3-way race raises prospect of lawmakers picking governor
By DAVE GRAM The Associated Press | May 26,2008
MONTPELIER — Picture this: It's January of 2009, the Legislature is convening and Vermont still doesn't have a governor-elect.
It could happen.
If none of the three candidates for the job gets a majority in the Nov. 4 election, the job of choosing the state's chief executive would fall to the Legislature, according to the state Constitution.
Currently, Democrats have strong majorities in the Legislature — 93 of 150 seats in the House, 23 of 30 in the Senate — and their natural inclination might be to support Democrat Gaye Symington, the outgoing House speaker.
But Gov. James Douglas, a three-term Republican planning to seek re-election, has shown an ability to work his will in the Legislature despite its strong Democratic majorities. He would likely pick up support from both sides of the aisle if he won more votes than Symington and Progressive Anthony Pollina but not enough to win on Election Day.
If Douglas leads in the popular vote and Symington finishes second, would Democrats, Progressives and liberal-minded independents in the Legislature follow the will of the people and give Douglas a fourth term? Or would they elect Symington, believing that if Douglas couldn't get more than 50 percent of the popular vote, it would be a message of sorts from Vermont voters?
Or Pollina if he led in popular voting?
With election season gearing up, the questions are whirling below the surface, even as supporters of the three candidates say their goal is a clear victory.
"The goal is to have Gaye Symington win the governorship by getting a majority of the votes," said state Sen. Peter Shumlin, president pro tem of the state Senate and a fellow Democrat. "I personally believe that's going to happen."
That's the goal for Douglas, too.
"The governor is focused on receiving more than 50 percent. We're confident he'll receive more than 50 percent," said Douglas campaign manager Dennise Casey.
If the race gets thrown to the Legislature, it could echo the political picture of six years ago.
As the 2002 election drew near, polls showed Democratic Lt. Gov. Doug Racine ahead, but none of the three leading candidates that year — Racine, Douglas and independent Con Hogan — winning a majority. Republicans held a majority in the Legislature, and Democrats were insisting that lawmakers back the plurality winner — that is, the person who gets more votes than anyone but still less than 50 percent.
In the end, Douglas and now-Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie were the leading vote-getters, while Democrats and Progressives ended up combining for a narrow majority in the joint assembly.
Having called throughout the campaign for lawmakers to elect the candidate with the most votes, Democrats joined Republicans to give Douglas and Dubie lopsided margins of support from the Legislature.
Only once in the past century have Vermont lawmakers chosen the also-ran over the person who got the highest number of votes.
In the 1976 race for lieutenant governor, the Legislature chose Republican T. Garry Buckley over Democrat John Alden in a 90 to 87 vote — even though Alden captured more votes at the polls.
Buckley's career was short-lived.
Two years later, fellow Republican Peter Smith defeated him in a primary, in part by arguing that the way Buckley had been elected would weaken him in the general election.
Veteran lobbyist Steve Kimbell said lawmakers likely would not want to buck the will of voters. "Legislators ignore the will of plurality of voters at their own electoral risk," he said. Two years later, "The throw-the-bums-out attitude would cause a lot of pain."
University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson says it would be "political suicide."
In 2008, it could be Douglas hoping that lawmakers of the opposite party choose the winner of the popular vote.
Several observers said his chances of prevailing in the Legislature would be high, even if Democrats and Progressives have commanding majorities.
Lawmakers would feel a lot of pressure to follow the will of voters, said longtime Rep. and former House Speaker Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham.
"I think that the person who gets the most votes is recognized as the winner by Vermonters," Obuchowski said. "That's what they do when they go to a basketball game, a softball game or a soccer match. It's what they're familiar with. It makes sense."
State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi said the issue may become a question in legislative campaigns. "Voters will want to know if they (the candidates) are going to endorse the person who gets the most votes (for governor)."
To do otherwise "suggests the Legislature knows best, and I'm not sure that's true," said Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans.
While Democrats were emphatic during the 2002 campaign about lawmakers following the plurality's will, Douglas didn't want to be pinned down. "I'm going to let the General Assembly decide how to exercise their power," Douglas said shortly before that election.
This past week, it was a Democrat sounding less certain, and a Republican calling on Democrats to live by their six-year-old words.
House Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, said of the possibility the race might end up in the Legislature, "Most of my caucus feel that they want to cross that bridge when we come to it. We don't want to lock ourselves into some sort of predetermined pathway."
Casey provided a script from a 2002 Democratic radio ad arguing that for Douglas to lose the plurality — but win in the Legislature — would amount to "stealing the election."
"It would seem very strange to me if they retreated from that position," she said.