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Salmon: Political Fish Out of Water?


Published September 4, 2009 at 4:34 p.m.

Will Democratic State Auditor Thomas M. Salmon, the son of a former Democratic Vermont governor leave the party and become ... a Republican?

That's the question lighting up comment threads on one prominent liberal blog as well as one prominent conservative blog. It's also been a topic of a story earlier this week in the Rutland Herald.There are rumors abound that Salmon will run for reelection as a Republican—even run for governor as a Republican if Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie takes a pass on the race.

Salmon (pictured right) told Seven Days he plans to issue a statement Tuesday to clear up the air around his intentions, but doesn't expect to make any concrete decisions in the immediate future.

"I'll make some statement on my intentions, but it's not going to be a big glamorous proclamation," said Salmon. Instead, it's likely to outline how he's approaching the question, and what information he'll seek out in the coming weeks before making a final decision.

He's already been seeking the counsel of friends and family, stopping by his father's house last night in southern Vermont. "My dad told me to count to twenty," said Salmon. Meanwhile, a legislative friend told him to "count to thirty."

His father, Thomas P. Salmon, was governor from 1973 to 1977.

"I'm sure that anybody looking at me right now would wonder if I'm committing political suicide or just being politically opportunistic," said Salmon. "The bottom line is: I don't need to be auditor. I don't need to be governor. So I'm in this place where I just say what I mean and mean what I say and that hasn't sat well with the Democratic party."

Salmon ruffled legislative feathers this year when he offered to mediate talks between Republican Gov. Jim Douglas and the Democratically-controlled legislature. Salmon believed both sides were talking past each other, and he hoped he could broker a more focused discussion. Lawmakers, meanwhile, saw it as political opportunism that fed into the Douglas meme that the legislature was out of touch.

"At the time, I told lawmakers that the the state would benefit from more conservative Democrats or Republicans in the mix so there is more of sense of teamwork and more of a balance," said Salmon.

That concept went over like a lead sinker in a pond full of loons.

Branded by liberals as a Republican — in the way that former Gov. Howard Dean was pegged a "Republican in drag" for his conservative fiscal policies — Salmon faces this dilemma: Remain a conservative Democrat and continue to be isolated, if not ridiculed by some left of center folks in the party, or become a liberal Republican?

Salmon said he is talking with Democratic candidates for governor, lawmakers, friends, and his family as he tries to chart his political course.

"For me, I need to do what's right and follow my heart and be transparent about it," said Salmon. "I would want my supporters to know exactly what I was thinking so they could understand this was a principled decision and since. If I decide to switch it would be purpose-driven, not strategic."

While nationally the GOP has spurned moderate to liberal Republicans (which led to the famous switch of Sen. Jim Jeffords from a Republican to an independent), in Vermont there is a move among younger factions of the GOP to lure socially liberal and fiscally conservative pols into the GOP fold.

"We would certainly welcome Tom Salmon into the party," said Vermont Republican Party chairman Rob Roper.

And, why not? Salmon's switch would be a major coup for the Vermont GOP, and one of the most high-profile switches in recent memory. With only Douglas and Dubie holding top statewide spots as Republicans, Salmon could also quickly become a titular figure for the party in short order.

If Salmon needs any advice on what it's like to switch parties, he should ask Rep. Andy Donaghy (R-Poultney). He left the Democratic party after winning a House seat in 2002, defeating four-term incumbent Rep. Fred Maslack (R). In fact, during the election he almost left the party to run as an independent.

Donaghy fully switched parties after 2002 and won reelection as a Republican in 2004. Ironically, the Democrats were in the minority in 2002 and the Republicans in 2004.

Donaghy said Salmon may need to leave the party in order to feel more at home, at least when it comes to fiscal priorities.

"He's got be true to himself and to feel comfortable in his own skin, and if he professes to be fiscally conservative that's just not the way to go in the Democratic Party right now," said Donaghy.

Donaghy said if  Dubie were to not run for governor, he would likely support Salmon for governor as Republican — and believes other GOP lawmakers would too.