A divided and politically marginalized Vermont Republican Party on Saturday chose a new leader who pledged to turn the state GOP's attentions away from internal conflict and toward winning elections.
David Sunderland, a former Rutland state representative, was elected to succeed outgoing party chairman Jack Lindley, who was sidelined in September by health problems and announced last week he would not seek reelection.
By a vote of 48 to 30, Sunderland (pictured at podium) defeated John MacGovern, the party's 2012 candidate for U.S. Senate, to become the next chairman of the Vermont GOP.
"I think today what we can take away from this is that the Vermont Republican Party has voted for change — a change in direction, a change in tone, and we plan on going forward," Sunderland said after the election.
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Weeks of infighting and intrigue captured in the press prompted an uncharacteristically large turnout at Saturday's state committee meeting, which was held at the Montpelier Elks Country Club. Throughout the morning, speaker after speaker urged fellow Republicans to put an end to the bickering and focus on what united them.
"We need to keep our disagreements inside our family," said national committeeman Jay Shepard. "Our enemy is not in this room. As we sit here, the Democrats are planning another step in taking away our freedoms, our liberties and our way of life. Those are the people that are the real threat ... We need to know who the real enemy is. I'll tell you right now, the worst Republican I know is a much better person than Barack Obama."
Despite the rhetoric, the room appeared divided between two distinct factions: one loyal to Lindley and former gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock, and one loyal to Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the party's lone statewide elected offical. (Brock and Scott are pictured at left.)
Each side walked away with a victory.
In the race for chairman, Scott and a preponderance of the party's elected legislators lined up behind Sunderland's candidacy. After Lindley opted to forgo the race last week, his and Brock's allies threw their support to MacGovern, who pitched himself as a staunch, uncompromising conservative.
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"We believe in the right to life. We believe in the protection of marriage and family. We believe in the right to bear arms," MacGovern (pictured at right) said. "Our society's on the brink of crisis. This is a time for the Republican Party to affirm our defining principles, not to desert them. When a political party abandons its principles, it loses its vital force... I think we should stop being ashamed of our values and reject the sirens of those false expectations that voters are waiting to board a rudderless craft."
In the other competitive race of the day — for party treasurer — Lindley's and Brock's coalition prevailed, though barely. Their candidate, incumbent treasurer Mark Snelling, defeated Deb Bucknam by a vote of 40 to 38.
Bucknam, a St. Johnsbury attorney who previously served as the party's vice chairwoman, ran on a slate that included Sunderland for chairman, Charlotte attorney Brady Toensing for vice chairman and Jackie Barnett of Barre for secretary. Both Toensing and Barnett ran unopposed.
Snelling — a Starksboro businessman, former candidate for lieutenant governor and son of the late governor Dick Snelling — alienated some party members in recent weeks after speaking critically of Scott and Campaign for Vermont founder Bruce Lisman. But after Brock mounted a vigorous defense of Snelling's work as treasurer, the incumbent managed to cling to his position.
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Throughout the meeting, party members praised Lindley for stepping up in Feburary 2012, when nobody else would, to lead the moribund party. In a video message played for the crowd, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus thanked Lindley, who he called "a fixture in Vermont politics," for his years of service to the party.
Lindley (pictured at left) told his fellow Republicans that though he was stepping down from the party's leadership, he was not stepping away from its cause.
"I will not stay away. I will fight. We will bring back this state," he said. "Thank you all. Godspeed."