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Survey Says... 

A "pol" poll shines a light on Montpelier's winners, losers and snoozers

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Ever notice how the news reports out of Montpelier can make it seem like only a handful of people run the legislature? True, a few powerful individuals wield disproportionate control over the agenda. But the legislature is a dynamic political drama with a cast of characters far longer than Statehouse stars Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith.

To help identify those interesting actors, Seven Days conducted an anonymous survey of Vermont legislators in an effort to pull back the curtain on those elected to do the people’s business. This special report coincides with “Sunshine Week,” a national initiative celebrating open government and freedom of information, the slogan of which is “Your Right to Know.”

We asked all 180 lawmakers, plus hundreds of registered lobbyists, legislative staffers and Statehouse news reporters, to pick the best and worst Vermont legislators in numerous categories. They ranged from the serious, such as “Best Environmental Watchdog” and “Best Informed on Issues,” to the lighthearted, e.g., “Biggest Flirt,” “Most Likely to U-Lock Himself or Herself to Something in Protest.”

Vermont’s small capital can feel cliquey, even gossipy, so we expected our survey would go gangbusters. Boy, were we in for a surprise.

Of the 400 surveys sent out, only 30 came back with legitimate answers — a response rate of 7.5 percent. That’s better than direct mail — for which a 2 percent return rate is considered successful — and not too much worse than the turnout for a Burlington election, which was 23 percent on Town Meeting Day. Honestly, we hoped for better.

Twelve more surveys were returned with “Rick Hube” scrawled in all of the 27 categories. The 62-year-old representative from Londonderry, who died unexpectedly in December, scored in flattering categories such as “Best Orator” and “Most Intelligent,” but also on the less desirable ones, such as “Stingiest” and “Most Likely to Fall Asleep at Hearings.” We assume the gag was meant to both honor Rick Hube and needle Seven Days.

Apparently, not everyone thought our experiment was as humorous, entertaining or insightful as we did.

Lawmakers were the most responsive to the questionnaire. Ten percent of them weighed in on the merits — and demerits — of their colleagues.

Meanwhile, employees at the Capitol’s two largest staff offices — Legislative Council and the Joint Fiscal Office — never got our hand-delivered surveys because their managers made executive decisions not to distribute them. Of the 92 surveys we sent to those and other legislative staff offices, only two came back filled out. (You can practically hear the guessing game beginning.)

Emily Bergquist, director of the Legislative Council, told Seven Days she nixed the survey because she didn’t think it was proper to have the lawyers who help lawmakers craft bills — who arguably know these elected officials better than anyone — rating people who are essentially their “clients.”

“I thought it was inappropriate for us to be critiquing our colleagues and clients,” Bergquist said.

Stephen Klein, head of the Joint Fiscal Office, tossed our surveys in the recycling bin for similar reasons.

“It just doesn’t seem cool to me,” Klein said. “Lobbyists and legislators can do what they want. But we’re an office, we work for people, we’re a nonpartisan staff.”

Interestingly, had we mailed the surveys to legislative staffers rather than hand-delivered them, these managers would have been bound by law to give them to employees. Next year, guess what we’re going to do?

You might think lobbyists would leap at the chance to anonymously bash or gush about the politicians with whom they court favor. But they seemed unpersuaded to take our poll. Of the 111 surveys mailed to registered lobbyists deemed to be Statehouse regulars, nine came back complete.

News reporters were even less game to dish about the characters they cover — even on deep background. We polled 17 Statehouse reporters who work for Vermont’s newspapers, websites, and TV and radio stations. Not one sent it back. One journalist even snagged a survey in person from Seven Days’ office with the promise, “I’ll get it to you tomorrow,” but never did.

Guess this “Sunshine Week” business doesn’t apply to media?

Despite the lackluster participation, several categories did generate what can only be described as clear winners — lawmakers who received 10 or more votes. Curiously, not one of them was female.

Sen. John Campbell, the dapper Democrat from Windsor County, won “Biggest Flirt” and “Biggest Schmoozer” in relative landslides — and no wonder. Not only does Campbell have L.L. Bean-catalog good looks, but, as Senate majority leader, it’s his job to get deals done. What senator in leadership hasn’t schmoozed or batted eyelashes at a few colleagues to get a bill through?

Shumlin, the politically savvy Senate leader and Democratic candidate for governor, claimed the dubious title of “Most Ethically Challenged.” But Shumlin was also picked as “The Press Corps’ Darling” (no thanks to the press). “Born with a microphone in his hand!” commented one lobbyist who took the survey.

More common were categories with no clear “winners” but a dozen or more names with one or two votes each.

Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Rep. Tom Koch (R-Barre) tied for “Most Integrity,” but with only three votes each. Thirteen other lawmakers received one or two nods apiece. Did they all just vote for themselves?

What Capitol denizens call “hot” is all over the map, too. The “Best Looking” question yielded an unexpectedly diverse pool of names: 17 male lawmakers and 13 females.

The men considered lookers ranged from the fortysomething, goateed Shap Smith to 78-year-old Vermont bowling hall-of-famer Rep. Albert “Sonny” Audette. The “winner,” though, was race-car-driving Sen. Phil Scott. Could it be the skintight racing suit?

“Best Looking” lady lawmakers ran the gamut as well — from young Burlingtonians Kesha Ram and Rachel Weston to more mature legislators such as Reps. Mitzi Johnson, Lucy Leriche and — the ultimate winner — Kitty Toll.

How meaningful are these “results,” given the low response rate and the cover of anonymity? Not as meaningful as we had hoped.

Given the agendas at stake, polling Capitol insiders anonymously offered the best, and perhaps only, chance of getting honest answers. Of course, when just 30 people vote, it doesn’t take many to crown someone the “winner.” And a few lawmakers coordinating answers to boost a friend or smear an enemy seems plausible, too.

Still, when the same lawmaker’s name comes up eight, 10 or even 12 times in a given category, it sure seems like there’s something to it. Despite the small sample size, the results are surprisingly insightful. Accurate, even, based on what Seven Days has observed over the years.

Below, we’ve spotlighted 13 “big winners” — lawmakers who received six or more votes in a given category. Lawmakers who “won” with five or fewer votes are simply listed, as their victories seemed less commanding.

At the very least, we hope our efforts help familiarize readers with people entrusted to legislate on our behalf — and lay the groundwork for legislative surveys to come.

******

Most Ethically Challenged

Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham)

12 votes

During last month’s Mardi Gras parade in Burlington, Sen. Peter Shumlin climbed aboard an anti-Vermont Yankee float sponsored by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. No doubt he saw it as an opportunity in the wake of the Senate vote against the nuke plant. Turns out he may have used VPIRG polling information to his political advantage, too. Smart, affable and possessing sales skills some would describe as “slick,” the senator from Putney never misses an opportunity to advance his ambitious agenda — did we mention he’s running for governor? Though it took only 12 people to bestow upon Shumlin the dubious distinction of “most ethically challenged,” the cross-section of voters is notable: Seven legislators, three lobbyists and the only two staffers who took the survey said he’s the one. Shumlin, for his part, smells a political hit job — or maybe just sour grapes. “That’s just people who are probably mad at me for killing a bill or two. The nature of my job is that you give people bad news … not everything everybody wants passes.”

Runner-Up: Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans)

7 votes

******

Best Dealmaker

Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans)

10 votes

Sen. Vince Illuzzi’s proclivity for brokering last-minute deals in the waning hours of the session is legendary, and his Northeast Kingdom constituents often reap the benefits. Last year, Illuzzi helped ensure passage of a 200-page Vermont stimulus bill, and was able to steer $350,000 to struggling Sterling College, a small liberal arts college in Craftsbury. As one lobbyist wrote on the survey: “To get something done in the Senate, plan on shaking hands with this guy.” Consider that Illuzzi, a Republican in Democratic territory, is entrusted with chairing one of most powerful committees in the Statehouse, the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee. “When you’re a Republican in a dominantly Democratic legislature, you need to be able to talk to everybody and make things work,” Illuzzi says.

Runner-Up: Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) —

4 votes

******

The Press Corps’ Darling

Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham)

10 votes

Few politicians under the Golden Dome can deliver politics in a pitch-perfect soundbite like Sen. Peter Shumlin. And as Senate president pro tem, he has a hand in just about every piece of major legislation. This makes him a go-to person for the press corps. In February alone, Shumlin was quoted dozens of times — on Vermont Yankee, campaign finance reform and other topics — in the Burlington Free Press, VPR, WCAX, the Times-Argus, vtdigger.org and other Vermont news outlets, according to an unscientific Google News search. Seven Days isn’t immune to Shumlin’s media magnetism: We quoted him five times in a single edition: the February 17 Vermont Yankee issue. (He’s just so damn quotable!) Asked what he thought of being named Vermont’s most notorious spotlight seeker, Shumlin quipped: “No comment!”

Runner-Up: Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans)

3 votes

******

The Workers’ Champion

Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) and Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre)

7 votes each

Both Sen. Vince Illuzzi and Rep. Paul Poirier come from working-class backgrounds, and it shows in the legislation they support. Both worked overtime last session to blunt the impact of layoffs on state workers: Poirier inserted language in the budget designed to keep the administration from outsourcing jobs to private contractors; Illuzzi held repeated hearings on the impact of layoffs on state services, and found alternate ways to save money. “I’ve always figured that the guy on the top of the totem pole can take care of himself or herself. There’s always got to be somebody to take care of the person at the bottom,” says Illuzzi, whose father was a Barre granite sculptor. Poirier, a retired high school teacher and hockey coach, was born to cotton-mill workers in Maine. A darling of organized labor, Poirier prides himself on being “on the Chamber of Commerce’s hit list.”

Runner-Up: Rep. John Moran (D-Wardsboro)

5 votes

******

Worst Temper

Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington)

9 votes

Whether he deserves it or not, Sen. Dick Sears has earned a reputation around the Statehouse as a hothead. “Regularly explodes at people,” commented one lawmaker who took the survey. “Legendary bluster,” wrote another. Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, admits he gets passionate sometimes, but insists he’s really a “teddy bear” deep down. “Sure, I have a temper,” Sears says, “but I don’t think I’m the worst in the building. I guess the people who filled out the survey don’t know me very well.”

Runner-Up: Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange)

4 votes

******

Rookie of the Year

Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden)

7 votes

Sen. Tim Ashe, the former Progressive city councilor from Burlington, has been winning over his colleagues with a mix of hard work and humility — as a reward for his eagerness to learn, he wound up on two powerful Senate committees: Institutions; and Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. These committees have jurisdiction over state economic policy and capital spending. Not bad for a rookie. Ashe has authored legislation to increase the minimum wage on stimulus projects, expand broadband access to rural areas and secure passage of a “Farm to Plate” bill to map out Vermont’s agricultural future. He’s the lead sponsor of a revolving-door bill that would prohibit the Vermont public service commissioner from working for a regulated utility for up to five years after leaving the job. Ashe says he suspects his survey title was a fluke. “It’s like the butterfly ballot in Florida; they thought it was Governor’s Pet that they were voting for.” (Disclosure: Ashe is the live-in partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly, who had no part in compiling survey results.)

Runner-Up: Rep. Adam Greshin (I-Warren)

4 votes

******

Should Probably Retire

Sen. Ed Flanagan (D-Chittenden)

7 votes

In the past year, Sen. Ed Flanagan’s often-bizarre behaviors in committee rooms, the Statehouse cafeteria and in the Burlington YMCA locker room have led some to believe it’s time for the 59-year-old senator to call it quits. Flanagan himself calls his actions “very bizarre,” but chalks them up to the 2005 car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury. He’s made a dramatic recovery that involved relearning how to speak and walk. He’s learned better behavioral “discipline,” he says, since a YMCA patron allegedly saw him fondling himself at the gym. Flanagan cops to behavior that’s “a little odd,” but says he’s legislating effectively and has no plans to retire. “It’s sort of ironic that after I’ve accomplished all this, this poll is published. But that’s just one of the consequences of what is now a five-year-old accident. I plan to serve as long as the voters give me the confidence that my colleagues have given me.”

Runner-Up: Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington)

6 votes

******

Most Likely to Reach Across the Aisle

Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washington)

6 votes

When he’s not zooming around Thunder Road Speedbowl at 80 mph, local stock-car driver Sen. Phil Scott is steering legislation to a bipartisan photo finish. Or so say the handful of people who voted him “Most Likely to Reach Across the Aisle.” One legislator wrote of Scott in the survey, “Always, eye on the goal and the best way to get there.” Scott is one of only two Republicans to chair a committee (Institutions) in the Democrat-dominated Senate, and he’s worked with both parties over the years. He voted with Democrats — and a few Republicans — to legalize same-sex marriage and to create the Catamount health care program. He voted against incentives for renewable power production and, in a last-minute switcheroo, for the relicensure of Vermont Yankee. “Being a moderate puts you in a tough position,” Scott says. “When you’re stuck in the middle, there’s a lot of pressure. I try to remain true to my personal feelings and those of my constituents.”

Runner-Up: Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden)

4 votes

******

Future U.S. Senator

Rep. Shap Smith (D-Morrisville)

6 votes

Don’t let his easy smile and calm demeanor fool you. House Speaker Shap Smith has a political drive and ambition like no other. While the governor’s job is certainly in his sights, Smith’s ability to forge multiparty coalitions — he mustered two veto overrides in the 2009 session — would serve him well in Washington. Does Shap dream of succeeding Bernie or Leahy? “No plans to run for U.S. Senate,” Smith says. “I’m focused on the 2010 election for House of Representatives. It’s flattering to have people think that I could take that job. The parameters that my wife has put around my political career don’t go beyond the borders of Vermont.”

Runner-Up: Rep. John Morley (R-Orleans)

5 votes

******

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Biggest Flirt

Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor)

14 votes

Runner-Up: Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham)

3 votes

******

Biggest Schmoozer

Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor)

8 votes

“Don’t tell me: Biggest flirt?” Without any hints, Sen. John Campbell correctly guessed the survey category he won by a landslide. Campbell, a coiffed attorney from Quechee, has earned a reputation as the Capitol’s Charmer-in-Chief, at least among those who took our survey. “In the sweetest, most delightful ways,” wrote one lawmaker who picked Campbell as Biggest Flirt. “Sadly, it does not always appear to be innocent,” wrote another. Not surprisingly, Campbell, the Senate majority leader, was good humored about being labeled a schmoozer and a flirt. “I’m very friendly and outgoing, and I like to put every person on the same level. My job is communications, getting people to come to some kind of agreement, have them reach a compromise,” he says. Campbell was the lead sponsor of last year’s historic same-sex-marriage bill. Does arm twisting ever cross over into flirtatiousness? “Oh, yeah, of course,” Campbell says.

Runner-Up: Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham)

4 votes

******

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Most Likely to U-Lock Himself or Herself to Something in Protest

Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington)

10 votes

Is it the ponytail? Rep. David Zuckerman is an unapologetic liberal well known for authoring legislation to decriminalize marijuana and legalize same-sex marriage, among other progressive causes. As a student at Groovy UV, he did organize several protests against the Gulf War. But Zuckerman says he’s never worn a U-Lock, never blocked a logging road, never spilled blood on a nuclear sub, nor been arrested for any act of civil disobedience. He did once broker peace talks between free-trade protesters and Burlington police, but that was years ago. As for the U-Lock assumption? “Lefties sort of get characterized that way,” Zuckerman says. “But if you look at Tea Party protesters, you could argue they are looking equally rabid.”

Runner-Up: Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor)

4 votes

******

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Best Environmental Watchdog

Rep. David Deen (D-Westminster)

8 votes

The Birkenstock-wearing Rep. David Deen is the ultimate environmental steward. In fact, that’s his day job — steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. His other day job is a trout-fishing guide. Come April, Deen usually brings his fly rod to the Statehouse so he can squeeze in some fishing before sundown. As chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, Deen has worked to keep Vermont’s waterways clean — banning personal watercraft and fighting Vermont Yankee’s dumping of hot water into the Connecticut River. Was he surprised to learn his colleagues voted him best watchdog? Yes, Deen says, before adding, “Woof woof.” Seriously.

Runners-Up: Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier) and Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor)

4 votes each

******

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Most Partisan

Rep. Floyd Nease (D-Johnson)

6 votes

House Majority Leader Rep. Floyd Nease is charged with keeping his caucus in line and in the majority. That makes him an adversary to Republicans and an enforcer within his own party. During the same-sex-marriage vote last year, Nease made it a point to pressure Democrats tempted to sustain the governor’s veto, indicating that if they wanted a good working relationship with the leadership they should vote to override the veto. Nease says he’s not surprised at being pegged as partisan — that comes with the territory for a guy who often plays bad cop to House Speaker Shap Smith’s good cop. That said, Nease insists Montpelier is nothing like the “toxic” partisan environment paralyzing Washington, D.C. “I’m going to have a beer with the Republican leader later today,” Nease says.

Runner-Up: Rep. Mary Morrissey (R-Bennington)

3 votes

******

“Winners” who got five or fewer votes

Best Informed on Issues

Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia)

5 votes

Runners-Up: Rep. Michael “Obie” Obuchowski (D-Rockingham) and Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille)

3 votes each

******

Governor’s Pet

Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle)

5 votes

Runner-Up: Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset)

4 votes

******

Most Business Friendly

Sen. Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden)

5 votes

Runners-Up: Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Rep. Michael Marcotte. (R-Coventry)

3 votes each

******

Most Intelligent

Rep. Michael “Obie” Obuchowski (D-Rockingham)

4 votes

Runner-Up: Rep. Shap Smith (D-Morrisville)

3 votes

******

Biggest Tax-and-Spender

Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) and Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington)

4 votes each

******

Best Looking Woman

Rep. Catherine “Kitty” Beattie Toll (D-Danville)

5 votes

Runners-Up:

Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero)

4 votes

Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington)

3 votes

Reps. Rachel Weston (D-Burlington), Patti Komline (R-Dorset) and Lucy Leriche (D-Hardwick)

2 votes each

******

Best Looking Man

Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washington)

4 votes

Runners-Up:

Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden)

3 votes Rep.

David Zuckerman (P-Burlington), Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Ripton) and Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham)

2 votes each

******

Funniest

Reps. John Rodgers (D-Glover) and Jason Lorber (D-Burlington)

4 votes each

******

Most Likely to Fall Asleep During Hearings

Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington) and Rep. Bill Aswad (D-Burlington) 3 votes each

******

Most Politically Incorrect

Reps. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington) and Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport)

3 votes each

******

Most Integrity

Rep. Tom Koch (R-Barre) and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle)

3 votes each

******

Best Orator

Rep. Tom Koch (R-Barre)

4 votes

Runners-Up: Sen. Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) and Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor)

3 votes each

******

Stingiest

Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), Rep. Phil Winters (R-Williamstown), Rep. Martha Heath (D-Westford) and Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille)

2 votes each

Want to see it all?

Click here for the full list of survey results.

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

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About The Author

Andy Bromage

Andy Bromage

Bio:
Andy Bromage was a Seven Days staff writer from 2009-2012, and the news editor from 2012-2013.

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