Sen. Claire Ayer eyes top post in Senate; Sen. Bray in running

MONTPELIER — Saying she wants to help train and encourage a new generation of leaders in the state’s highest chamber, longtime Addison County Sen. Claire Ayer confirmed this week that she will run for the top leadership position in the Vermont Senate.
And it looks like the Addison Democrat will have plenty of competition for the job of Senate president pro tempore — including from within her own senatorial district, which includes Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore.
Ayer’s district-mate, Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, confirmed on Wednesday that he, too, is poised to run for pro tem, a position being vacated by Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor County, who is not running for re-election in order to accept the job of executive director of the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.
The Independent will interview Bray later this week for an article on his prospective candidacy.
Ayer and Bray join Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden County, and Sen. Ann Cummings, a Montpelier Democrat, on what appears to be a growing list of hopefuls for pro tem.
“I’m running,” Ayer said emphatically during a phone interview with the Independent on Tuesday. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to run again for the Senate, but I think it would be useful for me to stay in the Senate because I’ve had a lot of experience and I’m known to be straightforward and organized.”
But she specifically wants to lay a solid foundation for future Democratic leaders to fill the breach when she and other veteran lawmakers step down.
“We haven’t built up a ‘bench’ in the Senate,” Ayer said. “We don’t have a bench in the committees themselves. I think we need to build (that bench) up so there is more new leadership getting ready.”
Ayer was elected to the Senate in 2002, and has served continuously since then. She has chaired several key committees in recent years, and currently heads a Senate Health & Welfare Committee that has been working on health care reform initiatives.
Ayer, a Middlebury College graduate, is no stranger to leadership positions in the Senate, having served as majority whip since 2006.
The president pro tem presides over the state Senate in the absence of the lieutenant governor, and serves as a member of the Committee on Committees. That panel — made up of the lieutenant governor, president of the Senate and a state senator chosen by his or her peers — is responsible for making committee assignments and choosing leadership for the chamber’s various committees.
“It’s figuring out the goals with the state Senate and then setting the path,” Ayer said of the pro tem’s general charge. “Sometimes the path changes; it’s just like life.”
Ayer would also like to be part of a more productive and diplomatic bridge between the House and Senate. Those two chambers tend to compete on various issues, according to Ayer. She said she wants to get both groups on the same page — to the greatest extent possible — on major initiatives and policy.
“I think we need two bodies to decide ‘This is how we’re going to reform education,’ or ‘This is what we’re going to do about mental health,’” Ayer said. “We need to have a lot of different eyes looking at different ways on things, and then come together with the best ideas because, ideally, we all have the same goal — and that is whatever is best for the state.
“The final legislation should be the prize, owned by both (chambers),” she added.
Of course the candidates for president pro tem will first need to win re-election to the state Senate this November. Senate Democrats will caucus in November or December to nominate their candidate for pro tem. The Democrats currently hold a 21-9 numerical advantage over the Republicans. If that margin remains substantial after the next election, Republican senators won’t be able to derail the Democrat nominee.
Bray is rounding out his second term in the Vermont Senate. He currently chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
“Sen. Ayer and I have thus far only had a brief conversation about our mutual interest in the pro tem position,” Bray stated through a Wednesday email. “I look forward to sitting down with her soon and learning more about her interest in the position. I think we both want to see a well-run Senate. 
“Should I be re-elected, then I will have in-depth conversations with all my Senate colleagues about how and why I’d like to serve them as pro tem,” Bray added.
Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith is running for lieutenant governor this November (see related story here) and said he would relish working with Ayer if they are both elected. Ayer was heavily recruited again this year to run for lieutenant governor, but decided she could be most productive by remaining in the Senate.
Ayer is treasurer of Smith’s campaign for lieutenant governor.
Campbell, 62, has served as Senate president pro tem since 2010.
Ayer is also pledging to bring more proactive and goal-oriented leadership to the pro tem position, if chosen. She would like to see the chamber focus on a 2017 agenda that includes stimulating the economy, creating more affordable housing, implementing additional health care reforms, continuing to promote renewable resources, and protecting the state’s natural resources.
“My preference has always been for policy over politics,” she said. “My aspirations are for the Senate and the state, and not for me personally.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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