Politically Thinking: Rare statewide race shaping up

The 2010 Vermont election cycle will feature competitive races for many statewide offices, including secretary of state. After 12 years as secretary of state, Deb Markowitz is stepping down to run for governor. In recent years, several secretaries of state have gone on to become candidates for higher offices, including Markowitz, Jim Douglas (secretary of state from 1980 to 1992), and, for those with longer memories, Jim Guest (secretary of state from 1976 to 1980).

Because the secretary of state position comes open only rarely, there will be contested elections for the office in both the Democratic and Republican primaries this year. Both primaries feature two candidates — the first a lawyer, the second someone with a more political background.

In the Democratic primary, the attorney is Charles Merriman, a Montpelier lawyer who has worked as an assistant attorney general and for several years has been in private practice with a focus on municipal law. Although Merriman is an expert on many of the issues that come before the secretary of state’s office, he has never run for office before and is not very well known around the state, except among town clerks with whom he has worked on a wide range of issues.

The other candidate in the Democratic primary is Jim Condos, who spent 18 years on the South Burlington City Council and eight years as a state senator from Chittenden County. Condos’ track record of electoral success in the county where the largest number of Democratic primary votes will be cast makes him the favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

In the Republican primary, the attorney is Chris Roy, a Williston lawyer who declared his candidacy for secretary of state more than a year ago. Roy is a member of the Williston selectboard and has been active in Republican party committees in Chittenden County and statewide. The second Republican candidate is Jason Gibbs, who was a member of Gov. Douglas’ staff during the governor’s first three terms, and who then served as Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation until he resigned a few weeks ago to become a candidate. Gibbs was Douglas’ press secretary for many years, so he knows his way around the Vermont media.

Roy is apparently miffed that Gibbs has decided to run against him in the Republican primary. Roy may believe that because he declared his candidacy some time ago, in February 2009, he should have had clear sailing to the general election and should not have to face a primary opponent. The primary between Roy and Gibbs has the potential to become sharp-edged. Roy will likely have the support of many members of the Chittenden County Republican establishment, but Gibbs, a smart political operative, may be able to out-campaign him among grass-roots Republicans in other parts of the state.

Whichever candidates emerge as the primary winners, there are several important issues that those seeking to be elected secretary of state should address in the general election campaign. One of the most critical of these issues is rejuvenating Vermont’s tradition of open government, where there has been some backsliding in recent years. The next secretary of state should work with the Legislature to reduce the number of exemptions to the state’s public records laws, to move more state government records online, to limit the circumstances in which state and local governing boards may meet in executive session, and to require more complete and timely disclosure of political campaign contributions and expenditures.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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