Runnion’s View to Montpelier

Front Page / Jan. 15, 2004 12:00am EST

MONTPELIER—The other day the governors of Vermont and New Hampshire were chatting and Vermont’s James Douglas mentioned to Gov. Craig Benson that he had barely been in office for a year and already the mayor of Vermont’s largest city was running against him.

It wasn’t really a complaint, just an acknowledgement that the Republican governors of these two neighboring states are the only ones in the nation who have two-year terms and who must confront reelection campaigning almost out of the box. And also the issue isn’t so much that governors have reelection always on the mind. It’s that somewhere, some place, someone wants their job already.

In Vermont, one of the someones is Peter Clavelle, who won Burlington’s mayorship as a Progressive but is planning to run for governor as a Democrat. Another Democratic hopeful is Peter Shumlin of Putney, the former president pro tem of the state Senate who lost, to Republican Brian Dubie, in a three-way contest for lieutenant governor two years ago.

Each has political clout. Clavelle’s strength in Burlington comes close to being matched by Shumlin’s popularity in very liberal Windham County, with its Democratic-Progressive voting blocs in Brattleboro, Putney and Bellows Falls.

Democratic party politics in Vermont is not kiddie’s play. Clavelle is not every Democrat’s flavor of the month because of his very late professed love affair with the Democratic political party—which he scorned as a Progressive. But now the Democratic party presents him with the most practical means of winning a general election. So he’s a Democrat.

One longtime Democratic strategist sug- gested the other day that since it appears unlikely Jim Douglas will lose this next election, Democrats should just let Clavelle take the nomination, lose, and disappear.

"The problem with that," the source said, is who’s next?

What Democrat in 2006? Two names that instantly popped up were state treasurer Jeb Spaulding, a proven statewide winner, and state Rep John Tracy, D-Burlington, an unsuccessful candidate for speaker of the House last year. Another very strong Democrat is Senate President Peter Welch, D-Windsor, who was a candidate for governor in the past and is certainly a powerful party leader in this legislature. But Welch hasn’t shown any interest, Democrat-watchers say

If all this seems a bit early to talk about 2006 politics, welcome to the debate on whether Vermont should have a four-year term for governor. The Senate Government Operations Committee has a bill before it that would amend the state Constitution to permit four-year terms for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and auditor of accounts. Public hearings on the idea will be held in the four corners of the state starting next month.

The process of amending the constitution is cumbersome. If this session of the Legislature likes the idea, it must come back next year to a second legislative session. Then the voters get a chance in a general election to say yes or no. If all goes well, according to sponsors of the bill, Vermont’s first four-year governor would start serving his/her term in January of 2011, having been elected in November of 2010.

Constitutions, whether Vermont’s or America’s, were not designed to be changed by whim. They’re tough to amend, allowing plenty of room to think this thing through once or twice again.

A couple of historic facts, courtesy of Sen. William Doyle, R-Washington County, who is a sponsor of the proposed constitutional change and also a professional historian who several years ago authored a superb book on Vermont’s political history:

In 1778, Vermont’s first governor was elected to a one-year term, a state of affairs that lasted until 1870 when two years were voted in by the populace. In 1974 a proposed Constitutional amendment for a four-year term made it all the way to the general election ballot, but went down in a sea of flames ignited by the Watergate scandal and public distrust of anything political, particularly anything political lasting a seemingly interminable four years.

Voters that year did show their love of local control, however. Sheriffs, state’s attorneys and high bailiffs were given four years instead of two.

Bill Doyle is a particularly interesting person to champion a four-year term for governor. He first ran for election to the Vermont Senate in 1968, and has been reelected every two years since—a total of 32 years, making him the longest serving member of either the House or the Senate. Running for reelection that often doesn’t bother him, he says. "I like campaigning."

And while a four year term for an executive makes sense to Doyle, he’s not sure Vermonters want to give that long of a leash to their state representatives and senators.

Doyle is chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee which is studying at least two major changes in the ways the state elects its top officials. One is the proposed extension of terms to four years. The other would allow election of these officers by plurality vote, not a majority.

The idea is to bypass the current majority requirement which in recent years has let the Legislature, not the people, choose the governor when a three-way contest has prevented one clear majority winner Under the proposed change, a candidate could win by getting a "plurality" of the votes cast—say, 49 percent or less rather than something over a 50 percent majority.

The four year term, however, is the big issue. There are many reasons. For Doyle, a key factor is the state’s economy. He argues that governors need predictable time frames in order to try to persuade companies to bring jobs to Vermont. Other advocates of a four year term raise their eyebrows slightly at Doyle’s narrow reasoning, but do cite the need for long term predictability as a factor in making government run smoothly.

Tim Hayward, chief of staff to Gov. Douglas, and a former top aide to Gov. Richard Snelling, cites his own experience as head of the Douglas transition team two years ago to bolster arguments for a longer term. A new governor, he notes, has only a few weeks to put a government in place.

The general election is at the beginning of November, and the new governor is sworn into office in early January. During that transition time, the governor and his newly organized staff must fill countless openings in the cabinet and state government. Recruiting is made difficult, according to Hayward, by the fact that potential nominees don’t know how long they will have to serve.

Do they give up lucrative and rewarding private sector careers knowing they might be out of a job in two years if their patron loses his or her next election? Persuasion can be tough, Hayward and other government recruiters have discovered.

In addition, Hayward noted, governors almost of necessity have to immediately start thinking of election time two years down the road. They have to wonder how decisions will affect voters two years hence, and they must think constantly about raising the $1 million needed to run for office.

Sen. Doyle says he senses that the public is willing to consider a four year term this time around, having rejected the idea in 1974.

Doyle's committee is planning four public hearings in February in South Burlington, Springfield, Rutland and St. Johnsbury, as well as regular committee sessions in the statehouse.

Doyle said he is particularly interested in seeing how Vermonters feel about terms for their own legislators, some of whom are now proclaiming that if statewide office holders are elected for four years, they should be too.

How does Doyle go about getting reelected every two years since 1968? "People think I do a good job," he said of his Washington County constituents. "It’s rewarding to serve constituents. I like campaigning, and I could take it either way (four years or two). But I think Vermonters think their legislators should be closer to the people."

But as for the statewide offices including that of the governor, "When we compete in a national and global economy, we can compete better if we have four year terms."

By Norman Runnion

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