In state political news, the biggest announcement of the week was Bruce Lisman reporting that he would not be running for governor against Democrat incumbent Peter Shumlin. That seemingly gives Shumlin clear sailing for another two-year term. Considering the controversial issues at stake — paying for health care reform, restructuring school governance and getting school spending under control, and keeping a lid on state taxes, to name a few — it’s surprising that a strong opponent hasn’t yet emerged.
Lisman would have offered a strong challenge, and he went through the motions of being considered this spring, but he wisely opted not to run in order to preserve the integrity of the grassroots organization he founded: Campaign for Vermont.
He started the non-profit think-tank to be able to influence matters of political importance from outside the Montpelier bubble, suggest solutions to long-standing problems and bring up new issues that had lacked political support (one success this session was passage of the an ethics bill for Vermont’s Legislature, widely hailed by those seeking greater transparency in state government). The organization has been successful in putting new issues on the table, bringing new points of view to bear, and creating a voice that represents a main stream Vermont perspective.
That Lisman chose to keep Campaign for Vermont’s integrity intact fits his personal story. The 68-year-old, Shelburne resident is a scrappy, self-made multi-millionaire (a retired executive from the Bear Stearns brokerage firm) who grew up without wealth and knows the value of a good education and hard work. A supporter of a strong educational system, he has long worked to foster better school outcomes and to provide better training for graduates to succeed in today’s global economy. A big benefactor of the Burlington Boys & Girls Club, he has an honest desire to help youth get a good start in life as well as a sincere desire to see Vermont prosper as a business hub.
With passions in those two fields (as well as others), we see a lot more potential to change public policy through Campaign for Vermont than if Lisman were to challenge a sitting governor of a solidly Democratic state, and compromising the organization in the process.
Going forward, however, we’d also advocate for a slightly different role that Lisman is ideally suited to establish and lead: a group dedicated to advancing the state’s business community in concrete, measurable ways. He could do this under the umbrella of the Campaign for Vermont (as he turns that ship over to other captains) or create a separate entity. In either case, the objective would be to help Vermont’s business community become more prosperous — not by being involved as a critic of state policy (the State Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, Vermont Industry Association, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and others serve in that capacity), but in providing a common center for those largely disparate groups and by providing hands-on ways to help Main Street businesses grow.
Vermont is small enough that a concentrated effort to help individual businesses get a good start can make a world of difference. We’re not referring to harping on tax policy, promoting corporate welfare or anything that focuses on Montpelier-based policy, but rather business-to-business, hands-on collaboration. A few like-minded and successful entrepreneurs could also lend a hand and create an organization didn’t talk about what others should do in state government to grow jobs, but actually engaged in the effort to make it happen.
Former Republican candidate for governor, Randy Brock, of Swanton, who is also a successful businessman, fits such a group to a tee and is currently helping the Vermont Law School with its financial woes. That’s the kind of hands-on problem solving that’s needed.
Another opportunity for Lisman could be developing the framework for a junior college-type higher education system that makes grades 13-14 part of Vermont’s public education system, or at least an affordable in-state option, especially for the 40 percent of Vermont high school graduates who don’t go on to higher education.
This would be pioneering new ground for the state and for Campaign for Vermont, but it’s also more about doing and less about politicking, which might better fit the man and the organization.
Angelo S. Lynn