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Vermont has a record number of candidates running for office this year. What's behind the turnover?

The dome of the Vermont Statehouse on a cloudy day with the Vermont flag flying.
Angela Evancie
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VPR file
In a state that's seen very little turnover in decades for statewide officeholders, 2022 is turning out different.

The Vermont Secretary of State’s office reports that an extraordinary number of candidates have filed their petitions to run for statewide and legislative offices this year. In fact, it’s hard to find a year when this many candidates have decided to run for office.

Why is this happening? And what does it mean for Vermont politics?

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel to learn what's behind this new opportunity for fresh faces in Vermont politics. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So, it appears that there are a record number of candidates running for office this year. And let's start with the statewide candidates. There are vacancies in six of Vermont's eight statewide races. Only the race for governor and the race for auditor have incumbents seeking reelection. Why is this happening?

Bob Kinzel: You know, Mitch, there's basically one reason, and that's the retirement of Sen. Patrick Leahy. Leahy has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1975. When he retires in January, he will have served 48 years in that chamber. And in the entire history of the U.S. Senate, Leahy is number three in terms of years of service.

So, it's really rare to have a vacancy in Vermont's congressional delegation. And when there is one, people who want to serve in Washington have to respond when there's an opening.

A photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy in a grey suit and a blue striped tie.
J. Scott Appelwhite
/
Associated Press
Sen. Patrick Leahy has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1975. His retirement this year will create a vacancy in Vermont's congressional delegation.

Mitch, over the last 48 years, Vermont has had four people serve in the U.S. Senate: Bob Stafford, Patrick Leahy, James Jeffords and Bernie Sanders. That's it. Four people covering 96 years of service.

Linda Fowler is a professor of government, emerita at Dartmouth College:

"And so Vermont is really unusual in having so much stability at the top, that oftentimes people decide they want to do something else," she said. "There is long tenure in Washington, but Vermont is an extreme case."

So, Mitch, here's how the dominoes fell: Congressman Peter Welch is running for Leahy's Senate seat. Lt. Gov. Molly Gray is running for Welch's seat. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint is running for Welch's seat. And a group of candidates are running for Gray's lieutenant governor post.

On top of that, Secretary of State Jim Condos, Attorney General TJ Donovan and Treasurer Beth Pearce also announced their retirements, and it opened up those three offices as well.

Well, Bob, at the federal level, it's easy to see this domino effect you're talking about taking place, because of Sen. Patrick Leahy deciding to step down after serving those 48 years in the U.S. Senate. But it doesn't answer the question as to why there are so many state and legislative candidates this year. Why is that?

You know, Mitch, it's because there's so many open seats, and so many people are moving around, and so many people have decided to retire. It's right across the board almost at every level.

Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson points out that nobody really wants to run against an incumbent, if they can possibly avoid it.

"For the simple fact that the incumbents usually have name recognition," he said. "They have a built-in base of support, and they have the resources to win. And you don't like to run if you don't have a chance of winning. So you're gonna see a lot of candidates who otherwise would not have run because of the high number of incumbents deciding for a variety of reasons to step down. I think it's really going to be an infusion of new blood here into the Statehouse."

And Mitch, there may be another factor in all of this as well — especially in the legislative races. And that's the impact of social media. As we know, people write and post things that they never, ever, ever would say in person to somebody.

Linda Fowler says there are a growing number of legislators who are very uncomfortable with this growing level of toxic criticism.

"And it may also be the nastiness that we don't necessarily see as ordinary citizens," she said. "But certainly the politicians in New Hampshire that I talk to, that I know personally, say it's just really hard. And sometimes it's scary."

"So you're gonna see a lot of candidates who otherwise would not have run because of the high number of incumbents deciding for a variety of reasons to step down. I think it's really going to be an infusion of new blood here into the Statehouse."
Matt Dickinson, political science professor at Middlebury College

Bob, if you look at the large number of legislators who are stepping down this year, you will see a lot of members who are serving in leadership positions — especially in the House. So what kind of impact might this have on the 2023 legislative session?

Mitch, I think it's going to be huge. I think in the Vermont House, eight of the 14 committee chairs are retiring. Calais Rep. Janet Ancel is the chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the House. That's the tax writing committee. She told me that when she was first elected back in 2004, she thought she would serve maybe three terms, or six years.

"At some point, I looked back and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. It's going to be 18 years.' And that was way longer than I had originally planned," Ancel said. "So at some point, it's what you need to do. You need to step back and let other people take the lead."

And Mitch, we've also got major leadership changes taking place over in the Vermont Senate, with President Pro Tem Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray leaving their posts to run for the U.S. House. So in 2023, the leadership at the Statehouse is going to be very, very different.

I wonder if there's another factor at play here, Bob. And that's because this session has often been referred to as the COVID session at the Vermont Statehouse. And that's because all of the first year was done remotely by Zoom. And then lawmakers spent roughly the first third of the second year into the pandemic using Zoom technology again, before they returned to Montpelier.

Was this much of a factor in any retirement decisions that were made by lawmakers?

It's hard to say Mitch. But my guess is yes. Matt Dickinson thinks the pandemic has definitely had an impact on most sectors of society.

"We know, not just in public service, but in the private sphere as well, we've had the great resignation," he said. "And we're seeing that a little bit, I think, in a microcosm here in the turnover in the incumbency — the decision by incumbents not to run for reelection in state politics."

And Mitch, Linda Fowler thinks a very important part of the legislative process has been lost when lawmakers have to meet remotely over Zoom.

"It's about quietly getting together with one or two other people and saying, 'Can't we find a way to compromise here? What would the language be that would make this bill work for you?' And you can't do that on Zoom," she said.

So Mitch, there's no question that this is a very unusual campaign year in Vermont. Could 2024 also be a year of many changes? You know, it could.

Will Sen. Bernie Sanders run for reelection? He'll be 83 years old in November of 2024. Now, if he chooses not to run, will the floodgates open again, creating other vacancies? And how about Gov. Phil Scott? If he wins reelection in November, he will have served four terms as governor. Will he decide to retire? If he does, how many candidates will emerge in that race?

So it's quite possible that we will see more turnover in Vermont's political landscape in two election cycles than we've seen in the last 25 years.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station WBUR...as a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen Anderson is VPR's Managing Producer of Morning News. Karen has worked for public radio since 2000, in areas of production, traffic, operations, programming and news.
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