Why Is the Progressive Party Losing Its Luster in Montpelier? | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Why Is the Progressive Party Losing Its Luster in Montpelier?

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Published November 23, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

While Democrats in Vermont reveled in big wins on Election Day, the state's Progressive Party didn't have as much to celebrate. The party ranks in the Vermont legislature dropped by a third — a setback that suggests its brand might be in retreat statewide.

Before the election, the party had nine members — seven in the House and two in the Senate. In the next biennium, there will be just six — five representatives and one senator.

Significantly, the newly elected Progs are all from Chittenden County districts in Burlington, Winooski and Essex. The party's loss of seats in Washington, Windham and Windsor counties will mark the first time in 18 years it has no state lawmakers outside its Chittenden County stronghold.

Of the 133,578 people who voted in Vermont's August primary, just 610 cast Progressive ballots — hardly a reflection of a fired-up base.

Republicans didn't fare much better. In fact, the GOP lost five seats in the House and were shut out of federal and statewide races, except for the reelection of Gov. Phil Scott.

The reasons for the party's retreat are numerous. They include the retirements of several longtime Progressive lawmakers, recruitment challenges and the defections of Progs to the increasingly dominant Democratic Party.

For instance, longtime Reps. Mollie Burke of Brattleboro and Heather Surprenant of Barnard, who had previously run as Progs cross-endorsed by Democrats, both switched party affiliations and won handily as Democrats.

Within the party is a growing recognition that Burlington politics may hinder its ability to thrive statewide. Particularly problematic has been Progressive Burlington councilors' move to cut the size of the city's police force in the wake of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police.

The fallout from that 2020 decision has put the party on the defensive and forced it to work hard to maintain its standing on the Queen City council. Progressive councilors Jack Hanson and Ali House both recently resigned, and it remains to be seen whether the party can retain their seats.

"I think the downside of what goes on in Burlington is that it takes resources away from our work in other parts of the state," said party chair Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), who is retiring.

It may have also given some voters pause about supporting a party engaged in such a high-profile dustup with Burlington police.

Lieutenant governor-elect David Zuckerman, who ran as a P/D and was once again the only Prog to win election to statewide office, ran into voters expressing a new level of skepticism about the Progressive brand after what was framed as the folly of defunding the police, he said.

"Whether deserved or not, the high focus on the Burlington Progressive political scene has made it harder" for candidates to run as Progs, he said. Zuckerman recalled speaking to voters who have supported him in the past but this year told him "that label is a bigger concern for me now than it used to be."

It has always been easier to win votes as a Democrat than a Progressive, but it was particularly true this year, he said. That's because many voters concerned about the national political chaos craved stability. (Zuckerman ran in the Democratic primary for LG and was that party's candidate in the 2020 gubernatorial election).

"I think Progressives still offer stability and progress, but it's an extra layer of explanation in a moment when people are overwhelmed," he said.

Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden), who did not seek reelection this year, has a similar assessment. He said he believes Vermont voters were so repulsed by the "Trump swirl" that their impulse was to say, "Let's just get the Republicans out of there."

"That tends to favor the Democrats," Pearson said.

Josh Wronski, executive director of the Vermont Progressive Party, put a positive spin on the results. Having six members in the general assembly is closer to the party's historical average, Wronski said.

"It wasn't the best election for us, but it also wasn't the worst," Wronski said.

Zuckerman's return to elected office after a two-year hiatus gives the party a highly visible presence in the Statehouse again. Democrats who align with Progressives are gaining influence, including Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), who has been selected by the majority to lead the Senate as its president pro tempore. Others, such as Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D/P-Chittenden), sought and obtained the Progressive label for the first time to run as "fusion" candidates.

Those lawmakers caucus with the party identified by the first of the two letters — D for Baruth and Ram, for instance — while also signaling that they have the endorsement of the second party.

The Progs were further able to keep the House seat being vacated by Rep. Selene Colburn (P/D-Burlington), who did not seek reelection. Troy Headrick will succeed her. Incumbent Reps. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P/D-Burlington), Brian Cina (P/D-Burlington) and Taylor Small (P/D-Winooski) all handily won reelection, as well. And Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Essex) won a Senate seat representing the newly drawn Chittenden Central District.

Many of the Progs who won — including Kate Logan, who will serve in the Old North End House seat being vacated by Rep. Curt McCormack (D-Burlington) — are young and energetic and point to a bright future, Wronski said.

"I think there is a lot of potential for growth," he said.

Mulvaney-Stanak said the party "more than held our own" in the election.

Election Day wins are not the measure of a party's success or effectiveness, she said. She was once the lone Progressive on the Burlington City Council but felt she was still able to advance the party's ideas.

"It's not about numbers. It's about leadership skills and the experience and the expertise that people in the caucus bring," she said.

On Monday, the House Progressive Caucus announced that Mulvaney-Stanak and Small will be the group's leader and assistant leader, respectively. Mulvaney-Stanak identifies as a "queer, lesbian," and Small is a trans woman. The Progs' diversity is "pretty darn exciting for a party that had a lot of white men leading it over a long period of time," Mulvaney-Stanak said.

Politics may not be exclusively about numbers, but fewer bodies can diminish influence, especially when a party lacks seats on crucial committees, Zuckerman said.

Signs of the party's challenges emerged over the summer with the defections of Burke and Surprenant to the Dems. Burke said she felt "a little bit adrift" as the lone Prog lawmaker from Windham County, and she wanted to have more influence on the House Transportation Committee.

Surprenant, a small organic farmer and the only Progressive to represent a rural area, said she spent much of her time explaining what it means to be a Progressive to constituents, some of whom falsely equated it with communism or attempts to undermine Democrats.

Running as a Democrat allows her to focus on issues important to farmers and the vulnerable in her rural community.

"Changing parties doesn't change my values or my heart," Surprenant wrote in a text to Seven Days. "I'm still the same person as I was last session."

Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is also a Progressive at heart who ran as a Democrat this year. The Middletown Springs resident served two terms in the House as a P/D before he was defeated by Republican Sally Achey in 2020.

He agreed to run for the seat again this year, but as a Dem, because the party was in a jam after its candidate dropped out. This time, Chesnut-Tangerman beat Achey by 7 percentage points.

Switching wasn't a concern, because he already tends to "focus on the 98 percent of DNA that Democrats and Progressives share," he said. Running as a Democrat helped him sidestep some of the hesitation voters in his area have about Progressive politics.

"It seems to me the Progressive Party has been veering more and more to a greater focus on identity politics, and here in Rutland County, it's pocketbook issues," he said, citing inflation and the lack of broadband. While he supports issues such as LGBTQ rights, he "can't lead with that" when campaigning in his district, he said.

There can be so much crossover between the two parties that it's hard for candidates and voters to see the distinct value in a Progressive candidacy.

"I think our tent covers a lot of their space," Vermont Democratic Party executive director Jim Dandeneau said. Liberal Democrats and Progs are "99 percent on the same page" on policy, making any differences "primarily tactical," he said. Progs can be great partners with Democrats but can also sometimes take an "all-or-nothing" approach to issues, he said.

For example, Dandeneau said, Democrats and Progressives might favor safe injection sites to reduce overdose deaths; Dems might want to study it further, while Progs want to pass a law now.

The parties are not without more significant differences, however. The Progressive Party characterizes itself as a "grassroots" party and calls the Democratic Party "corporately owned." It also tends to have a stronger focus on social justice issues, a willingness to raise taxes on the rich and an abiding belief in universal single-payer health care.

Former Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle, a Progressive, has long advocated for Progs to work more closely with Democrats. After seven terms as mayor of Burlington, he ran for governor as a Democrat in 2004 — and lost. As the two parties have grown closer, he said, Progs have developed a "branding issue."

In the years since Clavelle served in Burlington, Progressives have shifted further left. The old guard, including him and former councilor Jane Knodell, have found themselves recently siding with city Democrats on many issues.

While he couldn't say whether the Burlington City Council's vote to reduce the police force impacted the brand elsewhere, Clavelle was vocal at the time that it was a bad move. "It certainly did nothing to advance the cause of Progressive politics," he said.

Building a third political party is challenging. The two other major parties in the state have been at it for hundreds of years. The Vermont Progressive Party was founded just 22 years ago, so ups and downs are to be expected, Pollina said.

The party was formed to help candidates in Bernie Sanders' orbit pursue elected offices. Burlington-based Progs closely aligned with Sanders during his stint as mayor and U.S. representative won seats on the city council and then the state legislature. Pollina's unsuccessful 2000 run for governor garnered enough votes to secure major party status for the Progs.

The party's status remains secure, despite its modest size and election results. That's because the party has had a candidate win at least 5 percent of the vote in each statewide election and meets the requirement of maintaining organized committees in 30 towns and seven counties. Zuckerman's recent showing means it easily met the voting threshold again.

The fact that Burlington's political scene "takes a lot of air out of the room" poses a dilemma for a party with limited resources to expand statewide, Pollina said.

"We're going through a time of reflection, in a sense," Pollina said.

The answer, he said, is to strengthen the party's infrastructure to bolster rural candidates, such as by hiring campaign staff dedicated to less populated areas and helping build stronger committees to support those candidates.

"The idea is to make Vermont a better place to live," he said, "and to deal with the issues of inequality that Vermont struggles with, just like the rest of the country."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Progressive Setback | The party label is losing its luster in Montpelier — and Burlington may be partly to blame"