Political ‘earthquake’ leads to tsunami of turnover in Vermont’s elected offices

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy is embraced by his wife, Marcelle, after announcing he will retire at the end of his term during a press conference in Montpelier on Nov. 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

First it was U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., last November. Then it was U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., the next week. Next, it was Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in December and Secretary of State Jim Condos in February. And finally, in a flurry of activity in early May, Treasurer Beth Pearce and Attorney General TJ Donovan joined the list of top Vermont officials who aren’t seeking reelection this year.

In total, two of Vermont’s three members of Congress and, in Montpelier, four of its six executive officers are leaving their posts this year. Only Gov. Phil Scott and Auditor Doug Hoffer are seeking reelection. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is not up for reelection until 2024.

Vermont hasn’t seen this many open executive officer positions since “Hey Jude” was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

Lt. Gov Molly Gray records a video during a reproductive rights rally in front of the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday, May 14. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

And while the filing deadline for candidates is not until May 26, a significant number of state legislators have already announced their intentions to leave office — including more than one-third of the state Senate and more than half of House committee chairs — making for a complete reshuffling of Vermont’s political deck come January.

According to state archivist Tanya Marshall, the last time Vermont had a comparable level of executive turnover was 1968, when five state officers opted not to seek reelection: Gov. Phil Hoff, Lt. Gov. John Daley, Attorney General James Oakes, Treasurer Peter Hincks and Auditor Jay Gordon bowed out that year. The incumbent secretary of state, Harry Cooley, was the only executive officer to run for reelection that year, and he was defeated — making for 100% turnover in state government’s most powerful positions the following January.

Counting executive officers and members of Congress, 2022 will see even higher turnover than 1968.

Secretary of State Jim Condos in Montpelier on Nov. 10, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Condos, the current secretary of state, told VTDigger that this year’s election lineup is so extraordinary largely because “Vermonters have a tendency to keep incumbents in office if they’re doing a good job.” What’s different this year is the number of executive officers who opted to leave on their own terms, he said.

Welch’s and Gray’s decisions to leave their current offices are inextricably linked to Leahy’s decision to retire after nearly half a century in office. Welch is running for Leahy’s seat and Gray for Welch’s.

Donovan cited personal reasons for leaving the attorney general’s post. “After 16 years, I need a break,” he said of his time in public office when he announced his retirement in early May. An all-star player in Vermont’s Democratic field, he had long been viewed as a contender for higher office down the line.

State Treasurer Beth Pearce announces she will not be running for reelection during a press conference in Montpelier on Wednesday, May 4. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Pearce had been planning to run for a sixth term as treasurer but changed course when she was diagnosed with cancer this spring. “I hate it because I love this job,” she told VTDigger in early May.

Condos is bowing out after serving as secretary of state since 2011. After 30-plus years in local and state politics, he said, “Sometimes it’s time for a new set of eyes to look at things.”

“You get to a certain point, and you know when it’s time to go, and it’s time for new blood to come in,” he said.

Chris Graff, a former longtime Vermont bureau chief for the Associated Press, said that Leahy’s retirement spurred “an earthquake” in Vermont’s political scene. With relatively few statewide offices for political hopefuls to vie for and voters consistently reelecting incumbents, he said, more eligible candidates get stuck in a bottleneck each cycle.

But not this year.

“It is serendipitous if you’ve been waiting a long time to run for political office. These years just never come along,” Graff said. “Electoral politics often become the art, or the game, of dominoes. You always wait to see who’s moving where and when. And we went many, many, many years without any change.”

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan in Burlington on Sept. 14, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Consequently, Gray, Donovan, Pearce and Condos’ resignations have kicked off a swarm of candidacy announcements.

The race for lieutenant governor — a largely ceremonial position often seen as a statewide stepping stone into higher office — has so far drawn at least six contenders, including veteran lawmakers, newcomers and a former lieutenant governor looking to reclaim the post.

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault and Donovan’s former chief of staff, Charity Clark, have so far announced campaigns to become the state’s top prosecutor.

Charity Clark announces her candidacy for attorney general at a press conference in Winooski on Monday, May 16. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In the Democratic primary for secretary of state, Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters, Montpelier City Clerk John Odum and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, are set to face off in August. (No Republicans have tossed their hats into the ring yet.)

And to fill Pearce’s shoes, former commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation Mike Pieciak is stepping up to the plate.

Dave Gram, a longtime Associated Press reporter who subsequently served as a radio host and political columnist, told VTDigger that “it’s kind of a strange set of coincidences” that has led to this tidal wave of turnover.

“The Washington jobs opening up create a serious ripple effect, but that doesn’t explain all of it,” he said.

Vermont Republican Party Chair Paul Dame doesn’t think this can be chalked up to coincidence. He said a rush of federal dollars into Vermont “has sort of papered over a lot of potential problems,” allowing lawmakers to throw money at housing and workforce initiatives that Dame isn’t convinced will solve the state’s long-term, systemic issues.

Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault announces that he’s running for attorney general at City Hall Park in Barre on Friday, May 6. Photo by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

“It’s a great year to go out on a high note. We just had a bunch of federal money. We got to fund a bunch of programs,” Dame said. “I think everybody sees the writing on the wall that two years from now, we’re going to be in a very different situation. And they’d rather get out now and leave somebody else holding the bag.”

There’s also the elephant in the room: the pandemic — and the immeasurable toll it has taken on politicians and constituents alike over the past two years. According to Condos, “what we don’t know is how Covid played into this.”

When Donovan announced his resignation, he said he was “OK” during the first year of the pandemic, but “I kind of hit a wall this past year and really wrestled with this decision.”

And this year’s earthquake could have an aftershock. Sanders, the state’s junior U.S. senator, will be 83 by Election Day 2024 and has not said whether he will seek another six-year term in the Senate. Scott just this week announced his plans to seek a fourth term this November. Only two of his predecessors, Howard Dean and Richard Snelling, have been elected to more than four terms.

Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, speaks at an unveiling ceremony for the new Alexander Twilight portrait at the Statehouse on May 5. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Switch-ups in the executive branch also have downstream effects in the legislative branch. A number of legislators — Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham; Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden; Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia; Rep. Charlie Kimbell, D-Woodstock and Copeland Hanzas — are leaving the Legislature this year to make bids for higher office.

Others, such as Sen. Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, and Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, have attributed their departures to personal circumstances. And yet more, such as Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, and Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, are retiring after years of service.

Gram suspects another dynamic is playing out among outgoing legislators: He said young legislators are watching the heated competition in the Democratic primary for the U.S. House and rethinking their own political futures.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, responds over Zoom in Montpelier on Jan. 5. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“I think people are starting to get the sense that the ladder is crowded and are having to reassess their own political futures in light of this new level of competition,” Gram said. “Which is a healthy thing but I think could have curtailed the ambitions of a few.”

Vermonters won’t know for certain until the May 26 filing deadline how many legislators are opting not to seek reelection this year. 

Sen. Alison Clarkson of the Senate Government Operations Committee
Sen. Alison Clarkson on Feb. 13, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

But already more than one-third of Vermont senators have indicated that they won’t be returning to the 30-member body, with 11 retirements announced so far. Among other members, nine of 15 committee chairs in the House have also announced plans to step down.

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, the Senate majority leader, told VTDigger that the chamber will “of course” lose some institutional knowledge, but it’s not lost to the ether. Former lawmakers are but a call away, she reasoned, even if they’re “not necessarily next to us in a chair.”

“Humans hate change, and yet change is inevitable,” she said. “We need to embrace the change that’s coming at us, and what’s coming at us is a shift in the composition of the Senate. There’s no point in fighting it.”

And, she said, she expects the (at least) 11 new voices to be “reinvigorating.”

“We’ll gain a lot of new energy and excitement and a new vision for the Senate,” she said, “which will be exhilarating.”

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Political ‘earthquake’ leads to tsunami of turnover in Vermont’s elected offices