Ashe is a definite, several other likely candidates eye Senate presidency
The jockeying for the top leadership post in the Senate began almost as soon as news spread Monday that Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell would not seek re-election to the Senate in November.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, who is chair of the Finance Committee, said without hesitation he wanted the Senate president job after Campbell leaves. Washington County Sen. Ann Cummings, who went after the Senate presidency four years ago, said she was strongly considering it. Addison County Sen. Claire Ayer, chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, also expressed interest, while Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, of Chittenden County, also viewed as a contender, said it was too early to speculate.
Their interest was sparked after Campbell dropped a political bombshell and said he would not run again and soon would become executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs. Campbell has represented Windsor County since 2000 and has been the Senate president for the past six years. Campbell said he is stepping aside to make way for new leadership and to make more money.
Ashe — while stressing it was "John's day" — didn't flinch when asked if he wanted the top job.
"I think in many ways — not just my eight years (in the Senate) but in particular these last four having been chair of Finance — it's a very ideal training ground for the pro tem position," Ashe said. "I believe that it has given me the seasoning and maturity that I think it takes to really manage the Senate well."
He said he'd been eyeing the position and that it was "a tough hypothetical" whether he would have run for the post even if Campbell had come back.
"I believe that I would run for the Senate pro tem position when I believe I'm ready to do a good job," Ashe said, "and I think John's announcement forces the question on me and I believe this is the time I'm reaching that point of preparedness."
Ashe said he didn't know if he'd face competition when his colleagues pick Campbell's replacement after the November election. Currently, Democrats hold a 2-1 margin in the 30-member chamber.
"What's good is people are working very well together in the Senate as colleagues," Ashe said. "I think some issues are more turbulent than others, but on the personality side, people are getting along well. So even if there is a competition, I think that it will be a healthy one, not one that will leave the Senate in factions."
Cummings, who tried to oust Campbell four years ago, said Monday she was also interested in the post.
"I'm definitely strongly considering it," she said.
"I think I've got the experience," she continued. "I think that I'm a hard worker, not into the glamour. I've always said I'm a workhorse, not a superstar. I think we could use a little more focus."
Cummings, a senator since 1996, said she and Campbell patched up their differences after her failed effort to remove him. She said it was like two different people, the first two years compared with the last four of Campbell's tenure as Senate president.
"John got the message and did what he had to do," Cummings said.
Ayer, who joined the Senate after being elected in 2002, told Seven Days she would consider a run for pro tem as well. "I think it makes sense to have someone who's experienced and someone who knows how to work hard and someone who knows that it's a lot more than being a member or chair of a policy committee," Ayer said.
Baruth wouldn't discuss any possible future bid. He, like others, said he was surprised by Campbell's decision.
"Everybody's got to go back to the voters and get re-elected, and I think it's way, way early to be thinking about what happens" when a new pro tem would be selected, Baruth said.
"This whole cycle, (Gov. Peter) Shumlin drops out two years early, everything goes into this accelerated mode, but it's really hard to be thinking about leadership of the Senate when we don't even know who's running to come back," Baruth said. "I think everyone needs to stay focused and then when the time is right think about what the leadership team looks like."
Those interested in Campbell's job stressed the spotlight should be on him.
"I'm not particularly interested in going on about myself right now," Ashe said. "I really do think it's his day — his announcement is a chance for people to congratulate him on his time served and his transition."
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, praised Campbell and said it was particularly impressive he was able to change after his first term as Senate president, when he had to beg his colleagues to give him a second chance.
"I think John improved steadily," said Smith, who is stepping down, too. "Not many people can take the kind of criticism that he took, internalize it and figure out a way to do better. I think it showed something that he did that. Kudos to him."
Smith had been a candidate for governor but dropped out because of his wife's cancer diagnosis, but he hasn't ruled out getting back in for November, perhaps in the lieutenant governor's race.
Shumlin praised his former lieutenant and said his departure would be "a big loss" for the Legislature. Campbell served as majority leader when Shumlin was pro tem.
"As pro tem and governor, I have been able to count on John's loyalty and friendship. Even when he and I don't agree on an issue, I can always trust him to be straightforward and honest and give me a fair hearing," Shumlin said.
"John's effectiveness as a leader and a legislator is often undervalued because he does not seek the limelight. Instead, he quietly builds consensus, working to bring people together to get things done. Under his leadership, the Senate has moved many important pieces of legislation that will make Vermont a better place, including marriage equality, raising the minimum wage, ensuring paid sick days, labeling GMOs, and much more. None of those landmark bills would have moved forward without the leadership of John Campbell," the governor said.
Political analyst Eric Davis said there would be a changing of the guard at the Legislature next year, not only in the speaker and Senate president jobs. He noted one of the roles of the Senate president is to serve on the three-member panel that makes committee assignments and selects committee chairs. With Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, another member of that committee, leaving to run for governor, Davis said many committee chairs could change next year.
Davis noted the large number of statewide offices that will have new holders next year, including governor, lieutenant governor, House speaker and Senate president.
"It's going to be a different dynamic in the Statehouse next year," Davis said.
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