Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Progressive Vermont: The Winding Road to Fusion

For most Vermonters the biggest stories five years ago were the state’s response to Hurricane Irene -- the state’s worst natural disaster since 1927, the struggle over closure of Vermont Yankee, and passage of the first-in-the-nation universal health care system. After almost a decade the state also had another Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, who pledged to usher in single-payer health insurance and usher out Yankee. Meanwhile, around the country people were starting to rally to Bernie Sanders' economic critique.
     The larger story, in the Green Mountains and beyond, was the sea change in public discourse – from anti-government rage to a more progressive focus (also angry) on economic inequality and concentration of wealth. At the time conservatives called the new movement class warfare, but it actually reflected an overdue recovery from a period of national amnesia. 
      The pace of change was quickening – revolt across the Middle East, Greece and other countries on the verge of economic default, plus a titanic struggle for the soul of the US in the presidential race. Democrats were experiencing Obama Fatigue, while among the leading Republican candidates Mitt Romney had the organization and the money. But he was a member of the 1%, a “vulture capitalist” who seemed to lack core principles.
     From Vermont to San Francisco, thousands were protesting the growing wealth disparity between the rich and almost everyone else. Using social networks and a collective approach the Occupy movement had spread rapidly to hundreds of cities, gaining momentum as unions and politicians offered support. According to a Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans felt that the economic system was personally unfair to them. More to the point, the top 1 percent had greater net worth than the “bottom” 90 percent. And in an unusual generational twist, more people under 30 viewed the general concept of socialism in a positive light than capitalism.
     The number of Vermonters living in poverty had changed little in the previous 40 years, moving almost imperceptibly from 12.1 percent in 1969 to 11.5 percent in 2009. In early 2012 Vermont Interfaith Action – part of a national group that was looking for solutions to “systemic issues that prevent our most vulnerable citizens from enjoying the quality of life God intends for us all” – confronted several lawmakers and Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding with this disquieting reality at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington.
     The gist was that state government had failed to effectively address economic inequality. The event, billed as an “economic action,” attracted about 125 people from a variety of faith communities on a wintry Sunday afternoon. The issue of poverty was being “held hostage to a shortage of funds created in part by the refusal to ask wealthy Vermonters to do more,” the report’s authors declared. They accused state leaders of having succumbed to fear “by some who claim that raising taxes on the wealthy will result in capital flight.”
     When asked if he would work to avoid cuts in social programs by raising taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters, Tim Ashe joined the two other senators, Democrat Sally Fox and Progressive/Democrat Anthony Pollina, in saying they were on board. Rep. Martha Heath, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, was more equivocal. It would depend on balancing various needs, she explained, and urged those in the room to make their case at legislative hearings.
     State funding was being misallocated, Ashe charged. He pointed specifically at the Vermont Training Program, a Department of Economic Development initiative that subsidized wages and trained employees in new and existing businesses. Although the emphasis was supposed to be on enterprises that could not afford to fund training, profitable enterprises like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and General Electric Aviation in Rutland had received more than $400,000.
     When his turn came to speak Pollina pointed to a drop in median family income for Vermonters. Inequality was greater than at any time since the 1930s Depression. But his prescriptions, beyond some tax changes, were to improve the process for setting the state budget and develop a state bank, an unlikely proposal that had been part of the Liberty Union Party’s platform four decades before.

From Outside to Inside 

Anthony Pollina was elected to the state Senate in 2010, and joined Tim Ashe as the second Progressive leader to run successfully as a fusion candidate with both the Democratic and Progressive nomination. It was his first term in office. Yet Pollina had entered statewide politics with a splash many years earlier. In 1984, he had won an insurgent victory in the Democratic primary for US Congress, then decisively lost in the general election to Jim Jeffords, the popular incumbent.
     He didn’t run again for 16 years, but served during the 1990s as Senior Policy Advisor to then-Congressman Sanders. He also fought for campaign finance reform legislation that established public funding for statewide political campaigns. In 2002, however, when his campaign for Lt. Governor failed to qualify for public funding Pollina filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn the law.
     Running for governor as a Progressive in 2000 Pollina received 9.5 percent in a crowded field with Republican Ruth Dwyer, who received 37.9 percent, and incumbent governor Howard Dean, who won with 50.4. Two years later, in the race for Lt. Governor, he received 24.8 percent in a three way race, behind Shumlin, with 32.1 percent, and Brian Dubie, who won with 41.2. Dean had retired, and was planning a race for President. Michael Badamo ran for governor as a Progressive – without much support from the Party, and got only .6 percent. Jim Douglas was elected.
     In 2004, Peter Clavelle, in the midst of his last term as the mayor, returned to the Democratic Party and challenged Douglas’s first re-election bid. Douglas won again, this time with 57.8 percent. Clavelle received only 37.9. The Progressive Party didn’t field a candidate for governor that year, on in 2006.
     Pollina ran for governor again in 2008. But at a July press conference the Progressive leader announced that he would appear on the ballot as an Independent. It was “by far the best way” to build a coalition, he now claimed. The decision raised questions about his reasons and the future of the party.
     Both Sanders and his predecessor Jeffords had been embraced as Independents, Pollina argued. But Sanders became an Independent in the late 1970s after several disappointing runs as a third party candidate. At the time he publicly announced that the timing wasn’t right for a new party. He had since served four terms as Burlington mayor and eight as a US Congressman, before running for the US Senate in 2006. In every race he ran as an Independent.
     Jeffords, on the other hand, was a life-long Republican, serving in the US House and Senate for decades. He left the GOP in 2001, citing deep differences with the Republican leadership and the Bush administration. It turned out to be his last term, and there was no way to know how Vermont voters would have responded had he attempted to run for re-election as an Independent.
     Pollina’s reasons were different. He had devoted years to building Vermont’s Progressive Party, and had declined to enter the Democratic primary earlier the same year, saying he had no intention of running as anything but a Progressive. “You know, I’m a Progressive,” he told columnist Peter Freyne. “I’m not going to leave the Progressive Party to become a candidate of another party.”
     Doing so "would undermine people's faith in me and also in the process," he said,  " I woudn't be too surprised if there were Democrat who would accuse me of being oportunistic in switching parties." Once he announced the intention to switch his status, Democrats did exacty that. "This is about opportunistic decision-making," Democratic Party Chair Ian Carlton told The Burlington Free Press.       
The underlying question raised by Pollina’s decision was whether it was more important to build a party or win a race. Thirty years earlier Sanders had faced the same choice, made it, and held office almost continuously since 1981 – as an Independent. Although the unofficial head of the state’s progressive movement, he never joined a party and didn’t feel accountable to any partisan line. At times he was criticized for not doing enough to build an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats. He ignored the critique.
     By running as an Independent Pollina claimed that he hoped to build on his Progressive base, possibly as high as 25 percent, attracting voters who had no allegiance to the other two major parties. If he succeeded, in theory the chances increased that neither Democratic challenger Gaye Symington nor Douglas would get 50 percent. If that happened, Vermont’s Legislature would pick from among the top three vote getters. It seemed like a long shot.
     Traditionally, Vermont lawmakers went with the person who received the most votes – but they weren’t required to do so. Democrats had a 60-vote edge in the state legislature, not counting the six Progressives and two Independents in the House of Representatives. If Symington, Speaker of the Democrat-dominated House, came in first or a close second, they might well choose her over Douglas. If Pollina beat them, even by a few votes, he could plausibly argue that picking anyone else would be undemocratic. At least theoretically, he could create that situation by getting no more than 34 percent.
     Abbott’s endorsement indicated that the Progressive Party’s leadership backed his play. As Pollina argued, they didn’t want to let a label get in the way of victory. On the other hand, the party's leadership had misjudged its base in the past. A prime example was Burlington after Clavelle, when leadership backed the Democrat but the grassroots recruited an upset winner, Bob Kiss. 
     Pollina’s 2008 campaign won the support of the three largest unions in the state. The Vermont-National Education Association backed an independent candidate for governor for the first time. He also received support from the Gun Owners of Vermont, a "libertarian" connection Sanders also made in campaigns. When the votes were counted, however, he came in with 21.8 percent, just a tenth of a percentage ahead of the Democrat. Douglas won again, this time with 53.4 percent.
      Two years ater Pollina ran for the state Senate --and won -- as a Progressive and Democrat. Since then Stae Auditor Doug Hoffer and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman have taken the same path to victory. 


This article is adapted from Progressive Eclipse, available from Amazon, based on reporting for VTDigger. To download a sample:
 PROGRESSIVE ECLIPSE: BURLINGTON, BERNIE AND THE MOVEMENT THAT CHANGED VERMONT

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