Greg Dennis: The governor and ungrateful liberals

Midway between the November elections and the start of the Vermont legislative hunting season, the question on most political observers’ minds is this: Will Gov. Shumlin get his groove back?

On the answer to that question hangs the fate of liberals’ hopes for statewide action on healthcare reform, climate change and property tax relief.

Two terms into his tenure, Shumlin failed to get a majority of votes last month against a lively but fringe Libertarian and an odd-duck Republican. The Democratic majority in the Legislature has been thinned by GOP gains, too.

So it will fall to the Legislature to officially elect Shumlin governor for a third term. (The state Constitution throws the decision to the Legislature if no candidate gains a majority.)

Thus Shumlin comes into a crucial time in his governorship as a greatly weakened — some say mortally wounded — leader.

The sources of Shumlin’s stunning near-defeat last month have been the cause of much speculation.

The governor himself put it down to the still tenuous national economy.

Certainly many Vermonters struggle from paycheck to paycheck. But that has always been so, and our state does still have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. So the economy doesn’t really explain Shumlin’s swan dive.

One minus for the governor has been his frequent out-of-state travel, which also contributed to a campaign that started late. He’s head of the national Democratic Governors Association and was often gone from Vermont on DGA business.

He gained national recognition for devoting his State of the State address to Vermont’s drug problems. But that speech hardly endeared him to voters who resented the unappealing picture he painted of Vermont. Give Shumlin a point for honesty on the issue, but deduct two points for political obtuseness.

Indeed, a certain personal obtuseness has hurt the governor, too.

He’s been an impressively effective and even courageous leader on issues such as pioneering single-payer healthcare, shutting the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, and gaining marriage equality for gay people.

But his personality does not always sparkle or endear him to others. And in a small state like Vermont, that can really hurt a governor.

By comparison, his predecessor Jim Douglas was famous for doing so many small town events and ribbon cuttings that one columnist dubbed him Gov. Scissorhands. The joke was that if it occurred in Vermont, Jim would show up for the opening of an envelope.

But give Douglas credit for political survival as a Republican, at a time when Vermont grew to be startlingly blue with Democrats.

Surely Shumlin suffered at the hands of his supposed liberal allies, even though he cultivated them by signing a GMO labeling law. GMOs didn’t appear to be an important issue to him, and he knew the new law would expose the state to expensive litigation.

Despite the popularity of the GMO bill, Shumlin’s advocacy of the gas pipeline through Addison County cost him support locally and among environmentalists statewide.

A lot of us just didn’t agree that it was good for Vermont to add more climate-busting fossil fuel infrastructure.

And if the southern extension of the pipeline would help revive Rutland — as Shumlin and other backers claimed — well, we just didn’t see how the road to Rutland ran under Lake Champlain and over to Ticonderoga, N.Y.

So here we are, at the point where Shumlin’s greatly weakened status is truly bad news for the liberals who are his natural political base.

It bodes badly for the prospects to achieve fossil fuel divestment at the state level. Ditto for a stronger bottle bill to promote more recycling, and for the sensible, innovative plan to price carbon that has been proposed by VPIRG and a broad coalition of environmental and low-income advocates.

It’s also clear that the progressive cause of health insurance reform — which was the ticket that Shumlin punched to get elected in the first place — was so badly botched that it nearly proved to be part of his undoing.

Amid growing questions about single payer, the interim step of the state’s new health exchange (Vermont Health Connect) proved to be a fouled-up disaster.

The website was difficult to navigate at best. Eventually it proved to have so many problems that it had to be completely taken down for a lengthy overhaul. Phone assistance was initially hard to come by. Even now with the website online again, dozens of critically important navigators — who often advise low-income earners how to get good health insurance — were themselves knocked off the site.

All that incompetence left many Vermonters to rightly wonder: If the Shumlin team can’t get it right with Vermont Health Connect, why should we believe they can do single payer without screwing it up again?

With Health Connect still an embarrassing mess, single payer looks for now to be a nonstarter. Or at least it should be.

Indeed, a push to immediately implement yet another revolution in Vermont health insurance would cause many of us, myself included, to question whether Shumlin and Vermont progressives have in fact lost all touch with political reality.

The sad fact is that many admirable causes — including health reform and addressing climate change — will probably get negligible attention in the coming legislative session.

This session is going to be mostly about jiggering with education reform and trying to address voters’ rising anger about rising property taxes.

It remains to be seen whether the governor can remain a key player. But don’t bet against him after his November wake-up call. It will be a long road back. But Peter Shumlin is not going away.

In the meantime, the near-loss of the governor’s seat should be a reminder to those fair-weather liberal friends of Shumlin’s who deserted him at the polls — that it’s usually a good idea to dance with the one who brung ya.

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: greengregdennis.

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Addison County Independent

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