Shap Smith Is Running For Governor, But Can He Unify Vermont's Left? - Rights and Democracy

Shap Smith Is Running For Governor, But Can He Unify Vermont's Left?

VPR | August 19, 2015 | Report by Peter Hirschfeld

Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith made it official Wednesday morning when the seven-term lawmaker launched his campaign for governor in his hometown of Morrisville. He's the first candidate to enter the race to replace outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin, and he'll have a tough sell to make as he sets out to unify the left.

Smith apparently doesn't mind the heat.

He picked one of hottest days of the summer to make his big announcement. The podium, set up in a concrete courtyard off downtown Main Street, was unprotected from the sweltering midday sun.

"Wow, it's hot," Smith began.

Flanked by his wife and two kids, and backed by a crowd of about two dozen current and former Democratic legislators, Smith wasn't about to let a few beads of sweat dampen the day.

"Today I asked you, my family, my friends and my colleagues to gather here in the heart of Morrisville, in the heart of Vermont, to announce my candidacy for the governor of the state of Vermont," Smith said.

The 13-minute speech was short on specific policy proposals — Smith says those will follow in the coming months. Instead, he affirmed his passion for Vermont, and outlined a vision for economic revitalization in downtowns across the state. And he closed with a request.

"Today, I ask for your trust and your support in my candidacy for governor of the state of Vermont," Smith said.

That trust and support won't come easily from the progressive wing of the left, a constituency that could figure heavily in the Democratic primary next August, and the general election that will follow in November.

"I'm missing how he would be a unifier for the left, because for me he seems to be pretty moderate, if anything," says Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, chair of the Vermont Progressive Party.

Mulvaney-Stanek says legislative budgets passed under Smith that relied on cuts to things like labor costs and fuel-assistance benefits have left a bad taste in the mouths Progressives and their liberal allies in the Democratic Party.

James Haslam is the head of Rights and Democracy, a new issue-advocacy group that plans to work for fiscally progressive candidates in the 2016 election. Haslam says the Democratic majority's unwillingness to raise taxes on the rich, or to advance a public funded health care system, falls largely on people like Smith.

"He's Speaker of the House. He is known for being a leader in the Legislature and being able to move things through the House if he wants to," Haslam says.

"So he has an extraordinary opportunity to make positive change for working people, and I think there's a lot of us who wished to see a lot more than what's happened over the past several years." 

Calais Rep. Janet Ancel, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, says Smith was instrumental in securing changes to the tax code this past session that limited income-tax deductions for high earners and shifted obligations away from low and middle-income residents and onto wealthier filers.

"I think actually he has [made] some progressive changes. If you remember, he was speaker when we overrode the veto of the budget when Jim Douglas was governor," Ancel says. "So I think that he has more to say to those folks than maybe gets translated from the media."

Smith says legislation passed under his speakership — be it marriage equality, collective bargaining rights for home care and child care providers, or increasing the minimum wage — spotlights his record as a champion of what he called "pragmatic progressivism."

"I say look at how we've invested in our schools. I say look at the fact that we have a 3.7 percent uninsured rate in this state. I say look at how we're investing in our communities... how we have moved forward with marriage equality, equal pay for equal work of both men and women, making sure that people who need to organize can organize," Smith said.

Earlier this year, the Vermont House became one of the few legislative chambers in the country to pass a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to workers.

Smith, however, has overseen a Democratic majority that has found itself at odds with some of the labor unions that had formerly been strong allies. For instance, Smith supported a Shumlin administration proposal to shave about $10 million from the state payroll, a plan pilloried by the Vermont State Employees Association as a tax increase on working class residents. And he refused many of the tax-the-rich revenue proposals the union offered up as an alternative to cuts.

Smith on Wednesday said that unlike Shumlin, he won't issue any pledges not to raise rates on the sales tax, rooms and meals tax, or income tax.

Smith has also endured some friction with the Vermont-NEA, which opposed elements of the education-reform proposal the speaker spearheaded this past session. The teachers union was also upset that Smith didn't do more to squelch a bill that would have banned teacher strikes.

Earning the backing of left-leaning members of his own party will be crucial to winning what will likely be a contested Democratic primary — former state senator Matt Dunne and Transportation Secretary Sue Minter also are considering bids. Winning over members of the Progressive Party could be equally important in the general election, where a strong Progressive candidate could serve to split the left.

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