Editorial: A fine line to straddle in a venue that’s quick to judge

A new political action committee, or PAC, announced this week by Reps. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, and Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, has set out on the noble mission of being a non-partisan supporter of candidates running for election in Vermont. The criteria for support hinge on one primary issue: putting the state’s economy front and center.
“We hope to influence the election in terms of putting the economy at the forefront of the debate,” says Scheuermann. “Our approach is that we want people to focus on comprehensive, long-term economic growth strategies for the state.”
Ralston, who is not running for re-election after serving two terms (while Scheuermann is running for re-election), said the PAC hopes to encourage more candidates who will work to create jobs and work to stimulate the economy, rather than candidates who are focused on social issues, which Ralston says, consumes too much of the time and energy spent on legislation in the Statehouse.
“Issues of the economy are easier to bridge in a nonpartisan way,” Ralston told VTDigger in an interview earlier this week, noting that issues like “marijuana or physician-assisted suicide affect so few people, while the economy affects all.”
That said, the PAC might still find it difficult to retain its bipartisan appeal for long if all things must be viewed through an economic prism.
Witness the transformation of Campaign for Vermont over the past few years.
What started out as a purely grassroots, well-intentioned, non-partisan organization by businessman Bruce Lisman, focused on education issues and growing a strong economy, became a mostly conservative mouthpiece criticizing the Shumlin administration on a variety of issues, while offering few ideas that were sound enough to pass muster with those in the legislature. (The exception was on the issues of transparency in government and ethics, for which the organization can take substantial credit for pushing those issues and helping institute new laws.)
Part of the problem is perception. While the intention of Campaign for Vermont was to remain non-partisan, the voice that needed to be amplified for the past four years has been an effective yin to the Shumlin administration’s yang — the premise in politics being that a countering voice is needed to ensure the majority’s approach is challenged, reworked, and made better by looking at all sides of an issue, and to bring up other issues if there is a void to fill.
Ironically, it’s that constant challenge to those in power, which is often needed, that begins to taint the organization as partisan. (It’s why a strong, multi-party system makes democracy stronger, and why — in the absence of a stronger Republican Party in the state—these two non-partisan organizations are trying to fill that vacuum.)
In the case of Campaign for Vermont, new executive director Cyrus Patten has recently taken the reins of the organization with the stated mission to support a strong economy through policy initiatives, rather than by focusing support on candidates.
“We want to see Vermont thrive economically and socially,” Patten told VTDigger this week. “Where I would draw a distinction from any other group pushing a strong economy is that we’re not simply a pro-business group or anti-regulation. That’s not our mission. We realize to have a vibrant economy it takes a strong public education system, a transparent accountable government, access to affordable health care. These are all components of a vibrant economy that you can’t ignore.”
Patten said the organization, officially called Campaign for Vermont Prosperity, would work hard to demonstrate how apolitical it is going forward by focusing on policy issues like school governance, the education finance system, legislative accountability and watchdog government agencies like the Agency of Human Services to assess how it has been able to resolve current problems.
The challenge both organizations face is being strong enough in the advocacy of what they believe to become effective, while not alienating those who disagree with their perspective, and consequently begin to be perceived as partisan from one side or the other. It’s a fine line to straddle in an environment that is all too quick to judge.
Angelo S. Lynn

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