- U.S. Rep. Peter Welch speaking with voters in White River Junction
Last Friday in Washington, D.C., Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) was immersed in a showdown over a controversial Pacific trade accord. When President Barack Obama made a rare visit to Capitol Hill to seek fast-track authority to negotiate the deal, Welch sat just feet away. Hours later, the congressman joined his fellow Democrats in delivering the president a harsh defeat.
The vote was a huge deal in D.C. But when Welch arrived at a White River Junction café Saturday morning for a gathering with constituents, the first question he faced was about an entirely different matter.
"Are you running or not?" Carol Lane, a retired teacher who lives in town, asked as Welch arrived at the Tuckerbox café.
What she meant, of course, is whether Welch is running for governor. That's become the hottest question in Vermont political circles since Gov. Peter Shumlin announced last week that he won't seek reelection in 2016.
"That's to be determined," the congressman replied.
Within hours of Shumlin's announcement, Welch indicated he was considering a gubernatorial run. By week's end, he remained characteristically cautious with his comments, offering little insight into his thinking.
"I love the job I have," Welch told nine people gathered around a table at the Tuckerbox. "But, obviously, with [Shumlin] making his decision, everybody's going to say, 'How can I best serve?' Part of it is personal. Part of it is political. I'll decide sooner rather than later."
Meanwhile, politically attuned Vermonters are wondering: Would 68-year-old Welch really give up a safe seat in Congress to make an unpredictable run for governor?
One clue: On Saturday, a longtime campaign staffer, Meredith Woodside, reserved the domain name welchforgovernor.com in his name. Welch chief of staff Bob Rogan cautioned not to "read into this that a decision has been made or is even close to being made." Team Welch, he said, was just trying to be prepared.
"I think it's a real open question how he wants to end up his career in politics," said Steve Terry, a former Vermont journalist and aide to the late senator George Aiken.
Though his decision is pending, many describe Welch as the front-runner among those eyeing the race. He has spent 22 years in elected office in Vermont. He's proven he can run a well-organized, high-stakes, statewide campaign, as he did to win the U.S. House seat over Republican Martha Rainville in 2006. He regularly skates to reelection; one year he won 86 percent of the vote.
"If Congressman Welch decides he wants to do this, he would have some fairly obvious advantages," said Julia Barnes, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.
The biggest advantage? Welch has $1.7 million in his federal campaign account. If he can use some or all of that in a state race, he'll have a huge head start over any rivals.
Federal election law allows such a move, though it's unclear whether state law would restrict use of some or all of the money raised under different campaign-finance rules. "We would not comment on any particular hypothetical case at this point," said Michael Duane, assistant state attorney general.
Brady Toensing, a lawyer and vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, didn't hold back. "It would be the political equivalent of allowing LeBron James to play Vermont high school basketball," Toensing said, calling such a switcheroo "fundamentally unfair."
If Welch tried to use the money, Toensing said, he expects someone would challenge it in court. Rogan said Welch has not yet looked into the issue.
As his fundraising record shows, Welch has no problem tapping into the big money of national political action committees. Throughout his career, 43 percent of his campaign contributions have come from corporate and labor PACs, including pharmaceutical, real estate and telecommunications interests, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign money. Last year, 65 percent of his contributions came from PACs rather than individuals
And if he needs more money, the former personal injury lawyer has plenty of his own. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he was the 69th wealthiest member of the House in 2013, with an estimated net worth of $5.7 million.
Prominent Democratic contenders are readily yielding to Welch.
"If Peter decides to run for governor, I would not be in a primary against him," said House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown), who is considering a run. "He would be an excellent candidate for governor, and he would do a great job."
Former state senator Matt Dunne, a Democrat from Hartland, deferred to Welch when the U.S. House seat opened up in 2006 and would do so again. "I would absolutely step aside for Peter," Dunne said.
Dunne and Welch have known each other since the 45-year-old Dunne was a kid. "He was the one who convinced me to run for the [state] House when I was 22, and no one thought I had a chance," Dunne recalled.
Republicans say they are unwilling to offer Welch the same concession.
"I respect him, but we are different. We think differently," said Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who served alongside Welch for six years in the Senate. If Welch sought the governorship, Scott said, "It would not have a bearing on whether I would run."
"I don't think we're going to be deferring to Peter Welch," said Republican Scott Milne, who nearly defeated Shumlin last November. "I think 2016 is a year when people will show they are sick of political professionals."
While Welch is widely regarded as having a more collaborative style than Shumlin, their political views are similar. And after six years of Democratic rule, Welch could find that voters want something different. In recent decades, Vermonters have routinely swung between electing Democratic and Republican governors.
Welch might be the favorite, but he's no shoo-in, said Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), a longtime friend of Welch who said he would support his closer friend, Lt. Gov. Scott, if the latter runs for governor.
Mazza hopes voters won't have to make that decision. "I would hope Peter would run for reelection to Congress," he said. "When all the dust settles, I think Peter will stay where he is."
Long before Welch went to Washington, he wanted to run the state.
After eight years in the Senate, including four as president pro tempore, Welch ran for governor in 1990. Republican Richard Snelling, who had served four terms previously, defeated Welch 52 to 46 percent.
"Peter Welch definitely did better than was expected," said Mark Snelling, the late governor's son. "He's obviously had a successful career. It's possible he might want to cap it off with being governor."
"He really, really has wanted to be governor very badly," said Terry, who has followed generations of Vermont politics. "I think Peter is really thinking pretty hard about this."
In the political world, serving in Congress is big, but being governor is special, Terry argued. Aiken insisted on being called governor, though he only spent four years as governor and 34 as U.S. senator.
"He said, 'When you're governor, you do things and you know next week or six months later whether you did something good or bad. When you're down here, sometimes you never know,'" Terry recalled. "There's a lot of that feeling you can have a stronger impact."
Governors may have greater influence, but they also face far more scrutiny from the public and the media. That takes a toll. Members of Congress commonly serve for decades; Vermont governors rarely last more than six years.
"It's really a hard job," Montpelier lobbyist Kevin Ellis said of being governor. By contrast, he said of serving in Congress: "Down there, you get a free ride. You pose for a lot of photos and vote no a lot."
During nine years in the House, Welch has earned a reputation in Washington as a liberal who works well with Republicans, according to Ed Pagano, Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) former chief of staff. That's a rarity in a town known for political gridlock.
"He's viewed as an effective legislator," said Pagano, who now works as a lobbyist. "He's a problem solver."
Still, he remains a rank-and-file Democrat in the Republican-controlled House.
Welch has seen just four bills he authored signed into law. Rogan, Welch's chief of staff, said that's not an accurate measure of Welch's success. It doesn't, for example, reflect his work securing money to help Vermont recover from Tropical Storm Irene, advancing energy-efficiency legislation and amending the farm bill to include a new milk price insurance program.
Welch said he gets a lot of satisfaction from those efforts. "It's a special job," he said. "You're the one representative for the best state in the country. A lot of my colleagues don't have the latitude I have to work across the aisle."
With Vermont's two U.S. senators showing no signs of retiring, has Welch gone as far as he can in Washington? Pagano said he doesn't think so. "He certainly is a player," Pagano said, arguing that opportunities abound in the Democratic caucus leadership. "I think he's still a rising star."
Welch may be reluctant to ditch D.C. "Congress is pretty broken these days," he told constituents Saturday morning at the Tuckerbox. "The institution is in bad shape, but we can't abandon it. The Congress has to function."
Asked what he'd hope to accomplish as governor, Welch would talk only in generalities. "My orientation in politics, wherever I've been, has been to try to build the middle class," he said.
How would he do that as governor? "You're getting ahead of me. I'd have to lay that out."
Asked whether his wife, former state representative Margaret Cheney, would have to resign her seat on the three-member Public Service Board, which rules on state utility matters, Welch again declined to engage. "You're getting way ahead of me," he repeated.
In Vermont political circles, speculation changes almost by the hour about what Welch might do.
"I didn't think he could be persuaded to come back. I'm actually starting to change my mind on that," Terry said in a later interview.
Ellis said he thinks Welch is under growing pressure from Democrats to run for governor. "You can't afford to lose the governor's office," Ellis said. "If he doesn't do it, you're looking at a Matt Dunne-Shap Smith primary, and Phil Scott wins."
Welch would offer no timetable for a decision, claiming that only political insiders and journalists are in a hurry to find out. As he strolled Saturday morning through a bustling festival in the village of Windsor, that seemed true. Most people he met didn't bring up the issue.
Sharon Besso, who was working at a book sale in front of the Windsor public library, was one of the exceptions. "Good luck with whatever you do," she told Welch.
Besso said later she was torn about her preference for Welch. "If we pull him out of Washington, we lose him as a representative. I'm not sure what to think about it," she said, adding, "If he runs, I'd vote for him."