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The Vermont Senate Gets a New Top Cop

Local Matters


Published December 8, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

Sen. John Campbell
  • Sen. John Campbell

Sen. John Campbell knows something about crowd control. As a young man, the Windsor County Democrat worked as a beat cop in Broward County, Fla. It was dangerous work. He landed in the emergency room so many times that his wife, a hospital nurse, advised him to turn in his badge before he turned up dead. His partner wasn’t so lucky.

Come January, Campbell, a 56-year-old lawyer from Quechee, will be engaged in a different sort of policing. Last Sunday, Campbell’s Democratic Senate colleagues unanimously elected him Senate president pro tem, the leader of the 30-member Vermont Senate. It is a powerful and taxing job that requires equal parts diplomacy and force — minus the firearm — to keep lawmakers in line and legislative business moving.

“The job of pro tem is like a traffic cop,” says Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), a 27-year veteran of the Statehouse. “He has to keep law and order in the Senate. John’s going to do fine.”

Around the capitol, Campbell has earned a reputation as a smart and gregarious lawmaker who works and plays hard. Built like a quarterback and dressed like an attorney, he’s known for mixing it up after hours with Republicans and lobbyists. What he lacks in killer political instinct, Campbell makes up for in personality. Working a room of fellow sentators last Sunday at the Three Stallion Inn in Randolph, he came off as a mix of backslapping good ol’ boy and humble public servant.

Colleagues credit Campbell with marshaling the votes, largely behind the scenes, to override Gov. Jim Douglas’ veto of same-sex marriage in 2009. When some GOP lawmakers wanted to revisit the civil-union debate in 2005, Campbell hosted informal peace talks at his Montpelier apartment and invited Republicans and Democrats over for burgers and beers. The party was such a smash, a neighbor called police to complain about the noise.

“There was an elderly lady next door who just did not think anyone playing music past eight o’clock at night was appropriate,” Campbell says with a shrug.

But what Campbell will do as Senate president is anybody’s guess. Despite his decade under the golden dome in Montpelier — including eight years as Senate majority leader, the no. 2 post — he remains a mystery to some of his peers. Even the karaoke-singing ex-cop concedes that.

“It’s like there’s a question mark as to what I am going to do, how I will lead,” Campbell says during a recent interview in the Senate president’s office, a spare yellow room with two desks and a couch. “My style is not predictable…”

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Campbell is taking over the Senate president’s job alongside a governor from his own party. Campbell was a loyal lieutenant to Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin when Shumlin had the job Campbell is inheriting. Campbell helped Shumlin secure votes on closing Vermont Yankee, overriding the budget and a host of other legislation. Rarely did the two men butt heads publicly.

Campbell says he’s heard rumblings suggesting that Shumlin will be “running the Senate from the fifth floor,” meaning from the governor’s office. Are senators worried Campbell will be too close to Shumlin to stand up to him if need be?

“We’ve all been so attached to Peter, and we want to work with him and have him be successful. But on the other hand, we also want to distinguish ourselves as a body,” says Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), who briefly considered challenging Campbell for president pro tem. Although she won’t acknowledge any concerns about Campbell, Lyons says she’s worried about the Senate maintaining “independence.”

Campbell admits that he and Shumlin have overlapping agendas but insists he will be his own man. “Peter and I have had long conversations, and I think he respects this office,” Campbell says. “I’m sure there will be things we disagree on.”

As majority leader, Campbell has been a trusted right-hand man to two Senate presidents named Peter — Welch, from 2003 to 2006, and Shumlin from 2007 to the present. Of the two, Campbell identifies more with the “collaborative” style of Peter Welch.

“I have no intention of coming in and being like a dictator, because, frankly, I find that to be not persuasive, number one, but very ineffective,” says Campbell. “My role, as I see it, will be to focus the Senate on to the priorities that we set as a group.”

What are those priorities?

First is the budget. Faced with a $110 million deficit, Campbell says the legislature is looking at some painful — and politically unpopular — budget cuts. That said, Campbell hints that raising taxes could be an option. While trying to avoid specifics, Campbell does suggest one area the state might find more money: tax loopholes that exempt fraternities, sororities and other social clubs from paying property taxes.

“No one wants to raise revenues,” Campbell admits, using the more positive “revenues” as a euphemism for taxes. “But if it comes down to the possibility of having to raise some revenue, we have a duty and an obligation to do that rather than having some elderly couple go without medicine or without heat.”

Second is health care — also a key priority of Shumlin’s. Like the governor-elect, Campbell hopes Vermont can secure a federal waiver to create a state-level universal health care system. But he wants to move forward, regardless, and hopes the trailblazing will be facilitated by a study due in January from Harvard health care expert William Hsiao.

Campbell’s third priority is jobs: growing Vermont’s small-business economy, in part by connecting everyone to highspeed broadband.

“I’m not going to have 6 million other priorities,” Campbell says. “Those are my three priorities.”

Sounds like a breeze. But being the party in power does have a few disadvantages. You can’t fault the opposing party when things don’t go well, cautions Mazza.

“In some respects, it’s going to be harder, because now they have control,” Mazza says of the Democrats. “If you want to cut $110 million, you can’t blame someone else.”

Campbell comes from what he describes as a tight-knit, working-class Irish Catholic family. He was born on March 3, 1954, in New Hyde Park, N.Y., to a bartender father and a mother who stayed home with Campbell and his five siblings. Tragically, Campbell’s younger brother Edward drowned in a New Jersey lake on the family’s first vacation.

The Campbells moved south, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After high school, Campbell attended the University of Florida, graduating with a degree in journalism in 1976. He paid his way through college working as a disc jockey at a radio station in Gainesville and, upon request, can still launch effortlessly into a smooth, baritone announcer voice. He still deejays the occasional party or charity event.

Campbell’s first job out of college was with the civil division of the Broward County sheriff’s office. He was 22, on a routine assignment serving eviction papers, when his partner was killed. The bullet was intended for Campbell.

“I was the first one to the door, and there was this guy who was in combat position with a gun,” recalls Campbell. “[My partner] saw it and pushed me away and he took the round that the guy was shooting at me. The guy would have hit me right square in the chest.”

The experience haunted Campbell in the months that followed, motivating him to become a sworn police officer. He went through the police academy and worked as a patrolman for four years in “some pretty rough areas” of Broward County.

“If you ever saw ‘Cops,’ that was my area. The old ‘bad boys, bad boys,’” Campbell says.

At his wife’s urging, he left police work, earned his law degree at Nova Southeastern University law school, and went into private practice. He ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 1986 and almost succeeded. Out of some 50,000 votes cast, he lost by 352.

Politics took a backseat while Campbell and wife Kathy raised three children. A visit to a friend in Quechee convinced them to move the family north. The “flatlander” label doesn’t exactly apply, though. Campbell’s Irish ancestors immigrated to Vermont in the mid-1800s, settling in St. Albans and Underhill. His great-grandfather William Powers was mayor of St. Albans from 1901 to 1904.

Still, moving from Florida to Vermont called for some adjustments. Campbell’s first law client in Vermont was a farmer with a property-line dispute. When the farmer couldn’t pay, he offered two sheep. Thinking the offer was for livestock, Campbell turned it down. Only later did he realize the farmer was offering him butchered meat.

Soon after the Campbells settled in Quechee, John went in for back surgery for a police-work-related injury. While recovering, he wrote two still-unpublished books — a Goonies-style children’s book titled The Treasure of Shamrock Key and an untitled adult novel.

Gov. Howard Dean personally recruited Campbell to run for state Senate in 2000. The two men had a mutual friend: Frank McDougall, who was Dean’s economic development czar and a personal friend of Campbell’s from Quechee.

“He called and kept on calling,” Campbell says of Dean. “Finally, I said, Jesus, well, if the governor thinks I can do it … At the time, I didn’t realize I was, like, the fifth person he probably called.” Not only did Campbell win that year, he was the top vote getter in Windsor County.

Pinning down Campbell’s politics isn’t easy — even for his colleagues, who describe him as moderate, or liberal, depending on whom you ask. Over the years, he’s been pro law enforcement but has also sponsored bills advancing civil rights, animal-welfare protections and last session’s human-trafficking bill.

You could say he sticks up for the victim, whether it’s a cop or an animal or anyone else denied his, her or its rights. Sen. Tim Ashe (P/D-Chittenden) calls Campbell the “unsung hero of the marriage-equality effort. People need to understand that many legislators, even some who voted yes, preferred no action on this issue,” Ashe says.

Campbell’s fellow Windsor County senator, Democrat Dick McCormack, says he was baffled at why Campbell stuck his neck out on the same-sex-marriage debate. Campbell sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“I kept wondering what he was up to. What’s his angle on this?” McCormack recalls in a phone interview. “Only, finally, at the end of it, I realized he never had an angle. He thought it was the right thing to do.”

Ashe confirms, “John’s moral compass helped make it happen.”

Four weeks before the legislature convenes, no one in the Senate is busier than Campbell. His no. 1 priority is to help fill what he calls the “leadership vacuum” caused by the departure of several veteran senators who moved on to higher office or jobs in the Shumlin administration. Read: horse trading.

Perhaps that’s why he never found the time to file his monthly campaign finance reports for 2010. Campbell says he was busy running other Senate campaigns, and admits he’s “not the most organized person.” He adds, “Candidly, I messed up and I forgot.”

Campbell does have plans to redecorate the Senate president’s office, though. Shumlin removed his big painting of former Vermont Gov. George Aiken. In its place, Campbell wants to hang his Florida Gators memorabilia, acknowledging it likely won’t pass Statehouse muster.

It won’t be the first — or the last — time Campbell gets busted for showing his true colors.