Cynthia Browning for Speaker?

Critic of House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says she may run for the job

By Guy Page

March 6, 2020 – A independent Democratic legislator who last month on the floor of the House called Speaker Mitzi Johnson “deplorable” now says she may run for Speaker of the House. 

“If I am so fortunate as to be re-elected, I may also be running for Speaker of the House for the January 2021 session,” Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) writes in the March 1 Manchester Journal, a weekly newspaper in Bennington County. 

A Rochester, NY native, Browning has represented her district since 2007. According to her legislative biography, the Arlington selectperson and executive director of the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has taught economics at Bates College, Smith College, and Williams College. In the Democratic caucus, she is generally regarded as an outspoken fiscal conservative who criticizes and votes against legislation she considers unwise. 

She is also a critic of the current legislative process, as shown by her statement in the Journal: “I find that under current leadership in Montpelier politics and ideology sometimes dominate reality. Policies are formed based on pre-determined political promises and rhetoric, rather than developed out of an open examination of the facts and evidence surrounding a particular problem.”

In the second week of February, with Johnson presiding from the podium, Browning rose on the House floor to deliver a critique of House leadership – including Johnson, by name – almost unprecedented in its use of firm language and its source – a fellow Democrat. As reported by the Feb. 13 Vermont Daily Chronicle, Browning three times described as “deplorable” leadership’s behind-the-scenes efforts to get recalcitrant caucus members to support the paid family leave override – which failed by a single vote. 

When a VT Digger columnist called Browning a “gadfly” in the wake of the floor speech, Valley News editor John Gregg took exception, saying on Twitter: “Gadfly? Cynthia Browning is a behavioral economist with a PhD from the University of Michigan. Don’t you want people with those skills raising questions in floor debate about potential long-term pension obligations? Also, wasn’t she a lonely Democrat warning about the fallacy of Vermont going it alone on single-payer health care in 2014 when most of the caucus had its head in the sand?”

If Browning throws her hat into the ring for the Speaker’s gavel, it is unclear whether House Republicans and Independents will support her. If they do, Browning would then need “only” about 30 Democrats to support her – which some might because they agree with her criticisms and/or think a new Speaker might consider them committee leadership materials. Her challenge also might embolden a left-of-center candidate uniting the Progressives and the left-of-center Democrats. Johnson is regarded by some State House observers as a somewhat “centrist” choice, especially by lawmakers who seek aggressive action on climate, commercial cannabis, and criminal justice legislation.  

Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan

Browning isn’t the only Bennington County Democrat to be challenging the establishment. Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset), a CPA and professional auditor, will run against incumbent State Auditor Doug Hoffer in the Democratic primary in August. She is holding an RSVP campaign event March 8 at Ralph’s Sushi Boat in Manchester. 

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