Seven Days | September 4, 2015 | Column by Terri Hallenbeck
On Labor Day afternoon this Monday, a swarm of people will gather in Burlington’s Battery Park. There will be lots of music, a free barbecue, ice cream, the state's most famous ice-cream makers and a kids' bouncy house.
All the frivolity is meant to entice people to a serious cause: influencing Vermont’s elections and ultimately, its public policy. The event, from 2-6 p.m., is the launch party for Rights & Democracy, a left-leaning nonprofit organization that aims to bring a “political revolution” to Vermont in 2016.
Once the music has stopped and the barbecue has been digested, RAD plans to hit the streets and knock on doors with paid canvassers to support like-minded political candidates, said director James Haslam. He left his job running the Vermont Workers’ Center in July to start this venture.
“We are very much looking to have as big an impact as we can on the election next year,” Haslam said.
If Rights & Democracy succeeds, political candidates who sit anywhere right of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could find themselves in a fight.
The organization’s viewpoint might make some Republicans choke on their Cheerios. “The last thing we need is to continue in the direction we’re going and shifting further to the right,” Haslam said.
Jeff Bartley, executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, took issue with the characterization. “There isn’t anyone in Vermont who thinks we’ve drifted right … except the vocal minority of extreme liberal leftists like the one Mr. Haslam represents,” Bartley said.
Rights & Democracy won't be the only advocacy group trying to influence the 2016 election. Environmental groups, unions, Republican and Democratic governors associations, state legislative committees, Emily’s List, gun rights groups and marijuana activists will all likely champion their causes and candidates.
Haslam emphasizes this isn't a one-man band he's leading, but is the work of a host of Vermont activists. He's got on board environmentalist Bill McKibben, ice-cream magnate Jerry Greenfield, Vermont State Employees Association vice president Michelle Salvador, AFL-CIO Vermont State Labor Council president Ben Johnson and others.
Rights & Democracy is looking to advance Vermont legislation on a string of issues, many of them labor-related: mandatory paid sick leave, ending state contracts with for-profit prisons, cracking down on employers’ misclassification of workers, building the state budget around people’s needs, livable wages, a “fair and equitable” tax system and combatting climate change.
The group is also looking to get like-minded candidates elected to state offices in 2017.
Expect to hear Sanders’ name invoked. “Bernie Sanders put out an agenda for the country. We think that’s the direction Vermont should go in,” Haslam said. “Look at how much support he has and the direction of Montpelier. It’s a big contradiction.”
Haslam noted that by 2017, Vermont will have a new governor, new lieutenant governor, new House speaker and possibly even a new Senate president pro tempore. “We are doing everything we can possibly can to make sure the change goes in the direction of families who are struggling,” he said.
Rights & Democracy will be looking closely at the lively governor’s race as candidates vie to replace retiring incumbent Democrat Peter Shumlin. Who will the group back? That’s unclear. The candidates who’ve entered the race so far appear unlikely to cut the mustard, Haslam said.
Rights & Democracy activists found House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) lacking last session on issues such as social services spending and universal health care, he said. Smith is in a primary race for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“We’re going to be interested to see what happens in the next legislative year,” Haslam said. Last legislative session, Haslam's Vermont Workers' Center started the year by protesting at the governor's inauguration and demanding, without success, that Smith hold hearings on single-payer health care. Twenty-nine protesters were arrested.
Fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne brings fresh ideas, Haslam said, but, “He’s got work to do to really articulate a commitment to the progressive economic agenda we’re talking about.”
Haslam goes into the 2016 election war-wary. Though Shumlin is arguably the most liberal Vermont governor since Madeleine Kunin left office in 1991, Haslam argued that Shumlin wasn't nearly as progressive as he marketed himself during the 2010 race. He dropped plans for universal, government-financed health care and resisted raising taxes.