As Gov. Peter Shumlin launched his campaign last week for a second term, he focused on two themes: the state’s relative economic prosperity and that he is a governor who gets “the tough things done.”
Those ‘tough things’ have boiled down to balancing the state’s budget without raising broad-based taxes, even while coping with four major storms in 2011, and initiating health care reform by passing the nation’s first universal access health care system based on a single-payer model.
But he’s also quick to tout his other accomplishments: including growing 7,500 jobs in the past two years and creating a state economy that currently boasts the fifth lowest unemployment rate in the nation, initiating changes in the state department of education, and coming close to providing broadband access to all Vermonters.
It’s a record any governor would be proud to own. While he has solid support in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Shumlin can largely be credited with sheparding through Act 68, the health care reform bill, as well as advocating for a measure to make the education commissioner a member of his cabinet.
Similarly, early on he set a goal to expand broadband access to every last mile in Vermont by the end of 2013, and he has made it a priority to get that job done. The state is on track with just 16,000 homes left to connect — getting the job done on a much faster track than in the previous administration.
He’s also been a worthy cheerleader for Vermont residents through the storms of 2011, including the disastrous flooding on Lake Champlain and Tropical Storm Irene. During those disasters, he traveled tirelessly throughout the state pumping up community spirit, pledging state and federal support, and rallying Vermonters’ willingness to volunteer at every stop. It’s made a difference, turning what could have been seen as a setback for the state into a statewide rallying cry to make Vermont better and stronger than ever.
“We’re on the right track,” the governor told about 200 supporters at his campaign kickoff announcement this past Monday. “When I came into office two years ago, people running companies were looking at their boots, saying, ‘Governor, I think I’m going to have to do another round of layoff, I think we may have more bad news.’ Today employers tell me, ‘Governor, I can’t find enough employees to do the work that’s available.” That’s prosperity. That’s jobs. That’s progress.”
But it’s that same bravado and willingness to take risks, to live large and boldly, that opens Shumlin up to criticism and his Republican opponent has been quick to brand Shumlin as perhaps a bit too bold and reckless.
In their first gubernatorial debate last week, Republican state Sen. Randy Brock criticized the governor for pushing ahead with health care reform without knowing how the numbers are going to pan out. And he was quick to criticize the governor for pushing ahead with the $125 million plan to build a new mental health care facility in Waterbury even though FEMA has been slow to confirm how much federal money will be available to help fund the project.
The differing approaches speak volumes about the candidates. Brock would approach government from a more cautious perspective, thorough and systematic — more the James Douglas approach -— while Shumlin appears to shoot a bit from the hip. He’s thorough and pursues calculated risks, but Shumlin also believes in taking action sooner rather than later and seems to enjoy the challenge of moving state government at a quicker pace — more like a small business that has the flexibility to maneuver and adapt on the fly.
Shumlin’s early successes in this first 20 months are why Brock’s campaign is a long shot. Shumlin has been a governor willing to tackle the tough issues and not just kick the can down the road — and for that, and much more, he has garnered widespread support.
But Brock is right to question the governor’s brashness and to give voice to those not so sure about Shumlin’s rapid push on wind energy projects, or exposing Vermont to more legal battles with Entergy over the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant, or rebuilding the Waterbury mental health center without reconsidering the impact of FEMA’s funding falling shorter than expected, or pressing forward with health care reform without sharing how the financing of this proposal will affect the average Vermonter, the state’s hospitals and the business community. Even if Brock falls short, Vermonters would do well to heed those concerns and hold the governor accountable.
Angelo S. Lynn