MONTPELIER — Gov. James Douglas’ legacy will be that of a very mobile, skilled politician who was able to maintain allegiance of the state’s conservative voting block while deftly appealing to mainstream voters as well as fiscally conservative Democrats.
Past and present Addison County politicos shared those and other observations in wake of Douglas’ stunning announcement on Thursday that he will not seek a fifth term as the state’s top executive. His decision, as Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie noted, has altered Vermont’s political landscape for 2010 and beyond, and comes at time the state’s budget is in turmoil and the state’s energy future is in doubt.
Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, acknowledged the state’s current and ongoing challenges, but said he is confident he will be able to pass the baton to a capable successor 16 months from now. He added that after a total of 36 years of elective office in Vermont — the past seven as governor — he is poised to move on to a new, as-yet undefined, challenge.
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“There is always unfinished business; there is always more to do,” Douglas said during an interview with the Addison Independent following his announcement. “I certainly understood that in my other positions over the past several decades. But no office should be defined by one individual person. I think for the reasons I have mentioned, this is the right tour of duty for me.”
Douglas began his public service career in the Vermont House in 1972, the same year he graduated from Middlebury College. He would represent Addison County’s shire town for the next seven years, during which he would serve stints as his party’s assistant majority leader and majority leader.
Douglas retired from the House in 1979 to become a top aide to the late Gov. Richard Snelling, then successfully ran for Vermont Secretary of State in 1980. He was re-elected five times. He set his sights on federal office in 1992, challenging longtime incumbent U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Leahy topped Douglas by a 10-point margin in that election, sending Douglas into a two-year hiatus in the private sector, when he worked for a short while as an administrator at Middlebury’s Porter Medical Center.
But Douglas quickly returned to the election trail, decisively winning the post of Vermont Treasurer in 1994. He ran for governor in 2002, edging former Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine, a Richford Democrat who is already a confirmed candidate for the post in 2010.
As was the case when he was secretary of state and treasurer, Douglas had a relatively easy time of it in his re-election bids for governor. He figured to be a strong candidate for re-election next year, but decided he needs to shed the omnipresent time commitments of public office.
During an 11-minute speech announcing his decision, he cited the recent birth of his first grandchild and a desire to spend more time with his wife, Dorothy, as among his reasons for taking a pass on a re-election bid.
“With some very good fortune, I met and married Dorothy, soon we were raising two extraordinary boys, and now one of my sons has a son of his own — our first grandchild: Timothy James Douglas,” Douglas said. “A new generation has a way of putting things into perspective.”
The governor said he had felt privileged to visit all corners of the state, seeing new businesses open, participating in humanitarian efforts and consoling families of fallen soldiers, but decided that it was time to begin a new chapter in his life.
That new chapter, Douglas quipped, will not include a run for president (a step that had been taken by his predecessor Gov. Howard Dean). Such a move, Douglas joked, would probably result in his spouse contacting a divorce lawyer. But Douglas, in a much more serious tone, said emphatically that he will not run for the U.S. Senate nor U.S. House in 2010. He did not close the door on running for political office sometime in the future, however.
“I just feel this is the right time (to announce a departure from public office),” Douglas said. “I just hope that some good opportunities come along.”
Lapsing into a sedentary existence will not be an option, Douglas stressed.
“I can’t imagine going from a hectic pace of 24/7 and the intensity of what I have been doing for the past seven years, to retirement,” Douglas said. “I hope I will have an opportunity to make a contribution in some way, I just don’t know what it is at this point.”
During an extensive interview at the Addison Independent
The governor on Thursday again acknowledged his status as a Republican counter-balance to the Democrat-controlled Legislature, but said he is confident that his party can produce another candidate to serve the same function.
“I hope that whoever succeeds me provides that same balance and backstop to whatever excesses might be proposed by the general assembly,” Douglas said. “A lot of people were surprised by this announcement, but the more they think about it, I think they understand that 36 years is a pretty long and reasonable commitment of time. It’ll be up to a new governor to provide that balance.”