Vermont Senate Democrats met Sunday to elect a new slate of leaders and unanimously nominated Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, to serve as president pro tempore, the chamber’s leader.
The pro tem is formally elected by the full chamber when the Legislature reconvenes in January, but since Democrats and Progressives are again slated to control 23 votes in the chamber, their nominee is all but certain to assume the post. Baruth is set to replace Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, who is vacating her office to represent Vermont in the U.S. House.
A novelist and University of Vermont professor of English, Baruth was first elected to the Vermont Senate in 2010 after making a name for himself as a political blogger and Vermont Public Radio commentator. The Burlington resident previously served as Senate majority leader and as chair of the Senate Committee on Education. One of the Senate’s more liberal members, Baruth is perhaps best known for his support for gun control — an issue that is expected to return to the Legislature’s agenda next year.
The contest for the Senate’s top job was settled behind the scenes weeks, if not months, ago, and the elections Sunday, which took place in the Statehouse’s legislative lounge (six Senators also Zoomed in) were largely a formality. There were no public challenges, and all votes were unanimous.
Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, was reelected to her current post. Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington, was elected assistant majority leader, a role informally known as the Senate caucus’ whip. Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, the Senate’s longest-serving member, was re-nominated to serve as the chamber’s “third member.” Alongside the pro tem and the lieutenant governor, the third member sits on the Committee on Committees, the quietly influential panel responsible for doling out committee assignments and chairmanships.
Asked by a reporter during a break in the afternoon’s events how long he’d served in that role, Mazza, who joined the House in 1973 and the Senate in 1985, guessed upwards of 20 years. Senate Secretary John Bloomer, who graciously answered VTDigger’s phone call on a Sunday, knew the precise answer off the top of his head: 1997.
But even as the caucus welcomed back many old — or as Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, quipped, “known” — faces, it is also seeing unusually high turnover. Seven new Senate Democrats will be inaugurated in January.
They include Rep. Becca White, D-Hartford (who is the youngest woman ever elected to the upper chamber); Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex Junction; Nader Hashim, a former Vermont House member; former interim Winooski city manager Wendy Harrison; Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson; Burlington School Board member Martine Gulick; and former Essex Selectboard member Irene Wrenner, who surprised many — including Democrats — when she won her race in the newly created Chittenden North district, which was widely assumed to be a lock for Republicans.
One familiar face to show up virtually Sunday was Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, who Zoomed in from rehab following a stroke that sidelined him from the campaign trail in the weeks before the election.
“I understand that some merit badges are due for many senators who went around Orange County door-to-door knocking on the doors and campaigning on my behalf in the last week,” said MacDonald, who faced a tough challenge from Republican John Klar.
Democrats clinched supermajorities in the Vermont House and Senate on election night, and expectations are high that the party will deliver on long-sought priorities now that it has enough votes — and then some — to override Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes.
It takes 20 votes in the 30-member Senate to override a veto. And in a short speech after his nomination, Baruth noted it takes 23 members — what he termed the “magic” number — to suspend the rules. Having enough votes to suspend the rules is a powerful tool, especially in the waning days of the legislative session, when many high-priority bills often fall by the wayside simply for lack of time.
“That’s the difference in the final week between getting your whole agenda and getting half your agenda,” Baruth said. “People who are here know that in those last three days, sometimes we lose a lot of bills. It’s my intention not to lose any bills in the end-game anymore.”
But even as Baruth celebrated his caucus’ power, he sought to manage expectations. Democrats and Progressives in the Senate are not a monolith — and come from sometimes starkly different districts. He signaled that he was particularly sensitive to concerns that an “arrogant” supermajority would be oblivious to the “average Vermonters’ lives, their pocketbooks, their wallets, their bills.”
“I just want to make clear that Democrats and Progressives in the House and the Senate, when we design legislation, we do it from data, we can do it from testimony, and we do it with hard skull sweat on the policy — but always agonizing over the costs. Always,” he said.
Senators-elect also went around the table for nearly an hour to talk, in broad strokes, about their three biggest priorities for the coming two-year legislative session. White most succinctly summed up what topped the list for nearly all of her colleagues. “My three are: climate change, housing affordability and childcare,” she said.
The House Democratic caucus is scheduled to meet Dec. 3 to elect its leaders. House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, has already said she will ask her colleagues to re-nominate her to her current position, and no challengers are expected to emerge.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Democrats unanimously nominate Phil Baruth to serve as president of the Vermont Senate.