Eric Davis: Lt. Gov race will be one to watch
The most competitive statewide race this year may be the contest for lieutenant governor between incumbent Republican Phil Scott and Progressive challenger Dean Corren.
Vermont is one of the minority of states where the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately. The lieutenant governor has only two responsibilities: to preside over the Senate, and to become governor if the governor resigns, dies or is otherwise unable to complete a term.
The lieutenant governor has no executive or policymaking duties. Symbolically, the lieutenant governor’s office is located in the State House, with the legislators, rather than in the Pavilion Building, with the governor and key executive staff members.
Scott, a senator from Washington County, was elected lieutenant governor in 2010 when Brian Dubie gave up the post to run unsuccessfully for governor. After four years in office, Scott has high name recognition, is considered a “nice guy,” and presents himself as an “everyman” who is just as comfortable driving a race car at Thunder Road, or biking the length of Route 100, as sitting around a conference table in Montpelier.
Corren, a Middlebury College graduate, started in politics as a staff member for then-Rep. Bernie Sanders. Corren went on to serve four terms in the Vermont House as a Progressive representing a Burlington district. He has also served as a board member for the Burlington Electric Department and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Corren is participating in Vermont’s public financing scheme for statewide candidates. He has raised enough small contributions from in-state donors to qualify for approximately $200,000 in public financing. This is about the same amount of money that Democratic and Republican candidates for competitive down-ballot elections have raised in recent cycles.
Corren argues that a candidate who participates in the public financing scheme is not dependent on businesses, unions, lobbyists and wealthy individuals, the typical sources of large campaign contributions in Vermont. (And, incidentally, the sources of most of the large contributions to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s well-funded re-election campaign.) Scott responds that public funds would be better spent on state programs such as health care, social welfare, education and highways than on politicians’ campaign expenditures.
No Democratic candidate filed to run for lieutenant governor, although Corren has been endorsed by Shumlin and other Democratic officeholders. There may be competing write-in campaigns for lieutenant governor in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary. Some progressive-minded Democrats will write in Corren’s name. Some moderate Democrats, led by Sen. Dick Mazza of Colchester, will write in Scott’s name.
As lieutenant governor for the last four years, Scott has been reactive rather than proactive on controversial issues such as single-payer health care, education governance and school consolidation, and Vermont’s tax system. He has often been cautious about initiatives being pursued by Shumlin and legislative Democrats, but he has rarely advanced alternative policies of his own.
Scott has kept his distance from national Republicans. Some of Vermont’s small band of conservative Republicans believe he has not done enough to sharpen lines of difference between GOP and Democratic positions on key issues facing the state. Scott’s response is that moderate Republicans are the only Republicans who can win in Vermont.
Corren will campaign as an enthusiastic supporter of single-payer health care. He will also urge state government to do more to transition Vermont’s energy mix away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources.
In 2012, Scott defeated his Democratic opponent, Cassandra Gekas, by 57 to 40 percent. Can Corren in 2014 do better than Gekas in 2012? And as long as the governor is healthy, does it really matter who is elected lieutenant governor?
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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