Garrett Graff Seeks Eligibility Ruling For LG Run
There are plenty of unanswered questions in the 2016 race for lieutenant governor. But the most important one right now is probably, ‘what is a resident of the state of Vermont?’
It’s a more complicated question than you might think, but the answer could reshape the Democratic primary. And getting that answer is proving a difficult task. Just ask Garrett Graff, the guy whose political future hinges on the statutory definition of the word “residency.”
“I’ve always considered myself a Vermonter,” Graff says. “I was born in Vermont. I was raised in Vermont, Vermont has been my home every day I have woken up in my life.”
Graff may call Vermont home. But the 34-year-old political journalist has been living in Washington, D.C., for the last 10 years, and the perception of carpet bagging isn’t the only problem his situation presents.
Secretary of State Jim Condos says Graff’s beltway hiatus from the Green Mountains might disqualify him from seeking the statewide office. Condos says the Vermont Constitution stipulates that candidates for that office “shall reside in” the state of Vermont four years preceding the election.
“There is no clear explanation in the statutes for candidate residency. But the constitution does say ‘shall reside.’ So in my view it will come done to a court deciding, what does shall reside mean?” Condos says.
Graff says he hasn’t decided for sure whether he’ll run for lieutenant governor. Last month, however, he sought a formal ruling from Condos’ office as to whether or not he has residency in the state of Vermont, to “bring some clarity to the matter.”
Graff says statute and case law make clear that residency is about more than physical presence inside state borders. Graff says courts have made clear that residency hinges on a person’s intent to return to the Green Mountains. On that front, Graff says his actions couldn’t have been clearer.
“I’ve kept my driver’s license in Vermont, I’ve stayed registered to vote in Vermont. And by all official measures I have continued my Vermont residency even when I’ve been out of state,” Graff says.
Condos’ says it’s not his job to issue a ruling on Graff’s eligibility. If the Montpelier native decides to run, and a fellow candidate or a voter challenges his eligibility, then Condos says it’ll be up to the courts to decide the question.
In the meantime, at least one lawmaker is looking to help those courts interpret the constitution. Windham Sen. Jeannette White says it isn’t the word “residency” that Graff should be worried about.
“In my mind, the Constitution is pretty clear. It says ‘reside in,’ which is different than residency,” White says.
She’s now seeking support for a bill that would clarify in state law that quote "reside" means a continued presence in the state.
“When I read this, I think, if I had written ‘reside in,’ I would mean, ‘physically be there,’” White says.
Graff of course disagrees.
“I think that most Vermonters understand very clearly that you don’t stop being a Vermonter at the border of the state,” Graff says.
Condos says even if lawmakers pass legislation, it’s the courts that get to decide matters of constitutional interpretation, not the Legislature.
If Graff does decide to run, and courts clear him to proceed, he’ll then face the obvious question about why someone who hasn’t lived here for 10 years should be a heartbeat away from the governor’s office. It’s one he says he’s eager to answer.
“The onus is certainly on me to discuss the vision, and my hopes and dreams for the future of the state of Vermont,” Graff says. “And then it’ll be up to the people of the state and the voters of the state to decide whether that’s a vision they agree with."
If Graff does run in the Democratic primary, he’ll face Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram, Chittenden Sen. David Zuckerman and Marlboro businessman Brandon Riker.
Update 4:44 p.m. This story has been updated to include additional reporting, including comments from Secretary of State Jim Condos and Sen. Jeannette White.