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House Speaker Shap Smith To Enter Race For Lieutenant Governor

Angela Evancie
VPR file
House Speaker Shap Smith, shown here on the closing day of the legislative session, will announce his candidacy for lieutenant governor later today.

House Speaker Shap Smith has resurrected his bid for statewide office, though the former candidate for governor now has his sights set on a lower post.

Smith suspended his gubernatorial run last fall after learning his wife had breast cancer. Smith says his wife’s improving health, coupled with his desire to remain in public service, compelled him to reenter the 2016 political fray. And later today, Smith will announce his candidacy for lieutenant governor.

“I really enjoyed my last year as speaker, and still felt like there was more to do in the public policy area,” Smith said in an interview Wednesday morning.

Smith joins Kesha Ram, a four-term House Representative from Burlington, and David Zuckerman, a veteran legislator from Chittenden County, in what looks to be a highly competitive Democratic primary. Zuckerman also is a member of the Progressive Party.

Smith says he values his relationships with both of his new rivals. But as a candidate with top-level leadership experience in the Legislature, and the only one who resides outside Chittenden County, Smith says he’d bring a unique set of assets to the office.

'A different perspective'

“And I thought that I could bring a different perspective,” Smith says. “And I thought that perspective would be one that’s of value to the race.”

Former Franklin County senator Randy Brock, the lone Republican in the race for lieutenant governor, says Vermonters are already all too familiar with the kind of perspective that Smith would bring.

“I think his legacy in terms of policy is very much the legacy of Peter Shumlin,” Brock says. “He was Peter Shumlin’s enabler.”

Smith has been openly considering a bid for lieutenant governor for several months now, and a Republican political action committee in Washington, D.C., has already begun working to erode support for his candidacy.

Earlier this month, glossy color mailers depicting unflattering images of the four-term speaker arrived in mailboxes across the state, chiding him for tax and fee bills that will raise about $49 million in new revenue next year.

Credit Angela Evancie / VPR file
VPR file
Smith and Dylan Giambatista, his chief of staff, confer in Smith's office on May 6, while a flier with negative messaging about Smith hangs on the door.

Vermont Republicans, meanwhile, have sought to tie Smith to a governor whose approval ratings, according to some polls, have dipped below 50 percent.

Smith, however, says his tenure as speaker will be among his chief assets in the lieutenant governor’s office.

“People know that I am somebody who is true to his word, and if you ask me where I stand on something, I’m going to tell you where I stand one something,” Smith says. “They know what they’re going to get when they get me in that office.”

And what they’ll get, Smith says, is someone who looks to advance public policy reform in the arenas of health care and tax code.

Dr. Dynasaur and tax code

Smith says the health care debates of the last six years, which included the decision to abandon Shumlin’s proposal for a publicly-financed health care system, still haven’t solved the problems that threaten to undermine the quality and availability of medical care in Vermont.

“We’re not done with health care,” Smith says. “We’re going to have to deal with stuff like how do you pay for health care – that issue is not going away.”

Smith says the most promising reform on the health care front is a proposal to expand Dr. Dynasaur, a Medicaid program that provides publicly funded coverage for income-eligible children, up to age 19.

Smith helped carve out $100,000 during the past legislative session for a study that will see how much it would cost to eliminate income thresholds for Dr. Dynasaur, and expand it to include all Vermonters age 26 and younger.

"We're not done with health care ... that issue is not going away." - House Speaker Shap Smith

The proposal amounts to publicly funded care for every Vermonter up to age 27. And Smith says if the state can find a viable financing mechanism, he thinks it’s the smart path forward.

“I think it could be an incredible thing for attracting young people who are right out of college, and I think it would help families who are trying to figure out how to pay for health care for their kids,” Smith says.

Smith also says he wants to resume work on a tax-code reform agenda that fell short during his tenure as speaker. Smith says that by broadening the income-tax base – that would mean doing away with many of the deductions filers are allowed to claim now – Vermont could lower its income tax rates, and bring them more in line with national averages.

Smith says he also wants to pursue sales-tax reforms that could bring down rates, and stabilize revenues, by expanding the sales tax to include a growing services-based economy.

Smith says his ability to navigate the Statehouse, and his credibility with the business community outside it, would make him an effective change agent.

Challengers and their funding

“This cannot be done unless we get buy-in from people outside of the building,” Smith says. “And I think I could be a very effective leader in that office, because of my relationships.”

Ram, a 29-year-old woman who’s served in the House since graduating from the University of Vermont, says she thinks Vermonters are ready for a statewide officeholder with a new kind of perspective.

“People really appreciate someone in the race having a background like mine, growing up in my Indian immigrant father and Jewish American mother’s Irish pub,” Ram says.

"People really appreciate someone in the race having a background like mine, growing up in my Indian American father and Jewish American mother's Irish pub." - Rep. Kesha Ram, Democratic challenger

Ram says her focus on early childhood education, access to affordable higher education, homeownership and high-speed broadband reflect a commitment to issues that matter most to working-class Vermonters.

Ram has been in the race longer than Zuckerman or Smith, and has also raised the most money. According to the most recent campaign finance disclosures, Ram had taken in more than $100,000, while Zuckerman, whose bid for public financing was thwarted by a court ruling issued shortly before the filing deadline, had raised $64,000.

Zuckerman says he “has a lot of respect for Shap,” and that “he’s a smart guy and I really enjoy working with him.”

Zuckerman, however, says he’s the candidate who’s “uniquely situated” to advance the economic-justice agenda that residents are looking for. The Progressive-Democrat has already won formal backing from the Vermont Progressive Party. And Zuckerman says his support for initiatives like increasing the minimum wage and delivering universal health care long predate his rivals’ taking up of those causes.  

Zuckerman, a Hinesburg farmer who served in the Vermont House for 14 years prior to being elected to the Senate in 2012, says he helped spearhead legislation dealing with GMO labeling and “death with dignity.”

Zuckerman also says he stands alone among the Democratic candidates in his vocal and active support to legalize cannabis, and establish an industry wherein the drug is regulated like alcohol.

“So I’ve got wide swaths of support out there from any number of those issues,” Zuckerman says. “And I think that’s going to put together a winning combination.”

A switch from the governor's race

Smith had about $30,000 left over in his gubernatorial campaign as of March 30, according to records with the secretary of state. He’ll be able to use what’s left of that money for his new campaign.

Smith says he anticipates voters will question his passion for serving as lieutenant governor, given he’d been seeking the state’s top elected post six months ago. The fact that the lieutenant governor’s job is less time-intensive, according to Smith, did figure into his decision.

Smith and his wife, Melissa Volansky, have two young children.

“This will give me an opportunity, if I am elected, to also spend some time at home during the off season, and that did factor into my decision,” Smith says. “I really thought that this was the best opportunity to remain engaged with everything that had been going on in our lives, and so this was the decision that we made.”

But he says he’ll dedicate himself fully to the job, and plans to leave his job at the Burlington law firm, Dinse, Knapp, McAndrew, if he’s elected.

This post has been updated to include comments from Sen. David Zuckerman.

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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