by Mike Smith In a few days Vermont will have a new governor. For incoming governor Phil Scott, here’s some unsolicited advice: Don’t act like the outgoing governor. Most Vermonters want their governors to be successful. Scott will benefit from a reservoir of good will and trust that awaits an incoming governor. Governor Peter Shumlin was the recipient of this same good will and trust when he took office. He even enhanced his standing with Vermonters by leading recovery efforts after Tropical Storm Irene.
However, good will and trust can be fleeting, especially when Vermonters feel a governor isn’t being straightforward with them. For Shumlin, his popularity began to wane when his words didn’t live up to his actions.
Peter Shumlin promised transparency, but instead he practiced subterfuge. He described problems with Vermont’s health care exchange as minor — “nothing burgers,” he said — when the system was on the verge of imploding. During a re-election bid he repeatedly professed his support of a single-payer health care system, only to pull the plug on it after he won the election. He tried to hide ritzy limousine costs while in Paris, and he knowingly disclosed only half of the impact of a large payroll tax proposal in a budget speech. He even bamboozled an unsuspecting neighbor.
A few weeks ago he described Vermont Health Connect as the best health care exchange in the country. Most scoffed at this assertion. An independent report delivered just a week later contradicted the governor’s assessment. This newspaper, in an editorial, described the governor’s hyperbole versus reality this way: “It was a perfect example of Shumlinesque spin. It betrayed the sort of cocky salesmanship that eventually undermined his credibility as governor, particularly on issues of health care.”
Shumlin likes to describe himself as a governor that has no fear in proposing big, ambitious agendas. But proposing something is the easy part. The much harder feat is ensuring the successful implementation of what you propose. Ambitious agendas are much better evaluated by accomplishments, not words; and most neutral observers would conclude that the governor has fallen short in his accomplishments.
Unfortunately for Shumlin, over the last six years, he has squandered much, if not all, of the good will and trust he built up with Vermonters.
While Vermonters are eager for a new governor, the outgoing governor insists on usurping the actions of the incoming one. Shumlin plans to appoint a Vermont Supreme Court justice, even though the retirement of the current justice will not happen until three months after Shumlin has left office. This action looks selfish and self-serving, perhaps even petty.
Scott comes to the governorship without the braggadocio of a Shumlin. Unlike Shumlin, Scott doesn’t like to walk the political tightrope — often for the pure thrill of it. He is much more interested in governing than Shumlin. He eschews many of the political games that Shumlin enjoys and the attention Shumlin craves. These attributes should reap Governor-elect Scott even more good will from Vermonters.
Nonetheless, Vermonters expect Scott to try and deliver on his campaign promise — namely, a laser-like focus on the Vermont economy. They are concerned about the cost of living in Vermont and want better-paying jobs. They don’t expect immediate results, but they are hoping for some progress. Scott cannot abandon that promise without finding himself in political hot water with the voters of Vermont.
Very soon, Governor-elect Scott will find out just how difficult it is being a governor. But if you’re straightforward and honest with Vermonters, they will ensure that your reservoir remains full with their good will and trust. And that is essential for a governor to be successful.
Mike Smith is the host of the radio program, “Open Mike with Mike Smith,” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM. He is also a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio and is a regular contributor to Vermont Business Magazine, the Times Argus and Rutland Herald. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Governor Jim Douglas.