Eric Davis: Lt. gov candidates offer contrasts
Three candidates are seeking to win the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in the Aug. 9 primary. These candidates have quite different perspectives on how to perform the duties of the position.
House Speaker Shap Smith is perhaps the best known of the three Democrats. Smith’s candidacy is supported by many of his colleagues in the Legislature, as well as by senior figures in the Democratic mainstream around the state.
Smith argues that, of all the Democratic candidates, he is best prepared to carry out the constitutional requirements of the lieutenant governorship — to preside over the Vermont Senate, and to be ready to serve as governor should the governor die in office or otherwise be unable to complete his or her term. Smith would also like to use the lieutenant governor’s office to focus on a few selected issues, such as the expansion of state-funded children’s health insurance programs to cover college students and young adults.
Chittenden Sen. David Zuckerman, who was first elected to the Legislature as a Progressive, has several core constituencies around the state — progressive voters, especially in Chittenden and Windham counties, the organic farming community, and advocates of marijuana legalization. Zuckerman was one of the principal sponsors of the state’s GMO labeling legislation, which recently went into effect, and of the bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use, which failed in the 2016 legislative session.
Zuckerman talks less about the constitutional responsibilities of the lieutenant governor’s office and more about using the office as a “bully pulpit” to advocate for progressive policies that may be having difficulty getting traction elsewhere in the legislative process.
Rep. Kesha Ram of Burlington, the third Democratic candidate in the race, has served in the Legislature for eight years, but is less well-known statewide than either Zuckerman or Smith. She does have a political base among Burlington Democrats, in part because she has been associated with Mayor Miro Weinberger’s administration for the past several years.
On the campaign trail, Ram talks a lot about the lieutenant governor’s office as an “open door” to state government. If elected, she would use her office as a point of contact for individuals, groups and communities that may be having difficulty with the state bureaucracy, or find their ideas not getting a fair hearing from state agencies. Interestingly, Ram’s approach is similar to how incumbent Republican Phil Scott has defined the lieutenant governor’s office over the past six years.
Ram represents a newer generation of Democrats than either Smith or Zuckerman, both of whom have been well-known figures in the State House for 15 to 20 years. For Ram to win the primary, she would need to come out of Chittenden County with a large majority, and hope that Smith and Zuckerman divide the vote relatively evenly in the rest of the state.
Randy Brock is the only Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. He is an experienced figure who has served as state auditor and in the Vermont Senate, and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2012. Since he does not face a contested primary, Brock will be able to save his financial and organizational resources for the general election. Unlike the Democratic nominee, Brock will not have to rebuild his campaign treasury after the primary.
In the last three general elections, Vermonters chose candidates of different political parties to serve as governor and lieutenant governor. If Phil Scott wins the Republican nomination for governor, and if Shap Smith wins the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, split party control of those two offices could well continue for another two years.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.