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Shumlin: I’ve got ‘the best job in America’

Commons reporter gets a up-close look at governor on a typical morning

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.

As he made the rounds in Randolph that morning, it was easy to see why people use words like “slick” and “smooth” to describe him. He’s only been in office for a little more than four months, but he’s slipped into the job as if it was a bespoke Savile Row suit. He revels in it. He loves his job.

“I keep saying I’ve got the best job in America, because you can get things done in Vermont that you can’t in other states,” he said. “So I wake up every day ready to go, and excited about the possibilities of getting things done.”

Shumlin, the 81st governor of Vermont, is only the sixth governor in the state’s history to come from the southern end of the state.

He is Windham County born and bred, and voters have been sending him to Montpelier almost continuously since 1992. He claims that his hobbies are running, hiking, cross-country skiing, fishing, and gardening, but his real passions are policy and politics.

“I’m out 24/7,” he told me. “You know me. I never stop.”

“You have to make judgments quickly on many different areas that really make a difference,” Shumlin said, describing the process of making the transition from hometown senator to governor.

“And the variety of the judgments you make are like no other job you’ll ever have. Tough, big issues. Like having broadband all over the state. Like trying to develop the first health-care system in the country that makes sense,” he said.

“Then there are the smaller challenges, ranging from how you’re dealing with heavy rain and the worst pothole season in recent memory, to judging what people need right that minute.

“ You know me, the more balls in the air, the happier I am. Well, I have a job where you couldn’t have more balls in the air.”

Were there any surprises?

“Plenty,” he said.

Shumlin said it’s “hard to anticipate, number one, the variety of issues that a governor deals with in a day. That’s something you don’t think out until you’re sworn in and face the challenges.”

The other thing, he said, “as a private sector person, it’s an adjustment to understand the slow pace at which things move in government. There’s always 20 reasons why there’s another step to take before you get there. So that’s an adjustment. It’s not really a surprise, just an adjustment.”

But no disappointments and no regrets, Shumlin said.

“My belief is that the most important thing a governor does is to decide who you hire to help you get the job done,” he said.

“A governor is only as good as the brains and the wisdom that they bring on the job. I went to the LEAP Energy Fair in Duxbury, [and] the number of people who came up to me and said, ‘Gosh, what a difference. It’s so great to have a Commissioner of Public Service who really gets it, and wants to move to renewables, and understands that energy efficiency matters, and is really committed to getting that done.’

“Or I’ll go to the sports-men and -women, and they say, ’Gosh, Deb Markowitz is doing a really great job [leading the Agency of Natural Resources]. She’s so accessible.’ It’s a great team, and I’m really proud of that.”

When Shumlin was a senator, his constituents grumbled that he sometimes said yes just to make them go away. Now, how many times does he say yes and mean no?

“I’ve gotten much more careful about saying yes and no, as you might have noticed,” he said. “As governor, you can’t make promises that you can’t keep.”

Shumlin said he’s trying to “clean up the mess in state government of promises that have been made that can’t be kept, which is why my budget isn’t very popular. But I am very careful, as governor, with the words yes and no. I’m much more likely to say ‘maybe.’”

Making things personal

In Randolph, Shumlin went to great lengths to personalize his policy as he discussed what he described as “a connectivity deficit in Vermont.” He pointed out that the state lags behind Croatia, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Vietnam in telecommunications technology

When he talked about the high priority of wiring Vermont by 2013 for cell phone and high-speed Internet access, he talked about his college-age daughters.

“They walk right past a ringing landline phone,” Shumlin said. “I say, ‘Come on, pick up the phone. It’s ringing.’ And they say, ‘So what? It’s not for me.’ It’s like I’m asking them to use an outhouse to save water.”

In one day, he told that same story to two different audiences. He got laughs both times.

When he talks about education, he starts off with his dyslexia and how one teacher made all the difference.

When he talks about digitizing medical records as part of his new health care initiative, he tells the story of his own birth.

“My records will say Peter Shumlin, born at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, March 24, 1956, came out blue with a cord around his neck, and they gave him oxygen,” he said. “And that tells you a lot.”

All politicians start campaigning again the morning after an election, whether they’ve won or lost. So Shumlin’s talk in front of the Randolph chamber was in part stump speech and in part an effort to drum up support of his gubernatorial agenda.

In other words, all the balls were in the air.

He flattered the Randolph delegation to the Legislature. He described himself as a business person first and a governor second. “I’ve been meeting a payroll since I was 23.”

He said he was optimistic about Vermont, and that “Vermont is a great place to make money and raise a family. We have a great quality of life.”

Government can’t create jobs, he said, but it can create the infrastructure to help jobs grow.

Hence, high-speed Internet access, cell phone accessibility, health insurance for all, energy efficiency, and new kinds of manufacturing for the 21st century are all on his agenda.

He crammed these complex subjects into a speech that lasted for only 17 minutes. Then, he answered questions.

Not all the questions were friendly, and when he didn’t know the answer, he honestly admitted it.

“I don’t know anything about health care compared to a lot of other people,” Shumlin said. “I don’t pretend to. All I’m trying to do is get a five-member board, supported by a lot of input from other people who will design this system we envision. If we can do it, it will be the first in the country.”

How would it work?

“You come out of your provider’s office and tell the person behind the table that you’re part of the Green Mountain Health Care Plan,” Shumlin said.

“You slap the card down on the table and the person says, ‘We just did $1,000 of work on you. Your share is $100. And the plan is paying $900. Check, cash, or credit card?’

“You don’t leave that office any more than you leave Shaw’s or Hannaford’s without paying your bill. That saves 8 or 9 cents on the dollar right there.”

He expressed frustration with people who concentrate on how to pay for a single-payer system.

“If you can get a little ATM card with your little name on it, and you can use it in Brattleboro, or Burlington, or Barton, or Beijing, or Bangkok, and your money comes out, and not someone else’s money, it’s your money, then trust me, we can figure this thing out,” Shumlin said.

“It’s low-hanging fruit. People say, ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ We don’t know. If we knew all the answers, we’d put them in the bill.

”Here’s my promise. If we’re not paying less for health care when we’re done with this, we’re not going to pass the bill.”

It was a cheerleader’s performance all the way — “Come on, team!” he said at one point — and it energized the audience, earning the governor a round of applause. Afterward, many people stopped to shake his hand, get in a few last points, or have their picture taken with him.

Then, we were off to visit a few area businesses, where he used his charm and sense of humor to put employees at ease.

At Power & Tel in Bethel, he gave a shorter version of his stump speech to the sales staff and then begged for questions.

“Fire away,” Shumlin said. “You’ve got the governor here. We’re a 24/7 operation. If you need help with the state government, then call us.

“I apologize for the long winter. When I was running, I was talking to the ski association. I said, ’I’ll make you a campaign promise. If you elect me governor, I’ll give you lots of natural snow.’ That was in October. They all laughed. But I keep my promises. You couldn’t turn the damn thing off.”

That earned him a laugh.

“Don’t be shy,” Shumlin said. “Keep up the good work.”

He stood in the door as they filed out. Shyness appeared to be alleviated, because everyone shook his hand. Again, he posed for pictures.

With a deep budget deficit facing him, many have suggested he raise taxes on the wealthy. In fact, a group of wealthy liberal Vermonters have written to the governor requesting that he tax them at a higher rate.

“That is politics, not policy,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin, who revealed during the campaign that he was worth over $10 million himself, rejected the idea with a bit of sarcasm.

“It’s fantastic that a lot of people have a lot of money,” he said. “Send us your money. We’ll take it any time. It’s tax-free, and you can make a donation. I don’t think you can make a better contribution than to the state of Vermont.”

Vermont already taxes the rich, Shumlin said.

“What’s been lost in this discussion about raising the income taxes on the wealthy in Vermont is that we already do,” Shumlin said. “We have, thanks to me and others — and I’m proud of it — the most progressive income tax in the country. Not just in New England, but in the country. We are charging our wealthiest citizens more than any other state, as it should be.”

Vermont only has 160 people who “make the big bucks,” Shumlin said.

“We don’t have thousands of them, as many people think,” he said. “It’s 160 people who have made more than half a million dollars once in the last nine years. You can find that in Fairfield County, Conn., in a block. Vermont has a progressive income tax. Let’s keep what we have and grow the customer base.”

At the national level, however, Shumlin said he believed the rich should be taxed more.

“There’s frustration at the federal level that they won’t go back to the Clinton tax rates for the wealthy,” he said. “I share that frustration. I think it’s outrageous. We should go back and ask wealthy Americans to pay more at the top.”

Speaking of Washington, Shumlin has had a number of meetings with President Barack Obama.

“I leave each meeting amazed,” Shumlin said. “I’ve never met anyone as smart, as capable of communicating, and as courageous as President Obama to take on tough issues.

“The guy is brilliant. He cares. He knows how to get it done. I watch him in these closed-door meetings with these most right-wing tea-party governors, and in the most respectful way, he leaves them with their heads spinning.

“They can’t match up. I’m always puzzled as to how we’re not doing a better job outside of the White House, communicating how good he is outside of the White House.”

By then it was close to noon and Shumlin’s entourage was whispering about lunch. His aide-de-camp said he rarely remembers to stop and eat.

At that point in the day, he still had more businesses to visit, plus a press conference scheduled for later in Montpelier.

It is far too early to try and figure out what Shumlin’s future holds. But he did drop a hint when he was talking to the Chamber.

“When I’m done with this, I won’t be going to Washington,” Shumlin said. “I’ll be going back to work in our business.

“I hope my daughters will say one day, ‘You know, our dad wasn’t always popular. People didn’t always agree with him. But he voted like he saw it, he took on some tough battles, and the result is Vermont’s a more prosperous place for me to raise my family and live and work.’

“And that’s my goal.”

We’ll see.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #99 (Wednesday, May 4, 2011).

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