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From left, Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor Kesha Ram, Shap Smith and David Zuckerman participate in a forum June 14 in Bellows Falls.

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Candidates tout plans to boost Lt. Gov's relevance

In debate, Democrats say they’d be organizers and advocates inside and outside Statehouse

BELLOWS FALLS—At a lieutenant governor candidate forum here June 14, an audience member submitted an index card featuring a pointed question: “With all due respect, why should we care?”

The three Democrats seeking Vermont’s second-in-command administrative job did their best to make their case for the office’s relevance, and for their plans to personalize and transform the position.

Their ideas differ in some respects. But Kesha Ram, Shap Smith and Dave Zuckerman each talked about the lieutenant governor becoming some combination of a promoter, organizer, and advocate on key issues, including health care, the economy, and public safety.

“As lieutenant governor, you actually have a fundamental opportunity to be an organizer around the state on all these critical issues,” Zuckerman said.

Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is seeking the governor’s office in this year’s elections. With no incumbent in the race, five candidates are vying for lieutenant governor nominations in the Aug. 9 primary.

Republican Randy Brock of Swanton and Progressive Boots Wardinski of Newbury are the sole representatives of their respective parties on the primary ballot.

The three Democrats all are current state legislators. Ram, of Burlington, has served eight years in the House; Smith, of Morristown, has spent 14 years in the House, where he has been speaker since 2009; and Zuckerman has served 18 years in the Legislature — 14 years in the House and the last four in the Senate.

The June 14 forum at American Legion Post 37, organized by the Windham County Democratic Committee and Vermont’s branch of the National Education Association, featured the Democrats discussing diverse topics including school mergers, gun safety, marijuana legalization, and universal health care. There was even a short discussion about expanding dental care.

But the candidates also spent a lot of time on their vision for the lieutenant governor’s position.

Officially, the lieutenant governor fills in when the governor is out of state, presides over the Senate, and casts a tie-breaking vote in that legislative body when necessary.

Beyond that, though, “I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done in Vermont and that the lieutenant governor can do,” Smith said.

Smith said his experience leading the House can translate to the lieutenant governor’s role in the Senate.

“A lot of people don’t realize this — that the lieutenant governor has a lot of soft influence within the building,” he said. “The relationships that are built with the senators help you form coalitions to make sure that legislation can move forward.”

Both Smith and Zuckerman also talked up the lieutenant governor’s role outside the Statehouse.

Zuckerman mentioned his past organizational work on hot-button issues like marriage equality, GMO regulation, and marijuana legalization.

“I’ve always worked with one foot inside the building and one foot outside the building. And the job of lieutenant governor really offers that opportunity in spades,” he said. “You can bring people into the building and bring them into the process, or you can travel the state and have meetings in rooms just like this on topics of the day.”

Ram, whose professional background includes social work and municipal government, sees the lieutenant governor as a “people’s advocate” for whom “there is no job that should be considered too small.”

She suggested the possibility of a special hotline to offer problem-solving assistance to state residents. On a related note, Ram said the lieutenant governor should serve as a “connector in chief” who can bring people together to deal with tough problems.

She also sees the lieutenant governor as a visionary for Vermont.

“The governor often ends up putting out fires and managing their administration,” Ram said. “The Legislature’s there for a short period of time. But people are hungry for long-term vision in this state.”

The candidates also discussed their ability to work with the Senate as a whole and — if necessary — with a Republican governor.

On the latter topic, Smith again reached back to his work as speaker. His leadership was tested most recently during a special session after the governor’s veto of a renewable energy siting bill: Though the debate was contentious, Smith touted the end result.

“We worked through it, and ultimately, at the end of the day, we got a siting bill through,” Smith said. “That, I think, demonstrates how I can work with the Republican leadership.”

Smith said an inquiry about his vision for the Senate was a “loaded question” given a “historical rivalry” between the House and the smaller legislative body. But he, Ram, and Zuckerman all said the Senate can take a less partisan, more regional approach to state government given the smaller number of legislators.

Ram cited her work on the energy siting bill from this year’s session, saying she appreciated senators’ approach to the issue.

“They are thinking about what we all need to be thinking about, which is regional services, regional governance, a regional vision for their communities,” she said.

In talking up their qualifications for the lieutenant governor’s post, the candidates also fielded a question about their biggest weaknesses as candidates for that office.

Smith said he has “a little bit of a temper” and has worked to be more patient. He also told the crowd that he isn’t, despite his time in public service, a “natural extrovert.”

“So going out there and working with people and being out and about in a job that really requires [that] sometimes can be difficult,” Smith said. “I think that’s a challenge. I have to push myself constantly to get sort of outside of myself. I don’t think I realized that for a long time.”

Zuckerman said he tends to be a micromanager, though he thinks the lieutenant governor’s job might curb that because he wouldn’t be managing day-to-day workflow in the Senate.

“I would say, in some regards, being lieutenant governor, I’ll have less of a problem with my flaw than as a [Senate] committee member,” he said.

Ram, who will turn 30 a week before the primary, acknowledged that she doesn’t have the same experience as the other two Democrats in the race.

“If people said that made me too ambitious to be reaching this far, I would say, I’m ambitious for the people of Vermont and for what we can accomplish,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #362 (Wednesday, June 22, 2016). This story appeared on page A3.

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