- Matt Thorsen
- Gov. Peter Shumlin delivers his budget address in January 2015
Vermont politicos may have shifted their gaze to the 2016 gubernatorial contest — and the down-ballot races it's set in motion. But for the next 13 months, a familiar figure will continue to preside over state government: Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Precisely how he'll spend his remaining political capital — and navigate his final legislative session — remains to be seen. He could go all in on a few major initiatives, or he could hang back and quietly focus on burnishing his legacy.
"Look, I think that he has a year in which he can get a lot accomplished," says Bill Lofy, Shumlin's former chief of staff. "I think the governor has enormous political skill — and he cares deeply about finishing his last year in office having made a really positive impact on Vermont."
That may be true, but it's not clear whether legislators will fall in line behind Shumlin when they return to the Statehouse next month.
"I think it will be challenging to move forward anything significant this year with the political crosscurrents," says House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown). "I think the challenge really is, when you're leaving office ... do you wield as much authority in that moment?"
Smith should know. Like Shumlin, he plans to retire at the end of next year. The speaker joined the race to replace the governor in August, but he dropped out last month for family health reasons.
With Montpelier's top two Democrats heading for the exits, some political observers say the moment is primed for them to team up to tackle major challenges. Since neither will face the voters again in the near future, the argument goes, they can both afford to take political risks.
"Shumlin could lock arms with Shap Smith on some Democratic priorities and really get them done," says veteran lobbyist Kevin Ellis.
Of course, that ignores the fact that most everybody else under the golden dome faces reelection next fall. And in addition to rare, open races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, legislators will be jockeying to succeed Smith as speaker and snag any committee chairmanships that open up.
Even if Shumlin and Smith wanted to do something big this winter, it's not clear what that big thing would be. In a way, they're victims of their own success. Over the past seven years, the two have checked plenty of items off the Democratic wish list: legalizing gay marriage, closing Vermont Yankee, reimagining the state's health care system, growing its renewable energy industry, raising the minimum wage, permitting physician-assisted suicide, mandating GMO labeling and reforming school governance.
The coming session will likely be more humdrum — or "uninspiring and depressing," as one Democratic insider puts it. Top of mind will be closing the state's $59 million budget hole, worsened this year by increased Medicaid spending. Shumlin said Tuesday that he'll call for a one-year reprieve from the controversial school district spending caps included in Act 46, the recently enacted school governance law. And, after years of debate, legislators are likely to approve a watered-down paid sick leave bill.
But when it comes to Shumlin's signature policy issue, health care reform, even his voluble senior adviser, Lawrence Miller, concedes, "We don't have any large asks for the legislature."
"I don't want to say it's small ball, but a lot of the legislative work was done early in the administration," he continues. "It's execution."
One issue that's definitely not "small ball" is marijuana legalization. Shumlin, who has long favored legalization in concept, has been hot and cold in his public remarks about whether he'll really fight for it. If he does, legalization stands a decent chance of passing; if he doesn't, it probably won't.
Lofy, who now lobbies for the pro-legalization group Vermont Cannabis Collaborative, sees the issue as "a political win" for his old boss.
"I think that it's an achievement that's long overdue, it's smart politics and it also happens to be the right policy," he says. "If it can happen under the leadership of Gov. Shumlin, I think it would be a big part of his legacy as a reformer of our criminal justice system."
Shumlin has dropped some hints about his legislative agenda. Two weeks ago, he unveiled an $8.4 million package to improve the state's child welfare system, which he said has become overly burdened by a rise in opiate use. On Tuesday, he outlined new plans to curtail the writing of opiate prescriptions and said he would announce more proposals to address addiction during his State of the State address in the first week of January.
A central part of Shumlin's legacy will likely be his early focus on combatting opiate abuse — most dramatically in his 2014 State of the State speech, which he devoted entirely to the issue. But the governor demurs when asked how he hopes to be remembered.
"I don't have any legacy in mind. My view always was and always has been and always will be that governors should come in and solve big problems, be bold and try to be as innovative as we can ... then get out of the way," he said at a press conference Tuesday. "I don't think much about what people are going to say. I think more about what we can do in this last year ... I'm going to work tirelessly on all fronts."
That doesn't mean other people aren't pondering the question.
"I think the defining legacy for him will be how he responded to Tropical Storm Irene," Smith says. "I think that that was the high-water mark of his administration. He was a good crisis manager. I think he rallied Vermonters."
Shumlin's critics — from the left and right — answer differently when asked what they see as his legacy.
"Failure on health care," Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) answers succinctly, referring to the governor's abandonment last December of his long-promised single-payer health care reforms.
Mike Smith, a prominent Republican and host of WDEV's morning talk show, "Open Mike," argues that Shumlin's legacy will be one of untrustworthiness.
"You can get a lot back in politics, but getting back trust takes a long time," he says. "His legacy will be defined by this trust factor for 10 years, and then it will start to fade."
For that reason, Smith doesn't have much confidence that Shumlin will find success next legislative session. Even before he announced in May that he wouldn't seek a fourth term, the governor lost key battles last session over his proposed payroll tax, gun control legislation, and the final budget and tax bills.
"I saw it last year when he started pounding the legislature. That had no effect," Smith says. "I think once you lose trust with Vermonters, you lose trust with the legislature."
Smith's former boss, Republican governor Jim Douglas, had a different experience when he was preparing to leave office in 2010.
"The question I recall asking myself was: Will my announcement that I won't be seeking another term render me a lame duck and make me less effective, or will it have the opposite effect?" Douglas says. "In some ways, it was the latter. They couldn't attack me for political purposes because I wasn't going to be on the ballot again."
The scenarios aren't exactly equivalent. For one thing, the Republican governor came from a different party than the Democratic legislature. For another, Douglas notes with pride, "My favorability was a little higher."
Shumlin certainly retains some support in the legislature, particularly from old allies, such as Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The Peter Shumlin I know will not be a lame duck," Sears says forcefully. "He still has the veto."
Douglas points to a couple more tools at the governor's disposal: "The bully pulpit, of course. And nothing to lose."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) stepped up his long-standing criticism of the national news media last weekend, complaining in a press release Friday that his presidential campaign "has been all but ignored" by television network newscasts.
"It's no shock to me that big networks, which are controlled by a handful of large corporations, have barely discussed our campaign and the important issues we are bringing up," Sanders said Saturday in an email to supporters. "They're just too busy covering [Republican presidential candidate] Donald Trump."
But even as Sanders rails against what his campaign refers to as a "Bernie blackout" in the national press, reporters in Vermont complain they've had little to no access to the candidate since he launched his campaign last April.
"It's a little disappointing for a person who has been so accessible in the past to be frozen out like this," says Vermont Public Radio news director John Dillon. "You understand it from a pragmatic point of view. He's more concerned with Iowa than he is with Irasburg. But he's still our senator."
According to Dillon, Sanders granted VPR two interviews last summer for a documentary it produced. But he hasn't appeared on its daily public affairs show, "Vermont Edition," since March — even though its producers have promised to "clear the schedule" if he made himself available.
Neal Goswami, who covers state and national politics for the Rutland Herald and the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, has had even less access. Though Goswami has traveled to Iowa and South Carolina to report on Sanders' campaign, he says his repeated requests for a one-on-one interview "have either gone ignored or were outright denied."
"The only interaction I've had with Sen. Sanders since he launched his campaign was a media scrum in Iowa in which they allowed me to ask one question," he says.
Goswami says he finds it "a little ironic" that Sanders is complaining about being ignored by the national press corps while he himself is ignoring the Vermont press corps. The reporter says he understands that Sanders expects to "clean up here in the Vermont primary" and "doesn't have to worry about local voters anymore." But he argues that Sanders still has an obligation to speak with his home-state media.
According to VTDigger.org founder Anne Galloway and political reporter Jasper Craven, Sanders hasn't spoken to the online news nonprofit since he launched his campaign. That's also the last time he granted an interview to Seven Days.
Spokesman Michael Briggs disagrees that his boss has been ignoring the local press.
"Anyone who looks at TV or reads a Vermont newspaper knows that your argument is patently untrue," Briggs says. "As Bernie has traveled around the country, he has not been able to spend as much time with Vermont reporters as he once did. Within those scheduling constraints, however, Bernie enjoys speaking with the many serious Vermont journalists who are interested in discussing important issues facing our country — not gossip."
Asked which "serious Vermont journalists" he's been speaking to, Briggs did not respond.
Not everyone in the local press corps is dissatisfied. WPTZ-TV president and general manager Kyle Grimes says his station has "found him to be reasonably accessible, given that he's running for president." WCAX-TV news director Anson Tebbetts agrees, saying he has "no complaints" about Sanders' availability.
Coincidentally, both stations have significant audiences in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary.
Sanders, shockingly, did not respond to a request for an interview.