BENNINGTON -- Bennington County Democratic Sens. Dick Sears and Robert Hartwell will return to Montpelier in January, but the chamber may see some changes as a more liberal group of members grows.
Democrats will control 23 of the Senate's 30 seats. A host of longtime members are gone, however, including several Democrats. In January, four new Democrats will be sworn in: Christopher Bray, D-Addison, David Zuckerman, D-Chittenden, John Rodgers, D-Essex Orleans, and Don Collins, D-Franklin, assuming his election survives a potential recount.
Sears said he has worked well with John Rodgers, describing the former House member as a middle-of-the-road lawmaker. Zuckerman, a former Progressive House member, and Bray, bring bonafide liberal credentials to the chamber, he said. They will strengthen the liberal core of the Senate made up by Sens. Tim Ashe and Philip Baruth from Chittenden County, and Anthony Pollina from Washington County.
"The Chittenden County delegation, if anything, is going to be much more liberal with Zuckerman. We're going to clearly have a very progressive wing of the Democratic Party," Sears said.
Sears said he considers himself a moderate Democrat, but many in Vermont see him as conservative. "In the Vermont Senate I'm in the middle. If I was down in Kentucky I'd be a flaming liberal. It's all a matter of scale. I think my conservatism is in terms of spending and taxing. I don't think I'm necessarily one who doesn't favor social policy that's pretty liberal," he said.
The first clash between the old-guard moderates and a growing liberal core could happen when Democrats meet to organize and choose leaders. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, will again seek the post that dictates the Senate's path and schedule. While Campbell is favored by Sears, Hartwell and other moderates, Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, could receive the backing of the more liberal set.
Cummings has indicated she will challenge Campbell. However, Sears said he expects that a deal can be struck to install Ashe or Sen. Sally Fox, D-Chittenden, as majority leader.
"That will be the compromise to allow Campbell to stay as pro tem and gives a voice to that more liberal group," Sears said. "We can work together or we can have a lot of battles. It could end up as a very split caucus."
Some of the newer, more progressive members of the Senate expressed frustration during the last biennium as veteran members dictated the Senate's actions. With stronger numbers, they could force the issue even more during the next session.
Sears said each group within the Senate will have to recognize the validity of the others' views. "If we all work together and recognize what each's views are, we can get things done," he said.
Still, each senator represents a core constituency at home. So finding middle ground may be easier said than done. "To me, the problem becomes recognizing that I'm representing my constituents," he said. "I'm not a conservative by any means, but I'm representing the view of my constituents."
Sears said a potential rift within the Democratic caucus is most likely to emerge when the chamber takes up health care reform and when crafting the state budget. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin is pursuing a first-in-the-nation state-level single payer health care system.
Sears said what services are included in such a health care plan could generate discord as the chamber works through what it can afford.
"Most of the liberal side is going to say we need to provide dental care, and there will be a push to provide dental care as part of a package. Well, the question is can we afford dental care? If I'm asking that question I'll be seen as the conservative side," he said.
Arguments about whether the state should raise taxes to help fund government programs are also likely to emerge. "Do we raise taxes in order to fund this or that other thing?" Sears said.
Hartwell, said he, too, sees a battle looming over the budget.
"I do see the potential for it. I think it's going to be difficult to manage. I guess the big example is, when this deficit rears it's ugly head, when that happens, the progressive end of the party is going to want to go after the higher-income people for more revenue," Hartwell said. "I understand that, but if they don't agree that there have to be some spending cuts as well, there's going to be a problem."