Eric Davis: Democrats have opportunity, challenges

Gov. Shumlin’s decision not to seek re-election next year has accelerated the timetable for Vermont’s 2016 election cycle. Prospective Democratic candidates for governor are expected to announce their intentions within the next few months, rather than wait until 2016.
At this time, the strongest potential Democratic candidates would be, in alphabetical order, Matt Dunne, Sue Minter and Shap Smith. Each of them would bring assets to the campaign, and each would also need to address weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Dunne was a member of the Legislature for 11 years, seven in the House and four in the Senate. During the Clinton Administration, he served as director of AmeriCorps VISTA. Since 2006, Dunne has been the community affairs director for Google, working out of offices in White River Junction.
Dunne has run statewide in two previous cycles, losing to Brian Dubie in the 2006 General Election for lieutenant governor, and finishing fourth among five candidates in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor.
Dunne has a political base in the Connecticut Valley, one of the larger concentrations of Democratic voters in Vermont outside Chittenden County. His previous campaigns have given him experience and exposure around the state. The campaign finance report he filed last week shows that he has already raised about $134,000, giving him a head start on preparing for a primary campaign.
Dunne has the advantage of having been outside Montpelier for some time. However, 2016 is probably his last chance at statewide office. While many Vermont politicians have lost one statewide race, only Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch have gone on to successful political careers after two statewide losses. Can Dunne add his name to this list?
Sue Minter has five years of public managerial experience, having served since early 2011 as Deputy Secretary of Transportation, Irene Chief Recovery Officer, and Secretary of Transportation. She has overseen large bureaucracies, and has worked closely with both local government officials and federal agencies.
Minter’s professional background is in community planning. Before she went into the Agency of Transportation, she served six years as a legislator representing a Waterbury-area constituency.
Minter’s administrative experience, at a time when state government needs skilled high-level management, would be an asset to her campaign. Minter could also be the only woman in a multi-candidate field. Minter’s main challenges would be increasing her name recognition outside Washington County, and developing policies in areas such as education and health care.
Shap Smith of Morrisville was first elected to the Vermont House in 2002. He has been Speaker of the House since January 2009. Smith is an attorney with a firm in Burlington.
As House Speaker, Smith has developed a deep knowledge of a wide range of policy issues. He has also demonstrated the ability to put together political coalitions, to keep the House on schedule, and to avoid distractions from peripheral issues.
As the public face of the Legislature, Smith will face the challenge of separating himself from an institution that is not held in the highest esteem among Vermonters. Although several House speakers have run for governor over the past 50 years, the last person to be elected governor while serving as speaker was F. Ray Keyser in 1960. He served only one term as governor before being defeated by Philip Hoff in 1962.
An extended Democratic primary campaign among Dunne, Minter, Smith, and perhaps others, would give voters plenty of time to learn more about all these candidates, and to assess their background, experience, electability and policy positions as qualifications for governor. As I noted in my last column, whoever wins the Democratic primary could then face a challenging General Election campaign next fall against Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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