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News :: Politics
10 Nov 2008
A look at Vermont's 2008 election, and what it means for teh social-democratic Vermont Progressive party and the socialist Vermont Liberty Union Party.
Catamount Tavern News Service, Montpelier, VT, November10th, 2008- If there were ever a year for an incumbent Republican Governor to be shown the door it was 2008. With President George W. Bush’s Vermont approval rating hovering in the mid 20s, with two on-going, unpopular wars afoot, with the economy crashing harder than the US has seen since the Great Depression, and with droves of Vermonters going to the polls to enthusiastically place their bet with the now Democratic President-elect Barack Obama (who received 67% of the VT vote), this was the year that the left hoped to demonstrate definitively that Jim does not equal jobs and that Jim represents the same failed policies that have doomed us from DC on down. After all, Douglas was the chair of the local Bush election team in 2004, and has consistently supported Republican endorsed privatization schemes (the latest being the failed attempt to lease the Vermont Lottery to a for-profit, out-of-state corporation). But with more than 1.25 million dollars in his re-election war chest, and with Pollina having to fight with Symington for the anti-Republican vote, Douglas, once again, won out over all common sense with 53.3% of the vote.*

In the number two slot Republican incumbent Brian Dubie also won his 4th for Lieutenant Governor, capturing 54.9%. The Douglas & Dubie victories were expected, although a number of polls, some as late as October, predicted Douglas would finish with less than a clear majority (therefore sending the race to the VT Legislator). The remainder of the statewide races went solidly Democrat, with some minor in-roads (as far as vote percentages are concerned) made by a slate of social-democratic oriented Progressive Party challengers. The Vermont Liberty Union (which is affiliated with the Socialist Party USA) also ran a full slate but failed to win any races. The political make up of the General Assembly (overwhelmingly Democrat, with 6 Progressives, and less than a third of the remaining seats taken by a Republican minority) remains largely as it has been for the last two years; on the center-left.

The plate tectonics of Vermont politics did not drastically shift in this election, but if anyone felt some soft tremors (as the Democratic Party leadership surely did!), it was brought on by Progressive turned Independent Anthony Pollina who, on a shoe string budget and with a solid grassroots effort, beat out the Democrat (and 4 other folks) for a second place finish in the contest for Governor. Pollina (who was endorsed by the Abenaki Nation as well as the Gun Owners of Vermont) finished with 22%, or approximately 1000 more votes than received by former Democratic VT House Speaker Gaye Symington. Pollina’s campaign centered around supporting small farmers and working Vermonters through state investment in agriculture & infrastructure, establishing a livable minimum wage, state sponsored universal healthcare, and Vermont owned renewable green energy. But Pollina only managed to raise $233,000 to support his cause (mostly by small in-state donations), while Douglas held over a million, and Symington $494,000. These fundraising disparities ultimately hurt Pollina. Early on Anthony informed CT News that he felt he needed to raise something close to a cool million to be competitive –a figure that was solidly out of reach once Symington entered the contest.

Democrat Gaye Symington, for her part, ran one of the worst gubernatorial campaigns in recent memory. She failed to articulate an interesting or believable alternative to the Douglas juggernaut, and appeared amateurish and uncomfortable in the debates. Her failure to connect with working Vermonters, her inability to speak to the concerns of regular people, perhaps, has been equaled only by such fellow millionaires as Jack McMullen and Richard Tarrent. Reflecting these failures, the usually solid Democratic labor unions lined up not behind Symington, but behind Pollina. While Gaye did manage to gain the endorsement of the Teamsters (representing more than 1000 Vermonters), all other major unions (NEA with 10,000 plus members, VT AFL-CIO 10,000 members, and VSEA 8000 members) backed Anthony. Running a campaign as she did, Symington would have been lucky to win a seat on her local Select Board, let alone the State’s top job. In short, she could not have done a worse job of ousting Douglas if she intentionally tried. She, and not Anthony, played the role of spoiler, not so much as her combined vote totals would have otherwise thrown Pollina over the top (it would not), but more by siphoning off money, media coverage, and other resources that would otherwise have fallen to the advantage of the Pollina camp. Pollina, running against Jim with no Democrat nipping at his heals, may not have won (Vermonters are known to stick with incumbents), but he could have made it interesting. As for Symington, insiders are whispering that this was never about winning. This was about the Democratic leadership attempting to marginalize the Progressive Party, and, more personally, about Symington setting herself up for a position in the new Obama administration. Speculation? Time will tell, if this rumor has any legs.

In the aftermath of the Douglas victory, both Progressives and Democrats are already jockeying for political positions in the 2010 general election. Pollina, who as recently as 2007 served as the party’s chair and who was actively supported by the party even as an Independent, has gone on record saying that he will consider another run. In the days immediately following the election Pollina told WDEV and Vermont Public Radio that Progs and Democrats should get behind a consensus candidate, based on small ‘p’ progressive issues. Undoubtedly, he is placing himself on the shortlist of such potential uniters. Concretely Anthony has said that he will spend a few weeks thinking about what to do next, and is yet to lay down the hard conditions upon which a Progressive-Democratic alliance can be made. Undoubtedly Anthony is looking at the recent fusion ticket in the Chittenden County State Senate race, where Progressive Burlington City Councilman, Tim Ashe, successfully captured both the Democratic and Prog nomination, and went on to win a seat in that body (becoming the first Prog to do so). With Pollina already dropping the “Progressive” label and opting to present himself as a Independent, it is not a far stretch to imagine him trying to gain the Democratic endorsement by entering that party’s primary in 2010. However, Anthony has enough guts and political foresight not to jump in the shark pool as a “Democrat” alone. Rather, it is more likely that he will follow Ashe’s example by seeking both the Prog and Dem nods.

As to whether or not this option becomes a realistic possibility will depend on who the Republican candidate will be in the next election. If Douglas goes for a 5th term, the Democrats will believe that he cannot be beat, and may support a Pollina Prog/Dem fusion ticket. In this scenario the Democratic Party leadership will bet on a solid Pollina defeat, and they will further calculate that a loss under those conditions (where the Dems cannot be painted as obstructionist by those to their left) will drive the death nail into Pollina’s electoral coffin. This is what they will figure, but they have been known to be very wrong in the past. Remember, it was the same party that thought Bernie Sanders, our current socialist US Senator, was a one term phenomena as Burlington’s lefty major back in 81’).

If, on the other hand, Douglas is not running for the top spot, the alleged heavy hitters of the Democratic Party will crawl out from the proverbial donkey’s ass and not only will they turn their back on Pollina, but they will have a tough primary contest amongst themselves. In this scenario look for a primary matching former State Senator Matt Dunne against State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding. Pollina could, in theory, enter the Democratic primary against these two, but the odds would be against him (as would the Dem power brokers), and a loss there would make him, and the left in general, appear weak. In this scenario Pollina would be wise to stay out of the inner party Democratic showdown. And, for reasons further discussed below, he would do well to keep out of the contest altogether, if it turns out to be a Democratic free-for-all.

Why would Douglas not run again? CT News has been informed by a very reliable source that Democrat Pat Leahy is strongly considering retiring from the US Senate in 2010. If this were to happen smart money is that Douglas will seek a ticket to Washington. But could Douglas win? It depends on who is running against him. If Democratic Congressman Peter Welch enters the fray, it will be close, with Welch likely coming out on top.

And if Welch’s US House seat were again up for grabs? The Vermont Republican Party bench is not on the major league level. Few politicos come to mind that have more than a minor league future. Beyond Douglas and Dubie, only State Senator Dianne Snelling, Representative Randy Brock, former Adjutant General Martha Rainville, and NEK Senator Vince Illuzzi appear ready to step to the plate of a statewide election. Of these, Rainville and Dubie would be the top likely contenders for the Congressional seat. On the Democratic side one should look to Windom County State Senator Peter Shumlin or State Auditor Tom Salmon, with the labor allied Floyd Nease as the dark Horse. If the Progressives choose to field a viable candidate, the list is also short. Popular Burlington Representative David Zuckerman, an organic farmer, has expressed interest in the office in the past, but seems more poised to assume an in-state party leadership position. What is likely is that the Progs will not run in the race. Again, without a serious Prog in the contest, the advantage would be toward the Democrat over the Republican (as Vermonters tend to like their Congressmen left-of-center).

Specific candidate speculation aside, the question remains; can or even should the Progressives seek to form an alliance with the Democrats in 2010? And if so, what would such an alliance look like? Many liberal leaning Democrat Party activists have been clamoring for a merging of the two parties (the Progressive Democratic Party of Vermont?). Such a possibility is not without precedent. The old left wing Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota, who rose to prominence electing many members to state office in the 1920/30s, eventually merged with the state Democratic Party, forming the center-left Democratic Farmer-Labor Party that continues to operate (at least in name) to this very day. Former US Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale hailed from this hybrid party, as did the late US Senator Paul Wellstone. But so far no one in the Progressive Party leadership is talking full merger. And even if such a merger were proposed it would most certainly be resisted by grassroots Progressives who would fear the likelihood of themselves being absorbed by the massive Democratic Party as a relatively powerless sub-caucus.

If an alliance is to be forged it will probably consist of deal concerning any open statewide races. If Leahy decides to run again, and/or if Douglas also decides to try for a 5th term, there will not be much room for either party to maneuver. This being said, in a status quo election the Dems may give Pollina the nod, but only because they believe it to be in their long term benefit and because they think he will lose. However, if the field opens up and Douglas is out of the picture for Governor, it is possible that an agreement can be reached whereby the Progs keep out of the Governor and Congressional races, in exchange for a free run at any open down ticket races (Zuckerman for LT Gov?, Former VSEA President, Ed Stanic for State Treasurer?). A reasonable chance for Progressive down ticket victories would be the reward for keeping Pollina out of the Governor’s contest.

And again, if Anthony does not enter the race for Governor in two years, what will he do? Among other things there should be little doubt that he will continue to organize farmers and give support to labor as he has constantly done for the last 20 years. But in the electoral arena Pollina should strongly consider a run at the Vermont State Senate for Washington County. Anthony, a resident of Middlesex, did very well in Washington County in 08.’ He won the capital city of Montpelier outright as well as a number of other towns. He is well known throughout the area, thanks in large part to his WDEV AM radio talk show Equal Time, and has very positive relations with area labor councils, farmers, and organizers. He could win this race (much as Bernie won the Burlington Mayor’s race in 81) and use this post to position himself as the “conscious” of the General Assembly. As a high profile State Senator he would still have the ear of Vermonters, and he could bring many of his innovative ideas to the State House (i.e. the Vermont credit card, the 2% institutional investment in local infrastructure, built in preferences for in-state union bids) and back them up by pressure from a motivated constituency from below. He would also be in a good position to re-enter statewide contests in the future if and when the conditions appear ripe. But after three major runs at statewide office, and two decades of community organizing, it is hard to say if Pollina would ultimately find a legislative role to his liking.

Regardless of who the eventual left candidates are in 2010 and no matter what deal (or no deal) the Progs strike with the Democratic Party, there are other realities that the Progressives will have to address, if they are to grow their political base and push their social-democratic agenda forward. First, the mixed results of the 08’ legislative races have to be looked at. While the Progs retained four House seats, gained a new one (from Brattleboro), and sent their first party member to the State Senate, they also suffered a number of harsh losses. Former party staffer Chris Pearson lost his post as State Representative from Burlington to 22 year old student Democrat Kesha Ram. In the Northeast Kingdom, dairy farmer Dexter Randal was unseated by a Republican. And in half a dozen other races, they failed to win new ground.

Person’s loss was due to a massive UVM student turnout which strongly favored recent student body president Kesha Ram. What should be disturbing to the Progs is not the fact that Pearson lost per se, but that he clearly lost the student vote. This district, it must be recalled, was an early stronghold of the budding Progressive movement for the very reason that they could count on the students for their support (both Pearson and Zuckerman, who is also from this district, are UVM graduates). The fact that the students rejected Chris in favor of a Democrat (even if it is one of their own) speaks poorly of the Progressive’s efforts to reach out to young voters in the last few years. In order to stem this tide the Progs will have to double up their efforts regarding this constituency by working through such groups as the Student Labor Action Project and the Students for a Democratic Society. They would be well served to maintain a highly viable role on the college campuses. But the youth vote is by no means stationary to the campuses. The Progs should also look to build strong relations with young apprentices in the labor movement, and other working class youth who are commonly employed in low wage service jobs. One way or another, the Progs need to chart a course guaranteeing that a new generation is ready and able not only to support them in their campaigns, but capable and willing to fill new leadership roles as circumstances demand. Failure to do so would be detrimental to the party’s future (and a boon to the Democrats).

As far as other local losses are concerned, there is no clear one-size-fits-all answer. Every party over the course of several elections will have its ups and downs. However, when your party is only a decade old, and when you only have half a dozen seats in government, you cannot afford too many down elections. And again, in this year of economic troubles, it seemed natural that Progressive candidates for the Legislator would do better than two years ago. This was not altogether the case. Perhaps Pollina’s calculated move to drop the Prog label had the negative effect of shortening his coattails.

What does appear clear is that statewide the party has a core vote of about 6% as demonstrated in the five down ticket races. The Progs, running candidates not necessarily to win, but primarily to retain their major party status (which requires one race with a 5% showing or better) finished as follows; Kemp’s 4.7% For Lt Gov, Power’s 4.6% for Secretary of State, Schramm’s 7.7% for Treasurer, Martha Abbots’ 12.2% for State Auditor & Dennett’s 6.1% for Attorney General. Of these, only Charlotte Dennett ran an active campaign with a minimum of small radio ads. When compared to similar races in 2002, where the party’s nominee for Governor finished with less than 1%, and its candidate for Attorney General ended with 4.9%, a modest upward trajectory appears clear.

Beyond its core vote the party has a peripheral or qualified constituency of upward of 25% (based on Pollina’s last two campaigns). This, on top of the fact that they can rally a majority in a number of small towns and large population centers (i.e. Brattleboro, Montpelier, & Burlington), makes them a serious player in Vermont politics; especially so in Windom, Washington, & Chittenden Counties. But the goal is not to reach one fourth of the people. The goal is to win concrete gains for working people and farmers. And if this party is to play an electoral role in such victories (however they may shape up), it should not only deal with the Democrats (be that in an alliance or in clear unrestrained opposition), but the party should also come to terms with those on their left, who, although electorally weak, are capable of taking 1%-4% away from them in important races.

It is no secret that Senator Bernie Sanders, Martha Abbot, and a number of other Progressive leaders can trace their political lineage back to the early 70s and to the socialist Vermont Liberty Union Party. It is also no secret that some of the old elements of the Liberty Union (LU) harbor resentment towards the Progs, and are quick to charge them with selling out their more radical socialist ideas in exchange for relative electoral success. And finally it is also true that the only way the LU can get more than 4% of the vote in any race is for there to be NO other challengers to the given incumbent. All this being established, the LU is still good for 1% of the vote on any given day in any given race and with little to no campaigning (the latter of which they consistently prove). With this in mind, if the Progs were to make a serious run for a statewide office, victory or defeat could easily hinge on this 1000-2000 vote difference. Therefore it would seem sound that the Progressives should make an effort to sit down with the LU before the next election in order to hammer out a side deal. Perhaps in exchange for not running against Progs in certain targeted elections, the Liberty Union could be offered a number of races where they would almost certainly be the only other party of opposition, or where their only opponents would be cut from the Democratic and Republican (i.e. capitalist) cloth. This could appeal to the LU in that their top 2008 vote getter, Jerry Levy 3.7% for Auditor, fell below the floor for major party status. Hence they may have a desire to win this standing back. However, the thought of the Progs trying to make deals with the Liberty Union would almost certainly amount to pissing in the wind. Even so, it is worth the attempt. And in the long run, the Progs (and the left in general) are best served by keeping the LU in as many debates as is practical and possible insofar as their more radical policy positions not only speak to a segment of the current Vermont electorate, but also have the effect of making the social-democratic positions of the Progressives appear much more moderate than would otherwise appear to the common voter. And with this, the entire political dialogue shifts ever so slightly to the left. Perhaps, to sweeten the deal, the Progs could also agree to advocate on their behalf, regarding inclusion in debates (which they are often unfairly excluded from). And perhaps they could also come together to support such common issues as establishing IRV or Run-off elections (which would help both parties), creating a healthcare system whereby all Vermonter had access to quality medical care, livable wages, free higher education, and truly affordable housing. But I go too far. It would be a small miracle in and of itself for the two solidly left parties to even so much as to sit down and agree not to run against each other in a strategically important race or two, let alone form a Popular Front!

Back room wheeling and dealing aside, the truth is that the ultimate fate of the Progressive Party is intimately linked to the social, non-electoral, movements which underline it. As long as the Progs continue to climb into the trenches with organized labor, the farmers, the environmentalists, and the healthcare reform advocates, they will be in a position to grow alongside the movements which they support. If, on the other hand, they forsake such activities or come to see their own rise as an end in itself, their fate would seem destined for historical obscurity at best or popular betrayal at worst. And here it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the goal may be to win, but the goal cannot become simply winning elections. The Progs, if they stand for anything at all, must stand for the worker, the family farm, the disenfranchised, and the hopes and dreams of a people smothered by too many generations of capitalist domination, economic hardships, and the erosion of democratic participation in the world around them. The end that must be kept in sight is not one where a majority is achieved in the State House, but rather one where the people themselves are the masters of their own fate, and where the wealth of society and means of production are owned and controlled by the many and not the few. Even if the Progressives won 100 seats in the Vermont House of Representatives and the Governorship too, there is no reason to think that this alone would translate into the re-empowerment of the Town Meeting system or the establishment of worker and farmer cooperatives on a meaningful scale. At best the Progs, as an electoral, social-democratic force, can help alleviate some of the pains which our inequitable social and economic system necessitates. Folks need housing, good jobs, healthcare, education, and healthy affordable food. However, rent control, union solidarity, socialized healthcare, and reasonable social services are all reforms that a successful Progressive Party could conceivably help deliver. But as to the basic structural changes that a more free and equitable society would call for, that is a task for the people directly, and all an allied electoral political party can do in this regard is not to act as an obstruction. Real fundamental change for the better will never come out the other side of a voting booth or a legislative bill (no matter how well intended). But in the meantime folks need to live, and to live better than the old parties of the establishment are willing to concede. So until the revolution, comrade, good night and good luck.

*Note: This article was written before the Secretary of State’s Office releaced the official election returns. Therefore all vote totals listed in this article are unofficial and may be subject to slight change.

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