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Pulse of political history favors change

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Posted on August 28, 2009 |
By Chris Graff



Jim Douglas is doing what only one other governor has done in the last 47 years: He is leaving office from a position of strength.

Every governor since 1962 – except for Deane Davis – stayed at least one term too many. The only problem was that no one knew it was too many until it was over.

Phil Hoff’s third and final term – he served 1963-1969 – was an absolute disaster, by his own admission. He was distracted by the national unrest and was exhausted by his first two terms.

Then came Deane Davis, who had a tough first term but a strong second. Every governor since Davis has seen a sharp drop in popularity at the end of his or her tenure. For Tom Salmon (1973-1977) it was brought on by misguided attempts to raise taxes and the severity of the energy crisis. For Dick Snelling (1977-1985) the raid on Island Pond cost him a lot of political capital. Madeleine Kunin (1985-1991) saw her popularity fall off sharply because of her push for local planning (Act 200) and the poor economy. Snelling returned briefly in 1991, but died in August of that year, when Howard Dean took over. Dean’s push for school funding reform (Act 60) and civil unions made him unpopular when he stepped down.

And now Douglas: He has been unpopular with some Vermonters since his inauguration, and is clearly more conservative than many Vermonters, but his favorability remains high as he announces his retirement.

Douglas won election in 2002 with a clearly articulated and effective message: From his campaign kickoff in May to Election Day in November, the Douglas message never wavered: JIM EQUALS JOBS.

In politics timing is everything and Douglas was perfectly in sync with the events of 2002. One month after he formally launched his campaign, IBM laid off 988 workers. Layoffs occurred regularly around the state through Election Day: Bombardier, in Barre; Wyeth, in Georgia; EHV Weidman, in St. Johnsbury; the closing of the Ames stores statewide. Every layoff reinforced the Douglas message that the state needed to do more to attract and hold industry.

Douglas also ran a perfect campaign. He threw his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine, on the defensive from the start by running a series of ads portraying Racine as a “flip-flopper” on major issues. Douglas also painted Racine as a tax-and spend liberal, a perception reinforced by newspaper endorsements around the state.

Douglas’ 2002 win was a remarkable accomplishment, but it also fit a pattern I had first noticed in 1984, and one that I have written about regularly since then. Without fail, Vermont since 1962 has alternated Republican and Democratic governors. In doing so, voters have done more than just alternate between parties: They have chosen governors so that a period of expansion follows a period of retrenchment, which, in turn, follows a period of expansion.

This unusual 40-year political pulse, an ebb and flow as voters used the ballot box to guide the direction of state government, began with the watershed election of Democrat Hoff, who broke the GOP’s century-long hold on the governor’s office by ousting F. Ray Keyser, Jr.
Hoff served six high-energy years, transforming just about every aspect of the state’s life. In 1968, however, when voters faced a choice between a Hoff protégé, his own lieutenant governor, and a conservative Republican business executive, the voters chose the GOP candidate, Deane Davis, in large part because they feared Hoff’s expansion of state programs were leading to fiscal problems.

Davis cleaned up the state’s fiscal affairs, primarily by instituting a state sales tax. He then began reorganizing state government and tackling concerns about overdevelopment by championing passage of the pioneering Act 250 review process. When Davis stepped down in 1972, voters again had a choice between a candidate pledging to continue the governor’s policies and one promising change. This time they went with change, choosing Democrat Tom Salmon.

Salmon was followed by Republican Richard Snelling, a businessman in the Davis mold, who was succeeded by Democrat Madeleine Kunin, who had campaigned as an activist. Snelling returned to office following Kunin’s retirement and then Democrat Howard Dean became governor upon Snelling’s death.

By the time Dean stepped down in 2002 Vermonters were exhausted by passage in 1997 of Act 60, a new system of financing schools, and the passage in 2000 of a system extending the benefits of marriage to gays and lesbians.

So the political landscape – and the pulse of history – favored Jim Douglas in 2002.
And now we will see what the pulse of politics is in 2010.

Chris Graff is the former bureau chief of the Associated Press in Montpelier.

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