Gregory Dennis: The human factor in Vermont politics
It’s easy to watch political figures on television or read about them in the paper and forget one thing.
Those are human beings up there.
It may seem that those who live and breathe politics are thick-skinned creatures programmed to the point of being semi-robots. Different from you and me.
They look completely consumed by the process. Everything is a calculation, and every move dissected under the microscope.
But the people at the podiums also bring every emotion to the table.
When Gov. Peter Shumlin set the Vermont political world on fire by announcing that he won’t seek reelection, political observers immediately turned to musing about who’ll run to succeed him.
Lost in all our handicapping, though, was the human side of the story.
Shumlin had survived a crowded and contentious Democratic primary to ascend to the governor’s seat. He then had to put together a fresh administration after many years in which Middlebury’s Jim Douglas occupied the governor’s seat.
It must’ve been quite a roller coaster ride. Shumlin got divorced somewhere in there, but he also soared to the heights of victory with the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and early euphoria about expanding healthcare coverage to all.
Then the bottom began to fall out.
The governor dared to greatness, leading the effort to make Vermont the first-ever state to have efficient, government-run health insurance.
Several years down that rocky road, however, he retreated — announcing that Vermont couldn’t afford the benefits of such a system.
In the meantime the state’s healthcare insurance exchange — which Shumlin had so long championed — was in a shambles. Where it remains today.
The governor was barely re-elected last year, even while running against a clueless empty suit. His signature healthcare initiative was by then a source of ongoing aggravation for Vermonters.
You could hardly blame him for wondering if it was all worth it.
In his personal life, though, it emerged last year that the bachelor Shumlin had fallen in love with a beautiful woman. That must have greatly brightened his darker days.
I’ve had many friends in politics over the years. I’ve even drawn close to that particular flame myself. Close enough to know that I don’t have the stomach for political combat.
And that compared to the political grind, the love of a partner — and the lure of time to oneself — are powerful countervailing forces.
So when I see someone say “enough is enough,” I don’t blame him. A part of me congratulates him, in fact, for realizing that politics is not the only game in town.
The governor did more than shake up the snow globe of Vermont politics. He offered a verbal nod to “my partner, Katie,” and without saying it in so many words, gave testament to how hard it is to be a political leader, to what a personal toll it takes.
Shumlin is already well-off and has, along with his brother, built a successful travel business. Perhaps he will marry the woman he loves. And today he must be breathing a huge sigh of relief, that he can go back to having a relatively normal life.
So to return to the political handicapping: Who will take up Shumlin’s mantle?
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the one Republican who could win, certainly sounds like he wants to go for it.
Shap Smith, the likable and articulate House of Representatives leader, has since Monday made no secret about his interest in the job. Matt Dunne, who was one of the several Dems who lost to Shumlin in the primary a few years back, has for months been talking to friends about another possible run.
Maybe Doug Racine, who narrowly lost that primary to Shumlin, wants to take another shot. But he doesn’t yet sound like he has the fire in the belly. Nor does the estimable Sen. Anthony Pollina, who previously ran the strongest gubernatorial campaign ever by a Vermont Progressive.
One Democrat, however, would clear the field and probably win by a wide margin in 2016. That’s Congressman Peter Welch.
He was the top Democrat in the State Senate before going to Washington. He’s a likable and impressive politician who has stayed close to Vermont while doing well in his Washington day job. Welch has powerful name recognition and the respect of his peers.
It seems likely that most Democratic contenders would bow out — and perhaps run for Welch’s House seat — if he decides he wants to come home and be governor.
Again the human factor here: Being a member of Congress can very fulfilling. But it’s not a whole lot of laughs to be a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives these days.
It gets old quick, serving in a permanent minority, working in a small office and settling for legislative tidbits. It’s tiring to take those US Airways flights back and forth from Washington, to live in two places and really nowhere it all.
Will Welch make the jump? The congressman certainly sounds interested.
On Monday, after Shumlin’s shocker, Welch’s chief of staff emailed this to the media:
“It’s likely Congressman Welch will seek re-election to Congress but this news comes as a surprise so he will be taking the time he needs to thoughtfully consider how he can best serve Vermonters.”
Translation: Welch wouldn’t at all mind being governor.
While Peter Shumlin may be happy to leave the office behind, Peter Welch knows there’s another element to the human side of politics: It can be very gratifying to truly make a difference, and it can also be a lot of fun.
Just not for Peter Shumlin anymore.
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Correcting a couple of past errors: In my last column I mistakenly referred to the co-owner of Otter Creek Bakery. Her first name is Sarah, not Sally. Also, in a past column I said the Lang chairlift at the Middlebury College Snow Bowl was previously the site of a T-bar. As the bowl’s general manager, Peter Mackey, reminded me, the old lift there was a Poma, not a T-bar.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.GregDennis.WordPress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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