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A Look at Vermont

As the state that ranks 49th in overall population, there is a short list of things that Vermont is known for: dairy farms, ski resorts, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and, more recently, Independent politicians.

Neither major party can lay claim to having majority status within the state’s three-member Congressional delegation since the only Independent in the House and the only Independent in the Senate call the Green Mountain State home.

Although both Independents, Sen. Jim Jeffords and Rep. Bernie Sanders, caucus with Democrats, the Democratic Party could eventually increase its presence in the delegation thanks to the recent turnover in the governor’s office.

Following Gov. Howard Dean’s (D) decision not to seek re-election in 2002, Republicans were emboldened by the election of state Treasurer Jim Douglas (R) as chief executive in November. Dean had been in office since 1991.

Sanders, a socialist first elected in 1990, has long flirted with the idea of running for governor. With a Republican now in office, some speculate that Sanders, bored after spending a decade in the House minority, could opt into a race against Douglas in 2004.

Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states that still hold gubernatorial elections every two years.

If Sanders were to leave, it would result in a hotly contested race where both parties would likely see crowded primaries, since opportunities are very rare in a state with only one at-large House seat.

For Democrats, Dean’s 11-year lock on the governor’s mansion has created a backlog of credible elected officials eager to move up in the political ranks.

“There’s been a back-up of ambitious second-tier Democrats who’ve been looking for some outlets, and this one would certainly present that,” a Democratic strategist in Vermont said of a potential open House seat race.

Potential Democratic candidates include state Auditor Elizabeth Ready, former state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, incoming state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and state Treasurer Jeb Spaulding.

Welch has run for governor and Con-

gress before, and Shumlin lost his bid for lieutenant governor last year because a third-party candidate split the centrist and left-leaning vote. While Spaulding would be formidable, the former state Senator is just beginning his first term as treasurer and is seen as unlikely to make the jump to another office so soon.

A number of Republicans who have fought primary battles for the right to face Sanders have indicated they might be willing to try again in an open contest.

“The people who ran the last time are of course interested in running again,” said Vermont GOP Chairman Joe Acinapura.

Among those mentioned are attorney Karen Kerin, former state Rep. Mike Quaid and retired Air Force pilot Greg Parke.

Kerin, who was a man before having a sex-change operation in the 1990s, took 18 percent against Sanders in 2000 and finished third with 18 percent in a September 2002 GOP primary. Parke took 23 percent and placed second in last year’s primary.

Other formidable candidates, should they decide to run, include current state House Speaker Walt Freed (R), who faces a pending vote this month that will determine whether he will retain his leadership job, and state Senate Minority Leader John Bloomer (R).

Bloomer is also mentioned as a potential challenger to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D), who is up for re-election in 2004.

Republicans feel that Leahy has been weakened because of his role in blocking White House judicial appointments while serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Democrats, however, doubt that the issue carries enough weight to doom Leahy. But there is some fear that the outgoing chairman’s national profile could attract funding for his eventual opponent.

“He became a fairly significant target for conservative groups, and the Republicans may see that as a way to raise money nationally for a candidate to run against Leahy here in Vermont,” the Democratic strategist said.

Vermont Democratic Party Chairman Scudder Parker brushed off the posturing over judges in the 107th Congress as “just political churning” and predicted that the issue would have little impact on Leahy’s re-election, especially since Republicans will control the Senate for the next two years.

But Acinapura said the issue still may work against Leahy and that Republicans will be watching his floor votes closely in the upcoming Congress to see “if he’s going to keep on fighting against the president on these judicial appointments.”

Acinapura noted that Bush is popular in the state and argued that having both the president and Douglas on the ticket in 2004 will help boost the Senate nominee.

“We’re going to run as a team,” he said.

The potential challenger to Leahy most often mentioned is Skip Vallee, a Republican National Committeeman and fundraiser who has ties to the White House.

In 2000, the fuel dealer ran for state Senate and finished eighth after spending $123,000. Last year, he helped engineer a visit to the state by Vice President Cheney on behalf of Douglas and state Republicans.

The only announced Republican in the Senate race is Peter Moss, a former Environmental Protection Agency employee who moved to the state two years ago.

One of the only other Republicans mentioned is wealthy businessman Jack McMullen, who failed to win a 1998 primary for the right to face Leahy.

Acinapura said that his focus is on finding a “very formidable candidate” to challenge Leahy in 2004, an indication that the GOP is not yet ready to set its sights on enacting revenge against Jeffords, whose defection from the Republican Party in June 2001 gave Democrats control of the Senate for the remainder of the 107th Congress.

Jeffords, who remains popular in the state, is up for re-election in 2006.

“My vision right now is to raise money and build the base so that we can have a great ticket in 2004,” Acinapura said, declining to discuss any names of potential candidates against Jeffords. “That’s where I’m going to put my emphasis — on 2004, not on 2006.”

Assuming Douglas wins re-election in 2004, he could potentially be a strong nominee against Jeffords. Douglas gave Leahy a scare in 1992, when he took 43 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s 54 percent.

Democrats, meanwhile, are unlikely to actively recruit a candidate to run against Jeffords.

“I think that certainly he is widely appreciated and supported by the Democrats in Vermont and respected by the party structure for what he’s done,” Parker said.

As for whether party building is difficult in a state where Independents have seized control of the delegation, Parker said it is more important to have elected officials represent Vermont values than a particular partisan ideology.

“I think it creates what I would call a creative tension,” he said. “I don’t think that I am such a doggedly partisan Democratic Party chair that I see the value in having only Democrats elected. I think that Senator Jeffords has clearly tapped an independent, what I would call thoughtful, liberal approach to things, that has been a traditional mainstay of the Republican Party in the state.”

He added, “We’re not looking for a change.”

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