Editor’s note: Recently, Commons columnist and contributor Joyce Marcel asked to follow around Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on a typical morning. Shumlin agreed, and granted a one-on-one interview, saying he wanted someone from “the home team” to see him in action.
Vermont has never seen a governor quite like Peter Shumlin.
Verbally nimble, whip smart, self-assured, and possessing the timing of a stand-up comedian, he has the ability to walk into any room and own it in a matter of minutes.
On a gray and drizzly April morning in Randolph, Shumlin was standing before about 60 members of the Randolph Area Chamber of Commerce. It was reasonably safe to assume that few of them had voted for Shumlin last November, and that most of them had issues with his agenda.
In fact, on the back window of an Oldsmobile wagon parked right outside the entrance to the Three Stallions Inn was a bumper sticker with a chip on its shoulder: “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If it’s in English, thank a veteran.”
But by the end of his stump speech, the audience came away liking him. This is not to say Shumlin totally convinced them, but they liked him.
That is Shumlin’s gift. As a dyslexic, he finds the written word confounding, so he has compensated by being extremely verbal. He can rattle off facts and figures effortlessly. He can use anecdotes to personalize complicated policy issues, and do it in a way that seems almost subtle.
And he genuinely loves the give and take of public appearances. He loves meeting with people, and he has that knack that skilled politicians like Bill Clinton possess — to be able to take your hand, look into your eyes, and make you feel like the most important person in the room.
Compare him to his immediate predecessors, and it is like night and day.
Madeleine Kunin bore the heavy burden of being the first woman in a male-dominated field, and her wonkiness often got the better of her grace and charm.
Howard Dean had the cocksure confidence of a doctor and approached every problem as if he had all the answers.
Glad-handing may not have been Dean’s style, but Jim Douglas perfected it. He was the uber-Rotarian, the “nice guy” whom everyone loved, even when his policies weren’t very lovable.
Shumlin has some of the traits of these three, but his style is completely different.
Like Kunin, he can wonk it up with the best of them, but he knows when to back off.
Like Dean, he oozes confidence, but he isn’t afraid to admit he doesn’t have all the answers.
And, like Douglas, he enjoys cutting ribbons.
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