- James Buck
- Shap Smith mingling at a meeting
At a recent Burlington breakfast meeting, House Speaker Shap Smith leveled with members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility: Don't expect lawmakers to enact a carbon tax in the coming session, the Morristown Democrat warned, saying that Vermonters aren't ready for it. On the other hand, he said mandatory paid sick leave, another of the group's goals, looks poised for passage.
Smith's predictions weren't new. What was? He wasn't working the crowd of politically active Vermonters for votes. He didn't have the look of an over-caffeinated, overbooked candidate for higher office. And he was not sporting any campaign stickers.
The event was a powerful reminder of how much had changed since Smith was immersed in an intense bid for the open governor's seat in 2016. On November 17, he stood alone at a podium on the Statehouse steps and made a somber announcement: "I am suspending my campaign for governor." His wife, Melissa Volansky, had breast cancer. "A diagnosis like this reshapes one's priorities. This is a time during which Melissa and the kids need me most."
Smith's decision was agonizing for him. He had been seriously considering running for governor since 2009 — if not before.
"It was something I really wanted to do, that the family was all in on. My supporters were all in," Smith said. "It is hard to shift gears that quickly, but it was so clearly the right decision to make."
Raised in Lamoille County, Smith is a deeply deliberative lawyer who tends to choose his words, and plot his course, carefully. First elected to the House in 2003, he quickly proved his tax policy prowess. Ditto his willingness to go to the mat for issues. He became speaker in 2009 and, in that same year, muscled same-sex marriage legislation through a close vote.
Smith, considered a moderate Democrat, can also take a more ponderous approach. On issues such as legalizing marijuana and reforming taxes, both of which he supports, he's moved more slowly than some would like.
He had no control over the timing of events that led him to drop out of the governor's race. On September 18, just a month after he launched his campaign, Smith stopped for lunch in Middlebury on his way from a golf tournament in Rutland to a campaign meet-and-greet in Vergennes. His wife, a doctor with Stowe Family Practice, called and said she needed to talk to him in person.
Already well into a nonstop statewide candidate's schedule, Smith wasn't due home until late that night. But her tone was urgent, so the couple met that afternoon in Burlington. Melissa broke the news about her breast cancer while they stood on Perkins Pier. "It was a real shock," Smith said in a recent interview.
The couple discussed how to tell their son, Eli, who is 14, and daughter, Mia, 10.
"Initially the prognosis was that she would only need surgery," Smith said. The situation was unsettling, but they believed it would be brief. Smith scaled back his campaign appearances and paused his fundraising. He canceled a trip to the White House, where, as House speaker, he was to attend a meeting with President Barack Obama.
Smith, who has long been adept at juggling a high-pressure profession with a high-profile political position and a family, conceded, "It was a lot to have on the plate. I was struggling trying to keep all of the balls in the air ... I joked with people a bunch during that period of time that I thought I had finally realized what my capacity was — and I was over it."
Few people knew what Smith's family was going through. His wife had surgery on November 2. He skipped a candidates' forum the next day, publicly stating that he was helping his wife recover from unspecified surgery.
Smith said it was hard to watch his wife go from physician to patient, and Melissa didn't like the idea of being away from her medical practice. The challenges mounted when doctors informed them that she would need further treatment.
Smith hunkered down with friends and family, seeking advice about his fledgling campaign. "Different people had different opinions," he said. "There were people who were trying to tell me to stay in the race and not be speaker anymore."
"I don't know how realistic any of these other scenarios were," said Mary Peterson, the state tax commissioner and a close friend who served with Smith in the legislature. "The decision was obvious. Your family comes first."
Peterson was among several of Smith's advisers who knew firsthand what Smith and his family would face. Her husband had recently battled cancer at the same time as their daughter suffered a brain aneurysm. The notion that Smith could go through something like that while also managing a highly competitive statewide race was beyond comprehension, she said: "You just don't have the bandwidth."
Smith also turned for advice to Dr. Harry Chen, the state health commissioner, who had served with Smith and Peterson for six years in the legislature. Peterson described Chen as the group's Yoda, likening him to the calm, wise Star Wars character. Chen had helped his own wife through cancer years ago.
Chen's take: Smith had to halt the campaign. "I couldn't see another way that worked," Chen said. "It was an incredibly difficult decision. Everybody knew he had to do it, but nobody wanted him to do it."
Smith also consulted a friend, Andrew Savage, who had been about the same age as Smith's kids when his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who had spent years caring for his wife, Joan, while she battled the disease.
Smith deliberated intently. On November 16, he composed an email about his decision to a small group of friends, then slept on it before hitting "send" the next day. He went with his wife to a doctor's appointment that morning. At 2 p.m., he delivered the news to the press.
Smith said he's had no regrets. "I just can't imagine what it would be like deciding to continue the campaign and being in Bennington on a Wednesday night where maybe my mom or my stepmom were taking my daughter to basketball practice but Melissa was having a rough day recovering from chemo," Smith said. "I would just be wondering, Am I in the right place?"
The place for him in 2016 will be with his wife and children, Smith said. And he will be back in the Statehouse for his last year as speaker.
Liz Sortino, who left her job at the lobbying firm KSE Partners to manage Smith's campaign, has since dismantled the barely christened campaign office near Burlington's waterfront, taken the campaign website offline, and packed up the "Shap for Governor" placards and stickers. She's looking for another job.
As for Smith, his supporters and political adversaries seem to be in agreement that his political career is not likely over.
"I absolutely think he'll be back," said Peterson. "He has this vision for Vermont, and a lot of people are vested in that vision, too."
Smith, who turned 50 last week, said he can't realistically predict his political future, given the uncertainties of his wife's illness. But some wondered whether by "suspending" his campaign, he was leaving the door open — for 2016.
"Does that mean he's getting back in?" asked House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton).
"I don't have any sense that I would resume the campaign," Smith said. "I have had people say to me, 'I actually hope you really mean you're suspending, not ending.' I've said, 'I just don't see how you can start a race again in May.'"
Just how Smith's departure will alter the race is still unclear. He isn't endorsing another candidate, and many of his supporters say they are in no hurry to pick a replacement.
Two other Democrats, former state Agency of Transportation secretary Sue Minter and former state senator Matt Dunne, are running to succeed retiring Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. So are two Republicans: Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and retired Wall Street banker Bruce Lisman. More candidates could emerge.
Dunne and Minter appear to be approaching some of Smith's supporters, but neither candidate has done any heavy wooing.
"It's time to reflect," said Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), a Smith supporter. "I feel no compunction to throw my support to either one of them."
Progressive caucus leader Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) is thinking about how Smith's decision will affect the session. He said he wondered whether Smith, now unfettered by the governor's race, might use his last term to pursue some big goals. "You would want to leave a significant enough mark that in four or six years he can say, 'Remember? That was me,'" Pearson said.
Smith did not describe any such goals. The former member of the House Ways & Means Committee has long talked about adjusting the state tax code but said he doesn't think it's plausible next year. He was similarly practical when asked about the prospects of the legislature legalizing marijuana in 2016. "It just doesn't feel like it's ready to go all the way through," he said.
Smith has proven that he can be patient. Asked what he planned to do with his campaign cash, about $100,000, he said, "It's going to stay in an account for any future..." then trailed off. "If I'm going to do something in the future, it'll be there for that."
So will the "Shap for Governor" campaign placards and stickers, stored in a box in his house. No year is emblazoned on them.