Vermont Republican Party looks to Sunderland to right the ship
WATERBURY — The Vermont Republican Party is somewhat of an endangered species these days.
Republicans hold just 48 of 150 seats in the Vermont House of Representatives, seven of 30 seats in the Senate, and one of six statewide offices.
In 2012, Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, defeated GOP challenger Randy Brock by 21 points. Brock, a former state senator, outspent Shumlin but managed to secure the vote of just one-third of Vermonters.
At the federal level, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a left-leaning independent, in 2012 dispatched Republican candidate John MacGovern by 46 points. Democratic Rep. Peter Welch got three times as many votes as Republican challenger Mark Donka.
Republicans didn’t fare any better in the down ticket races — the party lost close races for treasurer and state auditor. At the state level, only Lt. Gov. Phil Scott prevailed, over an under-funded and inexperienced Democratic candidate.
Rumblings of a shakeup in party leadership made their way across the state long before incumbent chairman Jack Lindley, who was recently hospitalized for an undisclosed ailment, announced Nov. 6 he was withdrawing his name for consideration at the Nov. 9 state convention.
At the convention, party delegates elected former state representative David Sunderland as chairman.
Despite the party’s recent woes, Sunderland is optimistic.
“I’m excited for where we’re going as a party,” Sunderland said in an interview Tuesday near his office in Waterbury.
Sunderland, 48, grew up in Middlebury and graduated from Middlebury Union High School in 1983. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1989. He lives with his wife, Theresa, and their four children in Rutland Town.
Sunderland said he has always had an eye for politics.
“It spurs out of a deep appreciation of my state,” he said. “My family has been in Vermont for generations, and this is an area I thought I could contribute.”
Sunderland got his feet wet while volunteering for Middlebury resident Jim Douglas in his first successful campaign for governor in 2002.
Sunderland had not yet seriously thought of running for office himself at the time, but a chain of events landed him in the Legislature. When Douglas was elected, he appointed Rutland County Sen. John Crowley to his executive staff. Douglas then tapped Rep. Kevin Mullin to fill Crowley’s seat, and in turn appointed Sunderland to Mullin’s seat.
Sunderland served two terms in the House, and was the assistant minority leader from 2005-07. While there, he worked to pass Act 68, which changed the way the state’s education system was funded. Sunderland said, however, there is still a ways to go on that issue.
“The education system in Vermont is extremely expensive,” Sunderland said. “It’s a burden on everyday working Vermonters, and it’s not receiving attention that it should be.”
Sunderland, a mechanical engineer by trade, said the decision to run for party chair was the result of an “evolution of events.”
“The election of 2012 was obviously disappointing for Republicans in Vermont,” Sunderland said. “I was very interested in what I could do or what could be done in general to re-energize the party for the next time around. I waned to contribute, but I didn’t imagine at some point I would be running for chair.”
Sunderland said he reached out to former House colleagues who were also frustrated by the 2012 shellacking to talk about what the party needed to do to change.
“We talked about the leadership of the party, and a bunch of names got thrown on the board,” Sunderland said. “Over the summer they whittled it down to me.”
Lt. Gov. Scott, an avid Red Sox fan, described the party’s effort in 2012 using a baseball analogy.
“Sometimes you can have the best players and the best manager, but the chemistry isn’t right,” Scott said. “Dave and I don’t always see eye to eye, but I like his approach, and how he treats people.”
Sunderland shied away from criticizing his predecessor, but reiterated the need for change.
“Jack Lindley stepped forward at an important time,” Sunderland said. “He managed in a certain way, but the bottom line is we weren’t successful in 2012. We need to do things differently.
“I think our core issues are in line with the core issues of many Vermonters, including independents and even moderate Democrats,” Sunderland said. “Issues like the cost of living — it’s expensive to live here and people raising families and running small business realize that.”
Sunderland conceded that his party has struggled to articulate what it stands for.
“I think we have lost, to a certain extent, our identity as the voice for those people in the Legislature,” Sunderland said. “Our focus is going to be on these issues going forward, and hopefully we can re-engage with people who identify as independents and moderate Democrats.”
Scott offered his own post-mortem.
“I do find when talking to friends that are independent, they’ve been disappointed we haven’t defined ourselves as a party like we did in recent decades,” Scott said. “I look back at the Aikens, the Staffords and the Jeffords — they were all great leaders and dealt with fiscal issues pragmatically, without kicking them down the road.”
Sunderland was not unopposed in his bid for chairman. He received 48 votes while John MacGovern received 30. Sunderland was backed by more moderate members of the party, like Phil Scott, while MacGovern was supported by a more conservative faction.
Despite the division such a vote highlights, Sunderland said he’s confident the party will find unity.
“We’re going to disagree on certain things, but we can agree that fiscally our state is headed for trouble,” Sunderland said. “We have a growing budget deficit that is getting very little attention inside and outside Montpelier. I think the core issues of our party we can agree on.”
“I don’t expect others to change their views,” Scott said. “I’m just asking them to consider changing their approach.”
Sunderland said he is concerned with the issue of unfunded liabilities from pension and other state government contracts.
“I’m concerned fiscally that we’re dancing the dance, but at some point we’re going to have to pay the band,” he said. “Hopefully Vermonters understand the sooner we address them, the better, regardless of their political bent.”
With another election next year and campaign filing deadlines six months away, Sunderland has begun the task of recruiting candidates.
“We’re putting plans together now — certainly the expectation is that we’ll pick up some seats in the House and possibly the Senate,” he said. “That’s absolutely the goal.”
Asked whether he thought the Republicans could field a viable candidate to challenge Gov. Shumlin next fall, Sunderland said he did not know.
“I certainly think they’ll be people who are interested, and I’m confident we’ll field a good slate of candidates.”
Unseating Shumlin next fall will be a difficult task — an incumbent Vermont governor has not been defeated in an election since 1962.
The Republicans will also have to compete with the well-organized infrastructure of the state’s Democratic Party. The Democrats have three year-round staffers and a part-time consultant, and also hire field staff during campaigns, party Communications Director Ryan Emerson said.
The Republicans have just two paid staffers, and Lindley served in a volunteer capacity as chairman.
Sunderland said at present he will serve in a part-time, volunteer capacity, but that could change based on fundraising efforts.
“(The Democrats) are certainly well-funded; they get lot of money from the national party,” Sunderland said. “We aim to increase our fundraising capacity.”
The party will be holding a “Welcome Winter Gala” Dec. 11 with popular New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Tickets for dinner are $50, and admission to a private reception with Christie beforehand is $1,000 per couple.
But Sunderland stressed the party will not just fund itself by carting in big-wigs from other states.
“The key to our success will be building grassroots party organization from the county and town level,” Sunderland said.
Sunderland said one-party rule is bad for the state.
“We see the results now of not having a big minority voice in Montpelier,” Sunderland said. “We have a huge overhaul in our healthcare system that could have a significant impact on cost, quality and affordability of healthcare, and we still don’t know what it’s going to cost or how we’re going to pay for it.”
Vermont is one of 37 states where one party controls the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature.
Sunderland said if Republicans had larger numbers in the Legislature, the transition to Vermont Health Connect would be smoother and more responsible.
“I think with a strong voice to ask those questions, Vermonters would be better off,” he said.
Sunderland said he also did not like the state of discourse between the political parties in Vermont.
“Overall, I think the tone needs to change on both sides of the aisle,” Sunderland said. “I don’t think it’s healthy to attack each other when we have disagreements — I think we can disagree respectfully.”
But it quickly became clear that this brand of politics will not be going away any time soon. Just hours after our interview with Sunderland, the state Democratic Party sent out a press release headlined ‘Vermont GOP Chair Already Confused’.
“The Vermont Democratic Party this afternoon reacted to new Vermont GOP Chair David Sunderland’s outlandish assertion that Governor Shumlin wants to strip medical coverage from our seniors and veterans,” the release said. In it, Executive Director Julia Barnes added, “It’s clear that Sunderland is either confused about the facts or is intentionally misleading Vermonters.”
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Sunderland described the relationship between Vermont Republicans and the national party as “complicated.”
“Vermont is a unique place, and Vermonters and Vermont Republicans are unique people,” Sunderland said. “Certainly, we are Republicans, but we’re different in many ways.”
Despite the national party’s stance on social issues like same-sex marriage, which has been legal in Vermont since 2009, Sunderland said he does not envision a rocky relationship between the state and national organizations.
“There will be differences, but I don’t think we’ll ever be completely separate,” Sunderland said. “But differences are good and healthy, I think.”
But the damage may have already been done. Vermont, which for much of its history was one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, is now dominated by the Democratic Party.
Vermont was one of two states (the other being Maine) never to go to Franklin Roosevelt; it did not support a Democratic presidential candidate until Lyndon Johnson. For over a century, from 1854 until 1963, a Republican served as governor.
But in the last two decades, alignment has shifted. Vermont has voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since 1992. Barack Obama carried the state by a wide margin, even while Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, was re-elected.
Since 2001, when Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords defected to join the Democratic caucus, Vermont has not had any Republicans in its Congressional delegation.
Sunderland’s task of making a state Republican Party relevant in Democrat-dominated New England will be an arduous one. The legislatures of Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut are all controlled by Democrats. Maine is the only state with a Republican governor, though none of the New England states sent a Republican to the House of Representatives.
As Vermont has no party registration, it is difficult to measure party strength. But judging by recent election results and general trends in New England, the Republican Party has reason to be worried.
A NEW HOPE
Sunderland said he was encouraged by the turnout at the party meeting Nov. 9.
“I was happy to see the number of young people there, the amount of energy in the room,” he said. “I can’t remember being to a state meeting with the same atmosphere. People are excited for a change, they’re excited for a new start.”
Sunderland said he will make a outreach to young voters a priority.
“We’re going to make a conscientious effort towards re-engaging youth in Vermont with our party,” Sunderland said. “There’s a lot of interest on the youth level, in whether they’ll be able to get a job or afford to live here. We need to work to build that, and to engage them.”
The party will also look to recruit younger candidates.
“We’ll be looking in the next several months over all corners of the state for people who are interested in making a difference. If young people have that passion, we’re certainly interested in talking with them about it.”
Sunderland dismissed critics who said the party has no future in Vermont.
“Oh, we have a bright future,” Sunderland said. “The energy in the room on Saturday, the number of young people there, down to our county chair levels — I’m very optimistic about where we’re headed.”
Read Angelo Lynn’s editorial here.
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