Cutting Out the Middle Man: Moderates Ousted From Vermont Statehouse | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Cutting Out the Middle Man: Moderates Ousted From Vermont Statehouse

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(From left): Rep. Fred Baser, Rep. Brian Keefe, Rep. Ed Read, Rep. Kurt Wright - COURTESY PHOTO | JEB WALLACE BRODEUR
  • Courtesy Photo | Jeb Wallace Brodeur
  • (From left): Rep. Fred Baser, Rep. Brian Keefe, Rep. Ed Read, Rep. Kurt Wright

For 16 years, Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) was a rarity. The affable moderate maintained support in his deep-blue city — something no other Republican has been able to do — by working across the aisle in the Vermont House and, at key moments, breaking with his party.

Last week, Wright's winning formula failed him. Despite campaigning doggedly and winning an endorsement from Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat and former opponent, Wright succumbed to the so-called blue wave of Democratic voters. Next year, Republicans will hold only 43 of 150 House seats, down from 53.

Like Wright, Reps. Fred Baser (R-Bristol) and Brian Keefe (R-Manchester) are moderate Republicans by national and Vermont standards. They, too, lost to Democrats on November 6, as did Rep. Ed Read (I-Fayston), another centrist.

It makes sense that moderate Republicans and independents would be most vulnerable to a Democratic insurgency; they're more likely than conservative lawmakers to represent swing districts. As Read put it, they are "low-hanging fruit."

But for these legislators and their allies, the painful irony is that in Vermont's legislative elections, animus toward President Donald Trump seems to have toppled those who least resemble him in political style and temperament.

"Those people were open to working with the other side and coming up with compromises," said Statehouse lobbyist Patti Komline, a former House Republican leader and a centrist herself.

Moderate is a subjective term, but if it's defined as someone who has crossed party lines on significant issues, the defeated representatives fit the bill. For instance, all four joined Democrats to pass sweeping gun-control measures last session. Baser, Keefe and Wright were three of only six Republicans who did so.

Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), who was reelected last week, warned against a purge of fellow moderates in an op-ed she wrote before the election. "If you are currently being represented by a centrist independent, a moderate Republican or Democrat, think long and hard before opting to punish our president by punishing those who commit to bipartisanship ... and political courage in Vermont," she wrote. "Hopefully the 'blue wave' is able to bring a check to Washington without taking out moderates in Vermont."

Some centrists survived. In the House, several middle-of-the-road Republicans won reelection, including Reps. Scott Beck (R-St. Johnsbury) and Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe). A six-term incumbent who nearly ran for governor in 2014, Scheuermann eked out a win in a hotly contested race against Democrat Marina Meerburg, who was endorsed at a Stowe rally by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Five of seven independents won reelection, as did a handful of Blue Dog Democrats, including Keefe's seatmate, Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), and Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset).

The Senate will remain dominated by Democrats, but party affiliation tends to matter less in the upper chamber, where individual senators hold more power relative to party leaders.

At the statewide level, Gov. Phil Scott's reelection shows that centrists still have appeal. He beat Democrat Christine Hallquist by a commanding 15 percentage points.

But the string of House losses is significant because it extends a steady exodus of moderates that has claimed some of the right's most effective legislators. Komline opted not to run in 2016. Republican Carolyn Branagan moved from the House to the Senate in 2016, then decided not to seek reelection. Independent Adam Greshin left in 2017 to become Scott's finance commissioner. Independent Oliver Olsen resigned his seat in 2017.

"There is no question that the House has fewer moderate Republicans than it did a few years ago," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). "I do think that we're seeing some of the national polarization playing out here," he added.

Wright, who also serves as president of the Burlington City Council, represents the suburban New North End. Though it has traditionally been the most conservative section of the city, it has grown increasingly liberal as more young families have bought homes there.

"The people who know me know I'm not a hard-core party guy," Wright said. He noted that he voted for same-sex marriage in 2009 and, more recently, worked with Democrats to try to reform the property tax system. But now, fewer voters know him, Wright said, and even some of those who do have a harder time accepting his party affiliation.

"I really worked to convince people who would say, 'Kurt, I voted for you before, but I just don't want to vote for any Republicans because of Donald Trump,'" Wright said.

During the 2014 midterms, Wright finished first in his district with about 1,600 votes. This year he earned 235 more votes than that but finished third to Rep. Carol Ode (D-Burlington) and Democrat Bob Hooper, a former president of the Vermont State Employees' Association. "There was a huge surge of new voters," Wright said.

New North End resident Eric Derry was dismayed by the outcome. The 43-year-old Burlington lawyer usually votes for Democrats — and Wright. "I'm totally appalled with the Republican Party at the national level, but I think it's a really big mistake, especially at the local level, to throw the baby out with the bathwater," Derry said. "If we eliminate everything from the middle, what are we left with? We're left with the extremes of the political spectrum."

Wright shares the concern. "It's not like you're eliminating a fire-breathing, right-wing Republican," he said. "I think that the middle has been squeezed out."

Wright and Baser, who both served on the influential Ways and Means Committee, got along well with their Democratic colleagues.

Ashe described the two legislators as "Republicans who frequently crossed the aisle to either work with Democratic colleagues or to vote their conscience over their party."

Baser, who voted for paid family leave this biennium but against a $15 minimum wage, was up-front on the campaign trail about his displeasure with Trump. That wasn't enough to persuade voters, however. The two-term incumbent and founder of Bristol Financial Services lost in a close race to Caleb Elder, a Starksboro Democrat who works in the solar industry, and Mari Cordes, a Lincoln Democrat/Progressive and Sanders ally.

Keefe and Read were newer arrivals who served on less powerful committees, but they still earned bipartisan respect during their short time in the Statehouse.

Elected in 2016, Keefe had firsthand experience in evolving party politics: He worked for U.S. senator Jim Jeffords when the Yankee Republican renounced his party, became an independent and threw control of the Senate to Democrats.

Kathleen James, a Manchester nonprofit manager, and Browning, executive director of the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance — both Democrats — beat Keefe in a three-way race for two seats. He believes his party affiliation is to blame.

"I think there are lot of voters in Vermont and in this district that will just not support any Republican because of the political climate in Washington, D.C.," Keefe said. "I also think there was a great deal of effort on the side of the Democratic Party and its allied organizations to take advantage of that."

Read, whom Scott appointed to replace Greshin, adhered to his independent label during his only year in office. The CEO of Mad River Property Management voted against raising the minimum wage but for paid family leave. During the budget standoff between Scott and the Democrat-led legislature, Read sided with the latter, voting to override the governor's veto.

On November 6, Rep. Maxine Grad (D-Moretown) was the top vote-getter in the Mad River Valley district. Kari Dolan, a Waitsfield Democrat who works for the Department of Environmental Conservation, claimed the other seat, winning 650 more votes than Read. Though he's not a Republican, Read also believes a Trump backlash contributed to his defeat. "I can't stand Trump either, but I don't have a D after my name," Read said.

Another factor may have hurt him as well: Two gun-rights proponents who were also on the ballot collectively claimed more than 900 votes. Democrats, meanwhile, seemed disinclined to reward Read for supporting the controversial gun reforms. "Of course, the Democrats conveniently forget about that," he said.

"Let's face it. [Voters] just traded in a bunch of moderates for people farther to the left," Read said. "They just made the divide in Montpelier that much more acute."

Colleagues lament the change.

"I have grave concerns that we've lost these excellent legislators," said Rep. Sullivan, the Dorset Democrat. "I have grave concerns that the dialogue is not going to be the same ... if the dialogue even exists."

"It means that we have to work a bit harder to make sure we're properly vetting everything," Ashe said. Lawmakers, he suggested, will need to analyze policy proposals "through the perspective of people who aren't there anymore."

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