Local political expert talks possibilities for 2022
I think it will be sometime in the late summer or early fall of next year, and if Phil doesn’t say what he’s doing, I’ll assume he’s running for a fourth term.
— Eric Davis
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont’s 2020 election results are in, resulting in a little shakeup in the current roster of top state officials. Democrat Molly Gray will succeed Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who was unsuccessful in his effort to unseat Gov. Phil Scott.
But political pundits are already looking ahead to 2022, when the potential retirement of a few longtime incumbents could bring some new faces to state offices and U.S. Congress.
Addison Independent columnist Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College and a nationally recognized expert on Vermont and national politics, offered a glimpse into his crystal ball of how familiar and new names might jockey for position depending on how the dominoes fall during the next two years.
The biggest of those dominoes is controlled by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who’s expected to decide by late 2021 whether he’ll seek another six-year term in the nation’s highest chamber. Leahy has served continuously in the Senate since he won in 1974, making him the most senior member. Leahy celebrated his 80th birthday on March 31.
Should Leahy decide to retire from public service in 2022, Davis believes Vermont Democrats who’ll consider running in his stead include Attorney General T.J. Donovan, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (who lost her re-election bid by 18 votes on Tuesday), and Windham County state Sen. Becca Balint of Brattleboro.
“I think there will be a strong desire with Democrats in Vermont to have a woman serve in the U.S. Senate if there’s an open seat,” Davis said, adding Vermont is the only state in the union to have never elected a woman to Congress.
Davis doesn’t see U.S. Rep. Peter Welch or current Gov. Phil Scott being interested in a U.S. Senate run.
“I think when (Scott’s) time is up as governor, he’s going to retire or go back to running a business of some sort,” he said. “Could you imagine Phil Scott with the (conservative) Republicans in the Senate? He wouldn’t want to be with them. Phil isn’t a career politician. When his time as governor is up, he’s retiring (from politics).”
Welch, 73, was first elected to Congress in 2006, where he’s a Chief Deputy Whip of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Davis said Welch continues to build up seniority and thus enhance the potency of Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House. He believes Welch should continue to run for re-election and gain more influence in shaping issues like energy efficiency, cutting the price of prescription drugs and expanding broadband.
Ideally, Vermont’s next U.S. Senator should be younger that 50 and thus have an opportunity to build seniority, like Leahy (45 years), Robert Stafford (28 years in the U.S. House and Senate), James Jeffords (32 years in the House and Senate) and current U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. (13 years in the Senate, 16 in the House), according to Davis.
ZUCKERMAN & MILNE
The 2020 election results have left Zuckerman on the outside of the Statehouse looking in — at least temporarily. Zuckerman, a farmer, began his stint as a Vermont public servant in 1996, serving on the Vermont House, Senate and then as lieutenant governor.
Davis believes Zuckerman will be back, perhaps initially as a state senator.
“There are a lot of people in Vermont who have lost a statewide race and have gone on to considerable success,” Davis said, citing specifically Sanders, Welch and four governors — Peter Shumlin, Madeleine Kunin, Richard Snelling and Middlebury Republican James Douglas.
“Losing one statewide race does not mean the end of your political career in Vermont,” Davis said, though politicians rarely break though after losing three elections, he noted. With that in mind, he believes Republican Scott Milne’s political future was decided with Tuesday’s loss to Gray.
“Losing three times is just too much of a handicap,” he said.
Speaking on Monday Davis was confident Scott would “handily” win re-election as governor on Tuesday, predicting he’d garner 60% of the ballots cast in that race; Scott captured more than 65%. He believes Scott’s able stewardship of the state through the COVID-19 pandemic augmented his bipartisan support at the polls.
When Zuckerman announced in January “he wanted to campaign on raising the minimum wage, paid family leave, more aggressive environmental and renewable energy policy, more activist state government in general,” Davis said. “That campaign might have worked had the virus not come. (Zuckerman) had to convince voters to replace a leadership that put the state in one of the best positions — if not the best position of any state in the country. And voters just aren’t going to take that risk.”
Now it’s a question of whether Scott will seek a fourth term, according to Davis. He noted Vermont governors of the past 35 years have tended to serve six to 12 years. Davis expects Scott to signal his intentions at least a year before the 2022 elections.
“I think it will be sometime in the late summer or early fall of next year, and if Phil doesn’t say what he’s doing, I’ll assume he’s running for a fourth term,” Davis said.
Looking at others who failed to break through this year, Davis believes Chittenden County state Sen. Tim Ashe will soon make a comeback after this year’s ill-fated bid for lieutenant governor. And he’s betting the Burlington Democrat will seriously consider running for mayor of Burlington, which proved a formidable launching pad for Sanders three decades ago. Incumbent Democrat Miro Weinberger has been mayor of the state’s largest city since 2012.
“I think mayor of Burlington would definitely be a winnable race for Tim Ashe,” Davis said. “I’m getting a sense from some Burlington voters that Tim Ashe can bring some new energy to the office. He would attract support from the more Progressive and centrist voters.”
A term or two as Burlington mayor could set Ashe up for future runs for state or federal offices, Davis said.
Speaking of Sanders, David doesn’t place much credence in speculation that Sanders might accept a cabinet position — specifically Labor Secretary — in a Biden administration, if Biden wins.
“This issues the department deals with are things that Bernie likes — the minimum wage, employee benefits and OSHA and stuff like that — but there’s a lot of nitty-gritty administrative work,” Davis said. “Meetings with the assistant secretary, going up on (Capitol) Hill to testify before relevant committees about detailed legislation. It’s not the sort of job for Bernie. I think he’s much better suited to be chairman of the budget committee, if the Democrats win the Senate.”
So there’s the potential for new names in high-profile places in Vermont state and federal offices.
Only time will tell.
“We’ll have a better sense around a year from now on what the lay of the land will be in 2022,” Davis said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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