Sen. Campbell renominated for president pro tem of state senate
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | November 28,2012
Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, makes her pitch to be Senate leader as Sen. John Campbell of Windsor looks on in the background during Tuesday's Senate Democratic caucus in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — After a lengthy mea culpa in which he acknowledged his “deficiencies” as a leader, Sen. John Campbell was nominated by his Democratic colleagues Tuesday evening to a second term as president pro tem of the Vermont Senate.
Campbell had come under withering criticism during his first two years on the job, much of it from fellow Democrats who blamed the Windsor County lawmaker for a “chaotic” environment that at times resulted in dramatic procedural breakdowns on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ann Cummings, the Washington County Democrat who mounted a challenge to Campbell Tuesday, lamented a “dysfunctional Senate” that had, under Campbell’s leadership, become a body of which she was embarrassed to be a member.
“I was really hoping there was going to be a change in how things ran (after the first year with Campbell as pro tem),” Cummings said in a plea for votes Tuesday. “There wasn’t. It got worse the second year.”
Campbell acknowledged “shortcomings” that he said stemmed largely from his failure to engage all members of the body. He vowed to do better during the next biennium.
“I won’t back away from (my mistakes), I’m not going to make excuses for them,” Campbell said. “But I can tell you this — I’ve certainly learned from them. Me, who is always preaching to have communication be the most important asset that any leader can have, and I think I failed there.”
Campbell’s plea for a second chance ultimately earned him a lopsided 15-6 victory over Cummings, the longtime chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Finance. And while Republican Sen. Diane Snelling has said she’d like to take over as pro tem, Campbell is almost certain to win the title when the Senate reconvenes Jan. 9.
Campbell faces a tough job during the next biennium, when many of the same issues that plagued his tenure over the last two years are likely to resurface. Legislation dealing with death with dignity and child care unions in particular fractured the 22-member Democratic caucus. And while the party’s numbers in the latest election swelled to 23 (a figure that includes “fusion” candidates like Progressive/Democrats Anthony Pollina and David Zuckerman), the caucus is at least as ideologically eclectic as it was during the last biennium.
“It’s actually harder to keep your caucus together when there’s 23 of us than when there’s 16, because people can kind of run off and do their own thing and say you don’t need my vote anyway,” said Sen. Robert Starr, a Democrat representing Essex and Orleans counties.
Starr said that while the Senate was at times a “fiasco” last year, he thinks Campbell unfairly shouldered the lion’s share of the blame.
“It wasn’t one person’s fault,” Starr said. “It isn’t just (Campbell) that needs to be better — it’s all of us.” Campbell said he’s optimistic that his new assistant, Rebecca Ramos, will lend the time-management and organizational skills he needs to be a more efficient manager. Ramos served as assistant to the pro tem under former Sen. Peter Welch; she also served in the Dean administration.
Even the person responsible for nominating Campbell for pro tem, second-term Chittenden county Sen. Philip Baruth, had some rough words for the incumbent.
“I felt the Senate was often being run in a top-down way, a way that didn’t allow popular issues to move up and out of the caucus and onto the floor of the Senate,” Baruth said. “I left last session looking for either a change in leadership or a real, productive change in procedures.”
But conversations with Campbell this summer, Baruth said, convinced him that Campbell has seen the error of his ways.
“I’ve personally become convinced that a real, solid, authentic attempt to address some of those concerns is not just in the offing, but already under way,” Baruth said. “James Carville likes to say that the Democratic Party is the party of second chances. And I think that in that — and in nothing else — he’s right.”
Cummings, nominated for pro tem by Orange County Democrat Mark MacDonald, was less forgiving. Rectifying the leadership style for which he was assailed over the first two years, Cummings said, would require a “complete change of how one operates.”
“People can be very persuasive and very charming,” Cummings said of Campbell. “But you really need to look at what’s happened since those promises were made. Because nothing happened after the first year.”
Campbell said the highlights of the last biennium had been overshadowed by the headline-grabbing breakdowns on the Senate floor.
“I let you guys down, because we were not acting as the body that I think you all have formed and fought so hard for,” Campbell said. “And if you elect me, I’m not going to let that happen again.”