Column | Gov and Take: Halfway Through His Term as DGA Chair, How's Shumlin Doing? | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Gov and Take: Halfway Through His Term as DGA Chair, How's Shumlin Doing? 

Fair Game

Published July 17, 2013 at 10:58 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has been racking up the frequent flyer miles as he moonlights as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

In the past five weeks alone, the gov’s spent three days each in Aspen, Nantucket and Chicago, holding meetings and raising money for the group. Since he took over last December, Shumlin’s spent 21 days out of state on DGA business, traveling to New York, Washington, D.C. — even Rome.

What does Shumlin have to show for it, now that he’s halfway through his one-year term — other than room-service bills?

It all depends on which metric you use.

At its core, the DGA is a fundraising apparatus that funnels unlimited, six- and seven-figure contributions from labor unions, pharmaceutical powerhouses and energy companies to Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

During the last two-year election cycle, the organization raised more than $50 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that, two major labor unions — AFSCME and the SEIU — ponied up $1.3 and $1.1 million respectively. Contributing more than half a million each were Pfizer, Blue Cross Blue Shield and AT&T.

Last Friday, Shumlin announced the DGA had raised $15 million during the first six months of his term, making it “well-positioned to help take back statehouses that belong in Democratic hands,” he said in a statement. That figure is $3.5 million more than the DGA raised during the same fundraising period four years ago.

But in interviews, Shumlin and his aides downplay his role in the fundraising racket, instead crediting his predecessor, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — a 2016 presidential aspirant and now the DGA’s fundraising chairman.

“To be honest, I would argue he does as much work as I do,” Shumlin says.

That might be for the best, given how shady the process has become.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported in April, the DGA and its Republican counterpart have taken to creating affiliated nonprofit entities to raise millions of dollars in “dark money” from anonymous donors. And even though Shumlin says he refuses to raise money for his gubernatorial campaigns from pharmaceutical interests, the DGA’s top donors include Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

“You know, this is the way I look at it: While I might pick and choose the donors to ‘Shumlin for Governor,’ as chairman of the DGA, I represent all governors,” Shumlin explains. “Therefore I don’t get involved with who the DGA should or shouldn’t take money from.”

Now that’s leadership!

Beyond fundraising, Shumlin’s success at the helm of the DGA will ultimately be measured by races won and lost. And this fall, with only New Jersey and Virginia holding gubernatorial elections, he’ll be lucky to go one for two.

That’s because every top-flight Democrat in the Garden State opted to sit out the race against juggernaut Republican Gov. Chris Christie — including the DGA’s leading prospect, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is running for U.S. Senate instead. With Christie holding a devastating 30-point lead over Democratic state senator Barbara Buono, even Shumlin concedes New Jersey is “an uphill battle.”

“We never think anything is a lost cause, but the DGA’s very careful to spend resources where we think we can win,” Shumlin says, “and we’re still trying to see the evidence that we can win in New Jersey.”

To date, the organization has invested just $3800 into Buono’s campaign, says DGA spokesman Danny Kanner, compared with $2 million in Virginia. In the latter state, former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe is running neck and neck with the state’s conservative attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, in an increasingly nasty race for an open seat.

“This is a tougher year, but we’re viewing this as a two-year cycle, and we’re putting in place the resources we need for next year,” Kanner explains.

To that end, Shumlin’s been working the phones to recruit solid Dems to run in 2014, when 36 states will elect new governors.

Doug Sosnik, who served as President Clinton’s political director and has consulted for the DGA for more than a decade, says Shumlin has excelled in making the hard sell.

“Getting people to run is where chairs do matter,” Sosnik says. “For some people, it takes quite a bit of nudging to get them over the line and commit.”

Shumlin says he personally lobbied key recruits from Maine, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, all of whom he says eventually committed.

“I talk to them on the phone. I go see them. I bring them breakfast in bed, if that works — whatever it takes to get winning candidates,” the gov says. “The art of convincing a candidate to run for any office is not only to appeal to them yourself, but to get other people who they listen to to make the appeal.”

Other than recruiting candidates, Shumlin says he’s focused on “beefing up” the DGA’s political operations so that the organization can “embed earlier” in nascent campaigns around the country — something he says he wishes the DGA had done for him. Part of that includes moving the organization’s opposition research apparatus in-house, according to executive director Colm O’Comartun.

“That allows our messaging to be more nimble,” O’Comartun says.

In Sosnik’s view, Shumlin’s most important contribution to the DGA is what he hasn’t done.

“The first thing the chair can do when they come in is change the staff,” Sosnik says. “Shumlin, I think very wisely, chose to keep the principle guys here.”

The governor dispatched his former gubernatorial chief of staff, Jericho resident Bill Lofy, to serve as his liaison and senior adviser to the DGA. But he left O’Comartun, a longtime O’Malley aide, in charge, and kept other senior staffers in place.

O’Comartun, who says he sees Shumlin twice a month, describes his new boss as detail-oriented and “very hands-on.”

So what has the DGA done for Shumlin and, more importantly, Vermont?

The gig hasn’t exactly been a public relations boon for the small-state gov with big ambitions. Other than a smattering of stories in Politico and BuzzFeed — and a pretty awkward appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — Shumlin hasn’t yet succeeded in using the post as a national launching pad.

“Meet The Press” host David Gregory hasn’t yet come a-calling.

But Shumlin says his part-time gig’s done plenty for Vermont. Asked for a specific example, he cites what he’s learned from fellow govs about implementing federal health care reform — which he calls “a pretty lonely process.”

“We have structured a lot of our policy discussions at DGA around how to make the affordable care act work and how to integrate technology in health care reform,” he says. “So that’s an example of how I’ve learned a lot.”

And if that’s not enough, there’s always room service.

Madame Stetson?

Vermont may soon have to say au revoir to its most prolific political fundraiser.

Norwich resident and Democratic National Committee national finance chairwoman Jane Stetson is reportedly a top contender to become the United States’ next ambassador to France.

The Hill reported Tuesday that Stetson, a high-profile fundraiser for President Obama’s election and reelection campaigns, “is rumored to be in line for the top diplomatic post in Paris, perhaps the most prestigious ambassadorial position of them all.” Earlier this month, the Washington Post said she was “a strong candidate” for the job, citing, um, “increasing chatter.”

C’est vrai?” we asked Stetson.

“At this point, it’s totally hearsay,” she said, refusing to comment any further.

Stetson certainly has the pedigree for the post. Her father, Arthur Watson, a former president of IBM’s international business operations, was appointed ambassador to France by President Nixon in 1970. During his tenure, Jane studied at the Sorbonne and the American College in Paris.

Stetson’s work raising money for the president puts her in the company of other recent diplomatic picks. According to the Hill, Obama’s doled out at least 19 ambassadorships to big-money campaign contributors and political allies this year alone.

By last September, Stetson had already raised more than $2.4 million for Obama’s reelect, the New York Times reported at the time, making her the president’s fifth biggest donation “bundler.”

Number four on that list? Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, who is reportedly also in contention for the Paris job. With devilish competition like that, all we can say is, “Bonne chance, Madame Stetson!”

To Leahy Me Down

Three weeks ago we told you about Peter Welch’s “Summer in Vermont” fundraiser. Vermont’s lone congressman has invited D.C. lobbyists north to hang out in Woodstock for a weekend in August — and contribute $5000 to his campaign war chest.

If you can’t make it, never fear. Turns out Sen. Patrick Leahy is hosting a “Fall Foliage Retreat” for the same crowd the weekend of Sept. 27 — also for $5000 a pop.

Explains Leahy political hand Carolyn Dwyer, “It’s to showcase Vermont, bring business to Vermont and hopefully encourage these folks to come back again.”

Right. And to fill the coffers of his Green Mountain PAC, which raised more than $700,000 during the 2012 election cycle. More than $250,000 of that came from the entertainment industry, lobbyists and law firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Is it appropriate for Leahy to dole out a weekend’s worth of access to top donors?

“Anyone who attends a fundraiser sees Sen. Leahy, so this in some ways is no different than his annual Ben & Jerry’s fundraisers or an event he did in the past with the Grateful Dead,” Dwyer says.

Whoa. See how she did that?

For a second there, I was all worked up about campaign finance. Now all I want to do is eat some Phish Food and jam out to Jerry.

Media Notes

Four years after he left the New Haven Advocate to become a staff writer at Seven Days, Vermont is losing Andy Bromage. My esteemed colleague and bearded bro is returning to his native Connecticut.

Bromage took over this column in January 2012 and toiled away at it until July, when he was promoted to news editor. Alas, he’s now leaving the journalism fold to serve as communications director for the Foote School, a private K-9 school in New Haven.

“I’ve really missed the traffic jams, air pollution and billboards,” Bromage explains. “Plus, there’s only room for one gigantic nose in this state — and Shumlin has me beat by a mile.”

Seven Days publisher Paula Routly says “the Seven Days news team benefited greatly from Andy’s reportorial guidance, good judgment and humor.” She says the paper plans to hire a new news editor to replace Bromage — and to be in charge of whipping my ass into shape.

“TV newsmen are famous for thanking viewers for letting them into their living rooms,” Bromage says. “As a print journalist for a free weekly, I say thanks for letting me into your bathrooms, coffee shops and bus shelters.”

Thank you, Andy. And good luck.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz was part of the Seven Days news team from 2012 to 2020. He served as political editor and wrote the "Fair Game" political column before becoming a staff writer.


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