Legislators to decide governor’s race this week

MIDDLEBURY — A majority of Addison County’s lawmakers said they will vote in favor of incumbent Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin over Republican Scott Milne when the Vermont General Assembly decides the matter on this Thursday.
Per the state Constitution, the General Assembly must decide the contest by ballot when it convenes Jan. 8 because neither Shumlin nor Milne garnered more than 50 percent of the votes cast back on Nov. 4.
Shumlin received 89,509 tallies, which was 46.4 percent of the total votes cast, compared to 87,075, or 45.1 percent, for Milne. Libertarian Dan Feliciano garnered 4.36 percent, with 8,428.
Historically, lawmakers in such instances have affirmed the candidate who received the most tallies in the General Election. In other cases where the winner failed to get at least 50 percent of the vote plus one, the second-place finisher has often conceded and therefore made legislative affirmation a moot point. In 2002, second-place finisher Doug Racine, a Richmond Democrat, conceded to the top vote-getter for governor, Middlebury Republican James Douglas.
But while Milne did not request a recount of the ballots cast on Nov. 4, he has not conceded the race to Shumlin and has announced he will accept the governorship if lawmakers on Jan. 8 choose to disregard the outcome of the popular vote and instead elect him. A group called “Vermonters for Honest Government” has been airing television ads urging legislators to pick Milne.
Milne has been relishing the support.
“I ran for governor on values, believing and knowing that we could do a better job than what I saw coming out of Montpelier,” Milne said during a Dec. 8 speech in Montpelier reiterating his ongoing aspirations for the state’s top executive office. “I believe most voters agree with me.”
That call will be up to the General Assembly, however, and Milne’s post-election bid would appear to be Quixotic. While the GOP gained eight seats in the Vermont House and two in the Senate, Democrats still hold sizable majorities in both chambers, and it appears unlikely the controlling party would see enough defections to topple Shumlin on Jan. 8.
The last time the General Assembly circumvented the popular vote to install a second-place finisher to a major statewide office was in 1853. And Milne’s critics have stated that he would be hard-pressed to transition to the office or deliver a budget proposal in a timely fashion if elected on Thursday.
Still, Shumlin’s opponents believe the governor is vulnerable, pointing to the closeness of the Nov. 4 popular vote and the criticism the governor has drawn on such issues as health care, property tax reform and the Addison Rutland Natural Gas Project pipeline.
In Addison County, Shumlin bested Milne by a 6,020 to 5,761 tally, with Libertarian Feliciano garnering 583 tallies. But Milne received the most votes in 14 of the county’s 23 communities, an achievement that is prompting three of the county’s 11 lawmakers — including newly elected Rep. Alyson Eastman, I-Orwell — to say they will support Milne over Shumlin on Thursday.
“I received quite a few phone calls and emails following the election on this,” Eastman said, “and every constituent has been strong in urging me to vote the way my district did.”
She noted a majority of voters in all four towns in her Addison-Rutland House district (Orwell, Shoreham, Benson and Whiting) cast ballots for Milne on Nov. 4, by an overall 52 percent to 36 percent.
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, cited the same reasoning in his plans to vote for Milne, who on Nov. 4 swept the Addison-3 communities of Vergennes, 389 to 351; Waltham, 99-78; Ferrisburgh, 535-412; Panton, 121-84; and Addison, 335-166.
Van Wyck believes Milne could quickly pick up the nuances of the office, pointing to his professional experience at the helm of Milne Travel.
“I think to run a successful business in Vermont and the region shows that he knows how to hold an executive position,” Van Wyck said. “I am confident he can make executive decisions.”
But Van Wyck’s seatmate, Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said she will vote for Shumlin because of his overall victory back on Nov. 4.
“We’ve been through this a few times,” Lanpher said of past General Assembly votes in which the first-place finisher was affirmed. “Why should it be different now?”
Lanpher said she’s concerned about the extent of political lobbying that has been taking place to anoint the second-place finisher.
“I will be voting for Peter Shumlin, the candidate who got the most votes in this past election,” she said.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, will also vote for Milne. He, too, pointed to the challenger’s successful run in his district of Addison-5, where Milne took Bridport, 269-154, and New Haven, 363-339. Shumlin topped Milne 224 to 146 in Weybridge, also part of Addison-5.
“I’ve been giving it quite a bit of thought,” Smith said of the upcoming vote.
“I am (at the Statehouse) to support the will be the people,” Smith added, calling his impending vote for Milne “following through on what the voters wanted.”
But a majority of the county’s representatives said they preferred to follow a pattern in history that has seen the Legislature affirm the candidate who received the most votes statewide. Among them will be Rep.-elect Fred Baser, R-Bristol, who will vote for Shumlin.
“It was an easy decision for me,” said Baser, who noted he is prepared to receive some scrutiny from fellow Republicans  about his decision. But he said he came to the conclusion many weeks ago that he would affirm the top vote-getter, regardless of the winner’s party affiliation. It should also be noted that three (Bristol, Lincoln and Starksboro) of the four towns in Baser’s Addison-4 district voted for Shumlin, while the fourth (Monkton) opted for Milne.
Baser’s Addison-4 seatmate, Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said, “My district voted for Shumlin and I voted for Shumlin, so you can deduce from that. Shumlin has the plurality (of votes) and I think I’m obligated to vote what the public decided.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, recently stepped down as House majority leader. He added his voice to those who plan to vote for Shumlin.
“The race for governor is a statewide election; the one who receives the most votes should win the statewide seat,” Jewett said. “It’s hard to think about placing someone in the governor’s seat who received fewer votes (than the winner).”
Rep.-Elect Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, will also vote for Shumlin.
“He carried Middlebury by a big margin,” she said, noting the governor’s 1,341 to 733 win in Addison County’s shire town.
Sheldon’s seatmate, Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, said she is leaning toward voting for Shumlin due to his overall victory over Milne on Nov. 4. She noted she voted for Douglas when the former governor did not garner more than 50 percent of the total vote in his first bid in 2002.
Both of the county’s state senators said they, too, will vote for Shumlin.
“Shumlin,” said senior Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison. “That’s the way this county voted.”
She, too, voted for majority vote-getter Douglas back in 2002.
“I’m sticking with the way we do business,” Ayer said.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, agreed.
“I will vote for the candidate who received the most votes — Gov. Shumlin,” he said.
In general, members of the county’s legislative delegation said they wouldn’t mind having this or their future votes for candidates for statewide offices done in a more public way. The Vermont Constitution (Chapter 11, Article 47) calls for such voting by the General Assembly to be done by joint ballot, as opposed to a roll call referendum. So altering the method of voting would require a Constitutional amendment, a quite complex, multi-session procedure entailing multiple legislative actions and a public referendum.
“In Vermont our tradition is to cast our ballots in private,” Bray said. “We go into a voting booth, close the curtain, and cast our vote. After voting, we may or may not share how we voted with others. The same tradition applies to the rare votes by ballot in the Statehouse.
“Changing this tradition for the election of the state’s top officials (governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state and auditor) would require us to amend our state’s constitution, which has served us well for 237 years,” he added. “We should be very careful and thoughtful before we made changes. At the same time, the Constitution is a living document, and we do make changes in order to reflect a changing world. Has our tradition of how we elect our top officials outlived its usefulness? I cannot say, but this is something I would certainly be open to learning more about and especially to discovering the pros and cons of any proposals of a constitutional amendment.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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