Don’t expect a love-in at this week’s forum on the relationship between the Democratic and Progressive parties in Vermont. Despite the conciliatory gestures likely to be made by the four panelists at the December 4 event, the two parties appear determined to maintain separate, and sometimes antagonistic, identities.
With Democrats holding 118 of the 180 seats in the General Assembly that will convene next month in Montpelier, many in the party regard the Progs as increasingly irrelevant. The third party’s ranks in the House were winnowed from six members to five in last month’s election, which also resulted in a State Senate victory for the first-ever Democratic-Progressive fusion candidate, Tim Ashe.
Seven Days political columnist Shay Totten, who will moderate the forum, “Why Can’t Progs and Dems Get Along?” said the November 4 election has left the Progs with less leverage at the statehouse.
The Progressives’ power has dwindled not just because their numbers are down,” Totten said, “but also because the Democrats in the legislature are going to be a more liberal group than in the past.”
Jake Perkinson, the Burlington Dem chairperson and one of the forum’s panelists, agreed that his party should have an advantage during the next session. “I don’t think it’s realistic that Democrats should kowtow to Progressives in any fashion,” he said.
As for the Progs, State Rep. Dave Zuckerman, who will also be taking part in the panel, suggested that members of his party will refuse to fuse with the Dems.
“I don’t hear many Progressives talking about a merger,” he reported. “It’s not on the table.”
Political power is distributed differently in Burlington, where Prog-aligned mayors have been in power for 25 of the past 27 years. The upcoming mayoral race will likely be cordial — one of the benefits of instant-runoff voting — but the pumped-up Dems plan an aggressive race to unseat Bob Kiss, whom Perkinson describes as “a terrible mayor.” (Under IRV, candidates tend not to bash their opponents in hopes of being listed as the second preference of voters whose first choice fails to survive the initial ballot count.)
On Thursday evening, Zuckerman, now the lone Prog from Burlington in the Vermont House, said he’ll point out that his party and the Democrats have often managed to work together. Still smarting from the Dems’ defeat of his Prog seatmate, Chris Pearson, however, Zuckerman added that Democrats can expect “more pushback” from Progressives in future elections.
“We see a need to look at more races where we might run,” Zuckerman said.
Forum panelist Jane Knodell, a Progressive city councilor in Burlington, said the Progressive Party is necessary as “a place for more innovative ideas.” In her 15-year experience on the council, Knodell said, it’s been “healthy for the Democrats to have a party on their left flank.”
Nonetheless, the two parties do, at times, operate in sync. Knodell noted that former Burlington City Councilor Ian Carleton, a Democrat, voted the same as she did “nine out of 10 times.” On the other hand, she said, Ward 5 Democrat Joan Shannon is “a councilor I seldom agree with.”
Burlington State Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, a self-described “yellow-dog Democrat,” said she doesn’t understand why the Progressives won’t join her under the party’s big tent. “There’s very little distinction between the five Progressives and the rest of us in Montpelier,” noted Donovan, also a panelist at Thursday’s event. “We all get along very well.”
Totten said he wants the forum to cover the history of the two parties before a discussion of whether structures can be developed to facilitate more productive relations.
As Donovan predicts, “It should be sort of a fun night.”
The forum “Why Can’t Vermont’s Progs and Dems Get Along?” is Thursday, December 4, at 7 p.m. in the Film House of the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center at Lake and College streets.
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