A week after winning a second two-year term, Gov. Peter Shumlin presided over a game of musical chairs Tuesday, announcing the departure of several top aides and the promotion of a handful more.
“I gotta tell you that some of them are decisions that folks on my staff have made without me. Some have been made with me,” Shumlin said, speaking at his weekly press conference. “And therefore, some of them are bittersweet.”
In perhaps the biggest blow to his administration, Chief of Staff Bill Lofy and longtime political aide Alex MacLean are headed for the wings. Shumlin’s chief energy advisor, Department of Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller, will take Lofy’s place leading the governor’s staff.
Lofy’s not going too far. The former national political operative will return to that role at the Democratic Governors Association, which Shumlin is poised to run next year. He’ll help the D.C.-based organization elect Democratic governors — all from his Jericho home.
With Lofy leaving, Shumlin said it was clear that either MacLean or Miller should succeed him. But, he said, after four years as his top political aide and two tours of duty as his campaign manager, MacLean opted to move on to the private sector. Where she’ll land, though, is not yet clear. The Peacham native, whose official title is deputy chief of staff and secretary of military and civil affairs, says she hopes to stay on until March.
Calling her “the kid from the Kingdom,” Shumlin said, “There is no one in state government that I rely on more than Alex MacLean… That decision, I gotta be honest with you, I greet with a heavy heart.”
Though relatively new to Shumlin’s inner circle, Miller became highly visible during last spring’s battle over Green Mountain Power’s merger with Central Vermont Public Service. As Shumlin’s energy czar, she won accolades from administration insiders for negotiating concessions from the merged utility. She also drew the ire of the merger’s many opponents, who viewed her and Shumlin as in league with GMP.
Before joining the administration two years ago, the Yale Law School grad worked in private practice in Burlington, where she lives. Her replacement as DPS commissioner is Chris Recchia, who currently serves as deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
Shumlin also announced the departure of Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Steve Kimbell and Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood. Both are being replaced by their deputies.
You’d think House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville) would be resting on his laurels after last week’s election expanded his party’s supermajority in the Vermont House; Democrats picked up two seats, giving them 96 of 150.
But as the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus’ David Delcore first reported over the weekend, the House speaker is already facing a leadership challenge from veteran lawmaker Paul Poirier. The Barre independent, who has served on-and-off in the House since 1981, says he’ll formally announce his candidacy for the speakership Wednesday morning. But he’s already campaigning hard to depose the popular Democratic incumbent.
“I’m committed. Nobody ever outworks me,” Poirier says. “This year when people said, ‘You’re a shoe-in to get reelected,’ I knocked on 4000 doors.”
“The biggest reason I’m doing this is I have just seen a steady decline in respecting minority parties,” he says. “I believe I’m going to offer an attractive alternative to those who believe we should be all-inclusive in our debates.”
Poirier says he first considered challenging Smith last spring, when he and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to force Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service to refund ratepayers $21 million.
“The fact of the matter is, Shap did everything in his power to keep that from coming to the floor, and when it finally did, he had his minions go around to oppose it,” Poirer says.
Smith contests that, arguing that opponents’ amendments were “fully vetted” by House committees and “vigorously debated” on the floor.
“I don’t know why they’re frustrated,” Smith says. “Check the record. There was a full debate about it.”
Poirier’s platform is principally procedural — not ideological. He says he would appoint members of minority parties to conference committees and to prominent positions in the House’s most powerful committees. And he would not limit debate on the floor.
A former Democrat himself (he left the party in 2009), Poirier says he’s more liberal than Smith but plans to appeal to disaffected Republicans, Progressives and fellow independents, who collectively control 54 seats. If he can pick off all of them, he’ll still need to pull away another 22 Democrats.
One advantage in his David versus Goliath fight? The House votes for its speaker by secret ballot when the legislature convenes in January, so Smith could have a harder time controlling his caucus.
Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), who heads the Progressive caucus, says he feels “a bit torn.” Pearson says that Poirier shares his values but adds that Smith “runs an effective chamber in many ways.”
“I’m not going to make a decision quickly. I’m going to watch this one play out,” Pearson says, adding that Progressives will try to come to a consensus about whom to support.
Republican Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) says that neither he nor his caucus has decided whom to support in the leadership fight.
“I think it’s very unlikely anybody will beat Shap,” Turner says, “but I think it’s healthy for the process.”
Turner says he agrees with Poirier that minority viewpoints are drowned out by the massive Democratic majority. He plans to invite all candidates to speak to his caucus next month. So far, no Republicans have said they’ll run for speaker.
As for Smith, he’s not taking his reelection for granted. Since Saturday, Smith says he’s touched base with nearly 100 members of the House — more than half by phone — to congratulate them on winning reelection and to ask for their support.
“Let’s just say I feel confident,” Smith says. “I look forward to reelection as speaker.”
Smith says that while Poirier’s challenge “shows the institution is healthy,” he disagrees with the contention that he’s stifled debate, arguing the House has held “vigorous debate” about important issues.
“There’s a difference between being able to have a debate and being able to win that debate,” the speaker says. “I don’t know if the complaint is about having that debate or about winning it.”
In addition to the race for the speakership, several other House Democrats are maneuvering for leadership positions within the caucus.
Democratic whip Willem Jewett (D-Ripton) is hoping to succeed Rep. Lucy Leriche (D-Hardwick) as majority leader, the Dems’ No. 2 position. Leriche announced in May that she was leaving the House and subsequently went to work for Green Mountain Power.
Two other House members are angling to replace Jewett as whip, the No. 3 position: Reps. Tess Taylor (D-Barre) and Rebecca Ellis (D-Waterbury Center).
Despite its radical redesign last summer, the Burlington Free Press lost 8 percent of its subscribers during the past six months, according to a recent Audit Bureau of Circulations report.
Between March and September, weekday circulation dropped from 30,558 to 28,138 — only 26,445 of whom receive a print copy of the paper; the rest are digital subscribers. Sunday readership decreased from 38,380 to 35,299 during that same period.
That’s a steeper slide than most newspapers, whose weekday circulation declined by an average of 0.2 percent from March to September.
In the past five years, the Freeps has lost 15,030 of the 43,168 weekday readers it had in September 2007. That’s a 35 percent drop.
The Freeps’ most recent dip in circulation might have something to do with the paper raising its home delivery price from $201 to $264 a year. That change took effect in June. While that strategy may seem shortsighted, it’s paying dividends for shareholders of parent company Gannett. The Virginia-based company announced last month that print revenues were up 5.6 percent over the same quarter last year — mostly due to across-the-board price hikes and new digital paywalls.
Another local news property is undergoing ownership changes. Last week, the Texas-based television conglomerate Nexstar Broadcasting Group announced plans to acquire Burlington’s local FOX and ABC affiliates for $17.1 million. The two stations, which jointly produce local news content, are currently owned by the much smaller Smith Media, which itself is owned by Boston Ventures.
A growing media company, Nexstar is in the process of expanding from 55 television stations to 71. Many of its properties — like the two Burlington affiliates it’s purchasing — include two stations in the same media market. Whether any changes in employment or content will come to the FOX and ABC affiliates is unclear.
“Nothing’s been announced, but Nexstar has a good record of creating a lot of local content — content relevant to the local community,” says company spokesman Joe Jaffoni. “No changes would be even contemplated until such time that they close on the transaction.”
The Burlington and Plattsburgh television market is the 97th biggest in the country. The market’s other commercial broadcast stations include the Hearst Television-owned WPTZ and the locally owned WCAX.
Peter Martin, whose family owns the latter station, says he’s not too concerned about the acquisition of two rival stations by another major conglomerate.
“I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference,” he says.