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Estranged Bedfellows 

Why Can't Vermont's Progs and Dems just get along?

Published January 29, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

Late on election eve -- early in the morning after, actually -- Rep. John Tracy looked tired. The Burlington Democrat chatted quietly with fellow politicians and staffers at the party's celebration at the Sheraton Hotel, analyzing the results of the evening. The results, and the mood, were mixed.

Democrats had made unexpectedly strong gains in the House and solidified their majority in the Senate. But those victories were tempered by the losses of the party's two top candidates, gubernatorial hopeful Douglas Racine and lieutenant governor candidate Peter Shumlin. Shumlin's defeat was particularly tough for some to swallow. The winner, Republican Brian Dubie, had gotten roughly the same 41 percent of votes he'd garnered two years earlier, when Racine easily bested him.

But this time Progressive Anthony Pollina was in the race, and he got almost 25 percent of the ballots cast with a populist, liberal message. Shumlin, a moderate Democrat, won 32 percent. Alone, either man likely would have beaten Dubie. Together, they elected him.

"We can't keep doing this to ourselves," Tracy muttered.

The Progressives have become a major political party and a force to be reckoned with in Vermont politics. But that success has come, in some areas, at the expense of Democrats. The two parties are both battling over the same turf: Vermont's political left. The fight has been at times both public and bitter.

"Most people in this country, even more so in Vermont, are on the political spectrum in the center or left of center," says Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, a Progressive. "Yet we have a Republican in the White House, Republican control of the [U.S.] Senate and House and numerous state houses, including Vermont. What's this about?" he asks, then offers an answer to his own question.

"It's about the fact that those of us in the center and left of center have been fractured," Clavelle says. "And the right-wingers are laughing all the way to state capitols, Washington, city halls. It's really critical that we figure out how to come together... how to bring people together around a 'small-p' progressive agenda that addresses the needs of ordinary people.

"If we don't do so, we'll allow the squabbles of the left to yield control of government at all levels to the right wing," Clavelle predicts.

The rift in the left is easily ex-plained, says Frank Bryan, a professor in the University of Vermont's political science department. Three parties are competing in a two-party system. Unlike proportional representation systems common in Europe, where voters cast ballots for a political party and see that party get a number of seats in the government equal to the percentage of the electorate they captured, the American political system is winner-take-all.

In a proportional system, there are usually numerous smaller, more ideologically narrow parties. After the election, they compromise to form coalitions in the legislative body, and share power in the new government. This system lets candidates stick to their positions, however extreme they may be, secure in the knowledge that they can still be elected and participate in the government.

But in the United States the winner of an election gets complete control; the second-place finisher gets nothing. The same goes for legislative races, with the majority party generally getting total power in running the legislative body by selecting committee heads and membership.

The American system forces candidates to compromise when they campaign, and voters to do the same when they cast ballots, Bryan says. Candidates are pushed toward the political center, and instead of lots of smaller parties representing different positions on the political spectrum, the result is two big parties trying to make their tents as large as possible.

"In Italy or other countries like that you can almost always find a candidate you like and agree with on a large percentage of issues," Bryan notes. "In America, most of us don't go in the ballot booth with a candidate we really like. We go in with a candidate who's a compromise for us."

The two-party system does have advantages, Bryan adds, notably its stability. Coalition governments dissolve when the compromises that forged them fall apart, requiring new elections. The combination of election rules and the power and money wielded by the national Republican and Democratic parties make building a viable third party extremely difficult.

Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight, a book about third parties in America, agreed that the major parties have carved up what he calls a "duopoly" in the U.S. political scene. He pointed to election rules in many states that discourage third parties.

Sifry, a former editor for the progressive opinion journal The Nation, now works as a senior analyst for Public Campaign, a non-partisan group devoted to reforming campaigns to reduce the influence of big-money donations. He says the two major parties have been drifting to the right, leaving the poor, women and minorities increasingly disenchanted with the system and unwilling to vote.

"The whole system of voter registration [making voters register well in advance of elections] is set up to discourage occasional voters," Sifry says. These are the people "who usually sit out elections but who might get excited about a maverick candidate."

Sifry ranks Vermont as one of the top 10 states in terms of how friendly its elections are to third-party candidates and how well received such movements are. But such movements still face an uphill fight.

One group that has managed in Vermont is the Progressive Party, whose roots can be traced back to the old Liberty Union Party. Founded in the 1970s, the socialist Liberty Union Party presented an unknown politician named Bernard Sanders as its 1972 gubernatorial nominee. His 2175 votes comprised just over 1 percent in that race.

Throughout the decade, Sanders was a perennial Liberty Union presence in statewide politics, running unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. senator. In 1981, Sanders won the mayor's office in Burlington as head of the Progressive Coalition, and in 1990 he won Vermont's lone congressional seat as an independent.

While he never officially joined the Progressive Party, Sanders laid the groundwork for its domination of Burlington city politics and its expansion onto the statewide stage. He is considered a "founding father."

Clavelle took his mantle and has been Burlington's mayor for all but two years since Sanders left the office in 1989. Progressives now share control of the city council with Democrats and hold four seats in the Vermont House.

Pollina's 2000 gubernatorial run -- he finished third with about 10 percent of the vote -- topped a threshold that officially made the Progressives a "major" party in Vermont. The Progres-sives even adopted the moose as their mascot, a reference to the "Bull Moose Party" -- the nickname for the American Progressive Party -- of former Republican Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

In November, Vermont's Progressives won their first big election outside Chittenden County when Sarah Edwards from Brattleboro captured a House seat. But the race that received the most attention was Pollina's. And while getting a quarter of the ballots in a three-way race could be considered a moral victory for Progressives, it came with a price.

The Progressives and Democrats have always had an uneasy relationship. While both parties generally support abortion rights, more public spending on health care, environmental protection and more activist government, the Progressives charge Democrats with being too cozy with -- and beholden to -- big-money interests, particularly corporations. It's a claim that in-censes many Democrats.

Occasionally the tensions surface, like last spring when the two parties clashed over re-drawing district boundaries, always a thorny political issue. Progressives accused Democrats of working with the GOP majority to eliminate the Burlington House seat belonging to Progres-sive Rep. Carina Driscoll -- Sanders' stepdaughter -- and knock her out of the Legislature.

In the wake of Pollina's run for lieutenant governor, many Democrats blame him for costing Shumlin the office. So there's a reservoir of bad blood on both sides as the parties look to the future. It was evident recently at their respective Burlington committee caucuses to choose candidates for mayor.

Rep. David Zuckerman of Burlington, the Progressives' city chairman, joked about how Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry was holding a $1000-per-plate fundraising dinner the same night. "That's another difference between us and the other two parties," Zuckerman said, before reminding the crowd of activists about Driscoll's fate as they debated whether to endorse Clavelle for a seventh term.

The fact that there was a debate at all was a mark of a startling development on Clavelle's part: He announced his intention to travel across town that same night to the Democratic caucus and seek their nomination as well, a violation of both Progressive Party bylaws and protocol. The debate came down to pragmatism versus principle. On one hand, letting Clavelle flout the rules would almost guarantee an electoral victory, advance the party's political agenda in Burlington, and boost its statewide presence.

But breaking the party's rules against letting candidates run with both the Progressive label and another party's would undermine the Progs' adherence to principles. And appearing to align with the Democrats would weaken their party-building efforts.

In the end, pragmatism won. The caucus voted overwhelmingly to let Clavelle seek both nominations -- even as some supporters acknowledged their misgivings.

Across town, the story was largely the same. Some Demo-crats opposed giving their party's nomination to Clavelle instead of City Council President Andy Montroll, a Democrat who wanted to challenge the incumbent mayor. They pointed out that Pollina had cost their party the lieutenant governor's office and asked why a loyal Democrat should be passed over.

But others cited the lieutenant governor's race as a reason to give Clavelle the nomination: They didn't want to see a Republican mayor.

By a narrow 94-89 margin, Clavelle won the nomination. While the move helps a political party whose members sometimes criticize Democrats as being no better than Republicans, Demo-crats like Tracy still praised it.

At a meeting two weeks ago, the Vermont Progressive Party revised its bylaws, allowing politicians who have run at least once as a Progressive to receive the endorsement of other parties. In fact, according to Vermont Director of Elections Kathy DeWolfe, state law doesn't allow any political party to restrict the nominations or endorsements its candidates can accept.

Prog state chairwoman Martha Abbott says the bylaw change wasn't a compromise of the party's principles or message, the core of which she sees as opposition to corporatism and globalism.

"Peter's pursuing a strategy that no one has pursued in our short three-year history [as a major party]," Abbott claims. "I don't see Peter as diluting the message. He's always been strong about that, and he's implemented it in Burlington."

Zuckerman says he "understood" Clavelle's strategy, but adds, "I'm not excited about it... For me the concern is that we lose a little bit of our distinguishing character in trying to build a third party, trying to build an option for those disenfranchised voters."

Prof. Frank Bryan says this "great struggle of pragmatism versus ideology has been the bane of third-party movements throughout American political history."

Can the Democrats and Progressives compromise? The question still divides the two parties themselves. But as evidence that they can, Dems and Progs both point to the cross-nomination of Clavelle and the decision by the Progressive members of the House to support Tracy in his bid -- ultimately unsuccessful -- to be House speaker.

Tracy says both parties share many interests and should work together wherever possible. But discussions about whether to run candidates against each other in races where the result could be a Republican victory should take place early and at the grassroots level, he stresses.

Garrison Nelson, another professor of political science at UVM, believes the battles be-tween Progressives and Demo-crats are merely brush wars, not a full-scale conflict between the parties. He theorizes that statewide elections are largely decided on personal, not party, politics.

"Is there antagonism between the two?" Garrison asks. "Yes. But until the Progressive Party runs an entire slate of statewide candidates, there isn't a schism. There will be pockets of personalism -- Anthony, Bernie -- but it's not a split."

He wonders whether the Progressives might ultimately end up merging with the Democrats, as the Farmer Labor Party did in Minnesota. Publicly, Progressives flatly reject the idea of becoming a wing of the Democratic Party, insisting they want to build their own. But privately, Progressives concede that if they can't do that, they will suffer the fate of other third parties and be absorbed by one of the larger parties. Meanwhile, Democrats like Tracy openly talk of getting Progs back into the Democratic fold.

One possible solution is instant runoff voting, a longtime Progressive initiative. It's a system that allows voters to indicate not only their first choice, but also a second, third or even fourth choice.

In the lieutenant governor's race, many observers believe that most of Pollina's supporters would have preferred Shumlin to the more conservative Dubie. In that case, their second-choice ballots would have gone to Shumlin after Pollina was eliminated, giving Shumlin the race.

For Progressives, the system would eliminate the "spoiler" charge sometimes leveled at them. It might also encourage wavering Democrats to vote Progressive, secure in the knowledge that even if their candidate were eliminated in a runoff, their second-place vote for a Democratic candidate would still prevent a repeat of this year's lieutenant governor race.

But while Democrats are generally supportive of the concept, they don't see it as a panacea. "It solves the problem for two or three [statewide] offices" that require a candidate to get more than 50 percent of the vote, says Scudder Parker, Democratic state chairman. "It doesn't solve the problem in House or Senate races."

Republicans such as Governor James Douglas -- who also won with less than 50 percent of the vote -- are unlikely to support a measure that could lock them out of the governor's, lieutenant governor's and treasurer's races. And while the friction between the two parties on the left doesn't distress Republicans, they're not going to count on it lasting forever.

"It's clearly advantageous if the Progressives and Democrats are fighting, but in the long term we've got to fashion a message that appeals to people," said R.M. "Skip" Vallee, Republican National Committeeman for Vermont. "They're not always going to have candidates running against each other statewide."

For his part, Pollina rejects any notion of being a "spoiler." He says he had clear position differences with Shumlin on issues like a single-payer healthcare system and increasing taxes to pay for social services.

"From my point of view, here was a candidate running as a Democrat who was essentially rejecting the things that Demo-crats stood for," Pollina says, acknowledging that some of his campaign rhetoric no doubt offended Democrats. "I was not fighting the Democratic Party; I was simply laying out an agenda that I thought would be good for Vermont."

Pollina says he didn't believe his candidacy set back his party's agenda. He and other Progs maintain that building a strong third party ultimately will benefit their constituency, even if it means occasionally seeing their initiatives derailed by the election of opponents like Dubie.

"What we're talking about is longer-term political change -- that's the goal. That's what you fight for," Pollina says. "If you're going to give up your principles for short-term gain, you're not necessarily ever going to get where you're trying to go."

He rejects talk of a split on the left as simplistic, arguing that his candidacy brought many new voters into the process and drew the support of independents and Republicans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Shumlin has a different view. "I've had hundreds of liberal-leaning Democrats who voted for Pollina in the race call me up and apologize for making a mistake," he says.

Shumlin thinks the Progressive Party has benefited from the 11 years of Democratic Gov. Howard Dean's moderate leadership, and that having a Republican in office will provide more incentive for Democrats and Progressives to work together. But he dismisses the notion that the Progs can ever be a majority party.

"Moderate, independent voters will always be the swing voters in Vermont," Shumlin says. "Anthony Pollina will never get enough liberals to be elected... he peaked at about 25 percent." Shumlin adds that the 60 percent of voters who cast ballots for him or Pollina were a mix of liberal and moderate voters.

"You need a candidate that can not only get the left wing of Vermont excited and engaged, you also need a candidate who can make independent voters feel comfortable," he says. "No candidate will win in Vermont if they're ideologically isolated on the left or right, unless it's a three-way race. And then the right will always win. They [conservative Republicans] have nowhere to go."

For some in the Progressive Party, such as Clavelle, winning elections and advancing the agenda is more important than building the party. Others, including Sanders, say they're not convinced Progressives need to make a choice between idealistically building their organization and pragmatically compromising to advance its agenda.

"It's my view that for fairly obvious reasons neither the Republican Party nor many people in the Democratic Party are talking the issues or fighting the struggles of the middle class or working families," Sanders offers. "The end result of that is that both major parties have less support than they did 15 or 20 years ago.

"This state today, for a lot of reasons and based on a lot of work by a lot of people, is one of the most progressive states in the country," Sanders continues. "And as the political process moves forward, common sense has to prevail and compromises have to be made by both the Progressives and Democrats."

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About The Author

David Mace


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