The complete and absolute dysfunction we seen in Washington, D.C., is what we want to avoid in Vermont, which is the message being sent by leaders of both Vermont’s political parties as the session opens and the stage is set to deal with the state’s challenges. Whereas the tribalism in the nation’s capital puts hope beyond reason’s reach, Vermont’s smaller stage makes unrelenting antagonism tiresome and unproductive and, ultimately, risky politically.
This is the message consistently delivered by Republican Gov. Phil Scott and now something being embraced by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe. The friction between the two Democratic leaders hurt their legislative causes last session, a challenge they both said would be something they would address this session.
The political party differences still exist. What Ms. Johnson and Mr. Ashe want will undoubtedly not be something the governor wants. It’s just that Ms. Johnson and Mr. Ashe want the differences to be with the governor, not between themselves, as was the case in last year’s session. Hence, the Kumbayah moment between the two earlier this week.
But ambition’s sword has two edges. Professionally, minimizing their differences and working toward a mutually agreed outcome is something that aligns them as a party and, with key issues, against the governor. On the personal side, ambition becomes trickier to handle because it most often cuts in favor of the individual not the collective.
And it’s Mr, Ashe’s personal ambition that’s now in play with his announcement this week he will run for lieutenant governor [assuming Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman follows through with his plans to run for governor.]
All of a sudden, what happens in the Senate is more about Mr. Ashe than it is the issue being debated. That’s not something entirely of Mr. Ashe’s making. But it’s something that will be foisted upon him as the media does its daily accounting of what happens during the session. His motives will be second-guessed. It can’t be otherwise. Past behaviors will be part of the narrative.
It makes the relationship between Mr. Ashe and Ms. Johnson more difficult than it would be otherwise. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s a factor. Mr. Ashe now has a personal incentive to make sure that whatever happens in the Legislature plays to his advantage, understanding that mistakes or confusion also play to his disadvantage. What works for him, may not work for all parts of his party, which could become problematic if a more mainstream Democrat — former House Speaker Shap Smith, for example — decided to challenge him in the primary. He will find it necessary to draw a harder edge on issues than he would if his ambition were held to more pedestrian levels.
Then, there’s this: In a Vermont Digger column by political writer John Walters [formerly of Seven Days], he contrasted Mr. Ashe and Ms. Johnson, characterizing Ms. Johnson as being the consensus builder and Mr. Ashe “…more aloof, and widely seen as having trouble working with powerful women.” He quoted a female lawmaker as saying: “Everybody sees how he talks to women in leadership… He needs to make a change — and he has to make up for his past missteps.”
Hmmm. In the #metoo era it’s normally the kiss of death for a politician to be seen as looking down at women regardless of their station. If Mr. Ashe is being viewed as the one who tossed sand in the legislative gears last session, and if he struggles to deal with women in positions of power, then his challenge for the remainder of the session is to be seen as someone who can get things done and who can do so being able to share the credit with others, most notably Ms. Johnson.
With perception being the biggest part of reality that’s a hurdle Mr. Ashe — unfairly or not — faces. Perhaps unfair because being aloof can be more a sign of someone being introspective than being judgmental. Mr. Ashe’s significant other is Paula Routly, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days, hardly a weak woman, or someone who would countenance patronizingly superior behavior. Still, the contention will be something on the minds of those who have the task of explaining Montpelier, and its political players, to the body politic.
Because of Vermont’s small size, the behavior and the vast number of choices our elected leaders in Montpelier make are there for the public to see. Close up and personal. Judgment is swift.
We’re about to see how the promises of comity match up against ambition’s undertow.
By Emerson Lynn