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It's 2018 Time: Who Might Challenge Gov. Scott?


Published June 14, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
James Ehlers testifies before the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources. - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • James Ehlers testifies before the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.

That's right, my friends. Some readers may howl at the idea, but it's time for a first look at the 2018 campaign for governor. In particular, let's consider who might be seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge first-term Republican Gov. Phil Scott.  

Too early, you say?

"I've only had this job for six months," pleads Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, the Progressive/Democrat at the top of many a wish list. "The [2016] race started absurdly early. I don't think anyone wants to make a habit of that."

Maybe not. But the chatter is hot and heavy. Talk to Democratic officials, staffers, officeholders, activists and well-connected lobbyists, and they've all got ideas about Scott's possible Democratic challengers. Hopefuls have been nosing around, gauging reactions and measuring potential support.  

"What has been interesting ... is the number of people who have wanted to have off-the-record conversations with the party about the possibility of running," says Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. "Some pretty big names and serious candidates."

He is unwilling to reveal those allegedly big names, but he does drop some hints. They include current and former statewide officeholders and at least a legislator or two, he says.

There are good reasons for early activity. Modern political campaigns are expensive; a serious contender to Scott will need to raise, at minimum, $1 million to even begin to be competitive. It'll take a long time to build name recognition and start poking holes in the governor's Teflon coating.

Plus, the Democrats could really use a standard-bearer to advance the party's message. Now that the legislature is out of session, the governor gets all the headlines, and Democrats have no one who can command similar attention. Party officials such as Casey and party chair Faisal Gill can try, but an actual candidate carries more weight.

So far the action is behind the scenes, but time's a-wastin'.

"I think it would be wise for any candidate to get out a bit earlier than usual," says Casey. "Maybe not in the summer, but certainly in the fall and definitely before the legislative session."

It makes all kinds of sense that the campaign has, unofficially, begun. Still, you won't get those "big names" to commit publicly.

"I'm flattered," says Zuckerman.

"I'm flattered," says Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos.


"I might think about it in the fall," Zuckerman adds, "but it's pretty unlikely."

"I never say never, but I plan to run for reelection," says Condos.

"I enjoy being attorney general," says T.J. Donovan. "I look forward to seeking reelection in 2018 as attorney general."

"I have no thought of running," says Deb Markowitz, former secretary of state and natural resources secretary.

"Not at this time," says the ever-cagey former House speaker Shap Smith.

Many see State Treasurer Beth Pearce as a potential formidable candidate. But "I have said on many occasions that the office of treasurer is the only elected position that I would seek," she said in a written statement.

Several days of calls and emails to numerous political types produced a long and diverse list. They break down into a few rough categories. (Disclosure: None of these people suggested themselves, and none have publicly expressed the slightest interest in running for governor next year.)

The Prime Cuts: Virtually everyone mentions Donovan, Zuckerman or Pearce, and nobody expects any of them to run.

The Recycle Bin: Proven Democratic pols with decent name recognition but a loss or two on their records. In addition to Markowitz and Smith, they include three who have run unsuccessfully for the state's top job: former lieutenant governor and human services secretary Doug Racine; former state senator and Google executive Matt Dunne; and former transportation secretary Sue Minter, the party's 2016 nominee.

The Rising Stars: Several women are in this category, including Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham), House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), former Burlington representative Kesha Ram, plus — of course — House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). There's also Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Oh, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. All are viewed as future contenders who aren't quite ready yet — or are keeping their powder dry.

The Mary Powells: This category is in honor of the Green Mountain Power president and CEO, who's the exemplar of the dream "outsider," the nonpolitician with real-world credibility. She's become the archetype despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she has steered clear of any personal entry into politics. In real life, however, the Mary Powells seldom run. Take renewable-energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf.

"People have asked me. I just laugh," he says. "I said years ago I won't run for anything. I can do more as a businessperson with good values than as a candidate."

Other Mary Powells may be shocked to even see their names in this column, but they get favorable notices from some insiders. So: Jen Kimmich, co-owner of the Alchemist brewery; Donna Carpenter, CEO of Burton; former U.S. attorney Eric Miller, who just took a job as deputy general counsel for the University of Vermont Health Network; and a sort-of outsider, Liz Gamache, former St. Albans mayor and Efficiency Vermont head, now a vice president at the Vermont Community Foundation.

There are plenty of women on that list, which is good, given Vermont's awful track record on electing females to top positions. Ruth Hardy, executive director of Emerge Vermont, a nonprofit that trains women to get into politics, sees hope in all those names — but knows that many obstacles remain.

"There are only six female governors in the United States," she says. "Women are held to a different standard. They must be strong and likable. We have to walk a fine line."

Hardy would love to see a strong woman enter the 2018 race, but she doesn't seem to expect it.

Having rattled off these lists, it's time to give you one person whose potential candidacy sounds more like a when, not an if — and who says: "I'm seriously considering the idea. I've received a good amount of encouragement from a very diverse group of people looking for the type of leadership that I would provide."

Ladies, gentlemen and others, I give you James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International and Vermont's most persistent water-quality advocate. He's not definitely committing to run, but he's coming a lot closer than anyone else, and he sounds very eager to give it a go.

"Should I enter the race, it comes from a deeply instilled ethic that you can't lead from behind," Ehlers says. "Leadership occurs at the front. It doesn't seem to me, anyway, that the governor feels comfortable leading during these challenging times."

The scruffy advocate whose wardrobe is straight out of Army Navy surplus is far outside the box. But he insists he's gotten nothing but encouragement from mainstream Democrats. Well, almost nothing.

"The biggest concern I'm hearing is whether I'm willing to wear a tie and if I'm going to get my hair cut," he says. "Because my work ethic is not in doubt. I'm a messenger who's willing to accept the responsibility that comes with leadership."

Is he a long shot? Of course. But that doesn't bother him.

"My whole life has been an uphill climb," he says. "So when people say, 'This is an uphill challenge,' I say, 'Yeah, OK, that's no reason to stop halfway up the mountain. Let's keep going.'"

The conventional wisdom is strong: Scott's too popular. First-term incumbents always win. The Ehlers of the world don't stand a chance.

But the more "plausible" candidates are, so far, unwilling to commit or are shying away from the uphill challenge.

Let's look at it this way. What did John F. Kennedy do in the face of conventional wisdom? That washed-up Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan? Barack Obama?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)?

Conventional wisdom springs from somewhere, and flying in its face is a risky proposition. Some who dare will surely fail. But not all. And those who wait their turn may one day realize that it never came.

Is 2018 the worst possible opportunity, or the best?

It's way too early to tell. But it's not too early to be talking about it.

 The Sanders Sinecure?

Last week, Team Sanders announced the formation of a new entity. The Sanders Institute takes its place alongside Our Revolution, Sanders' post-campaign political organization, and his still-extant campaign committee, Friends of Bernie Sanders.

The Sanders Institute has a highfalutin and broad purpose.

"The Sanders Institute is dedicated to transforming our democracy through research, education, outreach and advancement of bold, progressive ideas and values," says the homepage blurb.

The senator himself will have no official role in, or connection to, the institute. Indeed, when we contacted his Senate staff for comment on the new entity, we received the snappy reply, "This is not a function of his Senate office."

Hmm. Is it unreasonable to seek Sanders' reaction to a new nonprofit that trades on his name and political reputation and prominently features his wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, as its founder and leader? Seems like he might have something to say about that.

So far, the institute has minimal funding and a staff of three. According to USA Today, Sanders and his wife donated $25,000 in seed money and plan to be "ongoing contributors." Our Revolution provided another $100,000 to cover startup costs, which is to be repaid as the institute begins to raise money on its own.

One thing the institute does have is a truly impressive list of notable figures who will participate in vaguely defined ways: environmental warrior Bill McKibben, musician and activist Harry Belafonte, actor Danny Glover, and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

As for the three paid staff, they share one common trait: deep connections to Team Sanders.

Executive director David Driscoll? Jane Sanders' son.

Program director Ellyn Heald? Jane Sanders' aide during the Sanders campaign.

Research director Colleen Lineweaver? Spouse of Shannon Jackson, former Sanders campaign operative and now executive director of Our Revolution.

Cozy, eh?

I contacted Heald on Saturday requesting an interview with Jane Sanders or one of the three staffers. She promised a Monday interview, but, late in the afternoon, Heald sent regrets, blaming a scheduling snafu.

That's one hell of a snafu to tie up all four principals for a full day. Heald did answer one specific question: Jane Sanders will not draw a salary from the institute.

With its considerable brainpower, the Sanders Institute could become an intellectual machine for the small-p progressive movement. Good intentions, to be sure. I just get a little cynical when politicians start creating new organizations to carry their messages and institutionalize their names.

Correction, June 14, 2017: This story was updated with Becca Ballint's correct title.