, an ardent Clinton supporter who served as ambassador to Switzerland and deputy secretary of education in the administration of her husband, president Bill Clinton.

But the former secretary of state and her supporters aren't ceding Vermont to Sanders either, according to Kunin.

"There still can be Hillary delegates," she said.

Both Clinton and Sanders will be looking for every delegate they can in collecting the magic number — 2,382 — required to win the nomination. Vermont doesn't have many to offer, but Clinton will be looking for a share — and for a chance to show that Sanders doesn't have his own state locked up entirely.

The game of presidential primary delegate selection is complicated, intricate and conspiracy-theory-inducing, even to those who immerse themselves in it every four years. Vermont is expected to have 26 delegates total, though the number technically remains in flux until July, pending approval by the Democratic National Committee, according to Vermont Democratic Party executive director Conor Casey.

Eleven of those are "district delegates," who are up for grabs on March 1. The Sanders-Clinton proportion is determined by the election results on that day, and the individuals selected to represent Vermont at the convention have to vote accordingly. For Clinton to accrue any district delegates, she'll need to win at least 15 percent of the Vermont vote on March 1.

Those 11 district delegates choose five more: two from among local and state officials; three "at-large."

Another 10 are superdelegates, who tend to be high-level Vermont Democratic leaders — including, for the first time, Sanders himself, according to Casey. Unlike district delegates, superdelegates can vote for whomever they choose.

Clinton has the backing of four of the 10 superdelegates: U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Gov. Peter Shumlin, former governor Howard Dean and Gosh. Sanders can count on votes from himself and Democratic National Committee member Rich Cassidy. Four others have not publicly declared their preference: U.S. Congressman Peter Welch, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, Rep. Tim Jerman (D-Essex Junction) and Dottie Deans. Deans is chair of the Vermont Democratic Party; Jerman is the vice chair.

New Hampshire's primary results last week highlighted just how important superdelegates are to the process. Sanders won there by 22 percentage points and took 15 district delegates to Clinton's nine. But figuring in Clinton's superdelegate support, the two candidates came out of the Granite State with 15 delegates apiece.

After last week's primary, Politico reported that Clinton planned to campaign even in states sympathetic to Sanders — including Vermont — to pick up whatever delegates she can.

"We are going on offense in the states that the Sanders campaign thinks will make for the friendliest terrain for them," Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, a Vermont native, told Politico.

Signs of that are only just beginning to materialize in Vermont. Clinton campaign spokeswoman Julie McClain, fresh off working the New Hampshire primary, started to shift her attention Friday to Vermont. Clinton's New Hampshire organizing director, Meagan Gardner, will head up the Vermont operation, according to McClain.

"We intend to compete everywhere," McClain said. "It will be an uphill battle, but we're committed to there being an organization in Vermont."

Politico reported Friday that Clinton would be airing television ads in the Vermont market leading up to March 1, but McClain said she could not confirm that.

What the Clinton ground game in Vermont will look like is still unclear. Gosh said that when she campaigned for Clinton in New Hampshire, she knocked on doors armed with information about each voter's political leanings. That kind of organization has yet to materialize in Vermont, she said.

McClain said Clinton supporters in the state can expect "without a doubt" to start hearing about campaign activities soon.


Kunin said last week that with Nevada and South Carolina votes looming, it's too early to see signs of Clinton's efforts in Vermont.

"I strongly believe we should be making an effort," she said. "The campaign's going to fight for every delegate." Kunin went to bat for Clinton this month with an opinion piece in the Boston Globe titled, "When Bernie Sanders Ran Against Me in Vermont," and in a CNN interview, in which she declared, "Being a Democrat is not new for Hillary."

Vermont has a history of backing its own — and of bucking Hillary Clinton.

In 2004, Vermont Democrats chose then-presidential candidate Dean, 58 to 34 percent, over then-Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who would go on to win the nomination. Dean picked up nine district delegates in Vermont, compared to six for Kerry. It was the only state Dean won. He had already dropped out of the race.

In 2008, Barack Obama, the eventual winner, won 59.4 percent of the vote over Clinton's 38.7. He won nine delegates; she took six.

Clinton would hardly be the first presidential candidate to make it to Election Day without visiting Vermont. The Green Mountain State is usually considered too small to warrant a candidate visit, particularly with 10 other states voting that day.

It's not certain that Sanders will make it home for the Vermont primary, either. Asked if the candidate plans to vote in-person in Burlington, Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said, "We don't have a schedule nailed down yet." He also would not say whether the campaign planned a vigorous get-out-the-vote effort in Vermont.

Eight years ago, when Clinton and Obama were competing for the nomination, both campaigns had a presence in Vermont, according to Gosh. She's seen no parallel organization for Clinton this year, which she attributes to Sanders' home-state advantage.

Clinton supporters in Vermont know they are swimming against the tide in a sea of Sanders supporters, but most admit to being taken aback by how well Sanders has done — and how harsh the tone has been against Clinton, especially on social media.

"There are few opportunities to engage in a substantive conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates that's not filled with emotion," Buxton said. "I feel viscerally sad about it."

Buxton said she is as reluctant to put a Clinton lawn sign in her yard as she is a bumper sticker on her car.

"I fear backlash from my progressive friends and constituents," she said. "He is beloved by people in my communities. It's Republicans. It's veterans. It's libertarians."

Valerie Carzello, who volunteered last year to collect signatures to get the former secretary of state on the Vermont ballot, said she was greeted favorably on Church Street, where Sanders has Senate and campaign offices.

"Even Republicans were polite," the South Burlington resident said.

But as the race heats up, Carzello finds herself defending Clinton against what she considers unfair criticisms.

When a friend questioned her about Clinton's ties to Wall Street, a point Sanders has been hammering, Carzello went to YouTube to find a video of Clinton delivering a speech to Goldman Sachs. She said she didn't find Clinton pandering to Wall Street.

"The tone of her speech wasn't something that I'd say, 'Oh, my god, you're abhorrent,'" Carzello said. "If they hired me, I'd give a speech."

Buxton, a lawyer who worked on Dean's 2004 campaign, said people accuse her of supporting Clinton only in hopes that she'll get a job out of it.

"I will get absolutely nothing out of Hillary Clinton being president, except to tell my nieces that a woman can be president now," she said.

To her Republican grandfather, "I said, 'She's the most highly credentialed candidate we've had to choose from since Dwight D. Eisenhower,'" she recounted.

Rep. Johannah Donovan (D-Burlington), a Clinton supporter who is a generation older than Buxton, made a similar analogy.

"She's probably the most capable and smartest person running for president since Thomas Jefferson," said Donovan, who admitted that her own granddaughter had traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for Sanders.

Gosh, too, finds herself buffeted by Sanders' supporters around her, despite her longtime allegiance to Clinton. She was a superdelegate in 2008 who backed Clinton into the second day of the national convention, until the candidate released her delegates to support Obama.

This year, she said friends have tried to turn her into a Sanders supporter, but she is holding strong. "I'm with Hillary all the way," she said, citing Clinton's experience as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state.

"She certainly knows foreign policy," Gosh said. "Bernie does not, to that depth."

Still, Gosh conceded she's surprised by the strength of Sanders' run so far. In New Hampshire, she said, "I expected we would lose. I had hoped she would lose by single digits."

Gosh was even more surprised by how many young women are supporting Sanders. When, days before the New Hampshire primary, feminist Gloria Steinem said it was in order to appeal to men, that was "unfortunate," Gosh said of the controversial statement.

"Something has to change," she said. "There has to be more sensitivity to the way young women think and feel. We can't do it in a demeaning way."

But Gosh said she thinks the tide will turn in Clinton's favor after Super Tuesday, when primary contests will be decided not just in Vermont, but in the southern states of Alabama and Arkansas and populous states such as Massachusetts and Texas. As the November general election nears, Gosh predicted, Clinton yard signs will start popping up on Vermont lawns.

In the meantime, she said, she'll be having "low-key" conversations with a list of Clinton supporters she knows in Vermont, encouraging them to contribute to the campaign and making sure they vote.

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