by Hamilton E. Davis
The 2014 Vermont election now drawing to a close is one of the strangest in memory. There is virtually no competition for the U.S. House or Senate, or for governor. There is one huge issue on the state’s agenda in the form of Governor Peter Shumlin’s single payer initiative, and some lesser but still important questions like property tax levels and education financing. However, none appear to be affecting either the gubernatorial election or any significant number of legislative races.
Yet, there are important forces at work underneath the surface which can be seen, if indistinctly, in the one competitive statewide race, the contest for lieutenant governor. Phil Scott, the Republican incumbent, is being challenged by Dean Corren, a former Progressive legislator who has been endorsed by the Democratic Party. Scott is an easy going, very popular Republican who has won his recent elections handily. The smart money calculates that Corren’s vote is likely top out at just a little over 40 percent.
That reading could be correct, although the smart money often turns out to be wrong. Even if it is correct, however, the importance of the Corren candidacy extends well beyond the current campaign. The reason is that Corren himself and his campaign encapsulate the deep contradictions presented by the progressive movement. In the first decade of the millennium the Progressive Party very nearly turned the management of the state over to the Republicans, notwithstanding the huge margin enjoyed by the Democratic Party.
In the 2002 campaign, Anthony Pollina, a Progressive, ran for Lieutenant Governor against Peter Shumlin, the Democrat, and Brian Dubie, the Republican. Dubie received just 41 percent of the vote; Shumlin got 32 percent, and Pollina drew 25 percent. The center-left, in other words had the support of 57 percent of Vermonters, a huge margin over Dubie.
Yet Dubie got to spend eight years in an office that is tailor-made to get its occupant ready for a run for Governor. And when Dubie and Shumlin ran against one another for the governorship in four years ago, Shumlin prevailed only by a hair’s breadth. I have written about this issue and its recent history previously; that article is available on my web site, A Vermont Journal.
Is that ancient history, or relevant contemporary history?
I believe it is relevant for two reasons. The first is that the lieutenant governor could play an outsized role in the coming debate over single payer. He will have the deciding vote in the Senate in the case of a tie. Corren professes to be a strong supporter of single payer, and in the abstract he certainly is. But the single payer is much more complex than is generally supposed, and it is possible that Shumlin’s plan could be opposed by the left, in particular if the left decides that the level of benefits at the end of the legislative debate is too low, in their view.
On a longer reach, Corren or another Progressive could run as a third party candidate in the future, just as Pollina did in 2002. I have heard no public discussion about that issue at all, despite its potential to have enormous effects on state politics. Over the past decade, the Progressives have alternated between a focus on issues and party building. And there is no evidence yet that the commitment to party building has receded.
When Corren announced in June that he would run for lieutenant governor, he did so as a Progressive. His major issue, he said, would be his support for single payer. Up to that point, the narrative that Progressives have labored for more than a decade to establish is that the Democratic Party is worn out and reactionary and that any progressive legislation that advances does so because of the support from Progressives.
And the commitment to party building was evident in the announcement. Morgan Daybell, the executive director of the Progressive Party, told Vermont Public Radio that Corren's candidacy would advance that cause. The Republican Party is weak, he said, and that leaves an opening for Progressives to step up to a statewide stage. He concluded:
And I think what Progressives are able to do is to start to make the case that we can be the opposition party to the Democrats, and really pull the debate in our direction.
In the same interview, also pressed the claim that Progressives rather than Democrats are the leaders on forward looking legislation. The roots of the health care reform movement lay in the bill that he, Corren, introduced into the 1993 session of the legislature, he told VPR. That would be interesting, if it were true.
It isn’t. The actual roots lay in the previous session of the legislature, when then-Senator Cheryl Rivers, a Democrat, introduced a single payer bill, S127, when the session opened in the winter of 1991. During the entire biennium, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee under the chairmanship of the Chittenden County Democrat Sally Conrad worked on the Rivers single payer bill, at the expense of almost all other issues.
They not only held hearing after hearing in their own committee, they spent the entire summer of 1991 holding hearings all over the state and worked hard to garner public support. In 1993, Howard M. Leichter, a political science professor from Oregon, published a long article in the journal Health Affairs detailing the Rivers effort and he came to this conclusion:
Two things were clear on the eve of the 1992 Vermont legislative session: There was broad and deep support for health care reform, and the option with the most visibility, although not necessarily political support, was S127 (the Rivers single payer bill).
The House, meanwhile was working on a multi-payer reform bill, and Conrad and Rivers failed to get their single payer bill out of their own committee. But in a striking bit of legerdemain Conrad and Rivers struck a deal with Ralph Wright, the House speaker, to modify the House reform bill to include the design of a single payer system as well as a multi-payer system, both to be available to the 1994 legislature.
The legislature subsequently decided to pursue the multi-payer option, which then failed.
I bring up this history because it so clearly impeaches the Corren claim that he was the leader of the single payer reform movement. Corren did submit a single payer bill in 1993 session of the legislature, but it was purely grandstanding, given that the development of a plan based on the Rivers bill was already in process.
While this history is in my view important, it is nowhere near as critical as where the Progressive movment goes from here. For Corren’s part, he sought and obtained the Democratic endorsement in his current campaign. He has professed to be enthusiastic about working with Democrats in the future, and he has been endorsed by major Democrats like Shumlin and Senator Pat Leahy.
But there has been no discussion about whether the Progressives will run third party efforts in the future. In fact, it is quite clear that they have in no way renounced doing so. That is true despite the mountain of evidence that third party candidacies almost always function as spoilers…
If you’re looking for evidence of the baleful influence of these spoiler candidacies, you might look to Maine, which has a governor named Paul LePage, who was elected with just 38 percent of the vote in last election and is running now for reelection. LePage, an almost comically right wing character, won despite the fact that Maine voters by a two to one margin favored a center-left candidate. LePage prevailed because there were two such candidates and they split the center-left vote. The same thing is going on in the current election.
The New York Times has written about similar spoiler potential in statewide elections this year in North Carolina, Iowa, Hawaii, and Alaska, as well as Maine.
It is the spoiler issue that sits beneath the surface of the election this year in Vermont.
N.B. I am familiar with these events because I was a member of the Legislature in the 1991-92 session and I worked on the House bill; I also served on the conference committee that resolved the differences between the two chambers. The reader should also be aware that Corren and I ran against each other for a House seat in the 1990 election. In the two-seat district, I finished first, the late Rep. Alice Cook Bassett finished second, and Corren finished third. I did not seek reelection.