Leadership for a Strong Vermont

Peter Principled?

Shumlin’s got the political mojo, but can he win Vermonters’ trust?
By Andy Bromage [06.23.10]
link to full article

Illustration by Marc Nadel

Illustration by Marc Nadel

Lots of people were surprised last February when the Vermont Senate pushed through a vote against relicensing the state’s aging nuclear power plant. Except, perhaps, those who know something about gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin.

Shumlin, the longtime Senate president pro tem, is from Putney, which is 18 miles from the Vermont Yankee plant. He made the historic vote happen, and that made him a target for business and labor leaders worried about lost jobs and rising energy prices. When Shumlin went on TV and flubbed a fact about solar power, the union representing 160 endangered nuclear plant workers distributed literature calling him a liar.

Some politicians might shrink from that kind of criticism, but Shumlin seems to thrive on it. Appearing at a candidates’ forum at the Vermont Business and Industry Expo last month — before a potentially hostile crowd — Shumlin defended the decision to pull the plug on the nuke plant, using the blunt language that’s made him a hero to some and a villain to others.

“Let’s stop the myth,” Shumlin told business leaders, noting that the new power deal Yankee offered Vermonters was terrible. “Relicensing that plant is not going to get you cheap power. It’s going to get you tritium, cobalt and cesium in the groundwater of Windham County. It’s going to get you a company you can’t trust. And it’s going to get you a future your kids will not be proud of.”

Two weeks later, Shumlin went before the unionized electrical workers whose good-paying, Vermont Yankee jobs are on the line. Shumlin said he felt their pain but stood by the vote.

Shumlin doesn’t apologize for his legislative record as Senate president, nor for the hardball tactics he sometimes employs to get things done. In fact, that’s how he differentiates himself from the four other pols seeking the Democratic nomination for governor: Sens. Doug Racine and Susan Bartlett, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and Google executive (and former Vermont Senator) Matt Dunne.

“I have this reputation for being a little bit of a politician, for kicking barn doors down,” says Shumlin, 54. “You want results, right? I can deliver.”

Statehouse colleagues describe Shumlin as smart, ambitious and politically shrewd. Senator Claire Ayer (D-Addison) likens him to a “chess player” — someone who thinks five steps ahead, positions his pieces, and then strikes when the moment is right.

Can Shumlin look forward to “checkmate” in November? He won’t speak ill of his Democratic rivals, but says he’s most capable of beating Republican candidate Brian Dubie, the popular lieutenant governor, because he is the Democrat who is “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

In fact, Shumlin’s record defies easy categorization. He consistently earns an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association for his support of gun rights, but he’s the only candidate who publicly advocates decriminalizing marijuana.

Years before he cheered Vermont Yankee’s demise — before radioactive leaks and lying executives turned him against it — Shumlin engineered a lucrative tax break for the nuclear plant.

“I was taking care of a constituent,” he says matter-of-factly.

In 2009, Shumlin led the Senate to override two vetoes by Republican Gov. Jim Douglas: same-sex marriage and the state budget. The former endeared Shumlin to gay-rights activist Beth Robinson and the national LGBT community — a huge fundraising opportunity.

The budget battle he won imposed $18 million in new taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters while slashing taxes for the middle class. This year, Shumlin reversed course and compromised with the governor to roll back capital gains taxes while cutting services to the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

How does he navigate the political waters so skillfully? Senator Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) has dubbed one of the president pro tem’s persuasion techniques the “Shumlin Elbow Grip.”

“When Peter grabs hold of your elbow, there’s no hope for you,” Ashe says. “He’s so damn smart and charming that, while he’s got you in the grip, everything he says is completely agreeable and sensible.”

It will be up to voters to decide whether that quality makes him the candidate who can “get tough things done,” as Shumlin claims, or too aggressive and slick to win over the average Vermonter.

When he’s not at the Statehouse, Shumlin spends his days in a converted dairy barn next to his childhood home. That’s where he and his brother run Putney Student Travel, the family business started by their parents that organizes homestays and service trips abroad for young adults, including those for National Geographic Student Expeditions. The company has grown to employ more than 250 people worldwide.

On his home turf, Shumlin seems less like a polished pol than a privileged Vermonter extending a hand to his neighbors. Dressed casually in khaki shorts, a plaid, button-down Oxford shirt and jogging shoes, he drives his Audi fearlessly over the logging roads and grassy fields that cut through his sprawling, 500-acre property.

He points out a sawmill and a hilltop garden he has let friends set up, free of charge. He allowed one local to build a home in the middle of his woods simply because, Shumlin says, “He always wanted to live in the woods.” Shumlin bought a small dairy farm from a friend who could no longer afford it, rehabbed all the buildings and told the farmer he could stay for the price of the property taxes.

Shumlin also owns commercial real estate in downtown Putney. And, like any politician worth his salt, he seems to know everybody in town — from farmers haying fields to barbecue legend Curtis Tuff — and never misses a chance for a two-minute hello. He comes off as generous and caring; a country boy who, as Shumlin says, “would rather be spreading manure than wearing a suit in Montpelier.”

Shumlin has the lanky frame of an avid runner and cross-country skier. And he’s got a good sense of humor about his most prominent feature: a large, hooked nose. One “Shumlin for Governor” sign is a crude outline of the candidate’s distinctive profile. At home and in the Statehouse, he seems at ease in his own skin.

Shumlin has a way of making other people comfortable, too. “When you’re talking to Peter Shumlin, he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room,” says Kevin Ellis, a Montpelier-based lobbyist who spent a decade observing Shumlin at the Statehouse. “That’s a natural skill … that you can’t teach, and he’s really good at it, as was [Bill] Clinton.”

Also like the former president, Shumlin’s people skills appear to be compatible with his outsized drive. The self-described workaholic says he sleeps about four hours a night. The wealthiest candidate in the governor’s race, he reported almost $1 million in income on his 2010 tax return.

Shumlin was born on March 24, 1956, the middle of three children, on the Putney dairy farm where he still lives today. As a child, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, which he says caused him to work “twice as hard” as his peers to get what he wanted.

He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1979, where he majored in English literature and government. Shumlin moved back home when he was 24 and served on the Putney select board before being appointed by then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin to a vacant seat in the Vermont House of Representatives. After three years as a state rep, in 1992 he won election to the Senate and served 10 years — eight of them as the president pro tempore, the chamber’s chosen leader.

Shumlin says he went to the Statehouse intending to please everyone. “I had a tendency to tell people what they wanted to hear,” he recalls. “I changed my style pretty quickly.”

In 2002, Shumlin ran for lieutenant governor and lost to Dubie, who won 41 percent in a three-way race with Progressive Anthony Pollina. Shumlin returned to private life for four years, but was reelected to the Senate in 2006 and, once again, his colleagues made him their chief.

He and his wife, Deborah Holway Shumlin, separated about a year ago. They have two daughters: Olivia, 19, and Rebecca, 18.

On the stump, Shumlin is a sound-bite machine. He speaks of wimpy politicians stricken with “spine flu.” He says the next governor needs to act like the head of a Thanksgiving table — someone who can “keep a food fight from breaking out.”

But Shumlin backs his “bites” with bullet points. At Democratic candidate forums, he answers questions thoroughly and specifically.

Shumlin says he wants to dramatically change how Vermonters think about health care, economic development, agriculture and technology. As with his rivals, most of his ideas have a single, common thread: creating jobs.

Shumlin envisions a Vermont universal health care system where insurance follows the individual rather than being the employer’s responsibility — a change he predicts will unleash “a wave” of new jobs “like we have never seen.”

On technology, Shumlin pledges to be “the George Aiken of broadband,” a reference to the former Vermont governor and U.S. senator who brought electricity to rural Vermont. Shumlin says he can bring high-speed Internet to the “last mile” of every Vermont dirt road by 2013, and that doing so would lure new businesses here.

Climate change is a big issue for Shumlin. He predicts a jobs boom in any state that embraces renewable- energy technology, and says Vermont “can get a piece of that action.” He wants the University of Vermont to create a degree program in climate change — merging science, meteorology, business and engineering — that would be the first in the nation.

Even Vermont agriculture has a bright future in what Shumlin calls “the climate-change economy.” Wetter weather will keep Vermont a viable food-growing state as traditional food-belt states such as California continue to suffer from prolonged droughts.

“We will be growing food for America again,” Shumlin says. “That’s the kind of vision we haven’t had in government for a while.”

Like his rivals, Shumlin isn’t sure how he would pay for all his initiatives, but says he wouldn’t raise taxes to balance the books.

Policy is not Shumlin’s problem; his style may be. A Rasmussen Reports poll from March 18 revealed Shumlin has the highest “negatives” of any candidate in the governor’s race; 45 percent of respondents said they have a “somewhat unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” opinion of him. In an unscientific Seven Days survey of lawmakers conducted last winter, Shumlin received more votes than any of his colleagues in the “most ethically challenged” category.

Senator Dick McCormack (D-Windsor), who is supporting Racine for governor, praises Shumlin’s liberal record on issues but calls his leadership style “autocratic.” McCormack says Shumlin “tends to appoint an ‘in crowd’ at his discretion,” from which dissenting senators can find themselves “exiled.” Asked whether Shumlin is good for his word, McCormack hedges.

“Just make sure you’ve parsed every word,” he says. “The promise he makes may not be the promise you thought he made. There were times when I did not read the fine print. I won’t make that mistake again.”

Senator Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), a veteran lawmaker who was first elected in 1984, felt burned by Shumlin this year when the Senate president pro tem and the House speaker decided lawmakers would take a 3 percent pay cut without first discussing it with the rank and file.

“That caught a lot of people off guard,” says Mazza, who learned of the pay cut from a reporter. “He should have had a caucus first so we’re all prepared to answer the questions.”

Others, however, suggest the unethical tag is unearned and unfair. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says Shumlin is “more of a political animal than his peers,” and that his killer political instinct can be misconstrued as dishonesty.

“He is much more similar to elected officials in bigger states where political elbows tend to be a lot sharper,” Burns says. “In the way that Tip O’Neill and [then-President] Ronald Reagan supposedly would get together after a very contentious debate in Congress and have a beer, Shumlin is a little bit more of that ilk. Some people think of that as being unprincipled or too political.”

Shumlin says his campaign’s internal polling shows negative perceptions are “not an issue,” though he refuses to share the results. He also notes the job of Senate president, by its nature, makes you a magnet for criticism from disgruntled lawmakers, especially when you force them to vote on controversial issues such as same-sex marriage and nuclear power.

“Do you know how many bills I’ve had to kill? How many bad ideas I’ve had to stomp on?” he asks. “If I’m sleazy and dishonest, why have my colleagues elected me five times to be their leader? I’m good at what I do and I don’t apologize for it.”

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