Beth Robinson remembers going door to door in the waning days of the 2000 election, handing out campaign literature for imperiled lawmakers who had supported civil unions.
In the end, many of them were bounced from the legislature in a tidal wave of “Take Back Vermont” voter anger. As a result of those electoral losses, political control of the Vermont House of Representatives shifted from Democrats to Republicans. Among the banished were some key moderate Republicans who had supported the civil-union legislation, including Reps. Marion Milne (R-Berlin), Robert Kinsey (R-Craftsbury), Richard Mallary (R-Brookfield) and Sen. Peter Brownell (R-Chittenden).
“We’ve learned a lot since then,” said Robinson, the chief strategist of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Action Committee — the organization that lobbied successfully for civil unions and then, last year, for same-sex marriage. “We’re much better organized and prepared to work on elections than we were in 2000. Our strategy up until late 1999 was to keep the issue of marriage equality out of the legislature. Then, in less than an 11-month period, we had to throw together a legislative campaign and an election strategy — all before email was established, without nearly the infrastructure that we have now.”
Not only is the group better prepared, but “I also don’t think the backlash is remotely comparable this time around,” Robinson added.
Of the 55 contested House races, Robinson said her organization is monitoring between 15 and 20, and will help if the candidate requests it. In the Senate, the group is monitoring only two or three of the 19 contested races.
The coalition has also set up two political action committees (PACs) — Vermont First and Vermont Fund for Families.
As of July 15, Vermont First had raised $19,500, $10,000 of which came from in-state donors. It spent about $6500 to pay two part-time field organizers. The Vermont Fund for Families has reported $22,000 in donations since January 2009, predominantly from in-state donors. It’s spent only $4200 in recent months — some on candidates, the rest on staff and office expenses.
Which campaigns need VTFMAC’s help? Rep. Megan Smith (D-Killington) — one of several Democrats facing tough reelection battles in Rutland County — received a $200 donation. Smith’s GOP challenger is local businessman Jim Eckhardt, who has taken issue with Smith’s same-sex-marriage vote, as well as with her vote to override Gov. Jim Douglas’ budget veto.
“I’m proud to take their help and very proud of my vote,” said Smith. One of VTFMAC’s two part-time staffers, Sheryl Rapée-Adams, recently helped her address 150 envelopes. “There are a lot of people in my district who were opposed to that vote,” Smith said, “and I had individual conversations with them, and I hope overall they’ll still support me based on other things that I have done. It was a meaningful vote for me.”
Robinson’s organization is also supporting another challenged Democrat — Rep. Diane Lanpher of Vergennes — to the tune of $250. Like Smith and other Dems in Republican-leaning districts, Lanpher is likely to face questions not just about the marriage vote, but about tax-and-spend policies her party has supported in the past biennium.
That said, same-sex marriage does not necessarily break down along party lines. “We are making it very clear that we’re not abandoning our Republican friends,” said Robinson.
Not all of them need help, though. Several of the Republicans who voted for same-sex marriage are either in uncontested races or not seeking reelection. Former Rep. Rich Westman (R-Cambridge) is running for a Lamoille County senate seat, while Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washington) is going for lieutenant governor. Reps. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) and Anne Donohue (R-Northfield) are all unopposed.
Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) is facing a challenge, but said he’s neither asked for Robinson’s help nor heard from her group.
Rep. Rick Hube (R-Londonderry) passed away in the middle of his term, but VTFMAC decided to support his appointed replacement Rep. Oliver Olsen (R-Jamaica). Although he did not hold elected office in 2009, Olsen was present and supported same-sex marriage during some of the GOP caucus deliberations.
“We’ve taken a little heat for that one, but we think it’s only right — Oliver was there during the discussions, and we feel as if we should honor Rick’s vote,” said Robinson.
Perhaps the most vulnerable of all the Republicans who supported same-sex marriage is Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland. He’s facing a primary challenge largely because of his “yea” vote. Four Rutland County Republicans are vying for three seats in the Senate primary. Mullin and incumbent Peg Flory are up against Carolyn Schwalbe and former state Rep. Tom DePoy. Flory voted against same-sex marriage, but was in the House when the vote occurred. She was appointed to the Senate last year.
Robinson’s group has donated $100 to Mullin’s campaign.
It has also forked over $1500 to the Vermont Democratic House Campaign and $500 to the Vermont Senate Victory PAC.
Though plenty of its political allies are running for higher office, VTFMAC is only endorsing a candidate in one race: the Democratic primary for governor. The group picked Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who is viewed as a key player in the passage of last year’s same-sex-marriage law, which included a legislative override of Gov. Jim Douglas’ gubernatorial veto.
“We’re telling people who showed up to the Statehouse to testify or take part in rallies that, while it was great to have your voice heard, you have to keep that enthusiasm alive when you go out to vote,” said Robinson. “It wasn’t just the coalition that made a commitment to stand by these lawmakers, but a commitment by everyone who helped make this happen. We need to let them know that we’re going to stand with them in this election.”