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The Education of Shap Smith 

Published January 14, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:38 p.m.

click to enlarge Shap Smith - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Shap Smith

Shap Smith, the mild-mannered Speaker of the Vermont House, turned heads on the opening day of the legislative session last Wednesday, when he delivered an unusually passionate, 30-minute address to lawmakers who had just reelected him to be their leader.

Tracing his family's journey from suburban Connecticut to rural Wolcott, the 49-year-old attorney weaved together the personal and political, articulating a vision for Vermont in which all its residents would have the opportunities he has enjoyed.

To more than one person in the crowd, the Morristown Democrat's speech sounded more like a gubernatorial inaugural address than standard opening-session remarks from a four-term speaker.

"Afterward, I did say to him, 'OK, when can I start working on your campaign?''' says Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor), who's known Smith since the day he took office 12 years ago and was assigned the seat next to hers.

The day after Smith's speech, the barely reelected Gov. Peter Shumlin saw his own inaugural address marred by protesters livid over his decision to pull the plug on his universal health care pledge.

"We don't have much hope in the governor," says James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers' Center, which organized the protest.

Critics on the right weren't much more flattering, saying Shumlin's inaugural speech offered little evidence he'd learned much from his near miss of a reelection.

Rep. Oliver Olsen (I-Jamaica) voted for Shumlin when the legislature affirmed the governor's election Thursday, but he suggests the dealmaker has lost his magic. "There's no question that his influence and his credibility have taken a hit as a result of the election and all the circumstances around single-payer," Olsen says.

It was hard to miss the contrast last week between the once-invincible Shumlin, reeling like a sucker-punched boxer, and the cautious but confident Smith striding through the Statehouse halls.

Although it's unlikely that Smith would challenge Shumlin in a Democratic primary if the latter runs for a fourth, two-year term in 2016, the former would be the top-ranked contender if the incumbent governor were to call it quits.

Either way, "The power has shifted," says Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), the Progressive Party caucus leader, adding his voice to others suggesting that Smith and his fellow legislators will likely be in charge of Vermont's policy agenda for the next two years. "The legislature can have much more ownership."

No one in the Vermont General Assembly holds more power than Smith — including his Senate counterpart, President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor), who struggles to lead his fractious caucus. But some say Smith's so disciplined and discreet that his goals — and even who he turns to for advice — remain something of a mystery. Last year, when he came "very close" to not running for reelection, even his allies were in the dark until he announced his decision.

Just who is Shap Smith, what drives him and what does he want for Vermont?

Tax Geek

Smith was a 37-year-old lawyer, married to a doctor and the father of one young preschooler when he made his first run for the legislature in 2002.

He won that first election, by 50 votes, to represent the community in which he grew up. Smith attended Peoples Academy in Morrisville, where his 13-year-old son, Eli, is now a student. His 9-year-old Mia goes to another alma mater: Morristown Elementary School.

Even in his debut campaign, the driving issue for newcomer Smith was the same as it is today: school spending and education financing. Then-state senator Susan Bartlett told him he should run for the school board first, but he disregarded the advice to set his sights on the place where he could tackle broader policy changes.

"I have always been interested in education," says Smith, who graduated from the University of Vermont in 1987. "I would not be where I am today if I hadn't had incredible public school teachers and the opportunity public schools gave me."

Money is a crucial part of that equation. "If you do not have a sustainable finance system, people then start attacking the education itself," Smith explains.

Early in his legislative career, Smith landed on the Ways and Means Committee, and he's been a tax geek ever since. No issue is too complicated for the speaker who moonlights as a director and shareholder at the Burlington law firm Dinse Knapp McAndrew.

It's not surprising that while Shumlin was running the numbers on a single-payer health care plan last year, Smith was quietly putting together a secret study committee to look at education financing.

As the 2015 legislative session neared — even before Shumlin pulled the plug on single-payer health care — Smith made it clear that he was far more interested in tackling school spending.

Where Does He Stand?

Smith's play is well timed and has the potential to pay off. Last year Vermonters appeared to grow weary of Shumlin's health care plans as the state's federally mandated health insurance exchange ran into snag after snag. Meanwhile, Smith and others running for office last fall got an earful from voters discontent with rising property taxes.

Friends say the scenario speaks to Smith's strength: He listens not just to politicians and activists in Montpelier, but to neighbors, friends and family in his blue-collar hometown.

"He keeps his ear extremely close to the ground outside Montpelier," says Andrew Savage, former deputy chief of staff to Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and a friend of Smith's. "He's in many ways extremely grounded in his connections to outside-of-Montpelier voices."

Colleagues say Smith relies on a wide circle of people inside and outside the Statehouse to advise him. He will call people into his Statehouse office, sit back with a football in his hands — despite his small frame, he played a little in college — and chat candidly and bluntly. But when it comes to decision time, he'll throw a pass that's all his.

Smith has also shown a willingness to disappoint his Democratic caucus. He stalled action on decriminalizing marijuana three years ago before yielding to its passage in 2013. Last year, he put the kibosh on mandatory paid sick leave legislation. This year, he appears to have scuttled talk of a carbon tax. Each decision carried a dose of political reality: If an issue isn't likely to gain sufficient support, Smith won't waste time on it.

So it was with health care, too. The issue matters to him, he says. He certainly hears about it from his wife, Melissa Volansky, who is a primary care physician.

"I do get some insight from being married to a doctor, but more from some of her colleagues," he says. "I also get it from the fact that I can't figure out my own freaking health care plan."

But asked in mid-December, before Shumlin pulled the plug on single-payer, whether universal health coverage was a priority for him in the coming session, Smith gave a characteristically measured response. Read between the lines and it's clear that without dismissing the issue, he makes evident that a single-payer plan won't be at the top of his to-do list.

"If they put a financing plan on the table, we're going to take a look at it," he said at the time, referring to the Shumlin administration. "Part of the issue for people who are feeling the pinch is health care costs them a lot of money. If we can pass something that reduces the growth of that cost over time, then I think that's worth taking a look at."

Those dismayed with Shumlin over his single-payer about-face might not let Smith off so easily, however.

Last week, the protesters who interrupted Shumlin's inauguration set their sights on Smith to revive the governor's discarded plan. They said they would not leave the House chamber until the speaker scheduled a public hearing on the matter.

Smith appears disinclined to meet their demand.

"I don't see how the legislature has the resources to take on single-payer financing on its own," he says. "There are so many unresolved issues, and the staffing that we have to try to address those is not sufficient."

Haslam, the Vermont Workers' Center chief, isn't backing down.

"My hope is he's open-minded and listening," he says of Smith.

Smith says lawmakers are more likely to look for ways to curb health care costs, such as boosting Medicaid payments to providers as a way to ease the cost-shift to private insurance.

No Easy Solution

With single-payer off the table, the legislature is likely to have time and space to tackle Smith's priority of education financing. In his session-opening remarks to the House last week, Smith acknowledged its political perils.

"I'll tell you right now that a lot of people who are thinking only politically have suggested to me, 'What are you doing, Shap? Why are you getting involved in this?'" Smith said.

While most homeowners would like lower property taxes, any plan to address the issue is bound to upset an interest group or two — be it parents, teachers or school board members.

And far from agreeing on a solution, many don't even agree on the problem: Is Vermont spending too much money on too many small schools? Or is the tax system too complicated and inequitable?

Smith says it's all of the above.

The speaker's biggest political problem may be raising expectations too high.

Shumlin himself has studiously avoided overpromising on the issue. Instead, the governor has dispatched Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe around the state to demonstrate the benefits of school consolidation.

Smith agrees with Holcombe's effort, but says he and Shumlin don't entirely agree on the scope of the issue. Shumlin has resisted talk of rejiggering the state's complicated property tax system and has balked at mandated school consolidations or student-teacher ratios.

"I think I'm more willing to look at financing changes and am probably willing to be a little more forceful on governance change," Smith said.

To start with, Smith has given the often-ineffectual House Education Committee a wider purview to consider tax policy, rather than just education policy. The panel will sort through recommendations from the tax study committee and from 70 ideas the public submitted after Smith put out a request last month. He cautions the effort could take two years to pull together.

Smith insists he's open to all ideas, but, characteristically, hasn't committed to a single approach.

"He's not come out and said this is the path we want to take. I think he's done a good job of creating an environment to allow a diverse set of ideas to go forward," says Olsen, who served on the study committee. "He's looking for people to poke holes in all the ideas."

Smith admits there may be no solution.

"We've got to remember we have a good education system," he says. "It's appropriate for us to ask, 'Could we do it better and could we do it more cost-effectively?' The answer might be no. It might be no because Vermonters say they are unwilling to make the choices that will allow us to be more cost-effective."

In other words, his signature issue might go the way of single-payer health care.

If that sounds passive, colleagues say it's not. When Smith settles on a solution, he makes it happen — usually, by firmly coaching his players behind the scenes.

That's how it was in 2009 when lawmakers were about to legalize same-sex marriage. While Shumlin, who was then Senate leader, gets most of the credit for the law, it was Smith who came in as the closer, marshaling enough votes from his members to barely override a veto by Republican governor Jim Douglas.

"He lets people know what he expects. When he's disappointed, he lets you know," says Floyd Nease, who served as Smith's majority leader for four years, including during the same-sex marriage debate. He now works for Shumlin.

Nease supported former representative Mark Larson for speaker over Smith in 2009. After Larson pulled out, Nease says Smith held no grudge against him. He recalls that the speaker told him: "The only thing you need to know is I won.' By the time a year had gone by, I would have walked on coals for him."

Governor Smith?

After more than a decade in politics, Smith is used to speculation about who's going to run for what in the next election. In the past, such questions have generated eye rolling. These days, he is more willing to engage, even as he remains circumspect.

"I'm in the office I'm in, not the next one," Smith says when asked if he's interested in running for governor. "Any way my life leads, I'm going to be in a pretty good place."

He brings the conversation back to political reality.

"I don't think Peter's going to want to leave electoral politics with 2014 being his last election," he says of Shumlin. "I would be surprised if he didn't run in 2016."

Others are less sure. Even some hardcore Democrats say they can't imagine Shumlin pulling together enough support to win again.

"There's all kinds of conversations going on around this building about what will happen in 2016," says Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) the Senate Republican leader. "I do sense there's going to be a shift because people are going to set themselves up for 2016."

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About The Author

Terri Hallenbeck

Terri Hallenbeck

Terri Hallenbeck was a Seven Days staff writer covering politics, the Legislature and state issues from 2014 to 2017.


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