- Deb Billado File: Sophie Macmillan
Deb Billado, leader of the Vermont Republican Party, wants to tell you that most of what you've heard about her is wrong. She is not a cheerleader for Donald Trump, she insists, despite her pugnacious support for the president. Nor does she harbor ill will toward Phil Scott, even though the Republican governor distanced himself from the state party after she became chair in 2017.
Billado — her tone more disappointed than angry, as if she were scolding a puppy for peeing in the house — contends that she has been mischaracterized, in part by news media bent on sowing discord.
"I like working with everyone," Billado told Seven Days during one of several interviews over the last three months. "Even if I have a difference of opinion with them, I put that aside and I will work with them anyways. I will reach out. I will call. I will treat everyone the same, because at the end of the day, I just need to get the job done."
During her first two years leading the party, however, Billado seemed to show more interest in drawing battle lines than seeking common ground.
In the state party's weekly newsletter, she defended President Trump and attacked his opponents, often with a Trumpian flourish. One notably charged message last August warned of a "hate-crazed" mob of "deranged" liberals in mourning over "crooked" Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 presidential election. Another newsletter described the Mueller investigation as a "senseless witch hunt." And a 2018 email blast urged Green Mountain Republicans to rally to "Make Vermont Great Again."
That message, sent just before Scott signed into law a package of gun-control bills, seemed to make the case that the governor — who has made clear his distaste for the president — was kowtowing to the left.
GOP lawmakers accused Billado of deepening divisions within the ranks and making it harder for them to distinguish themselves from the national party. Compromise, they pointed out, is sometimes the only way for Republicans to survive in a solidly blue state. Some lawmakers even stopped seeking support from the party.
Billado appears to have learned her lesson, telling Seven Days that she is fully focused on her two main responsibilities as party chair: recruiting candidates and fundraising. And with her near unanimous reelection last fall giving her the party's reins through the November election, Republicans who previously criticized her are now choosing their words more carefully. They appear to have accepted the fact that, whether they agree with her full-throated support of Trump or not, Billado is who they've got.
Whether she can maintain this newfound harmony is an open question.
"All I can say is, I hope so," said Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe).
Republican lawmakers recognize that November could make or break the party's hopes to stay relevant on the heels of a disastrous election two years ago. The party relinquished 10 seats in the House along with its ability to sustain a governor's veto, a dismaying result compounded by the failure to find candidates to compete in every race.
That sting was still fresh last November as Billado presided over a panel discussion about rural Vermont at a community access television studio in Montpelier. Billado said that the result of 2018 "belongs to all of us." She blamed the recruitment woes on candidates dropping out last-minute, a view shared by Orleans County Republican Committee chair Chet Greenwood.
Referring to the "Trump effect," Greenwood implied that many candidates feared being lumped in with the national GOP, which spent the first two years of Trump's term focused on issues that did not play well in liberal Vermont, like the crackdown on illegal immigration and the Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh.
"There's some people who got really weak-kneed," Greenwood said after the discussion. "I've talked to some people, and I've said, 'Listen, you're not running for national office. You're not running to address issues in Washington. You're running to address issues here locally.'"
"It's really a challenge to be part of Trump but not be part of Trump," Billado said then, referring to her own job as party chair. "How do you do that? I try to limit my conversation to Vermont."
While some Republican lawmakers have accused her of straying too far from Vermont issues in the past, even Billado's staunchest critics have tamped down their criticisms.
Asked what he thought about Billado's leadership, Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) responded: "I'm not going to characterize it one way or another." A year ago, he told Seven Days that he believed the party could benefit from hiring an independent accountant because he had concerns about the "professionalism of the operation."
Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) was equally guarded. Last fall, Parent asked to be replaced as a delegate to the state committee because he disagreed with the party's focus on Trump. Last week, however, Parent said he believes Billado is "doing the best job that she can."
"[She's] come a long way, and we've seen some improvement," Parent said. "But with any of us, there's always room for improvement."
Even the two Franklin County Republicans who voted against Billado's reelection just three months ago were unwilling to detail their concerns. County committee delegate Joe Luneau and Rep. James Gregoire (R-Fairfield) both declined to comment, with the latter explaining, "Family business is family business, so I don't want to imply anything."
Some former Republican critics of Billado now even praise her, although cautiously. Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who had called for a change in party leadership after the 2018 shellacking at the polls, believes that after butting heads with Billado for months, moderate Republicans have finally started to win her ear.
"I have seen Deb transform herself over time to understand that there is a group of people out there called the moderates who are not exactly dumb when it comes to getting elected," Benning said. "Those people are the ones I think she has begun to listen to."
Scheuermann, who was highly critical of the "Make Vermont Great Again" message, had a similar read.
"The party, from what I can see, has started to move in the direction of trying to focus much more so on Vermont than other things," said the Stowe representative. "That's a really positive [sign]."
That shift seems to have made its way into Billado's weekly messages. Of her last eight newsletters, six focused primarily on Vermont, including one earlier this month that commended Scott for his recent veto of a bill that would have created a paid family leave program.
Billado, 66, is a businesswoman who owns an Essex Junction beauty salon, Hair Graphix, and a handful of rental properties. She also works as the promoter for East Coast Shows, which manages boat and RV exhibitions.
She got her start in politics on the Village of Essex Junction Board of Trustees and, for 12 years, presided over all sorts of municipal matters, from building budgets to fielding resident concerns. She served two years as chair of the Chittenden County Republican Committee before she was elected to lead the state GOP in 2017.
Billado said that when she was asked to run for the state chair position, she thought about the issues that have plagued her home state for years — the rising cost of living, the exodus of youth, the opioid crisis — and agreed.
"The first two years, I didn't know what I was getting into," she said. "Now I know."
Indeed, she insists she's entering her second term as chair with her "eyes open" to divisions in the party, which may explain why Trump was barely mentioned at this year's Lincoln-Reagan Dinner fundraiser.
"It was all about Gov. Scott and his role ... as the titular head of the party," said former Vermont governor Jim Douglas, who was the keynote speaker at the event last week. "What I saw was unity and everyone on the same page." Billado and Scott sat at the same table and seemed to enjoy themselves, Douglas said, leading him to believe that while their relationship "may have started a little rocky, it seems to be fine at this point."
Billado would agree. In interviews with Seven Days, she has consistently argued that her disagreements with Scott have been vastly overblown. "Do we work side by side? No. He has a job. I have a job," she said.
While that may be true, those who support Scott have long hoped that the party would fully embrace his more moderate approach. It's not hard to see why. He has been by far the most successful Vermont Republican in the last decade and remains one of the most popular governors in the country. A Vermont Public Radio/Vermont PBS poll published last week found that Scott holds a comfortable lead over his potential Democratic gubernatorial rivals, even though he's yet to say whether he will run again.
But while Billado says she understands that Trump's mere presence on the ballot could motivate a Democratic turnout large enough to spell trouble for Republican candidates, she also seems confident that Trump will outperform his 2016 showing in Vermont — potentially by tens of thousands of votes.
"[Trump], against all odds, has done tremendous things for the country," she said. "Any fair-minded, open-minded person would look at that, no matter what political persuasion you are ... and say, 'Yeah, we are way better off than four years ago.'"
The test for Billado, then, will be to keep her attention on Vermont through a campaign season while juggling the expectations of those in her party who agree with her about Trump's performance and those who view the president as a liability best ignored.
Perhaps that's why Lamoille County Republican Committee chair Ken Hoeppner says her situation brings to mind the Flying Wallendas, whose famous daredevil stunts included a tightrope walk between two New York City buildings. Except, in this case, Billado's skyscrapers are her governor and her president.
Lean too far in one direction, he said, and she will plummet.