Battering Ram: Would 'Shap for LG' Push Kesha Out of the Race? | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Battering Ram: Would 'Shap for LG' Push Kesha Out of the Race?


Published April 13, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 13, 2016 at 10:17 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Kesha Ram

When she launched her lieutenant gubernatorial campaign last October, Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) recalled the skepticism she faced when she first ran for the Vermont House seven years earlier.

"Right out of the gate, I was underestimated," the 29-year-old legislator told her audience of wine-swilling Dems at Burlington's Union Station.

Cheering Ram on were House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) and many of his top lieutenants, including House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), who introduced her to the crowd.

The party, it seems, may soon be over.

Smith, who dropped his bid for governor last November to help his wife through cancer treatments, is now considering running for lieutenant governor himself. That's put House Democrats in a bind: Many have endorsed Ram, but most are fiercely loyal to Smith.

"Any time you have two members of your caucus seeking the same seat, it is uncomfortable," Copeland Hanzas says.

Whether Smith is serious about running for LG remains to be seen.

"Right now I am focused on finishing the session," the speaker says. "I have had a lot of people encourage me to run for both governor and lieutenant governor. It's flattering. I am considering it, but I have not made any final decisions."

While a return to the gubernatorial race might make some sense, Smith would have just three months between the end of the legislative session and the August primary to catch up to the Democrats already in the running: former transportation secretary Sue Minter and former senators Matt Dunne and Peter Galbraith. Smith would have to overcome a significant fundraising deficit. And, it's worth remembering: His home life remains unsettled.

"If he were to run for anything, it would be lieutenant governor. I'm convinced of that," says Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), a close confidante. "It's the perfect spot for him to go."

Several senators seem to agree. Though their own colleague, Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), is seeking the job, some have expressed unease about the prospect of Zuckerman or Ram succeeding Lt. Gov. Phil Scott as presiding officer of the Senate.

"I think [Smith] has more leadership experience," says Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who is encouraging Smith to run. "It's not easy. And I just know he can do the job."

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) agrees, arguing, "He's been a leader in the House, and I suspect he would be a leader in the Senate as lieutenant governor."

As for the other two?

"Both are extremely liberal," Sears says.

Zuckerman doesn't sound worried about taking on Smith, with whom he used to serve in the House.

"Certainly it'll change the dynamics of the race, but I think I still have a good shot of winning, whether he's in the race or not," the second-term senator says.

It would be tougher for Ram, who shares Smith's base of establishment Democrats and House colleagues. Not to mention the fact that Ram has come up under the 50-year-old politician's wing.

"He's the first and only speaker I've ever known," Ram says, adding that she has "a deep respect" for Smith. "So I will respect whatever decision he comes to, but certainly it would be painful for us to be competitors, in some ways."

Painful, too, for mutual friends such as Klein, who serves as Ram's chair on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

"I actually encouraged her [to run] and was very happy when she stepped forward. But nothing stays the same in politics, so..." Klein says, his voice trailing off at the end of the sentence. "If Shap were to enter the race, I think he's the stronger of any candidate there, so I would counsel, especially other Democrats in that race, to think about other things."

For Ram, the possibilities are many. She could succeed Klein, who is retiring, at the helm of House Energy. She could take over for Copeland Hanzas, who is expected to run for speaker, as majority leader. Or she could run for one of two open seats in Chittenden County's six-member Senate district.

But when Klein suggested such a prospect to Ram, he recalls, "She kind of just looked at me and said, 'Uh-huh.' To her credit, she's a tough cookie. She believes in herself. And she's not willing to back off one inch from anything."

Until she does, Klein says, he'll stay in her camp. And that could be a while.

"I don't see any reasons to get out of the race," Ram says. "I've had a lot of Vermonters come to this campaign who are excited about this campaign, and Shap getting into the race wouldn't change that for them. It wouldn't change it for me."

In other words, she's not to be underestimated.

Party of One

Zuckerman may be running in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, but that doesn't mean the Vermont Democratic Party has embraced his candidacy.

Late last year, Zuckerman asked the party for access to VoteBuilder, a software program created by Democratic technology firm NGP VAN to help candidates and other entities manage the information they've gathered on potential voters. Many Democrats, including Ram, pay the VDP a regular fee to use the program in order to target the small pool of Vermonters likely to vote in a given election.

But at a January 12 meeting of the VDP's executive committee, Zuckerman's request was denied.

"Unfortunately, the decision was made that you are ineligible for this service as you have chosen to run primarily as a Progressive in previous general elections and have indicated that you will do the same should you emerge the winner of the Lieutenant Governor primary in 2016," party chair Dottie Deans wrote Zuckerman later that month.

Deans didn't just question the candidate's Democratic bona fides. She noted that Zuckerman's campaign manager, Meg Polyte, was an officer in the Vermont Progressive Party. And, she argued, Prog party chair Emma Mulvaney-Stanak had publicly pledged to drum up a candidate to run for governor this fall — imperiling the Democrats' chances.

This is hardly the first time Zuckerman's advances have been spurned. After seven terms as a House Progressive and a two-year break from the legislature, Zuckerman ran for the state Senate in 2012. Like other so-called "hybrid" candidates, he sought both the Democratic and Progressive nominations that year and ultimately won both.

But even after the primary, Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) refused to use Senate Democratic political action committee resources to support his candidacy. The VDP followed suit and excluded Zuckerman from its mailers.

He won anyway.

In his time in the Senate, Zuckerman argues, he's fought alongside Democrats for the same priorities. And by running in the Democratic primary, he says, he's limiting the likelihood that the left will split the vote in the general election and throw the race to Republican candidate Randy Brock.

"I'm doing what they've asked me to do. Democrats all over the place have said, 'Why don't Progressives run in the Democratic primary?'" he says. "They haven't asked, 'Why don't you run in the Democratic primary with one hand tied behind your back?'"

VDP executive director Conor Casey calls the situation "an ongoing conversation" and says his executive committee could always revisit its decision. If the Progs opt out of the gubernatorial campaign, he suggests, that might help Zuckerman's case.

"I think we'd like to hear something different than we've been hearing from the Progressive Party about gubernatorial candidate recruitment," Casey says. "They're welcome to run somebody, but we can't be sharing our data with them if that's the case."

Zuckerman appears to be making his own not-so-veiled threat.

"I've been asked, if I were to lose a primary, would I run as a Progressive in a three-way [general election] race, and I have been saying no," he says. "However, I now have to consider: If I lost the race on an unlevel playing field, is that a fair request of them to make to me?"

Crude Dude

Galbraith, the former state senator from Townshend, likes to bill himself as the most progressive candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But he's the only one who opposes divesting the state's retirement funds of their fossil fuel assets — and he's the only one who's made a killing off the oil industry.

Both rivals, Minter and Dunne, agree with Gov. Peter Shumlin that state pension funds should sell off their coal and ExxonMobil holdings. And both candidates have been putting their money where their mouths are.

In recent years, according to Minter campaign manager Molly Ritner, her boss has been "divesting from oil and coal and reinvesting in a socially responsible portfolio." Dunne, a former manager at Google, says he began doing the same five years ago and has divested everything but a college savings account, for which he has limited options.

"I actually felt pretty committed to an investment strategy that reflected the economy of the future," Dunne says.

Galbraith doesn't think much of Shumlin's divestment plan because, he says, "I would not want to reduce the return to Vermont workers ... to make a statement that is not actually going to make a difference."

The former senator knows a thing or two about how much money there is to be made in the energy industry. In 1982, he says, he bought $3,000 worth of Exxon stock. After reinvesting the dividends in the company, it's now worth roughly $150,000, he says.

After Minter released her 2015 tax return and a list of financial assets last Thursday, Galbraith provided a thumbnail sketch of his: He and his wife, Dr. Tone Bringa, made $571,133 in 2014, mostly from investments, and the couple is worth $18.3 million. Galbraith said he would provide further details later in the campaign, but he confirmed that he does hold other oil and gas stocks.

One thing's for certain: Galbraith made a ton of money off of fossil fuels in 2004 when he helped the Norwegian oil company DNO acquire drilling rights in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The veteran diplomat had forged close ties to the Kurds in 1987 when he helped document poison gas attacks carried out by Saddam Hussein, and he would informally advise them in 2005 as they negotiated a new Iraqi constitution, promising the Kurds control over the oil in their region.

Details of the DNO deal leaked to the Norwegian press in 2009 after Galbraith called out his then-boss at the United Nations mission to Afghanistan, the Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, for allegedly overlooking fraud in the Afghan elections. Galbraith was widely criticized at the time for his role in the oil negotiations, though he has always maintained that his actions were aboveboard and properly disclosed.

When the New York Times picked up the story later that year, it quoted an analyst who pegged Galbraith's stake in the Tawke oil fields at $115 million — a figure the Vermonter says was "greatly exaggerated."

Whatever its value, the profit-sharing deal went sour. Galbraith and a Yemeni partner later sued DNO for breach of contract and recovered between $55 and $75 million, Reuters reported in 2010.

DNO did not respond to a request for comment, and Galbraith said a nondisclosure agreement stemming from the lawsuit prevented him from discussing any details. But Galbraith did reveal last week that Porcupine LLC — an investment vehicle he wholly owns and used to conduct his business with DNO — is now worth nearly $11.1 million.

Galbraith makes no apologies for the money he's made in the oil biz, noting that gasoline remains essential for transporting "schoolchildren, ambulances and even crusading reporters."

"As long as we use oil, it is best obtained where the extraction does the least environmental damage," he says. "This makes Kurdistan oil production far better, environmentally, than fracking or Canadian oil sands — especially when Norwegian environmental procedures are followed."

Furthermore, he argues, the development of a Kurdish oil industry allowed the Kurds to finance an army that protected the region from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria advances. That, he says, "saved Kurdistan, but also hundreds of thousands of Yazidis and Christians, from certain genocide."