Looming political watershed unmatched in nearly five decades
MONTPELIER >> The answer to the question floating through Montpelier political parlors these days is 1968.
That's the last time the four key power players at the Statehouse — governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and Senate president — all left office at the same time and a whole new slate was elected into power.
In some respects the conditions then are similar to now: a lame duck three-term governor struggling to get much accomplished in his final legislative session; a lieutenant governor running for the top spot; a stagnant economy — though it was about to take off in the 1970s with investments in snow-making equipment and the arrival of IBM — and a polarized national scene.
In many respects, the times were totally different from today. The country was at war in 1968 in Southeast Asia; protesters were in the streets; cities burning; Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy both assassinated. Today, the story dominating the political discourse is the rise of Donald Trump and the influence of big money.
"It was a sad year, a year of real change. Exciting too," said former Gov. Phil Hoff, who spent much of his last year in office, 1968, enmeshed in the politics of the Vietnam War. Earlier in the year, he had made a public split with President Lyndon Johnson over the war and backed Bobby Kennedy for president. At the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, there was even an attempt to get Hoff on the ticket as vice president by opponents of Edmund Muskie, who ran as No. 2 on the ticket with Hubert Humphrey.
Hoff had a difficult 1968 with the Legislature, similar to Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2016. Hoff said his lame duck status hurt. At the same time that he announced he was running for a third term in 1966, breaking the tradition since 1835 of governors serving only two, Hoff said he would never seek a fourth. He now calls that announcement a mistake because it made his entire third term a much bigger challenge.
"It opened the door for the rise of other options and other people," he said.
Deane Davis, who had recently retired as CEO of National Life Insurance, was elected governor in 1968, returning the office to a Republican. That party had dominated until Hoff broke through in 1962, the first Democrat elected in a century.
"It does seem to me that the change then resulted in quite a new and different outlook," said Stephen Terry, a retired business executive who covered the Statehouse for the Rutland Herald in the Hoff-Davis era. The two chambers were dominated by Republicans, the opposite of today, and Terry said lawmakers gave Davis wider latitude after not wanting to give Hoff any legislative victories. For example, Terry said, Hoff had been pushing for a reorganization of state government that the Legislature blocked and then allowed when Davis took over.
Notably, too, Davis pushed through the Legislature in his first term two proposals that would define his political career: the introduction of the sales tax and the groundwork for Act 250, the state's development control law. Terry doubted a Democrat could have pushed those initiatives successfully, the way it took Republican Richard Nixon to open up relations with China and Democrat Bill Clinton to achieve welfare reform.
Hoff had high praise for Davis.
"He just had a different focus on things," the almost 92-year-old former governor said Tuesday. During his six years, Hoff had promoted a progressive agenda, including racial justice and establishing the Governor's Commission on the Status of Women.
Even though the Legislature was dominated by Republicans, Hoff said he got along well with members of the other party, including Richard Mallary, a fellow "Young Turk" who served alongside Hoff in the House.
"There was a lot more cooperation back then," Hoff recalled.
In 1968, Democratic Lt. Gov. John J. Daley lost the gubernatorial election to Davis.
Mallary, speaker of the House, went on to the Senate, served as administration secretary to Davis, did one term in the U.S. House and lost a close U.S. Senate election in 1974 to Patrick Leahy.
John Burgess became the next speaker; Terry said reporters nicknamed him "Slow." On the Senate side, George Cook was replaced by Edward Janeway as president pro tem. Terry said Janeway was "a gentleman, a patrician, incredibly thoughtful." Cook went on to serve as U.S. attorney for Vermont under Nixon and later President Ronald Reagan.
A shift in the agenda
Sen. Richard Mazza sat in the chairman's chair in the Senate Transportation Committee just days before adjournment last week and said he could not recall the last time all four leaders had changed at once. Nor should he have remembered, given that the last full turnover happened before he was first elected to the House in 1972. Mazza, a Colchester Democrat, has served in the Senate since 1985.
Three times since 1975 have three of the four top officeholders retired or sought higher office, the most recently in 2010 when Shumlin was first elected, alongside Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. Sen. John Campbell, of Windsor County, replaced Shumlin as president pro tem. Speaker Shap Smith, of Morristown, was the one holdover.
Now, all four are moving on or seeking higher office, including Scott, who is running for governor as Daley did in 1968.
The agenda shifted when Shumlin took over from Republican Jim Douglas in 2011. Unlike Douglas, who focused on jobs, the Putney Democrat pursued an agenda dominated by a single-payer health care system and the closure of Vermont Yankee, two ideas Douglas had vigorously opposed. Only the shutting down of Vermont Yankee has come to pass.
The effect of the turnover on the chambers next year could be significant.
"It's going to have a tremendous impact on the whole Legislature as we speak," said Mazza. "Usually you have some carryover that keeps the policies in place or some of the procedures in place, but when you start completely new, there's a learning curve."
One of the biggest shifts could be in committee chairs. In the House, the speaker alone has the power to decide committee assignments; in the Senate, it's the Committee on Committees, a triangle that includes the lieutenant governor, the president pro tem and a third member elected by the body.
Mazza has held that key third position for almost two decades, since 1997. He wants to keep it but isn't sure he'll get majority support. One senator said that as the leadership shifts, there will be an attempt to "take out" Mazza from the Committee on Committees.
"Oh, sure, everything is up for grabs when you come back," Mazza said. "You walk in the door (and) you hope seniority plays some sort of a role or experience, but it doesn't necessarily have to happen. If there's new folks and they want to try someone different, my position is up for a vote of the whole Senate."
"It's going to be a different world," said Sen. Richard Westman, a Lamoille County Republican. Like others, Westman said the tension in the Senate is more between the progressive and the more moderate sides of the Democratic Party, not between Republicans and Democrats.
Sen. Richard Sears, another Senate veteran who is chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the change in leadership is "going to be a huge disruption" and has already had an impact on the last session.
"It's going to be a wholesale change," said Sears, D-Bennington. "I think it's going to be a challenge for institutional knowledge in this building."
Maintaining that thread of institutional memory was part of why Rep. Alice Emmons, a Springfield Democrat first elected in 1982, decided to run again in November.
"It's sometimes little stuff" that needs to be remembered, said Emmons, chair of the Institutions Committee. Sometimes it's the reason a provision was put in a bill or even what the protocol is on the fire doors leading up to the Statehouse cafeteria.
Emmons said she was glad she came in when she did. "The politics weren't so rigid," and people bonded over commonalities, not parties. Electronic gadgets, she said, have resulted in less face-to-face communication between members.
Looking to the next leaders
Sears and Mazza are supporting Tim Ashe — a Chittenden County senator who runs as both a Progressive and Democrat — to be the next president pro tem, which means if he is successful, they would keep their chairmanships.
Most believe Ashe has the inside track. One senator said Sen. Claire Ayer, a Democrat from Addison County, might be able to win if she gained all the Republicans' support and picked off enough Democrats who don't want to vote for Ashe, but that's viewed as unlikely.
It will take awhile, Mazza said, for the new membership and the new leadership to get their stride. He laughed recalling how all lawmakers, including him, and new leaders come in with grand ideas until they figure out "180 lawmakers have to participate in the discussion."
Governor, lieutenant governor, speaker and pro tem are a whole different breed of cat, Mazza said, than being a regular House or Senate member. He added that he has never had interest in higher office or a leadership position.
"Once you get into a leadership position, that is a different scale altogether," said Mazza, requiring different leadership skills than regular members or senators.
On the House side, Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, the chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, the majority leader from Bradford, are discussed as likely speaker candidates to take over from Smith. And with several House chairs stepping down, including Energy Committee Chair Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, and Government Operations Chair Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, those serving nonleadership roles could step up and the makeup of the House could be quite different.
Emmons plans to be back for another term and shook her head over how long it's been since she was first elected.
"I love this place. I love this institution. I value it. I respect it. I respect the process, and I value the process," Emmons said.
"It's hard to see so many colleagues go at once," she said.
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