Eric Davis: Zuckerman leaves his comfort zone
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s decision to run for governor can be viewed from multiple angles, each offering different insights.
Zuckerman’s decision is not without risk to his future political career. He could have remained lieutenant governor, been re-elected comfortably this fall, and simply waited until there was an open seat available: either for governor or for one of the positions in Vermont’s congressional delegation.
The Vermont Democratic Party conducted extensive polling last year testing how Zuckerman and Attorney General T.J. Donovan would fare in a race against Gov. Phil Scott. This polling must have convinced Zuckerman that Scott has vulnerabilities that he could exploit, particularly in a campaign in a presidential election year with high voter turnout.
Even if Zuckerman ends up not being elected governor, his career prospects are unlikely to suffer long-term damage. There are several very successful figures in recent Vermont political history — Dick Snelling, Jim Jeffords, Madeleine Kunin, Jim Douglas, Peter Welch and Bernie Sanders among them — who lost a statewide race at some point in their otherwise very long records of winning elections, and Zuckerman could well join this group.
Zuckerman will need to win a competitive Democratic primary in order to be the party’s nominee against Scott in November. Rebecca Holcombe, Secretary of Education in the cabinets of both Govs. Peter Shumlin and Scott, has been actively campaigning for the Democratic nomination since August 2019. Her staff reports that she has raised about $250,000 so far. Holcombe’s campaign manager responded to news of Zuckerman’s intention to run by saying, “Bring it on!”
One dimension of a Holcombe-Zuckerman primary worth noting is that, since Madeleine Kunin left the governorship in early 1991, no woman has been elected to any of the most visible statewide positions in Vermont — U.S. Senate, U.S. House or governor. During this nearly 30-year period, Vermont has the worst record of any state in the nation in terms of electing women to top political positions.
While women have served as Speakers of the House and as chairs of important and powerful legislative committees, there does appear to be a strong “glass ceiling” blocking their access to statewide positions. If Holcombe, a qualified candidate with high-level managerial experience in state administration, ends up being brushed aside in the Democratic primary by a man who has higher name recognition because he has been a fixture in Montpelier for many years, the narrative about women’s limited prospects for statewide elected positions in Vermont will be reinforced.
If Zuckerman does win the Democratic primary, he will be the most progressive gubernatorial candidate ever to be nominated by the Vermont Democratic Party. Readers with long memories will recall that, when Bernie Sanders first emerged on the scene as a serious statewide candidate in the 1980s, Democrats frequently nominated other candidates for the same office, producing three-way races that were sometimes won by Republicans. Even as recently as 2008, when Gov. Jim Douglas was re-elected to his fourth term, the opposition to Douglas was split between Democrat Gaye Symington and progressive Independent Anthony Pollina, each of whom received about 22 percent of the vote.
Zuckerman believes that, just as polls of Democratic presidential primary and caucus voters in key early states show that many of those voters will cast ballots for Sanders or for Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Democratic primary voters will be looking for a clear progressive alternative to Scott.
If Zuckerman is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, he will say that Scott, while a nice guy, offers a style of leadership that is too passive for the critical challenges Vermont now faces, on issues such as counteracting the impacts of climate change, cleaning up Lake Champlain and other waterways, and restraining the growth in health care costs in Vermont. The voters will decide in November whether this activist agenda can overcome incumbent governors’ unbroken re-election streak dating back to 1964.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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