- Tim Newcomb
Last week, Gov. Phil Scott dismissed a question about running for reelection in 2020. "It was just five or six months ago that I was sworn into office," Scott said. "Any decision will come after the legislative session. It's just way too early."
Early or not, potential challengers are already sniffing around. Two Vermonters are actively considering a Democratic candidacy, and two more are giving it serious thought. Plus, a well-known Montpelier lobbyist is promoting an activist agenda in an essay called "If I Were Governor."
Scott's bland denial contained some hidden spice. Putting off an announcement until May 2020 could be an earnest slam at perpetual campaigns — but it also puts Scott in firm control of the process. Democratic hopefuls have to ponder the risk of taking on a popular incumbent, and potential Republican candidates are stuck on ice for another 11 months.
Indeed, if Scott is serious about waiting until next spring, he'd better be planning to run. Otherwise, he'd be effectively ceding the governorship to the Democrats.
If he does run, he would be a strong favorite. He hasn't lost an election — ever — going back to his first bid for state Senate in 2000. There are no visible dents in his popularity. He's upset liberal voters with some of his vetoes, but not his moderate, centrist base.
Democratic leaders insist that Scott will be beatable. "It's a presidential year," said the state party's political director, Brandon Batham. "We typically do well in those years. I'd really hate to be running on the same ticket as [President] Donald Trump."
You'd expect Batham to be talking up his party's prospects. But there may be some truth in his assessment. Last year, the Dems went begging for a credible candidate. This year, some relatively big names are already in the mix, starting with Attorney General T.J. Donovan. He's widely seen as a political climber, but until recently he has professed undying dedication to his current job.
"People have been asking me about running," Donovan said last Friday. "I'm having conversations. I haven't made any decisions."
But then he offered the abridged version of a stump speech. "We need to move the state forward," he said. "For me, it's about the economy. We need vision, investment, ideas." Donovan talked health care, education and creating "a good environment for job creation."
Also, while he praised Scott as "a good guy," Donovan slammed the governor's much-publicized grant program for remote workers who move to Vermont. "I don't think giving $5,000 to outsiders is going to set us on the path to prosperity. We've got to invest in Vermont and Vermonters." Those "outsiders" can actually get up to $10,000 over two years.
Donovan would be a formidable candidate, arguably the early favorite for the party nomination. He springs from the Leddy-Donovan tree of Burlington Democratic royalty. He's an energetic campaigner who has shown the ability to fundraise both in-state and elsewhere. That will be key to anyone hoping to take on the governor.
Donovan's early expression of interest may discourage other potential candidates who fear they can't match his positives, but he is not without weaknesses. There isn't much in his record to inspire enthusiasm among liberal and progressive voters. He has sided with law enforcement on many issues, his advocacy for reducing the prison population has been ineffective, his support for justice reform has been more rhetorical than tangible, and he declined to bring hate-speech charges for the harassment that led to the resignation of former state representative Kiah Morris.
His talking points could use some sharpening, too. His "job creation" emphasis sounds a lot like Scott's position. And Donovan will have to develop a broader critique of the incumbent than an applause line about a low-cost grant program.
Which brings us to the other statewide officeholder believed to have higher ambitions: Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. The Hinesburg farmer has got the liberal-progressive credibility Donovan lacks, but he's much more circumspect about running. "I'm noodling it around, but nothing significant at this point," Zuckerman said on Monday. "My family and the farm are much more on my mind."
But doesn't a potential candidate need to get going in the near future? "T.J. and myself, we've won statewide," Zuckerman replied. "We don't have to start as early as someone lesser known. If I'm going to challenge the governor, I'll have my kickoff in November or December."
Former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe toyed with a run for governor last year and is now considering it seriously. Holcombe served under Democratic governor Peter Shumlin and continued under Scott — until March 2018, when she resigned with one week's notice and little explanation. She was rumored to be mulling a Democratic candidacy at the time but never pulled the trigger. Now she's actively pursuing the idea.
"I love this state. It has tremendous potential, but it needs a new direction," Holcombe said last Friday. "I'm seriously considering a run for governor. I'll make a decision in the next couple of weeks."
As education secretary, Holcombe was more policy wonk than political figure. She doesn't have a public record on most issues, and she isn't sharing just yet. "I've got a lot to learn about politics," she acknowledged.
Holcombe is getting some high-level assistance from EMILY's List, the national organization that supports pro-choice female Democratic candidates. There's no endorsement or fundraising (yet), but there is some tangible help with Politics 101.
"We like to see women step up and take on tough races like this," said Benjamin Ray, EMILY's List senior director for campaign communications and long-distance Holcombe adviser. "It's a lift we hope we can make lighter."
That should be a big help — unless it's not. Recall that in 2016, EMILY's List endorsed Democratic candidate Sue Minter and even provided a campaign manager, Molly Ritner. But Ritner's ignorance of Vermont politics was widely seen as a key factor in Minter's underperforming campaign.
Holcombe may turn out to be a compelling candidate with plenty of ideas. But after the party lost badly in 2018 with first-time candidate Christine Hallquist, will Dems be inclined to turn the reins over to another newcomer?
Also contemplating a run: Brenda Siegel, the Newfane resident who finished a strong third in the 2018 Democratic primary despite getting a very late start and raising little money. Last year's field, of course, was notable for its weakness. Siegel would likely face stronger candidates in 2020. Siegel has been a frequent presence at the Statehouse this year, lobbying on economic justice issues and for increased access to treatment for those with substance-use disorders.
"I'm considering a run for governor," she said, before thoroughly slamming the idea of 18-month campaigns. "It's way too early to make a decision," Siegel added. "Anyone who wants to make Vermont better should be doing that work right now. Money should be going into causes, not campaigns."
OK, we'll check back later.
Which brings us to a wild-card entry who's probably not an entry at all. On Monday, longtime Statehouse lobbyist Kevin Ellis posted an essay called "If I Were Governor" on his blog, kevinkellis.com. It's a wide-ranging call to action, positing that Vermont is "at a dangerous fork in the road," echoing Gov. Scott's concerns about economic stagnation and demographic decline. But unlike the incumbent, Ellis is calling for a complete change of direction.
Ellis calls for a modernization of the tax code, an end to state subsidies for past-their-prime industries such as large dairy farms, a climate-resilient economy and an open door to in-migration. "We need to be the beckoning country," he said, recalling Vermont's economic development slogan in the 1960s.
But while Ellis would like to be governor, he'd prefer that someone like-minded take on the job of campaigning.
"I've got something to say, and I intend to say it," Ellis said. "If that drives people like Rebecca Holcombe to run, I'd be glad to step aside."
One final note: Absent from this list of prospective candidates is anyone serving in the legislature. There are no hints, signs or even rumors surrounding any member of the House or Senate.
And given the way this year's session ended, with a failure to pass key legislation and plenty of House-Senate sniping, perhaps that's just as well.
The Vermont press corps is down another experienced reporter this week. Neal Goswami resigned from WCAX-TV and began work Monday as a media relations specialist for the University of Vermont Medical Center.
"This was not a job I was looking for," said Goswami. But when the offer came, he added, it was "too good to pass up. Hours, pay, vacation, essentially all the things I was yearning for."
The 38-year-old Goswami has been a reporter since 2006, when he signed on at the Bennington Banner. Seven years later he was hired as a reporter for the Vermont Press Bureau, the Statehouse news service then operated by the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald. He moved to WCAX in late 2017 as the station's lead Statehouse reporter.
"We're sorry to see Neal go," wrote WCAX news director Roger Garrity in a Monday email. "His ability to break down complex policies and make them relatable to viewers will be missed."Correction, June 19, 2019: The original version of this column misstated Brenda Siegel's town of residence. She lives in Newfane.