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Supermajority Rules: The Challenges of Legislative Dominance

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe  and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson

The November 6 elections gave Democrats and Progressives a supermajority in the Vermont House to go with their continued dominance of the Senate. That's a significant shift in the power balance with Republican Gov. Phil Scott. But it doesn't mean the beginning of a liberal golden age with bill after bill flying past a helpless chief executive. If anything, Democratic leaders are throwing cold water on the expectations of their supporters.

"The superficial view is that we'll try everything," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero). "But overriding a veto is appropriately difficult."

Especially when you only have two votes to spare. The new legislature will include 95 Democrats, 43 Republicans, seven Progressives and five independents. When Dems and Progs stand together, their combined 102 votes will clear the two-thirds threshold in the 150-member House to override Scott.

"It's a fractious supermajority," acknowledged Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs), leader of the House Progressive caucus, which is often one of those fractious elements.

"You don't want to bring an override to the floor unless you're sure you will win," said former state representative Tim Jerman, a member of the House Democratic leadership in 2013 and 2014, when the party last enjoyed a supermajority. "It's incumbent on leadership to attempt to pass bills that the governor can sign."

Unwelcome words for those seeking payback after Scott's record-tying 14 vetoes in his first term. Liberal hopes are high for such proposals as a $15-per-hour minimum wage, a statewide paid family leave program, legalization of marijuana sales, tougher regulation of toxic substances, a long-term waterway cleanup plan with a stable funding source, and expanded access to health insurance.

"I'm acutely aware of our bargaining power," said Chesnut-Tangerman, whose seven-member caucus is well positioned for maximum impact. "I'm not sure how it will be used, or if it will need to be. Our job will be to make sure that legislation holds true to our values."

There's quite a gap between Jerman's "bills that the governor can sign" and Chesnut-Tangerman's "legislation that holds true to [Progressive] values." It will be Johnson's job to keep her caucus on board. The supermajority, Jerman noted, is "a good problem to have, but a real challenge for the Speaker."

Beyond the numerical gains for Dems and Progs, there's been a subtle leftward shift in the character of the majority caucuses. In the Senate, Democrats scored a net gain of one seat, but two older Dems are on the way out: Sens. Claire Ayer (D-Addison) and Francis Brooks (D-Washington). Their replacements, Ruth Hardy and Andrew Perchlik, are younger and bring fresher perspectives. It's the latest step in "a realignment that's been going on for the last several years," said Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden). Go back to 2010, and the Senate was dominated by center-leaning Dems such as John Campbell, Robert Hartwell, Susan Bartlett, Hinda Miller, Bill Carris and Don Collins. They often acted in cautious cooperation with moderate Republicans, including Diane Snelling, Vince Illuzzi, Bill Doyle and then-senator Scott. "The drift is a seat or two each biennium, but it's a big shift overall," Baruth concluded.

In the House, the Dems' freshman class of 2016 included several moderate members who didn't always stick to the party line. "This year's class swings more to the left than the '16 class," said Johnson. Many representatives-elect, she noted, were inspired to enter politics in reaction to Donald Trump's election as president.

In addition to losing 10 of 53 seats, the House Republican caucus faces a leadership transition. Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), minority leader for the past six years, is leaving the legislature after an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. Turner is known for his work ethic and ability to keep his members in line. Replacing him will take a team effort, according to Rep. Rob LaClair (R-Barre Town). He's running for assistant Republican leader, while Rep. Patricia McCoy (R-Poultney) is seeking the top job.

"We're looking for more of a shared role — if the caucus votes us in," LaClair said of McCoy and himself. "No one else is running, as far as I know. We've put out the word that if anyone's interested, please let us know."

Seems to be a done deal. Turner said he endorses the new team "absolutely."

He's also got some words of warning for his successors. "It's going to be very challenging and frustrating to show up," Turner said. "Members will have to work very hard in their committees to influence legislation."

LaClair has some ideas of his own in the wake of the electoral drubbing of Vermont Republicans not named Phil Scott. "The party has to do a better job of listening to what Vermonters think is important," LaClair observed. "We've thought we could influence public opinion. We've got to do a better job of reflecting it."

Which sounds like a move to the center on policy as well as rhetoric.

Democratic leaders in both chambers insist they will pursue a collaborative approach with Republican colleagues and the governor. "We didn't have partisan rancor in the Senate," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden), describing his chamber during the 2017-18 biennium. "Almost all the big bills were unanimous or near unanimous. We're collaborative on every bill."

For Johnson, a supermajority gives her a trump card to match Scott's veto power. "That changes the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches," she said — but not necessarily in a confrontational way. "It encourages working things out to begin with."

Which leaves a big question unanswered. How will the governor approach this new reality? Scott has said little since the election. He has yet to hold a press conference, and his only media interview was a brief post-Election Day Q&A on WCAX-TV. His office declined Seven Days' request for an interview.

The governor's few statements do point, very blandly, in a more collaborative direction. "We have to move together," he told WCAX. "We face a lot of challenges. I look for opportunities to pull in the same direction."

After two years of frequent vetoes and what she sees as the administration's failure to engage in the legislative process, Johnson has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. "In June, in the waning days of the special session, the governor and I were talking," Johnson recalled. "I said we need to sit down before the next session begins and think about how to put the relationship together again. He agreed."

She then pointed to Scott's inner circle, which lawmakers have characterized as disconnected and overly partisan — often specifying chief of staff Jason Gibbs as the source of the problem. "I'll be watching some of his staffing choices to see if there are any changes," she said. "To not change is a choice."

Party Shifts in Vermont House Districts

District 2017-2018 2018-2019
Addison-3 Warren Van Wyck (R) Matt Birong (D)
Addison-3 Diane Lanpher (D) Diane Lanpher (D)
Addison-4 Fred Baser (R) Caleb Elder (D)
Addison-4 Dave Sharpe (D) Mari Cordes (D/P)
Bennington-4 Brian Keefe (R) Kathleen James (D)
Bennington-4 Cynthia Browning (D) Cynthia Browning (D)
Caledonia-3 Janssen Willhoit (R) Scott Campbell (D)
Caledonia-3 Scott Beck (R) Scott Beck (R)
Chittenden 6-1 Kurt Wright (R) Bob Hooper (D)
Chittenden 6-1 Carol Ode (D) Carol Ode (D)
Franklin-5 Steve Beyor (R) Charen Fegard (D)
Franklin-5 Albert Pearce (R) Joshua Aldrich (R)
Franklin-6 Daniel Connor (D) James Gregoire (R)
Franklin-7 Cindy Weed (P) Felisha Leffler (R)
Grand Isle Ben Joseph (D) Leland Morgan (R)
Grand Isle Mitzi Johnson (D) Mitzi Johnson (D)
Lamoille-3 Bernie Juskiewicz (R) Lucy Rogers (D)
Lamoille-
Washington
Gary Nolan (R) Avram Patt (D)
Lamoille-
Washington
David Yacavone (D) David Yacavone (D)
Orange-1 Bob Frenier (R) Carl Demrow (D)
Orange-1 Rodney Graham (R) Rodney Graham (R)
Rutland 5-4 Doug Gage (R) William Notte (D)
Rutland-Windsor-2 Dennis Devereux (R) Logan Nicoll (D/P)
Washington-3 Paul Poirer (I) Peter Anthony (D)
Washington-3 Tommy Walz (D) Tommy Walz (D)
Washington-7 Ed Read (I) Kari Dolan (D)
Washington-7 Maxine Grad (D) Maxine Grad (D)
Windham-1 Mike Hebert (R) Sara Coffey (D)
Windsor-1 Paul Belaski (D) Zachariah Ralph (P/D)
Windsor-1 John Bartholomew (D) John Bartholomew (D)
Windsor-Orange-1 David Ainsworth (R) John O'Brien (D)

Source: Vermont Secretary of State • Table: Andrea Suozzo

Popguns

State Rep. Chip Troiano (D-Stannard) thought his political career could end this year. The Vietnam War veteran represents a rural district full of gun owners. When he voted in favor of a series of gun restrictions during the 2018 legislative session, he figured that the state's Second Amendment activist groups would come for his hide.

He had reason to worry. It was a rare moment of red-hot passion in Vermont politics. On April 11, when Scott signed the gun bills into law in an outdoor ceremony on the Statehouse lawn, he was met by a crowd divided between supporters and orange-vested gun owners. The latter repeatedly interrupted Scott's remarks with angry, often profane outbursts. Activist groups vowed to wreak electoral vengeance on those responsible, starting with the governor himself.

Scott faced protests at many of his public appearances. He considered giving up his beloved auto racing at Barre's Thunder Road Speedbowl, for fear of triggering a spectacle. (According to his spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, Scott did compete in a few races, apparently without incident.) Days after the signing ceremony, the chair of his own Vermont Republican Party, Deb Billado, essentially disowned Scott at a pro-gun rally.

When a member of the crowd shouted "We're not supporting Phil Scott!" Billado replied, "It's everyone's choice ... I don't pick winners and losers."

Scott's popularity plummeted in a springtime poll. Activists talked of seeking no-confidence votes at town and county Republican meetings. They recruited candidates to challenge key legislators in the August primary and November election. Troiano faced a return engagement with Lawrence Hamel, a pro-gun Republican who came within 158 votes of ousting him in 2016 and could be expected to do better this year.

Pro-gun groups tried to find a high-profile pro-gun challenger to tackle Scott in the August primary but had to settle for little-known Springfield grocer Keith Stern. A write-in campaign by pro-gun Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) in the Democratic primary also fizzled.

Now, Election Day has come and gone. The great pro-gun backlash of 2018 ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

"Look at the results," said Baruth, who was one of the gun activists' top targets. "If anything, people were rewarded for taking a stand." He pointed to easy victories for many candidates who backed gun restrictions, including Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange), whose rural district is home to many a gun owner, and Democrat Cheryl Hooker, who finished a surprising second in the race for three Senate seats in Rutland County, a pro-gun hotbed. "I would have voted for the gun bills," Hooker said, pronouncing herself a supporter of "reasonable gun measures." And, of course, Scott himself had no trouble winning a second term.

"I didn't see this big backlash that people have been afraid of," said Clai Lasher-Sommers, executive director of GunSense Vermont, which had lobbied for gun restrictions for years without success because so many lawmakers feared the wrath of pro-gun activists.

Troiano approached his campaign as an uphill battle. "I worked hard," Troiano said. "I thought I needed to get out there. I knocked on 800 doors, did a lot of events, spoke at all the candidates' forums."

He was surprised at what he found. "The gun issues only came up a few times," he said. "The hard-core Second Amendment people tried to influence the vote, but it didn't carry as much weight as I thought it would. The dust had settled."

Troiano actually doubled his margin of victory compared to 2016. Said Hamel, "Gun people get mad, but they don't necessarily get out and vote."

Troiano's view gets support from an unlikely source: Chris Bradley, president of the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association. "I would guess that guns played a very small role" in the election results, said Bradley, who was a Republican candidate for state Senate in Washington County. He finished fourth in a race for three seats.

"In all the candidates' forums, the gun issue came up only once," he said. "Guns were already done. It was a dead issue."

Dust settled. Dead issue. Just like that, the long-feared "third rail of Vermont politics" has suffered a complete power failure.

Correction, Thursday, November 15: Charen Fegard's name was misspelled in an earlier version of the chart that accompanies this piece.

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