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Vermont Senate Pro Tem John Campbell Promises More Order This Session. Can He Deliver? 

Fair Game

mmSenate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) faced a potential insurrection last year for his role in an uncharacteristically dysfunctional session of the Vermont Senate.

After critics complained about his lack of organization and said he used the committee process to bottle up popular bills, several senators privately considered challenging him for the top job in the Senate. In the end, just one Democrat did — Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington) — and she lost in a landslide.

In shoring up support for his reelection, Campbell promised to make a change. Instead of sentencing legislation he opposed to die in committee, he said he’d bring a number of hot-button bills to the floor for up-or-down votes — regardless of whether committees of jurisdiction agree.

The tactic was a risk. By doing so, he’ll be usurping the authority of his committee chairmen — and, by extension, himself. And the result could be an even more chaotic legislative session than the last one.

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Campbell ally, says that if his committee is expected to release bills it doesn’t support, he’ll expect the same treatment from others.

“I would hope these folks are willing to bring out other people’s bills and not just something they think is right,” Sears says. “I hope this isn’t just aimed at Dick Sears.”

Sears’ committee was a choke point last year for two bills now expected t o get a floor vote: death with dignity and marijuana decriminalization. But those aren’t the only controversial bills likely to see the legislative light of day in the Senate.

Advocates say they’ve also been promised votes on a childcare unionization bill, a three-year moratorium on ridgeline wind projects, and campaign finance reform.

“You got the sense that [Campbell] was out there saying on these hot-button issues, ‘I’m going to step aside and let them move forward without all the rigmarole,’” says one top lobbyist. “It kind of became part of his summer and fall pitch for getting himself back on track, it seems.”

Says another lobbyist, “John thought he had to make those deals to keep his position … But he could have managed the threats without giving away the store.”

The manner in which these bills reach the floor will depend, in part, on who’s appointed this week to each of the Senate’s standing committees. That’ll be determined by the redundantly named Committee on Committees with its three moderate insiders: Campbell, Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Republican Lt. Gov Phil Scott.

But even if committees and their chairmen are stacked against legislation supported by a majority of the 23-member Democratic caucus, Campbell pledges, “I believe that they should come to the floor.”

Just how that would happen was a focus of conversation Saturday during a meeting of Senate Democrats at Montpelier’s Capitol Plaza. Huddled around a conference table in the hotel’s aptly named Boardroom, caucus members debated the mechanics — and the wisdom — of bypassing Senate committees to ensure that broadly popular bills get an up-or-down vote.

One skeptic was Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans), a conservative Democrat from the Northeast Kingdom.

“I’ve been here a long time, and we’ve always run strong and faithful on the committee process,” Starr said. “I don’t really think that the caucus should overpower the committee. If the committee has had the time and the opportunity to review legislation, and that committee says it’s excellent, it means quite a lot to us.”

Surprisingly, Sears — who many blame for helping Campbell gum up the works — argued that letting popular legislation die in committee “is what got us in so much trouble last year.”

He added, “If it’s the will of the caucus and the will of the Senate that these issues get debated on the floor, then the way to do that is to let us know early that these issues are important.”

That way, Sears’ committee could hold hearings and — even if it disapproves of the legislation — send the bill to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Though rarely done, the committee could move the bill forward while giving it a stamp of disapproval.

Referring to the “death with dignity” bill, Campbell told his colleagues at the caucus meeting, “It clearly caused some issues last year because it is deeply personal for a lot of us here. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s one of deeply personal views.”

A Roman Catholic, Campbell opposes letting terminally ill patients end their own lives on religious grounds.

“But I agree that if there’s a majority of people here who want to have a discussion and a debate on it, they should have the opportunity to do that,” he continued. “Then it’s an up-or-down situation.”

Speaking several days after the caucus meeting, one prominent supporter of death with dignity, Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), said she’s encouraged by the change in tone.

“One person can’t hold up the whole Senate,” she said. “When we find there’s a larger group of people that wants to look at something in a different way, we have to discuss it as a caucus.”

Also encouraged, no doubt, is Gov. Peter Shumlin — but not for the reasons you may be thinking.

Sure, he told reporters in November that four of his legislative priorities this session are death with dignity, marijuana decriminalization, unionization of childcare workers and providing driver’s licenses to noncitizens. No doubt he’d be happy to hold signing ceremonies this spring if the House and Senate send those bills his way.

But the real reason Shummy will be glad to watch controversy and chaos reemerge in the Senate is this: It’ll distract legislators from messing with his budget — or getting any ideas about raising broad-based taxes.

The governor often says he prefers to keep several balls in the air. But he likes it even more when legislators are too busy juggling theirs to meddle with his.

Guns Blais-ing

Norm Blais and Thom Lauzon don’t have a lot in common.

An attorney and Democratic member of the Burlington City Council, Blais rarely rides into political battle, preferring to quietly offer advice from the sidelines. Lauzon has earned a reputation as Barre’s hard-charging, outspoken Republican mayor and one of the Granite City’s most prominent developers.

But this week, Blais and Lauzon found themselves doing something most statewide politicians have assiduously avoided in the wake of last month’s shooting massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.

They started conversations about gun violence in their respective cities.

What’d they learn?

“I can tell you that for the politicians that are thinking about testing the waters, it’s like Huntington Gorge,” Lauzon says. “It’s a swift-running current.”

Lauzon, a gun owner who considers himself a strong supporter of the right to bear arms, managed to draw the ire of gun advocates with a letter he sent last Thursday to the Barre Fish & Game Club. He urged the outfit, which organizes a gun show each year at the Barre Municipal Auditorium, to “ban the display and sale of military-style assault firearms and high-capacity magazines” at its February show.

The reaction from those on either side of the debate was strong — and mostly missed the point, he says. Rather than seeking some sort of permanent municipal ban on the sale of such weapons, Lauzon says he was simply asking the show’s organizers to make a temporary change, out of respect for victims of the Connecticut shooting. And to start a conversation.

“I think, unfortunately, the message was lost,” he says.

On Monday, Lauzon met with representatives of the club.

“They were very gracious, but they said, ‘Thom, we’re not willing to do that,’” he says. “That was the end of the discussion.”

Later that evening in Burlington, Blais found himself defending a resolution he introduced calling for a charter-change to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity clips in the Queen City.

Facing him in the audience at City Hall Auditorium were some 100 gun rights advocates — nearly all of them men, many of whom wore camouflage and blaze orange.

“I’m for gun control. I know you don’t like that word, but I’m for a different kind of gun control: being able to hit your target,” said Bob Green, one of the more colorful advocates to address the council. “It’s not really good to pass feel-good legislation. What we really need to look at is mental health.”

Blais argued that affirmative vote would simply start a process involving future hearings, a referendum and eventually a vote by the state legislature to approve a charter change. “There’s nothing rash or precipitous about this,” he said.

In the end, the council voted 10 to 3 in favor of Blais’ resolution, after adding language calling on the legislature to address mental health issues, violent video games and other gun laws.

Reached the next morning, Blais said, “I’m encouraged because I think that dialogue President Obama says has to take place will take place in Burlington. How that will ultimately end here is anyone’s guess, but at least we’ll have the discussion.”

Despite drawing the wrath of many gun-rights advocates, Lauzon says he doesn’t regret raising the subject — though he was discouraged by the tone of the more extreme advocates on either side of the issue.

One man went so far as to post Lauzon’s home address on his Facebook page, calling it the new practice range, Lauzon says.

“This is the kind of crap you have to go through just to start having a conversation,” he says. “That’s why people don’t do it.”

Media Notes

On the first day of the legislative session Wednesday, Vermont’s political press corps will shed their notebooks to commune with those they cover at a Statehouse reception Seven Days is hosting in honor of the late, great political columnist Peter Freyne.

The Cedar Creek shindig, appropriately titled “Off the Record,” falls on the same day Freyne died four years ago. We’ll raise a glass in his honor, which he’d surely appreciate.

Wednesday is also the last day on the job for WCAX-TV’s Statehouse bureau chief Susie Steimle. Nearly two years after she joined the station, the Kalamazoo native is heading to WJAR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Providence, R.I. Steimle will be replaced in Montpelier by WCAX’s Kyle Midura.

“I’ve had a great time over the past few years in Vermont and I feel like I’ve learned a lot,” Steimle says. “But this offers me a new challenge.”

One downside, she says: “I won’t be doing so many outdoor, animal fun stories.”

Don’t worry, Susie. We’ve got that covered.

The print version of the article was headlined "Kill Bills: Vol. 2?".

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."


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