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House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s apparent loss in her re-election campaign has started a game of musical chairs in the Vermont House of Representatives, where the scramble to fill the Speaker’s very important seat is already beginning behind the scenes.

Johnson is seeking a recall in the Grand Isle-Chittenden district, as she finished third and out of the running by just 18 votes. Leland Morgan and his nephew Michael, both Republicans, finished first and second, respectively.

If that doesn’t end in Johnson’s favor, the current and previous Democratic majority leaders in the House, Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, and Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, will be asking their fellow Democrats for support in becoming the next speaker.

A number of members had touted Rep. Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, the chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, as a potential candidate. But Briglin has also taken himself out of consideration.

Walter Freed of Dorset has been through this before. He’s a former state representative, and he is the most recent Republican to have served as Speaker. He spent two terms behind the gavel, from 2001-05.

Freed said his situation was different than it is for House Democrats. He was the GOP’s minority leader, and when Republicans flipped the House, he was the only candidate for the job.

But Freed was also a member when former Speaker Ralph Wright of Bennington was upset in the 1994 election by Gerald Morrissey, leading to a scramble (won by Rep. Michael J. Obuchowski of Bellows Falls). So he’s seen how the race for Speaker works.

Either way, time is of the essence in lining up support. “Whoever jumps out first, that is an important part to that process,” Freed said.

Certainly, who gets to be speaker could be classified as “inside baseball.” But the speaker holds significant power over committee assignments, the chamber’s rules, and which issues are considered priorities. All those factors have a lot to say about the state’s programs and policies, what you pay in taxes, and what rules we agree to live by.

Copeland-Hanzas is chair of the Government Operations Committee and has served in the House since 2004. She spent one term as majority leader, and the past two terms as chair of the Government Operations Committee. She sought the Speaker’s gavel in 2017, when Shap Smith left the House, but stepped aside when it became clear that Johnson would carry the day. She’s from the Upper Valley, which might prove advantageous to members who care who is and who isn’t from Burlington — or care about the perception of Burlington having outsized influence in Montpelier.

Krowinski, of Burlington, is the current majority leader and a member of the Rules Committee. A House member since 2012, she’s a former official at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and the Executive Director of Emerge Vermont, the training and mentorship program for Democratic women seeking elected office.

That last bit might make help Krowinski, as a number of Emerge graduates are House members. Reps. Kathleen James, D-Manchester (Education), Sara Coffey, D-Guilford (Corrections and Institutions) and Stephanie Jerome, D-Brandon (Commerce and Economic Development) are all clerks of their respective committees. And Emerge graduate Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, was named to Ways & Means as a first-term lawmaker after Johnson removed Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, from that panel.

Browning has also announced her intention to run for Speaker. How can she do that, since she lost her re-election bid? This is how: Nowhere in the state Constitution does it say that the Speaker has to be a House member. Indeed, Johnson could still run for speaker, even if the recount doesn’t end in her favor. (There’s no indication she’s interested in that strategy as of this writing.)

Are there other lawmakers who could make a bid for leadership? Certainly, and one could speculate until the cows come home.

For now, whether additional names percolate to the surface depends on how House Democrats react to a choice between Krowinski and Copeland-Hanzas, and whether one of those two women gain the majority of support within the caucus. If a clear consensus doesn’t materialize, Progressives, Independents and Republicans might have more sway over the decision when the full House votes by Australian ballot.

Seniority matters for this role. So does leadership experience, and positive working relationships with other lawmakers — even ones with whom you don’t always agree, Freed said.

But once the job is yours?

“Its a part time position that turns into a full time job 52 weeks a years on the phone, no matter what,” Freed said.

That means managing the wants and needs of 149 other members. But it also means dealing with lobbyists’ constant demands for time, and regular meetings with the leadership of all parties in setting the agenda and getting things done.

“When I was minority leader I would meet with leadership of both caucuses on a weekly basis, so they could tell me what we’re going to fight about and what we’re not going to fight about,” Freed said.

It starts with committee assignments, and choosing chairs for those committees. That allows the Speaker to delegate work, especially to those with deep knowledge of a particular field or specialty. “I gave my committee chairs quite a bit of free rein — they knew the topics better than I did,” Freed recalled.

“I found it very enjoyable. Very challenging, but very enjoyable,” Freed said of his two terms holding the gavel. “I learned a lot about topics I would have never otherwise been exposed to.”

WORK TO DOWhoever succeeds Johnson as Speaker will face mighty challenges in addition to its occupational hazards. They start start with the logistics of how the House will conduct business, given the likelihood that the House chamber will still be unavailable given COVID-19 distance requirements.

There’s still a global pandemic happening, draining tax revenues and raising costs. The fiscal 2022 budget could be more difficult than the FY2021 spending plan, with education funding and the social safety net its likely pinch points. And there are at least three major legislative initiatives — climate change, legal marijuana sales and racial equity in the criminal justice system — that will require concerted follow-through this year, and sooner than later.

At the end of the day, it’s politics one might say, and inside baseball at that.

But who makes policy has a direct impact on what policy gets made, as well as the tenor of the relationship between the House, the Senate and the executive branch. So it’s worth keeping an eye on the race.

In southern Vermont, the post-election buzz was about Browning and fellow incumbent Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, being defeated in their bids for re-election. But there are plenty of changes in the delegation, mostly in Bennington County: A quick list:

• Michelle Bos-Lun D-Westminster, will succeed Rep. Nader Hashim in the Windham-4 district (Westminster, Putney and Dummerston). Hashim stepped down after one term.

• Leslie Goldman, D-Rockingham, will succeed Rep. Kelley Tully in the Windham-3 district (Windham, Grafton, Rockingham, Athens and Brookline). Tully, who was appointed to replace Rep. Matthew Trieber earlier this year, lost in the Democratic primary.

• Dane Whitman, D-Bennington, was elected to the Bennington 2-1 district. He will assume the seat held by Rep. Chris Bates, who stepped down after one term.

• Michael Nigro, D-Bennington, narrowly defeated Rep. Jim Carroll for one of two seats in the Bennington-2 district.

• Sally Achey, R-Middletown Springs, beat Chesnut-Tangerman for the right to represent the Rutland-Bennington district (Pawlet, Rupert, Wells, Middletown Springs and Tinmouth).

• Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, the former president of Hildene in Manchester, will take the place of Browning, who served seven terms representing Arlington and the Bennington-4 district. (Manchester, Sunderland, Sandgate and Arlington).

Being a legislator is difficult and demanding work in a normal year. We saw this year, in the first months of the pandemic, how lawmakers stepped up to serve constituents and provide them with essential information and resources.

With that in mind, it says here that Reps. Bates, Browning, Carroll, Chesnut-Tangerman, Hashim and Tully deserve thanks for their service, and well-wishes for success in their future endeavors.

AND THE WINNER IS ...Republicans were pleased by their victories over Johnson and Chesnut-Tangerman, the Progressive Party’s House leader, as well as Phil Scott’s eye-popping margin of victory in the governor’s race. “Vermonters voters spoke loud and clear ... in support of more balance and a greater focus on affordability in Montpelier,” said Deb Billado, the party’s executive director.

But the GOP still faces a glaring lack of success on the statewide ticket, where Phil Scott is their only statewide winner for 10 years and counting. And in Bennington County, the party’s late-campaign mailer assailing Brian Campion appeared to backfire.

As for Democrats: They held their ground, and the party can point to rising stars in Sen. Becca Balint, the likely incoming Senate president pro tem, and Molly Gray, the lieutenant governor-elect. They can also take pride in historic triumphs for Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, the first woman of color elected to the Vermont State Senate, and Taylor Small, D/P-Winooski, who becomes the first openly transgender candidate elected to the Legislature.

But Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s showing on election night can’t be characterized as anything but a setback for Democrats and Progressives. He won just four cities and towns — Brattleboro, Marlboro, Putney and Burlington — and earned fewer votes (99,214) than Donald Trump (112,704).

Perhaps there was no way for any candidate to defeat Gov. Phil Scott, whose popularity was only bolstered by his administration’s strong performance on COVID-19. It’s hard to say that Rebecca Holcombe or Pat Winburn, the Democrats whom Zuckerman bested in the primary, would have fared better — or, for that matter, any other Vermont Democrat.

In a normal year perhaps things might have been different, though we will never know. Zuckerman’s campaign raised and spent nearly $700,000, well more than Scott. He had endorsements from all the “right” sources one would think would make a difference: U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, the state teachers union, and numerous advocacy groups. He did well in the debates. Turnout was historically high.

It would be easy to jump to conclusions based on those factors not seeming to make a difference for Zuckerman.

But every election is different, and how else could we describe 2020? We media folks tend to forget that; we like to look to history as a guide for what supposedly can and can’t happen in politics and government, and often make the mistake of confusing past performance with future results. Clearly, that’s not true.

Either way, all three major parties in Vermont have work to do if they want to improve upon their Election Day performances in 2022. And that work starts now.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik joined New England Newspapers as a reporter at The Berkshire Eagle in 1995. He worked for The AP in Boston, and at ESPN.com, before rejoining NENI in 2016. He was managing editor of all three NENI Vermont newspapers from 2017-19.


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