by Hamilton E. Davis
When Shap Smith addressed his colleagues at the opening of the legislature a few weeks ago, he sounded to many in the chamber more like someone running for statewide office than a veteran speaker gearing up for a difficult session. There was a good reason for that: he is running for office. There is no way yet to tell which one—there are three possibilities—but it is clear the 2016 campaign is underway, and that Shap Smith is one of the most important players in the field.
The fact that Smith is positioning himself for statewide politics is obvious from more than just his speech to his colleagues after being elected speaker for a third biennium. He might have just gotten carried away on that occasion, but his intentions were unmistakable in his two efforts to reach out to the public for suggestions to deal with issues coming before the legislature.
Less than a week after Governor Shumlin shocked the policy world in mid-December by dumping the financing component of his single payer health care initiative, Smith issued a press release asking Vermonters to weigh in on the education financing issue. Education spending is driving property taxes to unacceptable levels, he said. “We need to work together to solve this problem,” he continued. “That’s why I’m inviting taxpayers, stakeholders, and policy makers to add their voices to the conversation the House will undertake when we reconvene in January.”
A month later, he expanded on that invitation by asking in another press release for public input on economic development and job creation. “Vermonters want a business environment that fosters sustainable, good paying jobs that reward employers and workers alike,” he said, adding that public input would “drive that agenda forward.”
Efforts to connect with voters like this are perfectly normal for politicians and office seekers. They are not perfectly normal for House speakers, who usually function as managers, or expediters, or referees among contending forces within the chambers they lead. In Vermont, for example, past governors like Madeleine Kunin, the late Richard Snelling and Howard Dean began their careers in the House, but they exercised their leadership ambitions by running for statewide office, not for the speakership.
These strikingly early efforts to build toward the next election arose from the almost bizarre circumstances of the last one. After blowing away a strong Republican opponent in 2012, Shumlin very nearly lost to a comically inept one in the next election. His party also lost several seats in the legislature. The governor followed that up with a decision to drop the financing side of his signature issue, single payer health care reform.
These shocks left Shumlin badly wounded and the Republicans reinvigorated. Phil Scott, the Republican lieutenant governor, began to raise his profile soon after the election results came in, and is now considered to be a candidate for governor in 2016. In sharp contrast to his laid-back political persona over the last decade, Scott sponsored a forum for returning legislators on the eve of the current session, reaching out to the public and advocacy groups for ideas about how to gin up the Vermont economy. In a sense, Smith, as the strongest, or at least one of the strongest members of the Democratic bench, had no choice but to begin positioning himself aas well.
The challenge for Smith
The speaker of a House of Representatives is one of the most important and rare political jobs in the United States. There are just 51 in the country, one in each state and one in the U.S. Congress. If you are male, you have a better chance of being a middle infielder on a major league baseball team (60—two middle infielders on 30 teams) than of serving as the boss of a house of representatives. Yet House speakers seldom run for higher office; their power is usually bounded by the walls of the capitol buildings they serve in.
The reasons for this can be seen in the exquisitely complex political calculus that Shap Smith confronts as he guides the House into the next four months.
The first big hurdle is a simple political one—name recognition. House members are elected from the smallest political unit in their state or country. Smith can pretty much be considered unbeatable in Morristown, his Lamoille County district, where roughly 5,000 votes get cast to elect two representatives. If he runs for governor or lieutenant governor in 2016, the vote total will range upwards of 275,000. In other words, Smith has been exposed politically to fewer than two percent of Vermont voters. He gets his name in the news a lot, of course, but if he takes a name recognition poll early, he will be lucky to break out of single digits.
Steve Terry, a retired journalist and utility executive who has watched Vermont politics closely for more than 50 years, says that it is striking how few Vermonters know anything about their speaker. “If you walked down Merchant’s Row in Rutland with the speaker of the House and observed how many people on the street recognized him, it would be — none.” he said.
These political realities constitute the reason why so few speakers try to move to statewide office. Gaye Symington, the Democratic speaker in the Douglas years, tried it in 2008 and lost badly. She actually finished third, albeit by the tiniest of margins. She trailed the Progressive Anthony Pollina by a one tenth of a percentage point, 21.8 to 21.7 percent. Douglas crushed them both with 53.4 percent.
Still, the roiled political environment following the 2014 election has presented Smith with a series of political options that he pretty much had to consider. The first would be to run for governor if Shumlin doesn’t run for re-election in 2016. Shumlin has made a determined effort over the last month to reverse his political fortunes, but it remains true that many of the people who know him best are not sure that he will want to run again.
If Shumlin does run again, then his opponent almost certainly would be Scott, the Republican lieutenant governor, so that Smith’s second option would be to run for that seat.
The third option for Smith would be to run for attorney general if the incumbent Democrat Bill Sorrell retires. That is less likely, however. Most political mavens expect Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who ran a strong race in the 2012 Democratic primary against Sorrell, to try again for that seat. Still, the AG campaign remains a plausible alternative.
In any event, Smith can’t do anything in the near term about what might open up. The challenge that is already upon him is how to manage the House and the issue agenda in such a way as to get the best result for the state—and for his future prospects.
An important backdrop to this political calculus is that the Progressive Party is already restive in the face of the relative conservatism of governor’s office over the last 15 years, starting with the Howard Dean administration in the 1990s and continuing with the Republican Jim Douglas and then during Shumlin’s tenure since 2010. The Progressives supported Shumlin on the strength of his opposition to Vermont Yankee and his pledge to build a single payer health care plan, but those issues are gone now so the Progressives are likely to run their own candidate for either governor or lieutenant governor or both. A third-party Progressive candidate probably couldn’t win a a statewide race outright, but the challenge could kill the chances for either Shumlin or Smith.
So, the performance of the legislature on the issue agenda is critical for Smith, and for Shumlin, if he runs.
The issue agenda
There are two major issues that face the legislature in the current biennium—the education financing/property tax conundrum and health care. These twin towers are also likely to dominate the political environment going into the next election. At present, education financing and property taxes hold pride of place. These issues are very important and difficult: in an ordinary year it would absorb the major energies of the body. Which could turn out to be what happens, substantively and politically.
Yet, health care reform is ultimately more important: if your kid is having trouble with math and reading, that is a serious problem; if your kid is seriously ill, that is a bigger problem. Health care is also far more technically complex as well as more expensive than education. Moreover, the Shumlin administration’s four-year effort to build a single payer system has left a lingering sense that we could have done better.
Smith has seemed to be ambivalent on health care reform over the last couple of years. He was quietly unhappy with the governor’s management of the project, and he has seemed more interested in the education-property tax nexus. He has always said that he would give single payer a fair hearing, and he connects the two by noting that getting health care costs down would be a big factor in improving education financing. But he has his enthusiasm for health care reform firmly under control.
The danger is that health care remains a huge issue for Progressives and the Democratic left, and if he is seen as an impediment to progress there, he’ll get a left opponent in a statewide race. A variation on the same theme lies in the fact that new initiatives for financing health care could arise out of the legislature itself, so Smith would have to decide whether to lead that process.
What all this amounts to is that Smith has to deftly manage the House at the same time he is auditioning to be a leader on a far bigger stage. Slighting health care could hurt him in that effort.
Style and political personality
Smith isn’t your conventional politician, either as a speaker or potentially as a candidate for governor or lieutenant governor. For one thing, he is much more policy oriented than most speakers — he is far more sophisticated about health care delivery than Shumlin, for example, and vastly more informed about the ins and outs of complex issues than the last truly dominant speaker, the Democrat Ralph Wright, who served through much of the 1980s and 1990s.
For another, he is remarkably ambivalent about his ambitions. For example, he waited literally to the last hour in June 2014 before he filed his reelection papers. He told friends that he wasn’t sure he wanted to run again, that he has an excellent job with a prestigious law firm and that he and his wife are raising two small children. He made it clear he doesn’t need politics to be happy.
In other words, he is more Mario Cuomo than Pat Leahy or Bernie Sanders. Leahy and Sanders were clearly born to run for office. Shap Smith wasn’t. It isn’t that he tries to hide the fact that he is positioning himself to move up in 2016. That is obvious to everyone, and he doesn’t bother to deny it.
But it does render believable his assurances that in managing issues in the legislature, he would never sacrifice effective policy choices for a course that would benefit him politically. Which might be good for Vermont, but not necessarily good for Smith’s political chances in 2016.
N.B. Nebraska has a unicameral legislation, which is called a Senate, but its leader is a speaker.