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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Pro-Single-Payer Group Looks To Shape Outcomes For House, Senate Races

The newest arrival to Vermont’s political world has a single issue to advocate: single payer health care.

The group will lobby for the issue in the Legislature. And as candidates for the House and Senate hit the campaign trail this summer, the new political organization, called Vermont Cure, plans to spend big money to drum up votes for those who support its cause.

The group made a conspicuous debut in Montpelier earlier this year by hiring as its executive director the assistant majority leader of the Vermont House – in the middle of a legislative session.

Since resigning her role as lawmaker, Barre City Democrat Tess Taylor has been laying the groundwork for an electoral strategy aimed at one thing: getting as many pro-single-payer legislators in the House and Senate in 2015. 

“And so it’s important to work with candidates and legislators to stay focused for this very heavy lift of getting a financing plan that people can get behind, support and understand,” Taylor says.

The financing plan to which Taylor references is the $2 billion revenue package Gov. Peter Shumlin will need to support a universal health care system.

Shumlin hasn’t yet identified the taxes he would use to come up with the money. But even in a Legislature dominated by members of the Democratic governor’s party, passing a revenue bill of this scope is no sure thing. And Vermont Cure will be pouring potentially significant resources into the handful of House and Senate races that might tip the balance in the Statehouse.

Bram Kleppner is the CEO of Danforth-Pewter, and the president of the Vermont Cure board. He says the group is aiming to raise half million dollars per year over the next few years, first to get pro-single-payer candidates elected, then to assist with the push for votes for a public financing bill inside the Statehouse.

“You know, depending on the math, five votes is the difference between it passing and it not passing, the in House and in the Senate as well,” Kleppner says.

Kleppner says Vermont Cure will target its resources on key battleground districts, where it can influence the outcome of races featuring candidates with opposing views on the health care issue. Kleppner and Taylor say they won’t know until the June 12 filing deadline which races the group will focus on. But it’s likely to target perhaps a dozen House contests, and five or six in the Senate.

Those districts may include places like Orange, Rutland and Franklin counties, where Democratic senators are facing Republican challengers, and places like the two-seat House district in Bristol, Lincoln and Starksboro, where Democratic Reps. Mike Fisher and Dave Sharpe – prominent members of committees on health care and taxes, respectively – are facing see well-organized GOP challenges.

“If there’s an opportunity in races like for us to make a difference, I think we will not be shy about putting our support behind the candidates who we feel are the most likely to help make sure that Green Mountain Care is implemented,” Kleppner says.

The Vermont Cure is one of several pro-single-payer organizations – the NEA-funded Vermont Leads among them – which at this stage have anti-single-payer groups heavily outnumbered and out-financed.

Those groups’ role in the next election could exacerbate the already significant financial disadvantage for Vermont Republicans, whose federal party committee, which generally provides the largest source of money for GOP electoral activities, has raised fewer than $4,500 from nine donors over the past five months. 

During the same time period, the Vermont Democratic Party’s federal committee has taken in nearly 600 contributions totaling about $90,000.

The Vermont Cure, a nonprofit issue advocacy group, got off the ground with a $100,000 start-up donation from the America Federation of Teachers. It is not disclosing how much it has raised since, or where the money is coming from.  The group will have to form a political action committee before it gets involved in specific races.

Taylor says Vermont Cure will use candidate surveys and interviews to determine who’s with them, and who’s against them.

“We’ll be interviewing and talking to people and seeing what their level of commitment is, and also where there discomfort may be, and see if we can help them with messaging and understanding it more fully,” Taylor says. “If we’re doing our jobs right, people will come around to this place of understanding that this is the best thing, that this is Vermonters for Vermonters.”

House Minority Leader Don Turner, whose goal this fall will be to increase the number of House seats held by the GOP – the figure stands at 46 now – says the influence that Vermont Cure plans to exert in 2014 races is news to him. And he says “it’s very concerning to hear.”

“We already have a super-minority,” Turner says. “We are working diligently to get some good solid candidates. But we have limited resources for sure, and limited staff. We’ve got our work cut out for us just to keep up with where we were.”

The Vermont Cure board’s most recent addition will bring help bring some additional political savvy to the operation. Alex MacLean, formerly a top political operative for the Shumlin campaign, will bring expertise in fundraising and messaging, Taylor says.

Barring an entry into politics by a pro-single-payer Republican, Vermont Cure will be working to improve the prospects of exclusively Democratic, Progressive and perhaps Independent candidates. It’s possible the group could play a role in Democratic primaries, if the contest features one Democrat unwilling to sing on to the public financing plan.

Taylor says the group will help with everything from messaging to field organization, and that strategies will be tailored to fit the particular ideological demographics of specific districts.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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