Mitzi in the Middle: How Johnson Prevailed in the House Speaker Contest | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mitzi in the Middle: How Johnson Prevailed in the House Speaker Contest


Published November 30, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Rep. Mitzi Johnson

As Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) traveled around the state over the past few weeks, winning over House Democrats in her bid for speaker, she says she didn't make any promises about committee assignments.

"I was asked. Some people hinted. One person asked flat out," she says. "I said, 'Look, my entire campaign is based on the idea that we need more transparency in state government ... If I were making promises, you shouldn't believe anything I said.'"

When she was done, she says, that legislator had promised to vote for her.

The race to be the next House speaker involved both shrewd political calculus and gracious gestures.

By the end of last week, Johnson had won the support of a sufficient number of members that House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) saw the writing on the wall and dropped out of the race. Copeland Hanzas was so polite about the whole thing that she reached out to media to report her own bad news Monday.

"Mitzi clinched the votes for speaker over the weekend," Copeland Hanzas texted at 8 a.m.

Members said that deciding between Johnson and Copeland Hanzas was hard. Their political differences are subtle. Both women are likable. They plan to room together in Montpelier next session, despite competing for a job they both really wanted.

"Mitzi and I are friends," Copeland Hanzas emphasized in declaring defeat.

Both have proven themselves as dedicated leaders. Johnson, as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, knows the state budget better than anybody in the chamber. Copeland Hanzas, as House majority leader, has skillfully led members through difficult debates.

"It was a really hard choice," Johnson says of her colleagues' decision.

Johnson says it was her broad knowledge of state government that ultimately won her the support of a majority of the Democratic caucus. Leaders of every agency pass through the doors of the appropriations committee, which she has served on since 2007, she notes.

Indeed, that was a factor, says Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover). "At the end of the year, it's the speaker, the [Senate] pro tem and the governor in a room," he says. "I'd like my person in the room to know the budget better than anybody else."

But in selecting Johnson, members also chose a more moderate, less partisan path. Subtle as the differences are, most members place Copeland Hanzas on the left end of the political spectrum and Johnson closer to the center.

"It was a conscious decision for me," says Young, a moderate who committed to Johnson about a week ago. "I want to work with the governor as much as possible."

Rep. Jim Condon (D-Colchester), another moderate who committed to Johnson last week, says he considered her ability to win bipartisan support from members of the appropriations committee. "Mitzi strove to find common ground," he says.

More liberal members of the caucus, meanwhile, had hoped to see Copeland Hanzas as speaker. Rep. Johannah "Joey" Donovan (D-Burlington) said the majority leader won her support in part by attending meetings of the Legislative Working Vermonters' Caucus, a group that supports labor rights.

Donovan notes that Johnson comes from a relatively moderate district in the Champlain Islands where she barely won reelection to her own House seat. She came in second in a two-seat district, just 103 votes ahead of the third-place finisher.

"She had a difficult race," Donovan says. "It's going to be harder for her to lean a little left."

House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) said he plans to field a candidate for speaker but acknowledged long odds. Those odds might have been shorter if Copeland Hanzas had prevailed.

"I view Sarah as more of a partisan," says Rep. Adam Greshin (I-Warren), adding that Copeland Hanzas likely would have faced a more significant challenge on the House floor in January than Johnson. "I think Mitzi represents the center of the party, more of a mainstream Democrat."

But Johnson does not lean so far right that she's unpalatable to those on the left. Donovan expects her liberal Democratic colleagues will fall in line behind Johnson. Progressives have no plans to field a candidate.

"I would be very happy with Mitzi Johnson as speaker," says Rep. Sandy Haas (P-Rochester). "She's very responsive."

Johnson should officially secure the Democratic caucus' endorsement on Saturday. Already, there's speculation about what she'll do come January.

Johnson was noncommittal this week about how many committee chair changes she might make. But she notes that when she steps up to the podium, the Statehouse will have a new governor, lieutenant governor, Senate president pro tempore and speaker.

"When you have too much change in the system, it becomes too chaotic and unproductive," she says. "I'm going to need some experience."

She will have one big vacancy to fill — the chair of appropriations, her old position. Looking over the roster of committee members, Rep. Kitty Toll (D-Danville) stands out as a likely candidate — a well-respected member with several years' experience. It just happens that Toll's sister, Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Would naming Toll place too much power in the hands of one family? "I understand that it's a concern," Johnson says, hinting that she's thought about this. "I don't think it's impossible. Kitty is delightfully loyal to the House."

Copeland Hanzas, quietly licking her wounds Monday, wasn't ready to say what role she'll have in the next legislative session. It won't be her position as majority leader, which Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) is seeking. Copeland Hanzas says, "It'll take me some time to figure out."

Right With Trump

On election night, as Republicans mingled in a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in South Burlington, a few large televisions carried election news with the sound muted.

It was one of the few places in America that night where most of the crowd was largely ignoring the presidential race. Many in the room had disavowed their party's candidate as a bombastic buffoon but also wanted nothing to do with the Democratic candidate, either.

Most were there to celebrate Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott's victory in the governor's race.

Most, but not all. At the end of the night, Darcie Johnston and a small group of like-minded volunteers sat off to the side, quietly delighted that Republican Donald Trump was pulling off a stunning upset over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Johnston and her fellow Trump supporters slipped upstairs to a hotel room to watch as Trump triumphed in the early morning hours.

Johnston, who served as Trump's Vermont campaign coordinator, acknowledges that she feels differently about the presidential election than the majority of Vermonters. That does nothing to mute her enthusiasm.

"It's hope for what we could do in this country, literally to make America great again," she says. "I don't feel like a minority, because I worked closely with so many volunteers."

The Colchester woman hopes to ride the Trump bandwagon to Washington, D.C., by landing a job with his administration. Ideally, she'd like to work to dismantle Obamacare, the health-insurance program she has spent years fighting in Vermont as founder of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom.

But, she says, "Frankly, I'd be interested in anything they offer."

So while some Vermonters were sending postcards to Trump Tower with the message "No Bannon," protesting the president-elect's choice of Steve Bannon for chief strategist, and others are planning to attend a postinaugural protest in D.C., Johnston was filling out an online job application for the incoming administration.

Job or no job, Johnston hopes to attend the inauguration, as she did those of President George W. Bush after the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Trump is the first victorious candidate Johnston has backed in years. She managed Republican Randy Brock's unsuccessful 2012 gubernatorial campaign. In 2014, she backed Libertarian Dan Feliciano, whose capture of 4.4 percent of the vote arguably cost Republicans a chance to oust Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin. That year, she also worked for a losing gubernatorial candidate in Arizona.

Never a fan of Scott, who she says has been too soft on Shumlin, Johnston managed to stay publicly quiet during the 2016 governor's race. Now that it's decided, however, she scoffs at Scott for his decision to denounce Trump, suggesting that the governor-elect has put the state at a disadvantage.

Johnston claims that if Vermont Republicans, including Scott, had embraced Trump, more of the party's down-ticket candidates would have won. She dismisses any suggestion that Scott won the support of moderate Vermonters because he denounced Trump.

"It's sad for me, what it means for Vermont," she says.

Attorney Wanted

If Johnston gets a job with the Trump administration, she likely won't be the only Vermonter to do so. Every president appoints his own U.S. attorneys, who prosecute federal crimes.

Eric Miller, the current U.S. attorney for Vermont who was selected in 2015 by Democratic President Barack Obama, tells Seven Days he's unsure what to expect. Sources say it typically takes months for a new president to install a new prosecutor.

But because Trump is Trump, the uncertainty is even greater.

First, there's the question of who might want to prosecute cases under an unpredictable president who plans to nominate conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as his attorney general. How many Vermont lawyers would take the job without knowing what Trump's policies will be on such topics as immigration, marijuana and the death penalty?

Johnston says there is no shortage of willing lawyers. "I've heard of more than three people interested," she says. "I even had someone who served a Democratic governor who's interested."

There are also questions about how to apply. Miller, for example, was vetted and recommended to Obama by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Leahy spokesman David Carle said the senator still expects to be consulted and that the Senate would not confirm a candidate without his consent.

But, typically, candidates for the job go through a high-ranking elected leader of the president's party. When Bush took office in 2001, Vermont still had a Republican senator in Jim Jeffords, who vetted candidates for U.S. attorney.

Now that job might fall to the state's only high-ranking Republican — governor-elect Scott, who has publicly distanced himself from Trump. "The governor would be happy to provide the White House with input," says Jason Gibbs, Scott's chief of staff. "It's unclear, however, how much input, if any, the new administration will seek."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mitzi in the Middle"