BURLINGTON -- Now that Bruce Lisman has dropped his interest in a run for governor, his organization, Campaign for Vermont, is looking to go mainstream.
Lisman, a Burlington native and former Wall Street mogul, handed the reins of the 501c4 advocacy group he founded in 2011 over to new leadership in March.
Cyrus Patten, the new executive director of Campaign for Vermont, wants to shed the organization's political baggage (associated with Lisman's erstwhile gubernatorial exploration) and create a viable grassroots advocacy group that pressures the state to adopt fiscal and ethical accountability measures.
Patten wants to better articulate the mission of the organization, which is to support a strong economy (the group's legal name is Campaign for Vermont Prosperity), through specific policy initiatives.
"We're the only organization that is taking up such a broad focus," Patten said. "We want to see Vermont thrive economically and socially. We want to see it thrive on all levels. Where I would draw a distinction from any other group pushing a strong economy is that we're not simply a pro business group or anti-regulation. That's not our mission. We realize to have a vibrant economy it takes a strong public education system, a transparent accountable government, access to affordable health care. These are all components of a vibrant economy that you can't ignore."
What Public Assets Institute is to liberals - a think tank that generates left-leaning position papers on economic issues - Campaign for Vermont wants to be for moderates who believe state government should be more accountable to taxpayers and use more fiscal restraint.
Add to that an advocacy role, and the Campaign is looking more like a hybrid organization - somewhere between PAI and VPIRG, a consumer advocacy group.
News media, including VTDigger, have characterized Campaign for Vermont as a conservative organization because the founding members of the group are Republicans and the group hired a conservative lobbyist, Shawn Shouldice, to launch its PR efforts. Patten, Lisman and Louise McCarren, the new board chair of the Campaign, however, eschew the word conservative. They draw a distinction between the extreme Tea Party types who dominate in the rest of the country and what they call Republican Gov. Dick Snelling style fiscal moderates in Vermont.
McCarren, who worked for Vermont Legal Aid in the 1970s, ran for lieutenant governor on the GOP ticket in 1990 and served as president of Verizon Vermont in the 2000s, is the new board chair of Campaign for Vermont. She says the members of the organization come from diverse backgrounds and political affiliations aren't front and center. "I believe in what they're trying to do," McCarren said. "I think it's a huge opportunity for Vermonters to participate in a nonpartisan way in understanding issues and shaping issues."
Patten, a registered Democrat, says the Campaign for Vermont is issue-based and nonpartisan, and he intends to demonstrate just how apolitical the organization is. "We are not anything other than what we say we are," Patten says. "We have no secondary goals. What we are, is what we say we are."
Campaign for Vermont will not, for example, be backing any candidates for office (now that Lisman has eliminated that uncomfortable possibility) through independent advertising buys.
Instead the focus of the organization will be lobbying for better government accountability in the Legislature this year. The Campaign is gearing up to take a position on changes to school governance, the education finance system and results based accountability assessments for the Agency of Human Services. The Campaign will also likely press for more legislative accountability. The group successfully got the House to agree to new rules requiring lawmakers to disclose who they work for and what boards they serve on. New disclosure rules in the state Senate will likely be the next pressure point.
In the past, Campaign for Vermont has had a somewhat muted role in the Legislature. Patten says this legislative session the group will organize campaigns around particular issues that it will watchdog through the coming session.
Key to that effort will be activating the group's network of 1,200 members who have endorsed Campaign for Vermont's prosperity message. Longterm, the Campaign hopes to tap members to finance the organization. In the meantime, Lisman, who has poured more than $1 million into the organization, will continue to provide financial support.