by Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Bennington-Rutland)
Last week’s news of the abrupt departure of the Vermont Democratic Party’s Outreach Director was disturbing on a number of levels.
Although he was only recent to Vermont and its unique three-party political landscape, the staffer, Kevin Burgess, had jumped into his new assignment with both feet, working to arrange one-on-one phone calls with local Party Committee leadership in each of Vermont’s 251 towns. He refreshingly preached the need for the “VDP” to more fully embrace the reality that the strength of any political party, and its ability to advance important policy objectives, must start at the local level. He warned us of the surprisingly strong showing in the last election of our Republican Governor, and openly cautioned of the numbers from our last election that suggest the potential of a robust Republican bounce in 2022 – even here in Vermont.
To compound matters, Burgess left noisily, roundly criticizing Party leadership in a seemingly internal parting communication about what he saw as organizational dysfunction: a toxic environment, a party that was without structure, one that was poorly organized and managed, etc. Of course, we have all seen employees who have left their jobs unhappy with their bosses only to learn that the unhappiness ran in both directions. I have no insight whatever as to the ultimate cause of this staffer’s departure. It may well be that when he came to his job last September he was just not a “good fit.”
But it gave me substantial pause to hear that he also voiced several more profound perceptions about the Democratic Party franchise in Vermont: that VDP leadership suffers a lack of vision, that it remains an “old boys club” needing leaders “who will bring this organization into the future, not keep it mired in the past.” He suggested that he had been directed by leadership to be “falsely positive” about the state of the VDP. Perhaps indirectly corroborative of these claims, the resignation of the Executive Director of the Party quickly followed.
I see opportunity for positive change in all this.
The Democratic Party that attracted me in my youth was the party of inclusion, of diversity, the party of the worker, of civil rights, of the protection of the neediest among of us and of our environmental resources. Plainly much of that survives. But here in Vermont – and in the legislature in which I sit — there seems far less tolerance within the Party for the broad spectrum of views and debate that has always well served our remarkable “Big Tent” party. Instead, we see increasingly in my opinion a hard, top-down driven agenda largely addressed to the Party’s electoral (and often geographically distinct) strongholds. Diversity in thought and vision and ideas within the Party — differences born of our richly disparate geographic, social and economic backgrounds — seems increasingly devalued. And even when appropriately expressed – that is, consistent with larger, foundational Democratic Party principles – voices that vary from the internal party agenda are often discouraged.
I have seen this played out in different ways in recent years. Rule changes were pushed through by legislative leadership in the last two years with apparent purpose to limit the ability of individual local legislators to introduce and present bills bearing fresh public policy approaches; ostracizing, name calling and punishments, big and small, have been meted out to those viewed as not sufficiently aligned with leadership; internally open debate has been discouraged and, when it somewhat rarely happens, direct hard oversight questioning by legislators selectively curtailed, or worse, cut off completely by leadership; and opportunities to set up highly disruptive veto showdowns, done with an eye principally to create talking points for voters at election time, have been pursued with alarming frequency.
I’m not so naïve to believe that this sort of thing does not happen in other states. Indeed, we see it sometimes at the national level and recently in the local GOP censures of sitting US Senators over the latest impeachment vote. But here in Vermont, dominance from the top and the effective discouragement of internal party debate, while not yet becoming the VDP brand, has become increasingly palpable. There is danger in all of that of our earning the tag that we have become an “elitist” party. That’s why Burgess’ recent efforts towards greater inclusion of our local Town party committees in the day-to-day workings of the VDP was so refreshing.
As for the “opportunity”? It’s a good time for all of us – Dems, Republicans and Progressives alike — to engage in a healthy dose of internal reflection about what political party membership ought to mean. This is so particularly given the increasingly hard and intolerant divisions we have set up for ourselves within our nation despite that the differences among us on many issuesare in reality much more subtle. It seems, regrettably, that in Vermont we too have largely embraced the sport of setting hard political battle lines when, if our priorities and values were better set, the battle lines could easily be made much softer, fulsome debate encouraged and in the process better laws made.
To me, strict adherence to the “party line” rarely prevails in convincing me of how I do my work in Montpelier. In the pyramid of priorities that drive me, I start from the top with protecting and advancing the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Second, I work always to further what I understand to be the best interests of the voters in my district. Third, I spend a lot of time reviewing bills to make sure that, in operation, our laws will do what they are intended to do without unnecessarily harming Vermonters. Party loyalty, then, is often “down the list” of my priorities – our job is to legislate, make good law, serve and protect the people. There’s certainly room in all that for the influence of the values that stand behind a “party agenda.” But just like cultural diversity directly improves communities, diversity of thought, perspective and orientation provides the foundation for the creation and funding of laws and programs that truly serve, as leadership likes to say, “All Vermonters.”
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