- Tim Newcomb
Most Thursday nights since January, a group of freshman Democrats in the Vermont House has dined together at Montpelier's NECI on Main restaurant. As they got to know one another, the first-term legislators came to realize they shared more than a lack of seniority.
"There might be more freshman Democrats than people realize that are fiscal moderates," said Rep. Robin Scheu (D-Middlebury), an Addison County economic development official who won her first term in November. "I don't think any of us knew that."
Those moderates made their power known last week when several of them voted for a Republican proposal that would have shifted responsibility for negotiating teachers' health insurance from school districts to the state. Breaking ranks with organized labor — and their own Democratic leadership — they nearly handed a major victory to GOP Gov. Phil Scott and his legislative allies.
"It's the closest I've ever come to winning," said Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), who has been minority leader in a chamber dominated by liberal Democrats for seven years.
Whether last week's vote signaled a shift in the politics of the legislature remains to be seen, but Republicans are optimistic.
"There are 76 centrist votes in the House now," Scott chief of staff Jason Gibbs said of the 150-member chamber. "It's a very promising dynamic."
Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, thinks that's overstating the case.
"I don't think it's necessarily a sign of things to come," Casey said. "It's a bad vote, but it's a vote."
Nobody disputes that it was a dramatic one.
All told, 16 Democrats — half of them freshmen — joined six independents late Wednesday night to support the proposal, which Scott claimed could save up to $26 million a year and which Democrats argued would undermine collective bargaining and local control. When it appeared that the Republicans would prevail 74-73, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) cast a rare vote that forced a tie and killed the proposal.
The close call defeated the measure but didn't end the debate, as Scott has indicated he would veto the state budget if it did not include something close to what he proposed for the teacher health plans. Two days after the vote, legislative Democrats delayed plans to adjourn when they failed to find common ground with the Republican governor.
It may come as a surprise that a 2016 election season that featured the presidential run of progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) produced a more conservative House Democratic caucus. But in some districts, Vermont voters deliberately chose moderates over candidates backed by liberal advocacy groups such as Rights & Democracy.
Scheu, for example, outpolled Jill Charbonneau, a labor leader endorsed by Sanders, to win an open seat in November. Rep. Charlie Kimbell (D-Woodstock), a freshman who voted with Republicans last week, defeated a more liberal candidate, Ron Miller, in the Democratic primary. Kimbell, a small-business owner and former banker, described himself as "very fiscally conservative."
"Within the Democratic Party, I'm probably one of the most conservative," he said.
Rep. Jessica Brumsted (D-Shelburne), who worked for the late Republican-turned-independent U.S. senator Jim Jeffords, said she also considers herself moderate. What she hadn't expected — given that her predecessor, Democrat Joan Lenes, was fairly liberal — was that her constituents shared her views.
"I went to 1,583 houses," she said. "It surprised me. They're really worried about property taxes."
Given what she'd heard on the campaign trail, Brumsted had no reservations about voting for an idea generated by the opposing party.
"If we could save $26 million by having more of an ability to negotiate?" she said. "I know teachers are upset, but I think they'll get a better deal, too."
In backing the amendment, the wayward Democrats weren't just standing up to party leadership; they were also bucking the Vermont-National Education Association, the politically powerful teachers' union.
"To eviscerate [collective bargaining], as this amendment proposes, that's a big deal," Vermont-NEA executive director Jeff Fannon said.
Displeased as he was about the Democratic defections, Fannon said it was too early to declare that the union would try to unseat those who backed Scott's plan.
"We typically don't have litmus-test votes," he said, though he added that this would be among the many measures the union considered when deciding which candidates to support or oppose next election season.
Most Democrats who supported the change in teacher contract negotiations said they didn't see their vote as anti-labor.
"If you are able to bargain the same exact benefits, the location of the bargaining doesn't affect your right to bargain," argued Rep. Matt Trieber (D-Rockingham), a fourth-term lawmaker who sided with the Republicans and counseled some of the freshmen who joined him.
As rebellious as the newbies were, they didn't, for the most part, feel rebellious. The day of the vote, seven Democrats were called into the governor's office for a chat. Four of them ended up siding with him; three didn't. Most said the meeting had no impact on their decisions.
Instead, they were guided by their own experience.
Rep. Peter Conlon (D-Cornwall), one of the freshman defectors, is chair of the Addison Central School District Board. Teacher contract negotiations are at an impasse there, he said. The reason for the stalled talks? Teachers' health insurance.
The complexity of those negotiations makes them "really hard" for school boards and teachers alike, he said.
Scheu, the executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation, is also a former school board member. She ended up voting against the Republican measure but said her knowledge of contract negotiations gave her pause. "I understand how hard it can be for school boards," she said.
Ultimately, Scheu opposed the amendment because she thought the prospective savings hadn't been sufficiently vetted. State leaders have known since last November that the new health care contracts could save money, she said, but the governor proposed his plan just last month.
"I think this happened faster than it needed to happen," Scheu said.
Whether the rushed timing of the proposal was deliberate or accidental, it seems to have worked in Scott's favor. He pitched the idea April 25. By the first week of May, it was dominating the final days of the legislative session.
The swift escalation of the conflict might have helped the governor win over new legislators, suggested Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction), a freshman who voted against the Republican plan.
Giambatista, who worked for three years as former House speaker Shap Smith's chief of staff, said the outcome of last week's vote is illustrative of a change in the way lawmakers get their information.
In the past, legislators typically learned about bills over a period of time from party leaders in Statehouse meetings. Now, he said, they are deluged with immediate comments via email and social media — some accurate, some not. That, he posited, may prompt legislators to make hastier decisions.
"I don't know that it's a bad thing, but it's a force that's changing the institution," he said. "You might move away from a position that, in years or decades past, would take more time to develop."
Democrats who backed the Republican amendment last week also felt more comfortable doing so because, for the most part, Speaker Johnson and her lieutenants didn't turn the screws on them. That's a departure from the strategy of some past leaders who would have threatened retribution.
Johnson, new to her role this year, said she never told members that she had to have their votes — or else.
"I probably have just a more collaborative style than people are used to here," Johnson said. "I don't want to make them choose their loyalties."
As a new member, Brumsted said she was nervous going into Johnson's office to talk about how she would vote, but she never felt pressured.
"I don't want to make her look bad," Brumsted said of the speaker. "She definitely tried to convince me to think hard, but then she said, 'OK, I understand.'"
That tone won Johnson praise among those who went rogue or considered it. "I have a lot of respect for Mitzi Johnson," Kimbell said, calling her decision to cast the tie-making vote "brave."
Others, however, found the laissez-faire approach aggravating.
"Perhaps she's been a little too easygoing," said Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs), who leads the Vermont Progressive Party's caucus in the House. "I would hope that this is seen as an attack on collective bargaining and that there would be consequences."
The Progs signaled their dissatisfaction last week on Twitter, where they posted the names of those who voted with the Republicans.
"Here are the 16 @VTHouseDems who do not believe teachers should have the right to bargain health insurance w/ their school boards," the party wrote. "If you live in their district and have ever thought of running for office, please reach out. We want to recruit you."
Casey, the Democratic Party head, said Ds who voted for the Republican plan went against a core principle of the party, but he declined to declare that there would be consequences.
"I think we need to do a better job of labor education," he said, referring to collective bargaining as "sacred."
"There's a couple of lines you can't cross, and infringing on collective bargaining is one of them," he said.
While the teacher-contract issue revealed this cluster of moderate new lawmakers, it is not clear whether their independence will carry over to future votes, thus signaling a real shift in the legislature's direction.
"I don't think so," said Conlon, a former news editor of the Addison County Independent. "I think it's issue by issue."
Indeed, there are signs that the band of moderate Dems falls comfortably in line with the party on other legislation. That same day, most of them voted for a bill that would offer paid family leave through a tax on employees, which Democratic leaders backed and Republicans, including Scott, opposed.
Though he considers himself a fiscal conservative, Kimbell voted yes. "It's not an undue burden," he said of the proposed 0.141 percent tax that would provide up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a child or a sick relative.
Kimbell and other moderates are comfortable enough with such votes that they feel no urge to re-form the Blue Dog Democratic caucus that existed in the 1990s.
"So far, the tent seems to be big enough," Kimbell said.
Rep. Maureen Dakin (D-Colchester), who also voted with the Republicans last week and was a Blue Dog in the '90s, concurred.
"I prefer to work within our caucus," she said. "There's room for all of us."