By EMERSON LYNN
This was to be the year for Vermont Democrats where nothing could stand in their way. They had elected a supermajority in November. They had the issues. They had the momentum. Progress, long denied, was assumed.
But, as we are constantly reminded, assuming things is tricky, particularly in the world of political egos, which was on full display Friday when the House adjourned, the Senate did not. That’s not happened in recent memory. The Vermont Constitution requires both Houses to agree to adjourn. Senators will return on Wednesday; House members presumably will not. The governor may need to adjourn the session for them.
What happened to the assumed Democratic power trip?
Simple. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson Friday called Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe’s bluff. In a letter to Mr. Ashe she outlined the options on minimum wage and paid family leave bills, the only remaining pieces of legislation to consider, and she gave him a deadline to respond. His tardy response didn’t meet the House’s needs and Ms. Johnson adjourned, telling her colleagues to go home, that they would meet against next January.
Mr. Ashe, as he has done in the past, was playing a game of political chicken, betting, in a quasi-sexist manner, that she would blink.
She didn’t. The chances of Ms. Johnson calling her troops back to Montpelier after such a dramatic and seemingly final move to adjourn seems highly unlikely or advisable.
Friday’s throw-down may be remembered as the moment Ms. Johnson found her voice and in so doing restored the balance of power in Montpelier. That power has been centered in the Senate and with Mr. Ashe for the last three years; Ms. Johnson on Friday made it clear the voice of the House is equal to that of the Senate and that a little respect would go a long way.
Critics, particularly those on the party’s left, are quick to stress the high price being paid for a struggle of political egos. The minimum wage and paid family leave bills were the two bills the Legislature’s Democratic majority needed to pass, and they had the votes to pass them and to override a governor’s expected veto. To the far left anything less was failure.
That’s as short-sighted as it is ridiculous. It also ignores the reality within the Democratic Party, which is that the far left does not control, or speak for, the majority of Vermonters. There are differences that have to be worked out. Compromises need to be made beyond what’s been offered. The legislative process that reflects this understanding is the legislative process that produces better laws. The public has little to no confidence that last second manipulations to complicated pieces of legislation is the intelligent way to proceed. Why would anyone think that last second proposals – and unvetted – represent good government?
Thus, Mitzi Johnson played the smart hand – politically and practically – by saying enough is enough. In so doing, she took Mr. Ashe down a notch, and pulled herself up. The political landscape is a bit more even.
The third party to all this is Gov. Phil Scott who played the differences within the Democratic Party adroitly by sitting back and allowing the differences to bloom. The session’s end left him with his moderate reputation strengthened, and his fiscal priorities in place. He’s presiding over a stronger economy and now has even more latitude to push for his own voluntary paid family leave approach and a more drawn out minimum wage bill. It will also be an election year, which will draw a finer bead on the unfinished legislation that remains.
It can’t be assumed the next session will be any easier for Democrats than this session; but, on balance the House is more moderate, and closer to mainstream Vermonters than the Senate.
Perhaps Mr. Ashe should review his strategy through a more egalitarian lens.