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Eric Davis: Shumlin will leave a mixed legacy

Next Thursday, Peter Shumlin will leave Montpelier after six years as governor, and before that, 17 years as a legislator. How should Shumlin’s political career be assessed?
Shumlin is less popular leaving office than recent governors who chose not to run for re-election: Dick Snelling in 1984, Madeleine Kunin in 1990, Howard Dean in 2002, and Jim Douglas in 2010. Had Shumlin faced a stronger opponent than Scott Milne in 2014, he might have been the first governor to lose a re-election bid in more than 50 years. Why has Shumlin’s support declined over the past six years?
First, he lost his political base: the progressive Democrats who enabled him to win the five-candidate Democratic primary for governor in 2010, because of his views on marriage equality, closing Vermont Yankee, and single-payer health care. When Shumlin abandoned single-payer in late 2014, and also did not go along with calls for a more redistributive tax system to support expanded social programs, the progressives abandoned him. Many of them went elsewhere, often to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Second, once Shumlin lost his political base, he did not have a personal constituency outside his home area of Windham County that he could call on for support. Most successful politicians have a group of core supporters that they can rely on in difficult times, but Shumlin was never strong at the grass roots. By the time he ran for re-election in 2014, he had very few in-state donors who gave him $200 or less, a good indicator of grass-roots support. Shumlin’s core supporters, as indicated by that year’s campaign finance reports, were businesses that were subsidized by, regulated by, or did business with the state, or out-of-state organizations and firms that he met as chair of the Democratic Governors Association.
Third, except for overseeing the recovery from Tropical Storm Irene, Shumlin’s administration was not seen as strong in managerial and administrative competence — a marked difference from both the Dean and Douglas years. Vermont Health Connect seemed to become a bottomless pit in terms of spending, with the system never able to deliver all the functionality that was promised. The EB-5 economic development program in the Northeast Kingdom was seen as inadequately overseen by the state in its early years, and Shumlin was criticized for a lack of transparency as federal investigators raised more questions about the EB-5 visa program and its connections with state government.
Finally, Vermont’s recovery from the great recession progressed more slowly than in many other states, and the squeeze on middle-income households was more pronounced in Vermont than elsewhere. This was due as much to the state’s demographics as to policy choices. As a result, Shumlin lost the support of many centrist Vermonters for his program of expanding state government, taking on large new projects, and funding these initiatives with what he saw as unused tax capacity among both higher-income individuals and Vermont’s business community.
There are some praiseworthy aspects of Shumlin’s record. As a legislator, Shumlin was as responsible as anyone for Vermont’s being the first state to enact marriage equality through legislative action rather than a court decision. This accelerated a trend that was picked up by legislatures and voters in other states, and culminated with the Supreme Court’s decision that the right to marry is protected by the United States Constitution.
Gov. Shumlin and his administration facilitated and coordinated many successful economic development and downtown revitalization projects in communities outside of Chittenden County, with Waterbury, Barre and Rutland being good examples. Many of these projects saw excellent collaborative relationships develop among appointed and career officials in state government, along with their counterparts at the federal and local levels. These projects and relationships could be Shumlin’s most enduring accomplishment.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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